American women like Indian men
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Patriarchy and Hindu religious traditions go hand in hand in India. The woman is respected as a serving wife, but otherwise pressed into a submissive life. Women's emancipation and Hindu culture seem difficult to reconcile.
Hindu religions: No doctrinal scriptures, but a basic consensus exists
The idea that "Hinduism" is a uniform single religion was first introduced into the world by Christian missionaries. Indian politicians later took up the idea of putting a binding national cloak around the confusing, diverse subcontinent. In fact, in the region characterized by social extremes with 1.3 billion people, different peoples, cultures and languages, there are various religious currents that can be subsumed under the term Hindu religions.
Hindu religions are not founder religions; there are no binding texts such as the Bible or Koran, nor do prophets, a "church" or a kind of "pope". What brings the Hindu religions together is belief in a cycle of death and rebirth with ultimate salvation. There is also agreement on a society with hereditary classes (caste system), a way of life structured in stages and the veneration of important writings (Vedas, Puranas, epics). Numerous followers of the Hindu religions profess a mixture of permanently valid norms and a code of conduct based on the code of law Manus (Manusmriti), the progenitor of humanity.
Discrimination against women as part of the religious self-image
India is a country full of contradictions. India is an economic and nuclear power and maintains an ambitious space program. In modern India, women are active as managers, doctors, ministers, diplomats, judges and journalists. Already four decades before Angela Merkel became the first woman to take office as Chancellor in Germany, Indira Gandhi became head of government of India. This is the one reality on the subcontinent; yet another leaves millions of women in oppression and slavery.
Hindu traditionalists adore women as serving wives and respect them in their motherhood role, but deny them recognition as independent individuals. In doing so, they refer to a basic script of the Hindu religions, the Manus code of law. The work is based on oral traditions that were collected by several authors between 200 BC and 200 AD. The commandments of Manu, which serve as a guide in the thicket of religious, ethical and social issues, have burned themselves deeply into the psyche of Hindu society.
According to Manu, the woman is weak; it is her "nature that she spoils men". Women should not act independently, not even within their own four walls. The guardianship principle applies: the girl is controlled by the father, the wife by the husband, the widow by the sons. A husband is accorded divine status: the wife has to understand the service to him as personal worship - "even if he has no good qualities". After his death she is said to be in constant mourning.
A woman cannot be of religious age either, which is why girls are excluded from the Upanayana, a kind of youth consecration. In the caste hierarchy, women are grouped at the level of servants (sudras). The role of servant assigned to women is also emphasized in another scripture that is significant for Hindu religiosity, the Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Blessed). The Gita shows ways to salvation.
Ramayana - the Indian national epic
Proponents of subordination of women also like to fall back on the epic "Ramayana", written about 2,000 years ago and presumably by the poet Valmiki. There are different versions of the heroic story, but the core message is that Sita, the wife of the king's son Rama, is unquestionably loyal to her husband in every situation. Sita is kidnapped, but consistently refuses to accept the kidnapper, the demon Ravana's marriage wishes. After her liberation, Rama doubts Sita's loyalty. Sita goes into the fire to prove her purity.
Indian children are introduced to the "Ramayana" epic early on in comics, and Sita is praised in schools as the ideal of a wife. If "Ramayana" film adaptations are shown on TV, they are street sweepers, and quite a few Indians believe in the authenticity of the events. Indian feminists are desperately trying to fight Sita glorification by stressing that the heroine's submissiveness to Rama, a callous and violent ignoramus, is utterly out of place.
India - a religious and cultural area in which misogyny thrives
In the context of the Hindu religions, ways of thinking have emerged in which the man is the focus and the woman counts little. Countless Indians have internalized these ideas deeply. For centuries women on the subcontinent have been discriminated against, excluded from education and pushed out of public life. A man's mania for control caused the age of marriage to fall further and further, especially in rural regions. Although the Indian constitution guarantees the equality of all persons and there are laws for the betterment of women, these are repeatedly undermined by village potentates, lower levels of the judiciary and police officers.
