DW: How can one describe the role of women in Indian society?
V.S. Elizabeth: Women's role in India varies according to the region, class, caste and very often also the religion. Upper caste and middle class women have a great deal of opportunities, both educational as well as professional. But when you look at women from the lower castes and classes, their roles are very different. They have to work very hard and they might have only a little freedom for moving around. And when it comes to violence, their experience is the worst.
Now an increasing number of middle class women are breaking many barriers. A lot of women work in the industrial field and the service sector. Still, only 25-35 percent of the workforce consists of women and out of these, 90 percent are in the unorganized sector with barely any regulations. The other 10 percent are largely the middle class, which is doing very well. Because they are educated, they have good positions. For them, the problem merely might be that they are unable to move up very high into the management-level positions.
What are the reasons for the disadvantaged role of women in India?
To a great extent this has got to do with the caste system that continues to persist. And secondly, with increasing industrialization and capitalism, patriarchy has been reinforced. So whatever freedom we might have enjoyed before colonialism, much of that was taken away during the colonial rule. Since independence we have laws which have restored those rights, but most of them are, in practical terms, disrespected. For instance, I am talking about women's access to property, the right to divorce or even the right to live an independent life.
Why do parents in India mostly wish for boys, and not girls?
It has got a lot to do with culture. While economically we have advanced, culturally and socially we are still holding on to the values of pre-independence days. There is a preference for sons among Hindus because of their religious requirement that they have a son in order to fulfil the rituals.
Read more: Why many Indians prefer sons over daughters
Secondly, India is still a patriarchal society, so the idea is that the son carries on the name of the parents. Even that is why Hindu families often adopt a son. Third thing is the practice of dowry. If you are marrying a daughter off, you have to give a lot of money and certain assets to the family of the groom. It's quite a costly business, involving a lot of money, as well as in many cases houses, land, fancy cars and all kinds of things.
"Eve teasing" is a commonly used term for sexual harassment in India. Why is this euphemism dangerous?
It's dangerous because it makes it seem like it is just teasing, that it has been carried out in fun and there really is no bad intention. And it does not look on how it impacts women, the fear it creates, the restrictions on women's movement which arise as a consequence of the wide prevalence of it. And this is partly responsible for how widespread sexual harassment is in India, because people do not take it serious at all.
In India, there are partly separate train compartments for women because of the lack of safety for them. What are the reasons for the often occurring violence against women in India?
The reason lies in the lack of importance society is giving to the female children and women. They are objectified. They are not seen as human beings. And therefore violence against them is easy to perpetuate. They have no value. Unfortunately it is often said: "We worship the mother goddess.” But that does not mean they worship the women in their home, they don't even respect them.
Women are socialized in only seeing themselves as daughters, sisters or mothers. Women are nobody without being married, without having a father or son or a brother.
What has changed in India in terms of women's rights in recent years, especially since the grotesque 2012 Delhi gang rape captured international attention?
More than the international pressure on India to tackle sexual violence, it was the pressure that came from people in Delhi that was significant.
For the first time since independence, we actually had a civil society movement in Delhi, which is the reason why the government reacted immediately and in March 2013 we had the amendments in the criminal law, which widened the meaning of rape.
Lots of changes were brought in legal perspective. But in reality nothing has changed very much. Violence against women continues, sexual assault of women continues, the conviction rates are still low, reporting is still low.
Why do many women do not file a complaint?
Simply because of the fact that the individual woman isn't empowered to go and make that complaint. Her family would pressure her, because it is still not seen that the crime has been committed against her.
If details of a crime become public, it is seen as a loss of face for the family and that would be a dishonor. The second reason is lack of trust in the police. The police also come from the same system and they are also reluctant to file complaints. And particularly if these are complaints of lower caste women complaining about sexual assault by upper caste men. The police do not seem to be open to the idea that these women were legitimately out there in the public space.
If she is in the public space, she should be with her husband, her father, her brother and not alone. The woman who is alone in the public space is someone who is not a good woman. And therefore she has invited the harm that has been perpetrated on her. Somehow she asked for it, even if it is a young girl.
Feminism and the women's status in society came yet again into light in summer 2017 caused by the #MeToo campaign. What have been the effects and consequences of the #MeToo debate in India?
I think #MeToo had a similar impact even in India. People actually talked about what has happened to them while often naming the perpetrator, whether it was someone known to them or somebody outside their family.
But who has access to social media? It is only the educated middle class and this is only a small percentage of the whole population. But with respect to these women, they are now becoming more confident and realize it is not their fault. And therefore we should talk about it, rather than hiding it. That is something what has happened, but for a long-term and large impact, it needs more than just a social media campaign.
Dr. V. S. Elizabeth is professor at National Law School of India University in Bangalore and member of the Indian Association of Women's Studies. She teaches exclusively from a feminist perspective, constantly trying to weaken the prejudices and to change the behavior of men toward women.
The interview was conducted by Marla Mies.