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Beauty and the beast

The recent, multiple incidences of rape in the country have yet again raised questions about attitudes towards women. An HT-C fore survey reveals how Indian men think. Zofeen Maqsood and Samar Khurshid report. See survey

india Updated: Dec 02, 2012 00:44 IST

The recent spate of sexual assaults against women in Haryana - 367 rapes reported in the first half of 2012 - has again raised the debate of whether Indian men respect the fairer sex. HT commissioned a survey conducted by C fore which found that while many men between the ages of 18-50 do claim to be sensitive towards women, most are simply bigoted and narrow-minded. In fact, they even contradict themselves when it comes to tougher questions of abortion and love marriage.

A shocking 39% of surveyed men say that physical abuse in a marriage is a part of the relationship. In Maharashtra, 40% say that a girl hailing a cab late at night would probably not mind a guy's company. These outdated mindsets are far from extinct in a society where the rural and urban clash each day.

According to the survey, 54% of men in Haryana think that a woman opting for abortion is a sinner and should be punished for it. In West Bengal, 38% of men think that girls who drink or smoke lack moral character. Interestingly, men across all the five states included in the survey seemed to have little objection to love marriages. A whopping 78%, an aberration compared to the other results, said that a woman seeking love is natural.

But the true attitudes reflect in increasing crimes targeting women. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 2,28,650 crimes against women were reported in 2011, up from 2,13,585 in 2010. West Bengal, which showed relatively positive concern in the survey, accounted for 12.2% of the 2011 number. See survey

Dr Sameer Malhotra, psychiatrist, Fortis Healthcare says, "While every man is not a criminal, the one committing a crime against a woman will have the same bigoted mindset." Kumari Sushila Sharma, chairperson, Haryana Women's Commission (HWC) contextualises the problem in her state. "Since Haryana is steadily developing, all eyes are on the state. Naturally, the negatives are noticed more. We are trying to curb the problem."

The story is similar in other states. As per the survey, 46% of respondents in Maharashtra thought that boys and girls can share classrooms but friendships should be discouraged. The NCRB's 2011 data also reveals that in Tamil Nadu, crimes against women increased by 3.5% from 2010 to 2011.

Nalini Rajan, dean of the Chennai-based Asian College of Journalism, and professor of identity politics, says, "Unsurprisingly, the North-East comes on top in the survey. Tribal societies are more liberal than caste-ridden ones like Haryana (which appears to show the most sexist attitudes). In West Bengal, caste was also a relatively late development (compared to the Indo-Gangetic Plain) in a predominantly tribal society.

She adds that in Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, "You get a strange combination of Brahmanical and Maratha patriarchal conservatism pitted against a more open-minded Dalit radicalism."

Women's activist and lawyer Rekha Agarwal says women in smaller towns are unaware about their rights, and poverty and caste play a crippling role. But Agarwal notes an inherent contradiction in Indian society. "We have a see-saw attitude towards women. On one hand, we regard her as a goddess, and on the other hand we treat her as a commodity."

Experts also feel the bias stems from Indian youth trying to imitate the West. HWC's Sharma says, "Rural youth try to emulate the cosmopolitan youth in Delhi and Mumbai, who in turn copy the West. This results in a distorted vision."

Experts say that traditional patriarchal set-ups create these attitudes, which will only cease after a few generations. Says Sanjay Chugh, senior consultant psychiatrist, "For society to flourish, it is necessary for the yin and yang to be in harmony with each other."