India: a country of henna, Bollywood, embellished garments, beautiful traditions and fragrant cuisine. But also a country whose huge problems with male gender bias and ‘rape culture’ have been highlighted in the past few years. Indeed, the number of rape cases reported in India is at an all-time high with the Times of India reporting that Delhi police registered 300 reports of rape and 500 reports of molestation in just the first two months of 2015, an average of five cases of rape reported every day in the capital. But is New India beginning to evolve in its treatment of such violence?
Women’s Rights activists have suggested that this rise in reportings is due to increased awareness of the issue among women in India. Likewise, police in Delhi have taken steps to enforce measures for quicker arrests and the lodging of First Information Reports verbatim based on the victim’s interpretation of events.
In addition to this, they have ramped up their campaign for women’s safety by extending the reach of the Himmat app. This free safety app allows women travelling alone at night to alert police to threats, and is now accessible through instant messaging services Whatsapp and Hike. The service means women who feel at risk of violence or abuse can send details of the vehicle they are about to board to the police. In case of an emergency, the user can send an alert by shaking her phone or pressing the power button and the nearest police car will be despatched.
Women-only carriages are also now provided on metros and trains in Delhi and in April 2015, Vankadarath Saritha was hired as the first ever female bus driver in Delhi, allowing women on her vehicle to feel safe while commuting. Women have also begun regularly uniting in protest against their treatment. When I spoke with Lakshmi Rebecca, Vlogger and Film Maker from Bangalore, she explained: “We are a minority and an even smaller minority in minority communities. You don't see us enough and you don't hear us enough. Most often, our male counterparts don't really know what our problems are and they weren't raised to know or to be in the know. But this has begun to change. We no longer tolerate dowry deaths and molestation. Women can write about their experiences and spread awareness. Young men are standing up for women's rights. We're changing leaps and bounds.”
When asked about his thoughts on New India, Author of The Sceptical Patriot and blogger Sidin Vadukut likewise told me: “New India has a very economic definition: the generation born after liberalisation. They have slightly better expectations from their own lives, their communities and their governments. There’s a greater sense of political correctness now.” Whether or not this is the reason for such change - it seems that a New India has begun to develop, and the power women have is on the rise.
In July 2015 Sania Mirza made history by becoming India’s first women’s doubles Grand Slam winner, adding a second to her belt in September by winning the same title at the US Open. Speaking to the media after their Wimbledon win, Mirza said: “To come out at Wimbledon Centre Court and have the whole crowd behind you is pretty incredible... But I think for me, as an Indian, I’m in Little India here. There are so many Indians in England. Thankfully there are a lot of us everywhere, but in England, especially, I’ve always had amazing support.” Mirza is smashing both records - and the glass ceiling - in making Sports headlines as an Indian woman.
Beenish Khan, 17, a fashion blogger and pre-medical student from Mumbai explained to me about how important this change in sport is: “Films and advertisements have also been promoting women’s sports, which is again a sign of development for Indian women. It wouldn't be wrong to say that women might take a lead soon!”
It’s not just sport, though, that is being redefined and we can also see women thriving within the film industry. The likes of Freida Pinto and Aishwarya Rai have not only conquered Bollywood but Hollywood too, capturing the hearts of global communities and showcasing India’s talent to the world. “Positive representations [of women] in films have increased, but still remain sporadic. But one senses a loosening of age-old notions of womanhood underway,” says Vadukut.
However, India still faces issues with its education system, particularly with regards to attitudes towards women in education. It extends beyond the classroom though: women face problems with safety in their commutes to places of higher education. As Rebecca explains: “It is strange to admit, but I do think that sometimes I do feel like a victim myself. The simple fact that I couldn't just take a lazy stroll along most streets in Bangalore at 9pm should I want to, makes me feel constrained and less privileged.” Despite these concerns, Indian women are more determined than ever to fulfil their ambitions. “I’ve just finished school and am currently studying for my Medical Entrances to become a Doctor. We're much more independent. We have learnt to fight for our rights. People are still protective towards women but they cannot stop us from living our lives.”
So while there are still undeniable problems surrounding women’s safety and equality, is New India developing? Khan believes so: “New India is more independent, free spirited and ambitious. It's not as conservative as it was earlier. Portrayals of women have definitely changed a lot. We're as important as men in every field. Women aren't linked with teachers and nurses and models and all the stereotypical women jobs, they can be soldiers too or maybe police women or own an MNC [Multinational Company].”
Words: Louise Squire