January 27, 2023

Gender attitudes in India: What’s changed and what hasn’t

Writer and professor Nivedita Menon and Founder-Director, CORO, Sujata Khandekar, discuss the challenges of shifting gender norms and attitudes in India, and the work that still needs to be done.

10 min read

Every year the World Economic Forum publishes a Global Gender Gap Report, which looks at gender equality around the world. In 2022, India ranked 135 among 146 nations, which was a slight improvement than the previous year. However, it still had the lowest ranks in terms of health and survival, and economic participation and opportunity for women. These findings clearly indicate what we’re already aware of—women are still missing from public spaces; most lack political representation and income security. Gender and caste-based violence are still more prevalent than we care to admit.

And while the last few decades have seen landmark judgements in India that push for greater gender equality, the big question still is: Have gender attitudes really changed in our country?

On our podcast On the Contrary by IDR, we spoke with Sujata Khandekar and Nivedita Menon about how attitudes towards traditional gender roles have shifted in India, the kind of resistance these shifts can bring, and what should be done to further change these changes. Sujata is the founding director of CORO India, one of the country’s foremost organisations in grassroots leadership and activism. Nivedita is a writer and a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and one of the founders of kafila.online, a collective blog on contemporary politics.

Below is an edited transcript that provides an overview of the guests’ perspectives on the show.

Gender attitudes are changing but not across all domains, and not for all women

Sujata: The process of social change is [such that] sometimes you see the visible outcome, sometimes you don’t. Changes are not happening uniformly to all women and in all domains. This society accepts [the] notion of equality in some domains, while it outrightly rejects it in others.

For example, domestic violence was seen as [the] fate of womanhood. It was so natural that violence was not even seen as violence, it was seen as [a] norm. But [today there is] a significant shift in how women perceive [the] violence happening to them. They understand and realise that it is violence. Our Domestic Violence Act has also given them [a] tool to challenge that violence.

[Another change we see is in] women’s roles and family. No more [are they] confined to [the] private domain within [the] four walls of households. Women are coming out for work [and] for education…

Nivedita: There’s been a shift when it comes to sexuality, queer identities, gender-nonconforming love, gender-nonconforming identities, and so on. There is greater visibility of these issues, and of people who subscribe to these spaces. There is a shift in the way sexual violence is perceived. If you think of the #MeToo [movement], and [how] women speak up about the ways in which they face sexual harassment, there has been a definite shift.

To reiterate what Sujata said, there has been [a] shift but this is not some kind of revolution across the board. There hasn’t been some kind of massive social transformation. There is still violence against poor people; transphobia; violence against trans people, women, Dalits. And even among those whose attitudes have shifted on questions of sexual violence, sexuality, women and professions, there would still be very strong class and caste prejudice and [an] inability to recognise their own caste and class privilege.

There have been a number of important judgements and laws. For example, the judgement that recognised trans people as a third gender, and the reading down of Section 377. The Domestic Violence Act, which Sujata mentioned, has transformed the nature of the ways in which women feel they should have to be in a marriage…

Such changes threaten social order and are often punished

Nivedita: There is a certain social order based on caste hierarchy, community identities, extreme class inequality, compulsory institution of heterosexual marriage, and the family that emerges or is sanctified by the heterosexual patriarchal marriage. It is this family that will give you your caste identity, your religious community identity; it will tell you where you are in the social system, and give you your privileges, and discrimination. Family is at the base of every single inequality in the modern society in which we live. Now, this family depends on very strict ideas of what is a man and what is a woman. This has biological and cultural connotations.

You would kill your own child, rather than live with your child married to a person of another caste.

In Europe, bodies with both kinds of sexual organs were called hermaphrodites. Now we would say intersex. Those bodies were acceptable and seen as normal and natural until the 17th–18th century—that is when the policing of these bodies starts. In our societies, it starts with the coming in of colonial modernity, but now it’s been naturalised—the idea that all of us are born exclusively male or female, and the idea of endogamy, the idea that marriage should always be only within permitted limits. You can see the kind of anxiety about inter-caste and inter-religious community marriage. The violence…that you would kill your own child, rather than live with your child married to a person of another caste. Also, you will notice the idea that women are being married by men of other religious communities and castes, and that is seen as more dangerous for the family than if the men marry out and bring women from other communities and castes, because that is what the role of the woman is assumed to be—she maintains the identity of the family.

