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Chris Ford: The Indian gang rape victim - the irony of being from a nation which had the world's second ever woman prime ministe

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Chris Ford
Chris Ford

 In recent weeks we have heard the sad story about the vicious rape of a young 23 year old Indian woman on a bus. The details were horrific and her story gained international attention simply due to the fact that it took place in public. Not only that, the bus driver allegedly refused to stop the bus service during the attack.

This has highlighted the inferior position of Indian women within their society. Indeed, within global society, all women have faced and continue to face innumerable barriers to their advancement, dignity and freedom. One of them is the ongoing high rate of violence, both domestic and non-domestic, against women.

India, though, is a land where sexism still reigns supreme. Indian feminist groups have complained about the underlying sexism inherent in Bollywood films as one sign of this. Another is the continuation of vicious practises including, in some cases, forced and arranged marriages.

Ironically for me, all this still occurs in a country which elected the world's second ever woman head of government. The late Indira Gandhi literally followed her father, Jawaharlal Nehru, in becoming Indian PM in 1966. She dominated Indian politics for nearly three decades as prime minister and opposition leader. She was a strong leader who took very progressive democratic socialist stances on economic and social issues. Yet she could also be authoritarian as witnessed, for example, through her declaration of a nationwide emergency in the mid-1970s.

Another important thing to note is that the South Asian region (comprised of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal) has had a high number of groundbreaking women leaders. In fact, Gandhi followed the ground that had been broken by the elevation of Sirimavo Bandaranike to the Sri Lankan prime ministership in 1960. Bandaranike became not only that country's first woman leader but also the world's first female head of government or head of state. In Pakistan, the late Benazir Bhutto became the first woman to head a majority Islamic country in the late 1980s. 

However, the thing to note is that these women came to power through inheriting their roles from male family members. In Gandhi's and Bhutto's cases, they inherited their respective party leaderships from powerful fathers, namely, Jawaharlal Nehru (as noted above) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. In Sri Lanka, Bandaranike came to office upon the death of her prime minister husband, Solomon. Similarly, in Bangladesh, current PM Sheikh Hasina is the daughter of that country's founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. 

The point I am seeking to make here is this. You would think that in developing countries where women have been elected to high political office that those societies would change their attitudes towards women. As the Indian gang rape case shows, however, not necessarily so. There is no essential co-relationship between women holding power and their further social advancement, particularly in these societies. Furthermore, the fact that many South Asian women political leaders have inherited their roles has probably furthered the wrong idea among men that these women have only come to power at the behest of males. Hence, many South Asian men would no doubt retain the traditional conception that women cannot wield power and control independently of men and as equal partners.

That's the nub of the problem.

Therefore, if positive change is to come in terms of women's status, it has to be actively pushed for from below. In the Western world, women's rights (and those of other marginalised groups) have been gradually won through grassroots action. In India, this process has gained renewed momentum as illustrated through numerous public statements and street demonstrations in the wake of the rape case. But public demonstrations and statements won't be enough in and of themselves. The Indian Government has to be pressured to REALLY improve the legal, economic, social and political status of ALL women in that country. Only then will Indian women really begin to be seen as true equals. It's sad that it's taken a tragedy of these proportions to move things more in that direction.

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