The status of Women in India has been subject to many great changes over the past few millennia. With a decline in their status from the ancient to medieval times, to the promotion of equal rights by many reformers, their history has been eventful. In modern India, women have held high offices including that of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Leader of the Opposition, Union Ministers, Chief Ministers and Governors.
Women's rights under the Constitution of India — mainly includes equality, dignity, and freedom from discrimination; further, India has various statutes governing the rights of women.
As of 2011[update], the President of India, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of the parliament) were women. However, women in India continue to face numerous problems such as crime, gender inequality.
History of women in India
Women during the early Vedic period[better source needed] enjoyed equal status with men in all aspects of life.[better source needed][page needed] Works by ancient Indian grammarians such as Patanjali and Katyayana suggest that women were educated in the early Vedic period.[non-primary source needed] Rigvedic verses suggest that women married at a mature age and were probably free to select their own husbands in a practice called swayamvar or live-in relationship called Gandharva marriage. Scriptures such as the Rig Veda and Upanishads mention several women sages and seers, notably Gargi and Maitreyi.
Originally, women were allowed to undergo initiation and study the Veda's. In the Dharmasutra of Harita, it is mentioned that:
There are two types of women: those who become students of the Veda and those who marry immediately. Of these, the students of the Veda undergo initiation, kindle the sacred fire, study the Veda, and beg food in their own houses. In the case of those who marry immediately, however, when the time for marriage comes, their marriage should be performed after initiating them in some manner.[full citation needed]
In Mahabharata, the story of Draupadi's marriage to 5 men is a case in point. This pointed to the fact, that polygamy was matched with polyandry during the Vedic era. Women could select their husband in an assembly called `swayamwar’. In this practice, the King would invite all the princes, and the princess would select one, and marry him while the court watched. This clearly showed, how women's rights were taken seriously during the Vedic era. This practice was prevalent till the 10th century A.D.
Also, in the Puranas, every God was shown in consort of their wives ( Brahma with Saraswathi, Vishnu with Lakshmi, Shiva with Parvati), and practices of idol of god and goddess also showed equal importance to women and men, Separate temples were setup for goddesses, and within each temple, goddesses were treated and worshipped with as much care and devotion as the gods were. There are also specific practices that endure to this day, in terms of preference of worship.
In the book "Hindu Female Dieties as a resource for contemporary rediscovery of the Goddess" by Gross Rita.M, 1989, says
"According to some scholars the positive constructions of femininity found in goddess imagery and in the related imagery of the virangana or heroic woman have created a cognitive framework, for Hindus to accept and accommodate powerful female figures like "Indira Gandhi and Phoolan Devi, The same would not have been possible in Western religious traditions "
Even in the practice of Homa ( ritual involving fire, and offerings to fire), every mantra or Shloka is addressed to Swaha, the wife of Agni, instead of Agni himself. Devi Bhagavata Purana: 9.43, says that all requests to Agni had to made through his wife only.
"O Goddess, Let yourself become the burning power of fire; who is not able to burn anything without thee. At the conclusion of any mantra, whoever taking thy name (Svaha), will pour oblations in the fire, he will cause those offerings to go directly to the gods. Mother, let yourself, the repository of all prosperity, reign over as the lady of his (fire's) house."
This aspect of Swaha as Agni's wife is mentioned in Mahabharata, Brahmavantara Purana, Bhagavatha Purana as various hymns.
In the Gupta period instances are not rare of women participating in administrative job. Prabhabati, the daughter of Chandra Gupta II performed administrative duties in her kingdom. Instances of women of the upper classes extending their phase of activities beyond the domestic circle are provided by the queen and queens regent in Kashmir, Rajasthan, Orissa and Andhra. Institutions were established for co-education. In the work called Amarkosh written in the Gupta era names of the teachers and professors are there and they belonged to female sex. They were the authors of Vedic scripts and ‘mantras ‘.
Two hundred years before Alexander's attack on India, Queen Nayanika was ruler and military commander of the Satavanhana Empire of the Deccan region (south-central India).
In 300 BC, Princess Kumaradevi married Prince Chandragupta, and they ruled their two kingdoms as co-regents.