Girls are considered a burden in many families. Especially in the poorer parts of the population, they are seen as a burden, because they cause high costs (dowry). Many girls get less to eat than their brothers, they are not allowed to see a doctor if they are ill, and their life expectancy is correspondingly low. Often female fetuses are aborted, and sometimes a midwife can earn extra money by killing a female baby immediately after birth.
Following marriage, women have to toil in the husband's household. And if the bridal equipment is not enough, a dowry murder (disguised as a household accident) cannot be ruled out. According to estimates by gender economists who speak of the "missing women" in Indian society, more than two million people die each year in India as a result of activities that are hostile to girls and women.
Widows were still advised to follow the dead (widow burning) into the 20th century. And although they are now entitled to inherit, widows are often cast out and lead a miserable existence as penniless hermit women.
When male fantasies of superiority are lived out ...
In a society that regards women as servants of men, pampering sons and neglecting daughters, it is hardly surprising that women who dare to leave their homes are considered fair game. Sexual harassment ("Eve Teasing"), threats and (group) rape are ways of disciplining women and keeping them out of the public space. Male positions of power are to be secured in this way. For a long time the perpetrators had the backing of the police and the judiciary.
Spectacular cases such as the rape and murder of a student in 2012 or attacks on tourists have caused a stir around the world and triggered mass protests in India. In court, the perpetrators gave insights into - from a Western point of view - an abstruse value system that blames women for rape.
The dominance of men is slowly disappearing
As already mentioned, India is full of contrasts. India is a land of oppression and a land of modernity. India's popular epics like the "Mahabharata" paint the image of the submissive woman on the one hand, but on the other hand present strong heroines such as Draupadi, who severely criticized the men in her family after being sexually assaulted for lack of help.
Many young couples, especially those from the urban middle class, profess their daughters today. Older people are no longer dependent on their sons to take care of them; support comes from professionally successful daughters. Traditional Hindu families have long appreciated the advantages of a second income and have no objection to a woman going to work. At work, women become more proud of their own abilities, and role constraints are becoming less important.
Active nationwide - India's women's movement
The first impetus for the rebellion of Indian women was already given by the British colonial power by founding girls' schools, taking action against child marriages and in 1829 banning widow burning. Although the orders of the English were frequently undermined, the idea of emancipation was anchored in the minds of many women. They became active in social reform movements and supported the struggle for independence.
Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), the initiator of nonviolent resistance and the idol of millions of Hindus, condemned the oppression of women, but, as he once admitted, was at least able to appreciate the idea of crickets at the stove. Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), the first Prime Minister of India, introduced laws to promote women against great opposition from Hindu traditionalists.
In the 20th century, India's women's movement unfolded in different ways depending on the part of the country, the caste system and the population structure, in keeping with the contradictory character of the subcontinent. The disadvantage of women in the northern "Hindu belt" is much more pronounced than in the partly matriarchal south and requires other forms of mobilization.
Indian women were involved in environmental protection and campaigned against overexploitation of forests and dam projects. They informed women about their rights, provided them with small loans, advocated land reform and attached importance to the fact that women were also taken into account in the distribution of land and registered as landowners. Politicians, heads of authorities and police officers gradually learned to take the interests of women into account when making decisions.
Today activists use modern media for information campaigns, but also distribute leaflets, illustrated books and organize street theater to get their messages across to illiterate women. It is not surprising that reactionary Indians react aggressively to such actions. But even to that, groups like the controversial "Gulabi Gang" have an answer. Dressed in pink saris, women vigilantes armed themselves with sticks and beat up violent men or police officers who refused to investigate rape and abuse cases.
Step by step, it seems, the idea of women's emancipation in India is approaching the center of society. But the brake blocks that the Hindu religions have put up over the centuries are difficult to get out of the way. In order to question and correct religious and cultural influences, India's women need staying power.
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