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.
The young woman who was attacked had come to Delhi from a small village where her enlightened parents had scrimped and saved to educate her. She was studying to become a physical therapist. She was making her own life on the new exciting terms offered by India's changing society. While these opportunities have increased, they can't meet the volume of raised aspirations. Competition for slots in the better schools and for jobs remains fierce. The competition for women is also fierce. In India, girls are too often seen as temporary members of their families who will one day marry and join a new family. Male children are preferred, and sex-selective abortion, female infanticide and the sheer neglect of girls have made for a growing gender gap. Too many young men simmer with aspirations and desires that are simply not likely to be realized.