Queen Orrisa assumed regency when her son died in the late ninth century and immediately involved herself in military adventuring. Queen Kurmadevi of Mevad commanded her armies on the battlefield in the late twelfth century. Queen Didday of Kashmir ruled as full sovereign for twenty-two years, and Queen Jawahirabi fought and died at the head of her army.
South in Sri Lanka, Queen Sugula led her armies against the southern king, her nephew. When pressed by the royal forces, she guided her forces into the mountains, where she built a number of forts. Sugula held out against the king's army for ten years and is remembered in Sri Lankan history as "Sugula the rebel queen fearless".
The Muslim conquest in the Indian subcontinent brought changes to Indian society. The position of Indian women in society further deteriorated during this period,[better source needed] . The purdah system and Jauhar are attributable to the Muslim rules that existed between 10th century awards.
The Rajputs of Rajasthan, started the practice of Jauhar after a century of Islamic invasions of the 10th century.The early Islamic invasions in Sindh did not result in Jauhar, as is evident from the history of Raja Dahir or Sindh. After the attack by Mohammed-Bin-Qasim in 10th century, and the killing of Raja Dahir, his wife and daughters were sent off as sexual slaves to Damascus. This sexual slavery prevalent in 10th century, may have resulted in the evolution of Jauhar in Western India, which were the first parts of India exposed to invasions from the Persian and Turkish empires. The subsequent Islamic invasiosn
Polygamy was practised among Hindu Kshatriya rulers. However, this practice may not be considered a uniform social behavior, as at the same time, there were kingdoms which practised polyandry also. Nair warrior communities in Kerala practiced polyandry for centuries, during the medieval period up to the British 18th century.
The status of women of Islam, followed Islamic precepts, and rules of Sharia.
Women were restricted to Zenana areas of the house.
Women had to wear the Burqa or niqab, and were disallowed to move alone without a guardian,
Their rights were dictated by the Sharia law, which prevented women from getting share of the inherited wealth.
Apastamba sutra (c. 4th century BCE).[non-primary source needed] captures some prevalent ideas of role of women during the post Vedic ages. The Apastamba Sutra shows the elevated position of women that existed during the 4th century B.C.
A man is not allowed to abandon his wife (A 1.28.19).
He permits daughters to inherit (A 2.14.4).
There can be no division of property between a husband and a wife, because they are linked inextricably together and have joint custody of the property (A 2.29.3).
Thus, a wife may make gifts and use the family wealth on her own when her husband is away (A 2.12.16–20).
Women are upholders of traditional lore, and Āpastamba tells his audience that they should learn some customs from women (A 2.15.9; 2.29.11).
The Stri Dharma Paddhati of Tryambakayajvan, an official at Thanjavur c. 1730 says the following about the role of women. This book shows that role of women during marriage had been specified clearly, and the patriarchal view of society had emerged clearly, as they detail the service of women to men in marriage.
However, there were cases of women often becoming prominent in the fields of politics, literature, education and religion also during this period.[better source needed]Razia Sultana (1205-1240) became the only woman monarch to have ever ruled Delhi. The Gond queen Durgavati (1524-1564) ruled for fifteen years before losing her life in a battle with Mughal emperor Akbar's general Asaf Khan in 1564. Chand Bibi defended Ahmednagar against the powerful Mughal forces of Akbar in the 1590s. Jehangir's wife Nur Jehan effectively wielded imperial power, and was recognised as the real power behind the Mughal throne. The Mughal princesses Jahanara and Zebunnissa were well-known poets, and also influenced the ruling powers. Shivaji's mother, Jijabai, was queen regent because of her ability as a warrior and an administrator. Tarabai was another female Maratha ruler. In South India, many women administered villages, towns, and divisions, and ushered in new social and religious institutions.
Jijabai was the mother of Shivaji, founder of the Maratha Empire.
Akka Mahadeviwas a prominent figure of the Veerashaiva Bhakti movement of the 12th century Karnataka.Her Vachanas in Kannada, a form of didactic poetry, are considered her most notable contribution to Kannada Bhakti literature
To quote Sir Lepel Griffin K.C.S, from his books on Sikh history, the Sikh women
"have on occasions shown themselves the equals of men in wisdom and administrative ability." Usually the dowager ranis were up to commendable works. A passing reference of the role of some of them towards the end of the eighteenth century and in the first half of the nineteenth century may not be out of place here. Rani Sada Kaur, widow of Sardar Gurbakhsh Singh Kanaihya and mother-in-law of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, was well versed in the affairs of the state and commanded her soldiers in the battle-field. She was a very shrewd lady with a thorough grasp of statecraft. Mai Desan, the widow of Charhat Singh Sukarchakia, was a great administrator, an experienced and a wise diplomat who conducted the civil and military affairs dexterously."
