THE PURPLE SWEET POTATO

Gay Taiwan

Image source: PinkNews

GLBT (gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender) rights are a mixed bag worldwide. Within a few decades, they have become mainstream and widely accepted in the West, where gay marriage is now becoming normal and gay lifestyles are integrated into urban society. In other regions — especially Muslim countries — homosexuality is seen as a horrible perversion and treated as a crime. It has become 1 of the most glaring symbols of “Western decadence” and “immorality” elsewhere and in Russia, and gay activists cocky after their string of victories in the West run into a steep cliff of incomprehension when they try to spread their values to Africa or Asia.

East Asia mostly sits in the middle of this spectrum. It embraces a wide array of cultures, from highly Westernized ones to conservative Islamic ones. Like other regions, it has its own cultural traditions and sense of native pride that makes it instinctively resistant to gay rights, but it’s also in the midst of deep modernization, which brings it closer and closer to Western norms. As such, reactions to GLBTs varies widely from country to country, but the country in the vanguard of gay rights so far is… Taiwan.

Taiwan might seem like an odd place for a gay haven. It is Chinese in culture, and other Chinese places like mainland China and Singapore are generally unfriendly to gays. China’s Confucian culture places a great emphasis on the family, and not only is a homosexual couple a direct challenge to the traditional concept of a family, it’s impossible for them to have kids. China might be uninterested (at least officially) in having more kids, but no such population control exists in Taiwan. And Chinese culture is famous for its resistance to outside influences.

Why Taiwan is so gay-friendly remains something of a mystery, but there are theories. Taiwanese like to point to the diverse cultural influences that have shaped Taiwanese history, from the aboriginal population in the mountains that descends from island Southeast Asia to the Hakka mariners who colonized the island centuries ago to the Portuguese and Dutch traders who colonized a few forts to the Japanese who annexed and colonized it in 1895 to the mainlanders who took over again in 1945. But there are plenty of places with diverse cultural influences, and they’re not necessarily gay-friendly. Besides, it’s not like the Dutch in the 1600s were especially gay-friendly (or the Japanese in the 1890s, or the natives…).

A more likely explanation is the growth of civil society on Taiwan. Although the country was a military dictatorship at first, its societal control was never as harsh as China’s, and its dictators ruled through martial law. The Republic of China (Taiwan’s government, transferred from the mainland in 1949) was founded along liberal republican ideals, and although they weren’t really fulfilled for most of the 1900s, they remained embodied in its constitution for brave protestors to point to. Taiwan has never been as closed as China, and before 1972 it enjoyed a close relationship with America, which meant exchanges of values and students and researchers trained in American universities. Even though political reform was the main goal, other social causes like environmentalism and feminism blossomed on this fertile ground, and each popular success emboldened other groups to change an ancient and seemingly immobile society.

Religion generally plays a big role in opposition to GLBT rights, and Taiwan is a more religious country than China. But the main religion is the unnamed Chinese religion, which is more tolerant of homosexuality and alternative lifestyles in general. There is also a folk tradition in Taiwan (originating from Fujian on the other side of the Strait of Taiwan) of a rabbit god, Tu’er Shen, who was originally a man executed for eyeing a handsome mandarin too much. The god protects gays and is worshiped at temples — a tradition wiped out in mainland China but quietly thriving in Taiwan.

Taiwan has accordingly enacted legal protections for GLBTs steadily since the 1990s. Employers are not allowed to discriminate against them, they are allowed to serve in the military, and they can change their legal gender. Concurrently, there is a widespread social acceptance of homosexuality. Pai Hsien-yung portrayed Taipei’s gay scene in the 1960s with his novel Crystal Boys way back in 1983; since then, world-famous director Ang Lee has made The Wedding Banquet, about a Taiwanese-American who ends up getting married to a woman because he can’t admit to his parents that he’s gay (it’s a hilarious movie, by the way), and lesbian relationships have been portrayed in movies like Blue Gate Crossing and Spider Lilies. Taipei’s gay pride parade has grown from a modest 1,000-person march in 2003 to East Asia’s premier gay event, with 80,000 participants last year. A McDonald’s commercial about a son coming out to his father (in a McDonald’s, naturally) drew nearly universal support. Public opinion polls have mixed results, as usual, but support for gay marriage regularly tops 50% (at least).

Fairly or otherwise, gay marriage has become the ultimate litmus test for how accepting of homosexuality a country is. While it is now widespread in the West and Latin America, it is still too much for East Asia to handle. But Taiwan pushed for gay marriage in the ’00s, when the movement to legalize it built momentum in the West. Despite opposition from Christians (who are a small minority in Taiwan) and older Taiwanese who saw it as an assault on their culture, the movement gathered steam. The Democratic Progressive Party, the main opposition party in Taiwan and the main embodiment of the reformist movement, embraced the idea. In 2015, its presidential candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, took the bold step of endorsing gay marriage in a Facebook post.

This year, Taiwan has come closer than ever before to finally adopting gay marriage. The Constitutional Court ruled on May 24 that the Republic of China’s constitution’s guarantee of equality meant that gay marriage has to be recognized. It’s now up to the Legislative Yuan (parliament) to pass the laws or amend preexisting ones, and this looks likely to happen. Even if it doesn’t, the Court ruled that it would recognize gay marriages within 2 years anyway. The ruling has been preceded (as in other countries, like America and Mexico) by the gradual legal recognition of homosexual partnerships in municipalities across the island, including almost all of Taiwan’s west coast, where most of its people live.

