Society and mental health

Interview: Our society sees young women as a threat

The conflict of tradition and modernity is driving these changes in our society

White Swan Foundation

For the last few years, there have been many cases of sexual and physical violence against women featured in the mainstream media. In a conversation with Sriranjitha Jeurkar of the White Swan Foundation, cultural psychologist and author Dr Sudhir Kakar says that the violence is caused by the emancipation of women and loss of social controls.

Do you believe that there has been a rise in violence against women in India?

From the media, certainly, there seems to have been a great increase. How much the real increase is, I wouldn’t really know, it would be just a guess. I would say yes (there has been a rise) – but perhaps not as much as the media shows it to be.

So it’s that we’re hearing more about these cases…

Of course. It is a very good thing that these cases are being presented, but that gives the impression that there is so much violence. Violence has increased, but it is not so omnipresent as the media would like to show it.

Do you think the increase in violence reflects some kind of a change in our society?

Very certainly so. The big change it reflects is a very positive change. Not the violence itself, but the biggest change that has happened in our society is the emancipation of its women. First, the acceptance of education of women, the acceptance of women working, and not only working in ‘women’s jobs’ of teachers and nurses, but working all over. Now, part of the violence I think is against the emancipation of women, because anything that comes up has forces that are scared of it; in this case, men who are getting scared of what is happening.

The second part is that the violence is due to loss of social control. We are changing from a rural to a semi-urban or urban society, and the controls which a rural society had, of family, caste, etc., which stopped or put the brakes on the violent urges which men had towards women – they no longer exist. In cities, of course, there are migrant young boys living together, and there is hardly any social control. And we have functioned more on social control rather than on individual, internal control. And since those are gone, the sexual violence against women is much more.

If one looks at the sexual violence, the positive side is the increasing age of marriage; however, that coupled with still not a free interaction of the sexes which makes it difficult for young people who have no home for their sexuality, along with loss of social control and the anger against what is happening – all that is kind of a potent mix which leads to the violence.

So in many ways, it’s a conflict of tradition and modernity…

You could call it a conflict of tradition and modernity, in some ways, yes.

As a cultural psychologist, you’ve been studying our society. What are the changes that have led to this trend?

There is a lot of economics behind this trend. The change in the idea or value of money, which needs more incomes; not just the man’s income. So women are being encouraged to join the workforce, which means they need to be educated too, so that is certainly one trend: the change in our cultural values which has put the making of money and material wealth at a higher plane than it was earlier.

Second, of course, is the changes which have been going on since the last 100 years of our society’s encounter with other forces of westernization, etc, where the roles of men and women are very different. Encounter and confrontation of those values, and a questioning of one’s own. Already in our society there has been a championing of the empowerment of women. So those come together to make a much stronger force. There have been so many of such forces which have led to this change.

Why is this issue of violence against women, which has come up so often in the last few years, important? What do we need to learn from it?

Obviously we need to learn from it a great deal. One must also think that we don’t have this category of women in our context. We have mothers, wives, daughters. The violence isn’t against mothers, it’s against young women. So we need to learn why violence against young women is a big deal. Even against daughters, there the violence is more around neglect, and that one can understand, there are many economic reasons for that: the daughter is a burden, (the parents need to give) dowry and all that, which hopefully will change once those pressures get less.

But why violence against young women? What is that a product of? Why is she a threat? That is what we need to really go much deeper and educate our people. That is more a question of the families that are being threatened by the young women – the family is afraid she will break up the family, there is a sexual threat posed, but we won’t go into it right now. One shouldn’t say the women in India – I always go against that. There is no such thing as women in India, there are different roles, women in different roles, and you have different kinds of attitudes towards them.

You refer to the different roles women play in our society. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

Well, as I said, there is a huge respect for mothers. So any violence against mothers would be so much looked down upon. Violence against daughters, half-and-half, also much less. We have so many rituals like kumari puja and such. Violence is mostly against a young woman because she is a threat. She is coming into the family; she may take the husband away from the family. He will no longer be a son but a husband. So the big change that is happening is that the fulcrum of family life – it used to be parents and sons who bring wives in. Only secondary was the couple. And now the couple is becoming important. That is the big conflict which is taking place, and the young woman is being looked upon as a major source of that. She is (seen as) threatening the family life and that is why the violence is being directed against them. The force she is exercising to make the couple much more central to her life and her husband’s life. She tried to do it earlier, which is why the saas-bahu business went on. Now it is much more acceptable, and the center of family life is changing, in which the young woman or the wife is seen to have a very major role, which both attracts admiration and violence.

What action can we as individuals take to change our society?

Change yourself. Individual actions are limited to individuals only. If there is something you believe in, live it out openly. To be a role model is what an individual can do. You don’t have to be a role model to millions, you can be a role model to your small family or friends, etc.

What does the future look like? Do you see a silver lining?

I only see the silver, actually. There is a dark lining, maybe, but the silver is much more in the changes that are happening.

White Swan Foundation