He quotes many women, who had served the Sikh cause including
- Rattan Kaur, the widow of Tara Singh Ghaiba, was a brave and an able lady who kept the Lahore Durbar forces at bay for a sufficient time till the gate-keepers were bribed by the Lahore army.
- Mai Sukhan, the widow of Gulab Singh Bhangi, strongly defended the town of Amritsar against Ranjit Singh for some time.
- Dharam Kaur, wife of Dal Singh of Akalgarh, after her husband's imprisonment by Ranjit Singh, mounted guns on the walls of her fort and fought against the Durbar forces. She was a brave and a wise lady who was able, for some time, to foil the designs of the Lahore ruler on her territory.
- After Sardar Baghel Singh's death in 1802, his two widows, Ram Kaur and Rattan Kaur, looked after their territories very well. Ram Kaur, the elder Sardarni, maintained her control over the district of Hoshiarpur which provided her a revenue of two lakh ruprees and Sardarni Rattan Kaur kept Chhalondi in her possession, fetching her an annual revenue of three lakh rupees. She administered her territory efficiently.
- Similarly, Rani Chand Kaur, widow of Maharaja Kharak Singh, and Rani Jindan, widow of Ranjit Singh, played important roles in the Lahore Durbar polity.
and many more are quoted in his works.
Among the few women in history to save a kingdom by sheer force and willpower, in the Maratha empires
- Rani Tarabai’s unflagging courage and indomitable spirit are at par with the legendary
- Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi,
- Rani Rudramma Devi of Warangal and
- Rani Abbakka Chowta of Ullal.
There have been positive practices of women as subject of respect in India, and there have been regressive practices as well. Here are some practices
- Naari Puja
In Kerala’s Alappuzha district, an ancient temple called Chakkulathu Kavu holds an exceptionally remarkable annual ritual of worshipping women in the month of December.
Popularly known as Naari Puja, the ritual is conducted every year on the first Friday of Dhanu maasam. The chief priest of the temple himself conducts the puja.Thousands of women are worshipped during the ceremony regardless of the caste, religion or creed they belong to. Women are seated on a chair (peetom) for the ritual and the chief priest washes their feet. The women are later garlanded and offered flowers.
Sati is an old, almost completely defunct custom among some communities, in which the widow was immolated alive on her husband's funeral pyre. Although the act was supposed to be voluntary on the widow's part, its practice is forbidden by the Hindu scriptures in Kali yuga, the current age.[unreliable source?] After the foreign invasions of Indian subcontinent, this practice started to mark its presence, as women were often raped or kidnapped by the foreign forces.[better source needed] It was abolished by the British in 1829. There have been around forty reported cases of sati since independence. In 1987, the Roop Kanwar case in Rajasthan led to The Commission of Sati (Prevention) Act.
Purdah is the practice among some Muslim communities requiring women to cover themselves in for the purpose of modesty.
Devadasi or Devaradiyar means “servant of God”. These women were dedicated to God and were considered given in marriage to God, meaning that they could therefore not marry any ‘mortal’. Nevertheless, they were free to choose partners, from among married and unmarried men alike. These relationships could be long and stable, or just for a short period of time. But in no way were these women economically dependent on their partners. They learned music and dance, and as many as 64 types of arts. They would dance and sing in temples or in front of royalty and earn gold and land as a reward. Some chose to dedicate themselves only to God and stayed without a partner all through their life.The tradition of Devadasi culture can be traced back to as early as the 7th century, particularly in southern parts of India during the reigns of the Cholas, Chelas, and Pandyas. They were well treated and respected, and held a high social status in the society. It was common for them to be invited to be present at or initiate sacred religious rituals. As long as the temples and empires flourished, so did they. With the death of the empires, the Devadasi practice degenerated into a practice of sex labor, and child prostitution. A law banning the practice of Devadasi prostitution was enacted, and is banned. However, according to the National Human Rights Commission, in 2013, there were as many as 450,000 Devadasis in India.
