Conflict & Justice

Delhi rape leads to discussions among Indian-American families

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Women protest outside the Indian High Commission in London Jan. 7, 2013. Five men accused of raping and murdering an Indian student were read the charges in a near-empty courtroom on Monday. (Photo by Paul Hackett/Reuters.)

The horrific attack on the young woman and her companion in Delhi was the kind of news you couldn’t avoid talking about: it was simply too big for that, said Aswini Anburajan.

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“It naturally arose, I think, in a lot of families,” she said, “and we were all just home for the holidays.”

In conversations with her family, Anburajan brought up an aspect of the story she’d found infuriating: comments from Indian lawmakers about the young rape victim. The comments reinforced her view of India as a thoroughbred patriarchy.

“Like, ‘why is she out at 10pm at night?’, ‘girls have to cover up more’, ‘the women are just party girls.’ It really tied into something that I have been hearing my whole life,” she said.

Anburajan moved to the U.S. from India when she was four, but she says her parents carried with them a sensibility that women shouldn’t be free, sexually or even economically.

She recently wrote an opinion piece about the subject for Buzzfeed, where she works as the director of partner development.

“There’s an issue of gender equality,” she said, “and it’s subtle. It’s not about they don’t have the right to vote, or they have to cover up in public. It’s societal and it’s ingrained.”

Even among the men in her own family, Anburajan said, there was a sense that sexual violence simply happens and that women need to be better protected, by men.

“That’s what it comes down to, right? They need to be ‘in their proper place’, they need to be ‘protected,’ and, when the time is right, that protection goes from the parents to the husband,” she said.

In Jackson Heights, a South Asian neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., a woman named Kiran said India needs to find new ways to think about women, sex and relationships.

“They should give information about sex and everything,” she said.

Kiran has lived in the United States with her son for more than 20 years.

“But there is some shyness and they can’t talk very freely with their children. It’s different here. Here it is free, everything. Boys and girls, they go outside, (whatever) they do, (their parents) don’t care," she said. "If you are 16-years-(old) you can do whatever you want with your girlfriend. It is not easy in India.”

But Anburajan says it’s not all free and easy here in the U.S. either. She knows of Indian Americans completely unable to level with their parents about how they’re living their lives.

“How ludicrous is it that I know someone who is a psychiatrist who won’t admit to her parents that she’s living with her boyfriend? It’s crazy,” she said.

Still, Anburajan is optimistic. Change in India comes slowly. It’s often chaotic.

But, she said, it always comes from the ground up.

Women are playing a central part in driving India’s economy forward. Many of them are moving back and forth between India and the United States, picking up degrees at American colleges before returning home to find work.

A young Indian woman named Tuhina, walking in Jackson Heights with a friend, said “in India they respect what is said in the West a lot. The influence is very high.”

Tuhina is a chemical engineer — she just completed her graduate degree at a university in upstate New York. Yes, she said, the Indian government’s next steps are in the international spotlight. But for her, the real shift in attitudes will come in a more organic way.

“The way I look at it is, the bonds between sisters and family,” she said. “That’s much more influential than what you see on TV. So if I tell my sister something she’s going to be more influenced by it than (by) a friend who is living in India.”

Tuhina added that things are already different in her own home city, Mumbai.

“The relationship dynamics, it’s changing,” she said, “It’s changing a lot, and I’m very happy about that.”

Mumbai is a global city, more so than Delhi. It already gets a lot of cultural churn from all over the world. Tuhina and many of the other voices now speaking out come from educated, urban backgrounds. The larger challenge for India, then, will be to include all of the country’s women, and men, in whatever changes may be on the way.