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Indian youth fine with live-ins but want virgins for partners

India’s urban youth may have the outward veneer of modernity, but scratch beneath the surface and you find conservative, patriarchal attitudes. Zehra Kazmi writes.

india Updated: Aug 08, 2014 19:04 IST
Zehra Kazmi
Zehra Kazmi
Hindustan Times

The December 16 gang rape of a 23-year-old student in Delhi not only sparked protests across the country, but also began many a drawing room conversation on gender politics and attitudes towards women. Yet, results of the HT-MaRS Youth Survey show that when it comes to mindsets, even the young think the same old way.

More than half of the youth surveyed, women included, feel that the right age for a woman to get married is between 21 and 24 years. Less than 2% think that it is acceptable for a woman to marry after 30, but for 12.3%, the right age for a girl to settle down is below 21 years. More bad news?

Almost 42% males surveyed still think that whistling or catcalling women is harmless fun, though a significant 58.1% view it as harassing. Needless to say, more women find such behaviour problematic, with 67.7% viewing it as harassment.

While only 26% of those polled thought that girls who smoke or drink are no different from boys who indulge in similar habits, half of them believed that such girls were of ‘bad character’. “I recently heard someone say that while boys may hang out or flirt with girls who smoke or drink, those aren’t the kind of girls they marry. What hypocrisy!” says marketing professional Ankita Biswas.

These double standards – held by both young men and women –can prove to be dangerous. In the past, whether it was the Park Street rape in Kolkata last February or when a teenaged girl was molested by a mob in Guwahati and the whole incident filmed, victims of sexual violence have been subject to character assassination because they visited a nightclub or were drinking.

According to activist Kavita Krishnan, it is a myth that patriarchal attitudes stem from lack of education or rural India. “Our families, schools, communities are the factories for such ideas. You cannot have the factories running and be surprised that these ideas exist,” she says.

Increasing awareness and education is however, sowing the seeds for some change. 52.7% women professed themselves to be feminists. Rising cases of sexual violence have also made women more careful. More than 40% say they call to let family or friends know their whereabouts while travelling alone, while 17.8% carry pepper sprays or maces to protect themselves. 26.3%, however, don’t take any precautions in particular.

When it comes to looking for a spouse, the young are still hemmed in by considerations of religion and caste. Only 27.4% of those polled would marry someone from another religion. While youngsters in Ahmedabad were most likely to marry within their faiths, Bangalore emerged as more broad-minded with 38% willing to wed someone from another religion. Caste seems to be less of a constraint, with 33.8% saying they would consider marrying someone from a lower caste.

When it comes to their attitudes to sex and relationships, India’s youth appear to be a bundle of contradictions, walking the tightrope between the traditional and the liberal.

A majority say their parents know everything about them, but for 22.2%, parents are on a need-to-know basis. According to 37.3%, homosexuality is an acceptable sexual preference. Most young people think that pre-marital sex is no longer a big deal in India and 44.3% are okay with live-in relationships, but 64.4% would still want their spouse to be a virgin.

24.5% of youngsters surveyed admitted to having cheated on their girlfriend or boyfriend, with Delhi leading the unfaithful at 36.5%. But most young people still think that marriages are meant to last forever, with 54.8% saying that divorce is not an option for them.

This contradiction is a reflection of the transition we are going through as a society, says lifestyle expert Rachna K Singh. “Indian youth is juggling two value systems. We are still holding on to the old value system we inherited, but exposure to Western culture has changed many perceptions. It’s a tough period of change,” she says.