Prof. V. Santhakumar tries to fathom the origins of this, for women, very uncomfortable trait of Indian culture, that does not seem to die off even after years of modernisation and growth of the middle classes.
My hunch is that Indians have a somewhat unique uneasiness with matters related to sex. I wish to explore the nature of this uneasiness and speculate on possible causes, in this essay.
Men’s coercive sexual behaviour towards females
This uneasiness reflects in multiple ways. These include men’s coercive sexual behaviour towards females. The incidents of rape and associated violence, in cities and other public-spaces, are part of this behaviour. In addition to such gruesome incidents, there are `milder’ forms of sexual harassment everywhere, and these affect the dignity and freedom of women.
A female academic from Indonesia has told me recently that women from their country have to be very careful about the behaviour of Indian and Pakistani men in an international pilgrimage location. Hence spirituality or religiosity may not matter much in this case.
Sexual violence in marriage
One should also presume that the coercive sexual behaviour is not uncommon within marriages in India. Given the general reluctance to divorce, the financial dependence of women on their husbands, and the not-so-enabling social attitude towards female divorcees, it should not be surprising if women tolerate a higher level of sexual violence within the marriage. The social unwillingness to recognise rape within the marriage as a legal crime could be a reflection of the severity of the problem.
Whenever we discuss the sexual behaviour of Indian men, we may focus on these different types of sexual violence. That is for genuine reasons. However we need to see this behaviour as one aspect of an underlying problem – an uneasiness with matters related to sex on the part of Indians. Even when the sexual behaviour is not that violent, the majority in Indian society does not handle sex in a healthier and relaxed manner.
Anxiety with neighbours
One manifestation of this unhealthy attitude towards sex is the excessive anxiety in the neighbourhood (especially in rural areas, small towns and apartment complexes) whenever a man and woman, who are not married, spend time together in a closed room. This anxiety could be disgusting even if it does not lead to different forms of moral policing. On the other hand, such an anxiety may not be seen in a number of countries – both poorer and developed ones. People there see the sexual relationship between two consenting adults as a private affair, but that is not the case in India.
There are gossips about the unacceptable behaviour of Indian `customers’ in places which attract sex tourists. Though sex-work is tolerated in a few cities in India, it is allowed and controlled in a non-transparent manner, and this facilitates the trafficking of girls, works against the freedom and agency of sex-workers, and becomes a source of rent for police officials and others.
Selection of marital partners
Our difficulty in dealing with sex manifests in the selection of marital partners too. In a number of developing and developed countries, parents expect their sons and daughters to find their marital partners, and the former comes to the picture only for the arrangement of the marriage. This expectation would also mean that people accept (sometimes implicitly) certain level of sexual contact before the marriage. On the other hand, the avoidance of `love affairs’ and sexual contact before the marriage especially of their daughters is an important preoccupation of the majority of Indian parents.
Indian society controls female sexuality much more than many others. There are a few countries which are somewhat closer to India in this regard, and we mention these in the later part of this essay. Is this control of female sexuality for the avoidance of teenage/unwanted pregnancies? That cannot be the case since this concern could be there in all countries. Moreover the guidance on the part of parents would become straight forward if their concern is only about pregnancies. In fact, the share of teenage/unwanted pregnancies could be much higher in India, especially due to the marriage of under-aged girls. There could be something else troubling Indians this regard.
Value attributed to male and female labour
Broadly speaking, there were two patterns in this regard when most people depended on agriculture and related occupations (such as cattle rearing). Wherever heavy-duty tilling or cattle-rearing or trade that required long-distance mobility or such tasks are important for the survival of households, a higher value was attributed to the male labour. Men’s urge to transfer the fruits of that labour which is accumulated in the form of assets to own biological progenies might have led to the control of female sexuality there. This was the situation in most parts of the world including India.
However those geographical areas located closer to the equator had a slightly different pattern. These included parts of South-east Asia, certain African countries and also the Amazonian river basin in the Latin America. In these regions, the basic human survival was based on fruits from trees, tubers, a kind of agriculture which did not require that much tilling, etc. Higher rainfall and richer biodiversity there could facilitate such a livelihood. Hence the basic survival could go on with female labour. Male labour may add some `luxurious’ items to the diet – like a fish from the river or the meat of a wild animal.
In such cases, households wanted to retain female labour or daughters. That was useful for taking care of older parents too. Females would inherit the assets. They would have children through sexual relationships with `partners’ and they need not be life-long husbands. Female sexuality was not controlled that excessively in such social contexts.
Why the difference in various countries?
If this was the situation in the `pre-modern’ era, how do we explain the differences between countries in current times? Though Europe, China and Japan and all these parts of the world were similar to India in terms of the control of female sexuality in the past, there developed differences later on. Industrialisation, urbanisation and economic development reduced the dependence on agriculture and enabled the education and employment of women in Europe and North America. All socialist countries had attempted some kind of social engineering by facilitating the mandatory schooling and employment of females. The capitalist development in East Asia focussed on the education and employment of girls. Countries in south-east Asia benefitted from the traditional pattern (of valuing female labour at par with that of male) and the economic or industrial development during the second half of twentieth century.
However India did not have any of these enabling factors. There was no social engineering or focus on industrialisation based on the education and employment of girls. Nearly one out of two workers continues to depend on agriculture for the livelihood. About three out of four females of working age survive as home-makers. Hence India, Pakistan, Afghanistan in South Asia and those Muslim-dominant countries located in the Middle-East and North Africa continue more or less in the same situation with a higher level of control over female sexuality[i]. This is reflecting in the education and work participation of women too, and some of these issues are discussed here.
The Indian caste system
There was a crucial disabling factor in India which led to the control of both male and female sexuality. That is the caste system. Indonesian mothers may like their daughters to marry a person belonging to their religion, but the majority of Indonesians are Muslims and hence that need not be a serious concern. This could be the case where the majority belongs to other religions but not Hinduism. The concern of most Indian parents is to see that their sons and daughters marry within the caste. This cannot be ensured if the selection of marital partner is left to the younger generation. Hence the sexuality of both men and women have to be controlled severely before the marriage in India.
All these have led to a situation where the sexual relationship, which should ideally be a normal or simple relaxing affair between two consenting adults, becomes somewhat hideous in the country. Or it becomes part of a highly complicated and intractable moral conundrum. Hence it manifests in many perverse forms. There is excessive curiosity on matters related to sex which is not satiated among growing up boys and girls. The suppressed sexuality comes out in most unpleasant forms whenever people see an opportunity to express it. Indian male behaves like the `untied rooster’ – a phrase from my language. It may lead to the imposition of male sexuality over women or sustain a perception that the rights of women need not be respected in meeting the sexual needs of male. This leads to an inadequate recognition of female sexuality too.
All these create a situation where an Indian, especially the male, finds somewhat incapable to deal with his sexuality in a comfortable or relaxed way. He becomes either a harasser or a laughing stock in this matter in front of others.
V. Santhakumar, a Professor at Azim Premji University, writes on contemporary or real-world issues with a lens of economics or social sciences. He teaches economics for development practitioners at university, and carries out research on education and development issues. vsanthakumar.wordpress.com