22 July, 2014 / Ramazan 23, 1435

A FEW days before we ushered in 2013, an Indian-Punjabi rapper called Honey Singh became embroiled in controversy when a concert in Delhi, where he was due to perform, was cancelled after an online campaign against him. There’s no doubt about the offensiveness of the lyrics he is accused of spewing, some of which feature vile rape fantasies (Singh now claims they weren’t his songs), but the furore teased out bigger questions: how did a man associated with such material become so popular, and why did Bollywood accept him as its highest-paid songwriter?

Most Indians bristle at the accusation that Indian culture doesn’t value women. In fact, they say, it extols the virtues of womanhood and their role in society. It puts women on a pedestal, and even goes as far as describing nature and the world we live in as “mother Earth”, and “mother India”. Indians elected a woman prime minister, Indira Gandhi, as early as 1966, and the country boasts several prominent female chief ministers, philosophers, scholars, sports icons and writers. During one very popular Indian festival, Rakhi, brothers pledge to protect their sisters for life. Hindu mythology, which is dominant in Indian culture, is full of tales of kings moving heaven and earth to rescue damsels in distress.

But these symbols provide a convenient facade behind which there is endemic violence ingrained in Indian culture. They are part of the lie that Indian women cannot have it so bad, because they are revered. In fact, the opposite is true. In traditional Indian culture, girls are groomed to be good wives, not independent women with their own careers. Traditional values say women are only important not in their own right, but because they produce children and preserve culture.

This mentality leads families to treat them as objects who should remain pure and be controlled: women are their fathers’ property, and later their husbands’. Parents worry so much about “losing face” in the community that while boys have all the freedom they want, girls are constantly advised not to do anything that would “bring shame”. This mentality explains why so many are forced into marriages, or even murdered by their own parents. It leads to mothers excusing away the heinous crimes of their sons by saying: “If these girls roam around openly like this, then the boys will make mistakes.”

In Bollywood films, men routinely chase and harass women. As SA Aiyar points out in the Times of India, old-time villain Ranjeet did close to 100 rape scenes, “with the audience almost cheering him on”. The message from Bollywood is almost always that if you harass a woman enough, “no matter how often she says no, she’ll ultimately say yes”.

The gang rape and murder of the Delhi student wasn’t an isolated incident. Reading the descriptions by Indian women of how they live in fear should make anyone worry deeply about the twisted beast that Indian culture has become. Most of all it should make my kind — men of Indian origin — sit up and ask: how did we get here? The epidemic of violence is obviously not good for women, but doesn’t it also say something about the state of mind of Indian men that such crimes are on the increase?

Violence against women is a cultural problem. It is culture that leads to a country’s laws, and culture that discourages or encourages this violence. So why isn’t there a national debate about the social impact of 100 million missing women? There is a tendency to sweep this under the carpet, not just by Indians but even some westerners fearful of sounding racist. Emer O'Toole's article on Tuesday was a classic example of this genre, going as far as praising Indian politicians for their response, even though most protesters were criticising them for their inaction and insensitivity. That was compounded by an attempt to blame colonialism for the lack of rights and social provision for women, but the problem isn’t lack of money (India spends billions on nukes and a space programme), but different priorities by a male-dominated parliament where many have charges of assault against women pending.

India doesn’t need well-meaning white people to defend it, it needs to listen to the voices of Indian women. We can accept that women are groped, molested, assaulted and raped across nearly every part of the world, without pretending there aren’t local differences in attitudes and social provisions. The founder of Jagori, a Delhi-based women’s NGO, told the Times of India that though there was growing awareness and reporting of sexual violence, men “are not able to accept” women’s increasing assertiveness and “use heinous ways to punish them”. India is full of brave, independent female icons, but they have succeeded despite cultural norms — not because it encourages them to be independent. This epidemic won’t end until this mentality is challenged to its core.

By arrangement with the Guardian

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