In December 2012, a violent gang rape in Delhi shocked the world. Part of a wider story, why do Indian women suffer such cruel, contradictory social injustice?

India Dishonoured ebook

India Dishonoured: Behind a nation’s war on women
Sunny Hundal


In December 2012, the violent gang rape of a young Indian woman in Delhi shocked the world. India was a country of booming modernisation twinned with centuries-old cultural riches. Was the cruelty of the assault indicative of something profoundly disturbing lurking beneath the surface?

Sunny Hundal’s arresting exploration of how Indian society treats its women argues exactly this. As a country, India has a disproportionate amount of men to women. They are financial and often social burdens upon their parents. Yet it also a country that has produced towering women such as Indira Gandhi, who have so powerfully influenced the history of the 20th century.

‘India Dishonoured’ is an attempt to understand the contradictions at the heart of how India treats its women, and why the country is sitting on a cultural timebomb that may have only just begun to explode.


About the Author

Sunny Hundal

Sunny Hundal is editor of the political blog Liberal Conspiracy, which runs news, opinion and campaigns on leftwing issues. As a journalist and commentator, he has written for the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, Metro, Financial Times and New Statesman on national politics, the media, the environment and race relations. Twitter: @sunny_hundal


This is Chapter 1 of India Dishonoured


Billed as ‘more shocking than Bandit Queen’ when the film Matrubhoomi: A Nation Without Women was screened at international film-festivals in 2003, it certainly created a stir. Set in a small village in the middle of India, it opens with a young mother lying on a bed, surrounded by midwives, about to give birth. Her husband waits outside with a few friends in nervous expectation. Suddenly a newborn child’s cry is heard and the men burst into cheers, only to be silenced when a downbeat midwife comes out and announces: “It’s a girl.”

It’s a sign of things to come. The next day the father stands in front of a big vat of milk in a field, with his baby daughter in his hands. There’s a brief silence as his friend looks on. “Next year, a boy,” the father says firmly and submerges his baby daughter into the milk until the bubbles stop rising to the surface. They both walk away.

A few decades later the village has changed dramatically. It is now solely populated by uncouth, aggressive men who release their sexual frustration by watching pornographic films or going to dance shows where men dress up as women and dance suggestively. As men fail to find marriageable women even from surrounding villages, bestiality becomes commonplace. When the richest man in the village eventually finds the only girl around for miles, he immediately buys her from her father and tells her to marry his five sons. The sons have to share a wife or stay unmarried forever. She is not asked for her consent. And that is when everyone’s nightmare begins.

It made for such uncomfortable viewing that Matrubhoomi (‘Motherland’) struggled to find a distributor in India for years despite being shot in Hindi. Though the film was set as a bleak and dystopian vision of the future, in parts of India it is already becoming a chilling reality.

It is always difficult to predict watershed moments that change a nation, but they are always sparked off when an incident shines a searing light on a much broader problem. When thousands of women and men came out to protest on the streets of New Delhi in late 2012, it was clear their anger was not just about the gang-rape of the female student. ‘India Has a Woman Problem’ ran a headline in an article by Rashmee Roshan Lall in Foreign Policy magazine; Sonia Faleiro wrote in The New York Times that the capital, New Delhi, had become “habituated to the debasement of women”. Neither of them were alone in that assessment: Hindustan Times, India Today, Outlook, The Times of India, Zee TV and media across the world featured stories by Indian women recounting similar views.

Until recently most western media narratives on India have revolved around its economic growth or the rich fabric of its mysterious and colourful culture. We know about the country that produces Bollywood films, hot curries, cricket fanatics and engineering graduates by the truckload. We read about India’s tensions with Pakistan and China, and how those in grinding poverty rub up against rich billionaires living in 27-storey mansions. We see pictures from the millions who make the pilgrimage to Kumbh Mela, kids flinging colour at each other during the festival of Holi, or people lighting candles during Diwali. These are the images we are familiar and comfortable with.

The outside world has rarely focused on the status of women in Indian society as it has with Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. In June 2012, when India was rated the worst G20 country for women, there was a palpable sense of disbelief: ‘what, even worse than Saudi Arabia?’ Yes, even Saudi Arabia, which bans women from driving, was rated better in a poll of gender specialists published by Reuters. They concluded that women were particularly vulnerable in India because of high instances of female trafficking, child-marriages, dowry related deaths and slavery.

The rapid modernisation and industrialisation of the last 20 years has created a new middle class and provided independence and security to millions of people. As social attitudes have become more liberal, women are visible like never before: out shopping, driving scooters or flash cars, buying houses with their own money, rejecting old traditions and even asserting their right to choose life-partners.

It is commonly believed these changes are tilting the balance in favour of women’s liberation; that education and rising incomes would ease the problems; that this is primarily a problem in villages. In fact these assumptions can easily be turned on their head. The contradiction of India is such that while women have more freedom than ever, violence against them is sharply on the rise. Furthermore, infant girls are more likely to be aborted or murdered among relatively richer and educated families than poorer households.

Of course, the attitudes that many Indians show towards women are common across the world. My aim with this mini-book is to illustrate how religion and culture underpins many of these attitudes, and how the intermingling of technology, liberalisation and economic reforms has created a toxic mixture that exacerbates the problem. These factors have come together to create an army of single, angry men who will likely never find wives and settle down because there simply aren’t the matching number of women. That is a problem not just for them but Indian society as a whole.

The outpour of anger and grief in December 2012 did not just highlight a widespread problem – it also underlined the fact that it was getting worse every year. The National Criminal Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded a 112% increase in reported rapes between 1990 and 2008. Assaults on women have increased more than any other crime recorded in India, while the number of girls under the age of six keeps dropping every year relative to the number of boys.


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