How to Fix India's Male-Superiority Complex

Look to those most moved by the country's latest encounter with sexual violence.

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A girl holds a placard as she takes part in a protest rally in Hyderabad, India on December 29, 2012. (Krishnendu Halder/Reuters)

The recent rape of a 23-year old female student in New Delhi by six men on a public bus was so violent that she was on a ventilator and doctors had to remove most of her intestines. The case has opened a long-festering wound. It has brought the people of the city out to protest on the streets. It has inspired Bollywood celebrities to tweet and even make personal appearances to condemn the incident. It has given the opposition party in parliament yet another thing to shout about and it has shaken the incumbent party from its slumber.

Many are asking for stricter laws and better enforcement of those laws. Some are even asking for the death penalty. But such things would just be a Band-Aid over a more serious wound. The sickness runs much deeper -- and in fact, has spread nationwide. The malaise lies in the generally poor perception of women in Indian society. As Simone de Beauvoir would have quickly grasped, women in India are the second sex.

The preference for boys in so strong and so ingrained that it's rarely questioned. It's prevalent among all castes, economic classes, and genders. Even grandmothers are heard to voice their preference for male grandchildren. And in India, out of reverence for the elderly, where the old go, the young have followed.

This rape, the hundreds of others that are reported each year, and the many more that go unreported are mere symptoms of the bigger problem -- and that too, only one set of symptoms. There is a long list of other forms of violence perpetrated against women throughout their lives, from the time they are yet unborn (female feticide), to when they are young girls (a severely skewed sex ratio for children under age six), to teenagers (malnutrition, anemia, molestation), to adults (dowry deaths, maternal mortality, abuse), to the elderly (ostracism of widows).

While people may squirm when blatantly faced with the issue, for the most part it is all accepted as being part of an ancient culture. The fear among the truly outraged is that in a few days the current protests will subside, the people on the streets will go home and back to their lives, and it will be business as usual until the next case of horrific sexual violence.

While more stringent laws and their implementation are definitely needed, what's more necessary is a change in attitude, a shift away from the prevailing assumption that women are not as valuable as men.

And while people are the problem, they are also the solution. Two characteristics of this case have stirred more people than ever before: the ferocity of the crime and the fact that the victim was from the urban middle-class. People suddenly realized that this could happen to their daughter, their sister, or themselves. We need to maintain and use the momentum of the outraged to spur change. Even if they currently amount to just a small percentage of the total population, given that India's population is a resounding 1.2 billion, even this small percentage forms a sizeable force. They can be used to enact several long-term measures of education and sensitization, beginning with children.

Presented by

Ranjani Iyer Mohanty is a writer, editor, and commentator based in India.

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