The purity of her uterus is absolutely crucial to this process, because in order to ensure that no man can have sex with her, and possibly impregnate her, except a man of her caste, who has been found for her as her husband, it results in the extreme policing of women. Under these circumstances, there is anxiety about people not conforming to their gender roles, claiming to be other than the gender they were assigned at birth, or not accepting the gender they were assigned at birth, inter-caste marriages, inter-community marriages. There is anxiety because it is about maintaining a certain social order, which retains and fixes caste and class hierarchies, controls women’s sexuality, and ensures property passes from father to his son. All of this requires very strict boundaries for people.

women sitting in a circle in sarees_gender roles
Dialogue is a very powerful tool to initiate change and critical thinking. Picture courtesy: UN Women / CC BY

Sujata: All values that we [women] imbibe [since childhood] are inequality, subservience, humiliation, injustice, [and] insults. These values [and] constraints are part of our upbringing, and thus become part of our personality and behaviour. They also lead to some stereotypical expectations the society has for you—how you should behave, what you should and should not say, and so on. So when you try to cross those boundaries, there is bound to be a backlash. And what we have seen always is, society does policing. If you cross [boundaries], they have punishments. So what happens normally, if we see punishment, it creates fear, probably that is also the cost that we pay for this change initially because you have consistent fear of losing your family honour, your near ones, your relatives; your children’s pain; desertion. You’re also punished, physically beaten, raped, thrown out of [the] house when you try to transgress this boundary. Men leaving [their] wives or deserting them is very common, and that is in a way acceptable to society. But if women ask for divorce, or a woman says, I want to stay on my own, then that [is] challenging the stereotypical expectation and the social norm.

One of our friends had a very violent marriage, and decided to stay on her own with her four-year-old son. She was telling us horrifying stories, like how she gets knocks at 2–3 am both from men and women. She says, I know they want to keep vigilance. She has a neighbour, a man who has no wife and has two children. But nobody asked him whether he needs any help, that too at 2–3 am. These are the tools to pressurise and terrorise you…

We talk of the investment that we are doing in changing things, changing gender attitudes, but there is so much investment done in not changing those attitudes, in terms of social norms, practices. That backlash and the mental and physical stress that a woman undergoes is the cost that she pays for challenging the gender norm. The same friend that I was talking about, last year she was a CII Women Exemplar awardee. So if you get the support to cross the boundary of backlash, then [that] trajectory probably has no limit.

Dialogue is crucial if we want to shift gender attitudes

Sujata: Dialogue is a very powerful tool to initiate change and critical thinking for both men and women. [However], the dialogue should be based on equality and parity, communication, mutual empowerment. We [at CORO] are extensively working with men while dealing with violence against women, because we have to bring them as partners on the table—they are part of [the] problem, but also part of the solution.

The first level of dialogue has to be among ourselves on questions of caste and class privilege.

So I would just give you an example. In our work in Muslim-populated communities, we have lots of vibrant women leaders, who were talking about triple talaq. So this maulavi issued a circular in the community, that don’t entertain these women, don’t bring them into your homes, because they are anti-men and anti-religion. That was [the] kind of resistance or opposition that he had, and he didn’t pay any heed in the first communication. But a team of seven–eight leaders, who themselves are divorced, continued the discussion. And I’m so happy to tell you that he is our ardent supporter currently. He’s our fellow, working on constitutional values, where he has come up with a curriculum which sees the similarities and convergences between Quran [and the] Constitution, and he teaches young kids. When I asked him what was the tipping point, he said, your approach—when your team was consistently pressing their point ahead, they made space for me to speak. They tried to understand where I’m also coming from, and then I thought you are not as bad as I was thinking. From there, the dialogue started…

And the laws, they reflect what is going on in the society. But only laws also don’t help, because it is again in the hands of [the] implementer. It is something that needs a mindset shift, and seeing equality as a value in our life. That comes only through dialogue, and not by thrashing each other or taking completely this or that position.