During the British Raj, many reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Jyotirao Phule fought for the betterment of women. Peary Charan Sarkar, a former student of Hindu College, Calcutta and a member of "Young Bengal", set up the first free school for girls in India in 1847 in Barasat, a suburb of Calcutta (later the school was named Kalikrishna Girls' High School).
While this might suggest that there was no positive British contribution during the Raj era, that is not entirely the case. Missionaries' wives such as Martha Mault née Mead and her daughter Eliza Caldwell née Mault are rightly remembered for pioneering the education and training of girls in south India. This practice was initially met with local resistance, as it flew in the face of tradition. Raja Rammohan Roy's efforts led to the abolition of Sati under Governor-GeneralWilliam Cavendish-Bentinck in 1829. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's crusade for improvement in the situation of widows led to the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. Many women reformers such as Pandita Ramabai also helped the cause of women.
Kittur Chennamma, queen of the princely state Kittur in Karnataka, led an armed rebellion against the British in response to the Doctrine of lapse. Abbakka Rani, queen of coastal Karnataka, led the defence against invading European armies, notably the Portuguese in the 16th century. Rani Lakshmi Bai, the Queen of Jhansi, led the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British. She is now widely considered as a national hero. Begum Hazrat Mahal, the co-ruler of Awadh, was another ruler who led the revolt of 1857. She refused deals with the British and later retreated to Nepal. The Begums of Bhopal were also considered notable female rulers during this period. They were trained in martial arts.
Chandramukhi Basu, Kadambini Ganguly and Anandi Gopal Joshi were some of the earliest Indian women to obtain a degree.
In 1917, the first women's delegation met the Secretary of State to demand women's political rights, supported by the Indian National Congress. The All India Women's Education Conference was held in Pune in 1927, it became a major organisation in the movement for social change. In 1929, the Child Marriage Restraint Act was passed, stipulating fourteen as the minimum age of marriage for a girl.[full citation needed] Though Mahatma Gandhi himself married at the age of thirteen, he later urged people to boycott child marriages and called upon young men to marry child widows.
Women in India now participate fully in areas such as education, sports, politics, media, art and culture, service sectors, science and technology, etc.Indira Gandhi, who served as Prime Minister of India for an aggregate period of fifteen years, is the world's longest serving woman Prime Minister.
The Constitution of India guarantees to all Indian women equality (Article 14), no discrimination by the State (Article 15(1)), equality of opportunity (Article 16), equal pay for equal work (Article 39(d)) and Article 42. In addition, it allows special provisions to be made by the State in favour of women and children (Article 15(3)), renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women (Article 51(A) (e)), and also allows for provisions to be made by the State for securing just and humane conditions of work and for maternity relief. (Article 42).
Feminist activism in India gained momentum in the late 1970s. One of the first national-level issues that brought women's groups together was the Mathura rape case. The acquittal of policemen accused of raping a young girl Mathura in a police station led to country-wide protests in 1979-1980. The protests, widely covered by the national media, forced the Government to amend the Evidence Act, the Criminal Procedure Code, and the Indian Penal Code; and created a new offence, custodial rape. Female activists also united over issues such as female infanticide, gender bias, women's health, women's safety, and women's literacy.
Since alcoholism is often associated with violence against women in India, many women groups launched anti-liquor campaigns in Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and other states. Many Indian Muslim women have questioned the fundamental leaders' interpretation of women's rights under the Shariat law and have criticised the triple talaq system (see below about 2017).
In the 1990s, grants from foreign donor agencies enabled the formation of new women-oriented NGOs. Self-help groups and NGOs such as Self Employed Women's Association (SEWA) have played a major role in the advancement of women's rights in India. Many women have emerged as leaders of local movements; for example, Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
The Government of India declared 2001 as the Year of Women's Empowerment (Swashakti). The National Policy For The Empowerment Of Women came was passed in 2001.
In 2006, the case of Imrana, a Muslim rape victim, was highlighted by the media. Imrana was raped by her father-in-law. The pronouncement of some Muslim clerics that Imrana should marry her father-in-law led to widespread protests, and finally Imrana's father-in-law was sentenced to 10 years in prison. The verdict was welcomed by many women's groups and the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
According to a report by Thomson Reuters, India is the "fourth most dangerous country" in the world for women, India was also noted as the worst country for women among the G20 countries, however, this report has faced criticism for its inaccuracy. On 9 March 2010, one day after International Women's day, Rajya Sabha passed the Women's Reservation Bill requiring that 33% of seats in India's Parliament and state legislative bodies be reserved for women. A poll in October 2017 was published by Thomson Reuters Foundation, found that Delhi was the fourth most dangerous megacity (total 40 in the world) for women and it was also the worst megacity in the world for women when it came to sexual violence, risk of rape and harassment.
