One of my American classmates made a poignant observation the other day that at no point before the past month of our stay in Delhi had she ever been made to feel so aware of the fact that she is female.  It is something my peers and I have all been forced to think about, if only in the slightest of ways.  We take minor precautions, like carefully covering our shoulders and legs to avoid unwanted attention or scorn.  We avoid staying out past 10pm unless in a large group or accompanied by a male escort, and on the subway system, we enter through a different security system and sit in our own separate car – both for safety and our own comfort.

I thought of this extensively as I attended a lecture by Seema Mustafa, a journalist who has written for The Economic Times, India Today, The Asian Age, and many other national newspapers and magazines on the topic of “Women’s Spaces in Delhi” at the Indian Social Institute.

“In the atmosphere of modernization and India’s total economic reforms,” Seema began, “the woman is always the biggest sufferer.”

She went on to explain that there is a saying among many activists that you can understand the status of a village by the feet of a woman. Not only is she the last to have shoes and clothes, but she is also the last to eat or have access to an education.

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(Posters located in Connaught Place, a designated protest area of Delhi)

The dialogue quickly transformed from a broad overview of women’s issues to the topic that has been on the minds of many since December:  the recent upsurge (particularly in Delhi) in violence against women. She categorized it into five main manifestations: fetus-cide, conflicts over dowry, stalking, eve-teasing, and of course, rape.  The first two, while still problematic in both urban and rural areas, have seen an overall decrease in rate of occurrence over the past few decades; threat of the last two emerge as daily threats to women throughout the country.

Seema attributes this to a patriarchal society in which reports of rape are often unfiled or the women reporting are stigmatized by friends, neighbors and families.  There is a strong attitude of victim-blaming in the mindsets of many—that the woman somehow “deserved it—or of complete denial that such things are occurring in a quickly modernizing India.

The lecture ended by addressing the underlying motives behind this violence. Many of the young men who have committed acts of violence against women have been displaced from rural villages and consequently become frustrated both with their inability to meet the traditionally masculine role of providing for a family as well as with their place in society in general.  A man in such a position finds new ways of asserting his masculinity and restoring his power. While it has yet to be fully grasped by sociologists, a new phenomenon of violence–with roots in this new wave of urbanization—has begun.

Samantha Osaki is a junior Civic Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Urban Studies and English.  She is currently studying abroad in Delhi, India; Dakar, Senegal; and Buenos Aires, Argentina as part of the International Honors Program: Cities in the 21st Century.  Strongly devoted to both women’s rights issues and education reform, she is an Assistant on the Programming and Research Committees of Seneca International and the President-elect of Penn Education Society.  Apart from being a blogger for Seneca, Samantha also keeps a student travel blog at http://boundlessandmindful.wordpress.com/

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