As a Girl in India, I Learned to Be Afraid of Men

"A woman exposed to male view was a woman in danger."

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Amit Dave/Reuters

My first sense as a young girl of sexual menace came from my Indian grandfather. He never sexually threatened or molested me. But he made sure I knew that the world in which I, a girl, was growing up was perilous to women. Screaming reproaches at my dress or my uppity talk, he made it clear that the only way to protect myself from the ever-present danger of men was by conducting and dressing myself with impeccable modesty, by making myself as invisible as possible. He also made me understand that, in the way of a wolf pup, my survival in the world of the alpha male depended on avoiding eye contact or any other sign of a pretense to equal status.

My grandfather was a conservative patriarch who ruled over a household overflowing with women and children: my grandmother, my two then-unmarried aunts, my uncle's wife, and their three children. Every one of these individuals jumped at his command, fearful of his quick and unpredictable temper. The fear he wanted me to feel toward men in general—the best way he knew to protect my vulnerable young female self—was confused in my mind with the fear I felt of him, his temper, and his unchallengeable authority.

Arriving in Mumbai at age nine from California, I was innocent of the traditional joint-family protocol that reigned in my grandfather's house. I remember being perplexed and amused by the daily ballet that occurred between my grandfather and my aunt. A daughter-in-law who had come to live with her husband in the home where he lived with his parents, she was never to be in the same room as my grandfather. If my grandfather began moving out of his back room or arrived after his daily walk at the front door, someone in the family would hiss her a warning: "He's coming!" She would quickly cover her head with her sari and slither away as fast as she could. When there was some rare need for her to communicate with my grandfather, she would ask one of her sons who would ask my grandfather.

I understood from this a horrible revelation: My grandfather's obeisance to a rigidly traditional non-relationship between father-in-law and daughter-in-law came from a fear that familiarity would open the door to sexual attraction, or worse. This fear was not unfounded: India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2011 indicates 94.2 percent of rapists are known to their victim. My aunt's invisibility and the modest dress and comportment I was supposed to adopt were designed to protect our virtue. In effect, we women were to maintain a kind of purdah. The word, of Persian origin, means "curtain" and defines a state where women are concealed from the view of men. A woman exposed to male view was a woman, I learned, in danger.

It is clear in the wake of the brutal gang rape of a young paramedical student in Delhi on December 16 that a purdah mentality still dogs Indian society. A woman who can be seen is seen as a woman available for violation. Rapid modernization and urbanization in India have made women, especially young women, visible as never before. More and more women are seeking education and employment. They go out to school, to work and to socialize with friends. They, like the young woman who was gang raped in Delhi, go out to movies. Increasingly, they go out with men, and, increasingly, they, instead of their parents, choose their life partners.

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Mira Kamdar is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York and an Asia Society associate fellow.

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