In 2014, an Indian family court in Mumbai ruled that a husband objecting to his wife wearing a kurta and jeans and forcing her to wear a sari amounts to cruelty inflicted by the husband and can be a ground to seek divorce. The wife was thus granted a divorce on the ground of cruelty as defined under section 27(1)(d) of Special Marriage Act, 1954.
On 22 August 2017, the Indian Supreme Court deemed instant triple talaq (talaq-e-biddat) unconstitutional.
Timeline of women's achievements in India
The steady change in the position of women can be highlighted by looking at what has been achieved by women in the country:
- 1848: Savitribai Phule, along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, opened a school for girls in Pune, India. Savitribai Phule became the first woman teacher in India.
- 1879: John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune established the Bethune School in 1849, which developed into the Bethune College in 1879, thus becoming the first women's college in India.
- 1883: Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Ganguly became the first female graduates of India and the British Empire.
- 1886: Kadambini Ganguly and Anandi Gopal Joshi became the first women from India to be trained in Western medicine.
- 1898: Sister Nivedita Girls' School was inaugurated
- 1905: Suzanne RD Tata becomes the first Indian woman to drive a car.
- 1916: The first women's university, SNDT Women's University, was founded on 2 June 1916 by the social reformerDhondo Keshav Karve with just five students.
- 1917: Annie Besant became the first female president of the Indian National Congress.
- 1919: For her distinguished social service, Pandita Ramabai became the first Indian woman to be awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal by the British Raj.
- 1925: Sarojini Naidu became the first Indian born female president of the Indian National Congress.
- 1927: The All India Women's Conference was founded.
- 1936: Sarla Thakral became the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft.
- 1944: Asima Chatterjee became the first Indian woman to be conferred the Doctorate of Science by an Indian university.
- 1947: On 15 August 1947, following independence, Sarojini Naidu became the governor of the United Provinces, and in the process became India's first woman governor. On the same day, Amrit Kaur assumed office as the first female Cabinet minister of India in the country's first cabinet.
- Post independence:Rukmini Devi Arundale was the first ever woman in Indian History to be nominated a Rajya Sabha member. She is considered the most important revivalist in the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam from its original 'sadhir' style, prevalent amongst the temple dancers, Devadasis.She also worked for the re-establishment of traditional Indian arts and crafts.
- 1951: Prem Mathur of the Deccan Airways becomes the first Indian woman commercial pilot.
India has one of the highest number of female politicians in the world. Women have held high offices in India including that of the President, Prime Minister, Speaker of the Lok Sabha and Leader of the Opposition. The Indian states Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh,Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan and Tripura have implemented 50% reservation for women in PRIs. Majority of candidates in these Panchayats are women. Currently 100% of elected members in Kodassery Panchayat in Kerala are women. There are currently 5 female chief ministers in India.
As of 2016, 12 out of 29 states and the union territory of Delhi have had at least one female Chief Minister.
The status of women in India is strongly connected to family relations. In India, the family is seen as crucially important, and in most of the country the family unit is patrilineal. Families are usually multi-generational, with the bride moving to live with the in-laws. Families are usually hierarchical, with the elders having authority over the younger generations, and the males over females. The vast majority of marriages are monogamous (one husband and one wife), but both polygyny and polyandry in India have a tradition among some populations in India.Weddings in India can by quite expensive. Most marriages in India are arranged.
With regard to dress, a sari (a long piece of fabric wound around the body) and salwar kameez are worn by women all over India. A bindi is part of a woman's make-up. Despite common belief, the bindi on the forehead does not signify marital status; however, the Sindoor does.
Rangoli (or Kolam) is a traditional art very popular among Indian women.
In Indian culture, families usually start there day by worshiping God and doing puja ("Arti"- Indian tradition to worship god).
