Posted on April 27, 2011.
By Karen Ma
When I first arrived in Delhi two years ago, I noticed a rather disturbing tendency among most waiting drivers, street salesmen, or household guards. They would leer at my Asian women friends and me when we strolled past them on quiet residential streets. Male shopkeepers and auto-rickshaw drivers would smile insinuatingly or make snide remarks when I visited local markets. I had trouble understanding the source of this unwanted attention, especially given that I’m a middle-aged mom with a teenage son and also dress conservatively. Okay, I’m a Chinese-American, have slanted eyes and look visually different from the locals. But is this enough reason to draw such reactions?
I did become self-conscious about my attires: could it be that I was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, or that I was wearing shorts—the long version cut just above the knees that would hardly raise an eyebrow anywhere in the West or East Asia? Delhi, after all, is among the more conservative cities of India where in some parts strict rules prohibited anything less than fully-covered dresses for women, even in temperatures as high as 45 degree Celsius. It’s true that Kama Sutra was a part of the Indian culture, but I was also told that in most parts of northern India, sexuality continues to be very repressed. So when I modified the way I dressed further, I noticed the “looks” were less—somewhat–, but still, the stares persisted.
Then I read in Anita Jain’s memoir, Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India, that some Indian men prefer fairer-skinned women from the North East—the eight states connected to Mainland India through a narrow corridor that includes Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Tripura and Sikkim—where people look no different from the Chinese, the Japanese or the Koreans. Was this about the weird sexual fantasies of some men obsessed with skin colors? Had I inadvertently become a case study in people’s prejudice toward Northeastern women, I wondered aloud.
It was only after I started scanning the local papers more closely in recent weeks that I realized, the negative attention I was receiving dovetails with systematic racial discrimination and stereotyping here against Northeasterners, who in recent years have poured into the capital to study and work.
The Times of India on April 16 ran two articles about women from Manipur being regularly molested or assaulted by groups of men in their neighborhood of Munirka in south Delhi, for instance, with some leading to gang rapes or even murder. One woman who was touched inappropriately by a group of five drunken men recently in the same neighborhood said the men called her a prostitute and threatened to give her a “good time, better than the other men you’ve seen” as they encircled and grabbed her. She was able to free herself only after screaming and throwing a brick at one of the men.
In another news article published in the Mail Today on April 18, a report on a project by the North East Support Centre & Helpline (NESCH) says up to 78 percent of the 200,000 North-East population living in Delhi is subject to various kinds of humiliations, including sexual harassment, molestation, human trafficking, beating, rape and murder, largely because of their appearance, with the women bearing the brunt of the abuse for the past six years. This began with a heinous crime, the gang rape of a 19-year-old girl from Mizoram while in a moving car in central Delhi six years ago. The assaults kept getting worse, culminating in the 2009 gang-rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl from Nagaland, the attempted rape and murder of a 19-year-old Manipur girl at Murnika, and in the gang-rape in 2010 of a 30-year-old Mizoram woman. Thus far, some 96 criminal cases against the North-East community have been filed since 2005, according to the NESCH.
Mandu Chandra, an activist and spokesperson for NESCH, says the cause of the racial discrimination, attacks and sexual violence against Northeasterners, especially women, is ‘social profiling.’ “The majority of North East India residents is ethnically from the Mongoloid race and fall out of the caste hierarchy. This is the reason they are discriminated against,” he said.
Chandra was referring to the general stereotyping among conservative Delhiites, which tends to believe that women from the North East have loose morals and are sexually available because they’re from a part of India that hasn’t been “Sanskritized,” thereby supposedly making them more willing to engage in sex and illegal drugs for profit or a good time.
An NGO worker who worked in Assam once told me women from the backwater Northeastern states have the reputation of engaging in sex work once they arrive in the capital. In fact, one report in the BBC last September said thousands of women from the North East may had been trafficked or duped from their hometowns to Delhi and other big cities to engage in prostitution work during the Common Wealth Game last fall, after being promised lucrative jobs. Many more of the minority women, however, are educated and have found work in the central government, or are employed in such sectors as retail, IT, the call-centers and hospitality. Yet the fact that some of these women choose to dress in jeans and non-Indian attires, or sometimes imitate the socialites by wearing skimpy dresses further perpetuates the derogatory image of them as sex objects.
Worse, the violence and stereotypes against the Northeastern women are aggravated and amplified by Delhi’s law enforcing agencies’ prejudices. They routinely refuse, deny, or delay to entertain complaints filed by victims from this region. In fact, victims say many in the mostly male police force in Delhi typically taunt them by asking inappropriate questions, though admittedly this problem is not unique to Northeastern women, but all women victimized by sexual crimes. Sadly this attitude is also among many conservative males in India –the common perception is that if the women were violated, then they must have done something to deserve it. The end result is that many victims refuse to speak out about their abuse to avoid being humiliated the second time. This makes them easy prey for attackers and exposes them to even greater violence, completing a vicious cycle.
My immediate reaction to this horrendous discrimination and violence against a regional people in their very own country was disbelief, anger and sadness given that India holds out so much hope given its international standing as a country that embraces and tolerates cultural diversity. The problem, on a second look, however, is a lot more complex. It’s also about a fast-changing metropolis leading to renewed tension, with the values of new inhabitants from all parts of India on collision course with each other. In the past five, six years, more migrants have been moving to the capital en mass, including those from extreme conservative parts of the far north rural communities and the more liberal from the far-east and the southern states. They are drawn to Delhi`s promises of better paid jobs and educational opportunities. Yet as more women are migrating to the city, society is still not accustomed to women on their own or with men who are not their fathers, husbands or sons.
Gamma Sharma, a writer for e-pao.net—an online forum about gender and racial discriminations in India—pointed out in an essay: “Indian males, coming from the rural parts of the country, are the most desperate ones regarding sex, as exposures to the opposite sex has been kept at a minimum at their youth, and the sudden exposure to a more open culture of the North East (proved) too much for them to handle.”
In Delhi, sadly, it is the women who pay the steepest price for these social changes. Almost daily, the newspapers report on more rapes, molestation, violence and murders of women. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Delhi accounts for over 47 percent of rapes and abduction of women in urban India. The streets of Delhi have become so unsafe, especially at night, that working women who can afford it hire female chauffeurs to drive them home after late night shifts. While more and more Indian women have the opportunities to work and be educated, their ability to enjoy their economic and social independence is impaired by their need to defend their own safety in a society that still, at its deep core, has trouble accepting women wielding more power and asserting their freedom.