Nivedita: When it comes to dialogue, we have to recognise that even inside the spaces that are supposedly ours, there are a range of differences of opinion:

  • The first level of dialogue is with people who share a vision with us. But within that space, there are inequalities of privilege, caste, and class, of who has legitimacy to speak, there are hierarchies of age. So, the first level of dialogue has to be among ourselves on questions of caste and class privilege. And that can be quite bitter and divisive. We have to figure out ways in which that doesn’t happen.
  • The second level of dialogue is with people who could be our allies, like the maulavi in Sujata’s case. We could and should reach out to people who may simply be sections that may not have thought through certain things. This again starts from the home—people who may listen, your father, mother, brother, uncles, neighbours, who simply have not thought of an alternative. And they don’t respond violently when you suggest something, but they actually start thinking.
  • Now, a third outer circle is of those whose purpose is to maintain a certain social order, a very highly organised right which has control over institutions and structural spaces. Here, when you’re talking about a highly organised project, to transform the country in a particular direction, there you reach the limits of dialogue and conversation, because the response is actual physical violence, or the use of state institutions to silence you. It is the use of coercive institutions like the police, it’s the use of instruments like the law. A private citizen can file a case for sedition against anybody, if they feel that their nationalist sentiments have been hurt. Then, there are very well-organised IT campaigns trolling people. And women particularly face very violent trolling and rape and death threats. When you reach that domain, we don’t have an alternative. But we don’t have any other weapon than our insistence on non-violent protest and non-violent dialogue, which we will keep up and the idea is to isolate that outer circle. The idea is that that middle circle should expand more.

However, structural changes are equally important to disrupt gender norms

Sujata: Structural requirements are providing facilities which are enabling for women—which eases out the burden that is stereotypically hers or her job, and eliminating the restricting factor. We talked about the backlash [you get] when you try and change anything stereotypical. So having very strong support systems in the nearest environment [is important].

There is structural change that is needed in education, because it teaches so much inequality.

There is structural change that is needed in education, because it teaches so much inequality. Right from childhood, most often, we are very reactive to incidents of inequality, violence, and all our actions and reactions are more incidents-based. Work has to be done on mental structures and mental models, because they are so deeply embedded. To get out of this is a challenge for everybody, whether it’s a man, woman, trans, anybody, because that constructs identity.

Nivedita: One structural change is a recognition of the sexual division of labour, and how it produces burdens and hurdles for all women—the normalising of the idea that women are responsible for reproduction, and men are responsible for production in the public domain.

But, of course, most women are also involved in production, but almost no man is involved in reproduction. This is the sexual division of labour. What this does is, at very high levels, for instance, if you’re a CEO, then you have the idea of the glass ceiling, because you voluntarily stepped back from many kinds of work that you could do because of your responsibilities towards your children and the home. As you come lower down in the class hierarchy, there aren’t so many women in public politics, because their responsibilities are so great. [For instance,] the reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions—many studies have shown that women are usually very young or much older. In their childbearing and home-running age, they do not enter politics. Women voluntarily clip their wings. If you ask class 12 students about their aims and ambitions—the way boys will speak and the way the girls will speak will be very different. Because girls are already aware of their limitations by the time they’re 17 or 18. Even if girls want a job, they know the kind that will enable them to still be a good wife and mother. Now, when we recognise this, and work towards a campaign of social and state, and employer responsibility for childcare, then that’s it. Just one small thing, that childcare responsibilities cannot continue to be privatised into a nuclear or even joint family households where only the women are doing this work.

So if every employer, from the contractor on the building site to this multinational company, all the way wherever people are employed…there should be childcare facility. Not [just] for women, there should be childcare facilities for all employees… If you think of one small [structural] change, this is a doable thing, it is practical, [and] it can be effective.

You can listen to the full episode here.

Know more

  • Read about how Indians view gender roles in family and society.
  • Read about gender stereotyping in the Indian judiciary system.
  • Learn why gender equity requires working with men in power.
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India Development Review

India Development Review (IDR) is India’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. Our mission is to advance knowledge on social impact in India. We publish ideas, opinion, analysis, and lessons from real-world practice.

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