"The Indian way of life provides the vision of the natural, real way of life. We veil ourselves with unnatural masks. On the face of India are the tender expressions which carry the mark of the Creator's hand.".....George Bernard Shaw
Main article: Women in Indian Armed Forces
The Indian Armed Forces began recruiting women to non-medical positions in 1992. The Indian Army began inducting women officers in 1992. The Border Security Force (BSF) began recruiting female officers in 2013. On 25 March 2017, Tanushree Pareek became the first female combat officer commissioned by the BSF.
In an ashram perched high on a hill above the noisy city of Guwahati in north-east India is a small exhibit commemorating the life of India's most famous son. Alongside an uncomfortable-looking divan where Mahatma Gandhi once slept is a display reminding visitors of something the man himself said in 1921: "Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity; the female sex (not the weaker sex)."
One evening two weeks ago, just a few miles downhill, a young student left a bar and was set upon by a gang of at least 18 men. They dragged her into the road by her hair, tried to rip off her clothes and smiled at the cameras that filmed it all. It was around 9.30pm on one of Guwahati's busiest streets – a chaotic three-lane thoroughfare soundtracked by constantly beeping horns and chugging tuk-tuks. But for at least 20 minutes, no one called the police. They easily could have. Many of those present had phones: they were using them to film the scene as the men yanked up the girl's vest and tugged at her bra and groped her breasts as she begged for help from passing cars. We know this because a cameraman from the local TV channel was there too, capturing the attack for his viewers' enjoyment. The woman was abused for 45 minutes before the police arrived.
Within half an hour, clips were broadcast on Assam's NewsLive channel. Watching across town, Sheetal Sharma and Bitopi Dutta were horrified. "I was fuming like anything. There was this horrible, brutal assault being shown on screen – and the most disturbing thing was, the blame was being put on the woman, who, the report emphasised, was drunk," says Sharma, a 29-year-old feminist activist from the North-East Network, a women's rights organisation in Guwahati. "The way it was filmed, the camera was panning up and down her body, focusing on her breasts, her thighs," says Dutta, her 22-year-old colleague.
When the police eventually turned up, they took away the woman, who is 20 or 21 (oddly, Guwahati police claimed not to know exactly). While NewsLive re-played pixellated footage of her attack throughout the night, she was questioned and given a medical examination. No attempt was made to arrest the men whose faces could clearly be seen laughing and jeering on camera. Soon afterwards, the editor-in-chief of NewsLive (who has since resigned) remarked on Twitter that "prostitutes form a major chunk of girls who visit bars and night clubs".
It was only a few days later, when the clip had gone viral and had been picked up by the national channels in Delhi, that the police were shamed into action. By then, Guwahati residents had taken matters into their own hands, producing an enormous banner that they strung up alongside one of the city's arterial roads featuring screen grabs of the main suspects. Six days after the attack, the chief minister of Assam, the state where Guwahati is located, ordered the police to arrest a dozen key suspects. He met the victim and promised her 50,000 rupees (£580) compensation.
The damage was already irreversible. Most Indians know full well how tough life as a woman can be in the world's biggest democracy, even 46 years after Indira Gandhi made history as the country's first female prime minister in 1966. But here, caught on camera, was proof. And in Assam – a state long romanticised as the most female-friendly corner of the country, largely thanks to the matrilineal Khasi tribe in Meghalaya. The nation was outraged.
"We have a woman president, we've had a woman prime minister. Yet in 2012, one of the greatest tragedies in our country is that women are on their own when it comes to their own safety," said a female newsreader on NDTV. She went on to outline another incident in India last week: a group of village elders in Baghpat, Uttar Pradesh, central India, who banned women from carrying mobile phones, choosing their own husbands or leaving the house unaccompanied or with their heads uncovered. "The story is the same," said the news anchor. "No respect for women. No respect for our culture. And as far as the law is concerned: who cares?"
There is currently no special law in India against sexual assault or harassment, and only vaginal penetration by a penis counts as rape. Those who molested the woman in Guwahati would be booked for "insulting or outraging the modesty of a woman" or "intruding upon her privacy". The maximum punishment is a year's imprisonment, or a fine, or both.
As a columnist in the national Hindustan Times said of the attack: "This is a story of a dangerous decline in Indians and India itself, of not just failing morality but disintegrating public governance when it comes to women." Samar Halarnkar added: "Men abuse women in every society, but few males do it with as much impunity, violence and regularity as the Indian male."
Halarnkar then offered as proof a survey that caused indignation in India last month: a poll of 370 gender specialists around the world that voted India the worst place to be a woman out of all the G20 countries. It stung – especially as Saudi Arabia was at the second-worst. But the experts were resolute in their choice. "In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour," said Gulshun Rehman, health programme development adviser at Save the Children UK, who was one of those polled.
Look at some statistics and suddenly the survey isn't so surprising. Sure, India might not be the worst place to be a woman on the planet – its rape record isn't nearly as bad as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance, where more than 400,000 women are raped each year, and female genital mutilation is not widespread, as it is in Somalia. But 45% of Indian girls are married before the age of 18, according to the International Centre for Research on Women (2010); 56,000 maternal deaths were recorded in 2010 (UN Population Fund) and research from Unicef in 2012 found that 52% of adolescent girls (and 57% of adolescent boys) think it is justifiable for a man to beat his wife. Plus crimes against women are on the increase: according to the National Crime Records Bureau in India, there was a 7.1% hike in recorded crimes against women between 2010 and 2011 (when there were 228,650 in total). The biggest leap was in cases under the "dowry prohibition act" (up 27.7%), of kidnapping and abduction (up 19.4% year on year) and rape (up 9.2%).
A preference for sons and fear of having to pay a dowry has resulted in 12 million girls being aborted over the past three decades, according to a 2011 study by the Lancet.
A glance at the Indian media reveals the range of abuse suffered by the nation's women on a daily basis. Today it was reported that a woman had been stripped and had her head shaved by villagers near Udaipur as punishment for an extramarital affair. Villagers stoned the police when they came to the rescue. In Uttar Pradesh, a woman alleged she was gang raped at a police station – she claimed she was set on by officers after being lured to the Kushinagar station with the promise of a job.
Last Wednesday, a man in Indore was arrested for keeping his wife's genitals locked. Sohanlal Chouhan, 38, "drilled holes" on her body and, before he went to work each day, would insert a small lock, tucking the keys under his socks. Earlier this month, children were discovered near Bhopal playing with a female foetus they had mistaken for a doll in a bin. In the southern state of Karnataka, a dentist was arrested after his wife accused him of forcing her to drink his urine because she refused to meet dowry demands.
In June, a father beheaded his 20-year-old daughter with a sword in a village in Rajasthan, western India, parading her bleeding head around as a warning to other young women who might fall in love with a lower-caste boy.
This July, the state government in Delhi was summoned to the national high court after failing to amend an outdated law that exempts women (and turban-wearing Sikh men) from wearing helmets on motorcycles – an exemption campaigners argue is indicative of the lack of respect for female life.
But the story that outraged most women in India last week was an interview given to the Indian Express by Mamta Sharma, chairwoman of the National Commission of Women (NCW), a government body tasked with protecting and promoting the interests of Indian women. Asked by the reporter if there should be a dress code for women "to ensure their safety", Sharma allegedly replied: "After 64 years of freedom, it is not right to give blanket directions ... and say don't wear this or don't wear that. Be comfortable, but at the same time, be careful about how you dress ... Aping the west blindly is eroding our culture and causing such crimes to happen."
She added: "Westernisation has afflicted our cities the worst. There are no values left. In places like Delhi there is no culture of giving up seats for women. It is unfortunate that while the west is learning from our culture, we are giving ourselves up completely to western ways."
Her remarks caused a storm. As Sagarika Ghose put it in the online magazine First Post: "It's not just about blindly aping the west, Ms Sharma. It's also about the vacuum in the law, lack of security at leisure spots, lack of gender justice, lack of fear of the law, police and judicial apathy and the complete lack of awareness that men and women have the right to enjoy exactly the same kind of leisure activities."
The Guardian asked Sharma for an interview to clarify her remarks but our requests were ignored.
Maini Mahanta, the editor of the Assamese women's magazine Nandini ("Daughter"), believes the NCW chair's remarks are indicative of what she calls the "Taliban-plus" mentality that is creeping into Indian society. "In this part of the world, it's worse than the Taliban," she insists in her Guwahati office. "At least the Taliban are open about what they like and dislike. Here, society is so hypocritical. We worship female goddesses and yet fail to protect women from these crimes and then blame them too."
Mahanta explains how traditions still cast women as helpless victims rather than free-thinking individuals in control of their own destiny. Girls still tie Raksha bandhan or "safety ties" around their brothers' wrists as a symbol of their duty to protect them, she says. She complains, too, about the Manu Sanghita, an ancient Indian book that she claims preaches: "When a girl is young, she is guided by her father; when she is older, she is guided by her husband; when she is very old, she is guided by her son." She despairs of the cult of the "good girl, who is taught to walk slowly 'like an elephant' and not laugh too loud".
Even in Mumbai, India's most cosmopolitan city, women have been arrested and accused of being prostitutes when drinking in the city's bars.
Sheetal Sharma and Bitopi Dutta, the young feminists from the North East Network, complain that modern women are divided into "bad" and "good" according to what they wear, whether they go out after dark and whether they drink alcohol. "We are seeing a rise of moral policing, which blames those women who are not seen as being 'good'," says Sharma. "So if they are abused in a pub, for example, it's OK – they have to learn their lesson," adds Dutta, 22, who grumbles that young women such as herself cannot now hold hands with a boyfriend in a Guwahati park, let alone kiss, without getting into trouble with the moral police, if not the real police.
Many women agree the response from the Guwahati authorities shows they are blind to the root cause: a society that does not truly respect women. Instead, a knee-jerk reaction was taken to force all bars and off-licences to shut by 9.30pm. Club Mint, the bar outside which the young woman was molested, had its licence revoked. Parents were urged to keep a close eye on their daughters.
Zabeen Ahmed, the 50-year-old librarian at Cotton College in Guwahati, tells how she was out for an evening walk not long ago when she was stopped by the police. "They asked me what I was doing out at that at that time – it was 10.30pm or so – and they asked me where my husband was."
The fact that India has a female president – Pratibha Patil – and Sonia Gandhi in control of the ruling Congress party means very little, insists Monisha Behal, "chairperson" of the North East Network. "In the UK, you have had Margaret Thatcher – if you are being harassed by a hoodlum in the street there, do ask: 'How can this be when we have had a woman prime minister?'" she says.
Every Indian woman the Guardian spoke to for this article agreed that harassment was part of their everyday lives. Mahanta revealed that she always carries chilli powder in her handbag if she ever has to take public transport and needed to throw it in the face of anyone with wandering hands. Deepika Patar, 24, a journalist at the Seven Sisters newspaper in Assam, says city buses were notorious for gropers. "If women are standing up because there are no seats, men often press up against them, or touch their breasts or bottom," she explains.
In June, an anonymous Delhi woman wrote a powerful blog post detailing what happened when she dared not to travel in the "ladies carriage" of Delhi's modern metro. After asking a man not to stand too close to her, things turned nasty. Another man intervened and told the first to back off, but soon the two were having a bloody fight in the train carriage. Rather than break up the brawl, the other passengers turned on the woman, shouting: "This is all your fault. You started this fight. This is all because you came into this coach!" and "You women always do this. You started this fight!" and "Why are you even here? Go to the women's coach."
Speaking under condition of anonymity, the 35-year-old blogger says she had experienced sexual harassment "tonnes of times". "I hate to use the word, but I'm afraid it has become 'normal'," she says. "Like if you're in a lift, men will press up against you or grab you or make a comment about your appearance. It's because of this that I stopped travelling by buses and started travelling by auto rickshaws, and eventually got a car myself – to avoid this ordeal. When the metro was launched I loved it – it's an improvement in public transport, very well maintained, you feel safe. Then this happened and I was blamed."
By Thursday last week, the Guwahati molestation case had become even murkier. Police had arrested and charged 12 men with "outraging the public decency of a woman", and on Friday they charged journalist Gaurav Jyoti Neog of NewsLive with instigating the attack he filmed. Neog denies orchestrating the attack or taking any part in it, apart from filming it "so that the perpetrators can be nabbed". But police have forced him to give a voice sample, which has been sent to a forensic laboratory for analysis, to compare with the footage. The verdict is out on that case, but one thing is clear: 91 years after Gandhi urged Indian men to treat their women with respect, the lesson has yet to be learned.
• This article was amended on 24 July 2012. The original said brothers tied Raksha Bandhan threads around their sisters' wrists, when it is the sisters who put the threads on the wrists of their brothers.