The dawn of gay marriage in Taiwan, when it formally comes, will be a landmark moment in East Asian history, since Taiwan — a small, overlooked island despised by its massive neighbor — would be the first country in the region to do it. The question then is: Will others take notice? Taiwanese culture subtly influences China, and there is a GLBT movement there too… but the Chinese government hates any sort of grassroots organizing, and it’s typically conservative when it comes to “public morality.” Japan and Taiwan have close and warm ties left over from their colonial relationship, and Japan also has a thriving gay scene and widespread social acceptance of homosexuality… yet it also has a much more reserved and private culture and GLBTs are expected to “get over” their flings and move on to more serious relationships and assume their adult responsibilities. Singapore is another advanced, modern Chinese country with a big, visible gay community and a famous “Pink Dot” event… but it continues to ban homosexuality. Thailand is famously accepting of GLBTs and “alternative lifestyles,” but it’s currently ruled by a conservative military junta with a dim attitude towards homosexuality.

It’s hard to say how quickly East Asia will embrace GLBT rights. Taiwan’s example has emboldened GLBT communities elsewhere, and the example of the West suggests that grassroots pressure will only grow. But religious conservatism in India and Muslim countries remains powerful. Given the Western and Latino origin of the gay rights movement, many non-Westerners are suspicious that homosexuality is really a latent human condition and consider it an unwelcome cultural import. And even the more liberal, Westernized East Asian countries prefer to tacitly accept GLBT culture without going so far as to recognize gay marriage. This just makes Taiwan’s achievement — in a Confucian society only a few generations beyond dictatorship — all the more remarkable.

TONGUE-TIED IN CAMEROON

Cameroon lawyers

Striking Anglophone lawyers show off 1 easy way to tell them apart from Francophone lawyers… Image source: Bareta News

Identity politics are pretty much a universal axis of conflict, although the type of identity under dispute can vary. Religion is a very old and very bitter source of animosity. Class is a universal divide and still provokes outrage in places with high inequality. Race is a hot-button issue in multiracial countries. The nebulous concept of “ethnicity” divides and unites societies worldwide. Some commentators even point to the even more nebulous concept of “civilization” as a rallying point for political allegiance.

Language might seem to be less controversial, because it’s something everyone uses all the time everyday without much thought. But its very fundamentality makes it crucial and vital: how can you understand someone if you can’t understand what they’re saying? In multilingual contexts people sort themselves by preferred language all the time. In sub-Saharan Africa this can be a problem, given how many different languages are spoken across the continent, but luckily colonialism has given Africa a small group of languages that are spoken across tribal and national lines. Their importance in giving African countries something to unite around becomes obvious when you consider Cameroon, a central African country with the unusual situation of having 2 colonial languages.

BACKGROUND
Cameroon, like its giant neighbor Nigeria, is a very artificial country. It has over 200 different tribes and encompasses everything from the verdant Cameroon mountains in the west and the desert by Lake Chad in the north to the tropical jungles in the east and the plateau in the center and south. The north is more like the dry, Muslim Sahel region of West Africa and the east is more like the Congo jungle that dominates Central Africa. The more densely populated west has more in common with the tribes of Nigeria. (The upshot to this is that Cameroon is advertised to tourists as “Africa in Miniature”; since it’s located at the “hinge” where West Africa becomes Central Africa, it’s probably the single best introduction to the continent and packs a lot of diversity into a relatively small package.)

Cameroon’s colonial history only adds to this diversity. It was one of the blank spots on the map scooped up by Germany in the 1880s when it got into an imperialist mood. Thus, the colony was organized along German lines and German was the official language. But Germans never got very far into the interior (despite claiming a lot of territory); they stuck to the profitable, accessible coastal regions and relied on missionaries to do a lot of the intermediary stuff with Africans, and they tended to use local languages. When Germany lost control of the colony during World War I, there hadn’t been much cultural influence to clear away (although German remains a favorite language to study there).

Instead, Cameroon became a British AND French colony. It was surrounded by Britain in Nigeria to the west and France in its colonies to the south and east. They invaded together in 1914 and partitioned the colony between them. The trouble is, France got much further than Britain — leaving only a narrow strip along the Nigerian border in British hands. The colonial powers went on to govern their sections differently, too: Britain preferred to use indirect rule, leaving local elites intact and mostly staying out of local affairs, while France liked direct rule, scooping up plantations and mines, creating a rich settler community to manage them and introducing its customs and culture to “civilize” the Cameroonians.

Cameroon

After 1972 Cameroon became the “United Republic of Cameroon,” but the borders have stayed unchanged. Orange = German territory, red = British territory, blue = French territory.

When independence came to Africa in 1960, French Cameroon gained it without much fuss. The question was what to do about the British Cameroons, which were thought too small to be viable independent countries. Should they join neighboring Nigeria, from which they had been basically governed and with which they shared cultural and linguistic ties? Or should they join Cameroon, from which they’d been separated for 44 years and which would probably dominate them? The Brits put it to a vote in 1961, and surprisingly, the result was a split. Northern Cameroons chose to join Nigeria while Southern Cameroons went for reunification. (It’s hard to say why this was, but apparently local elites in the north decided that Nigeria would better protect their interests and vice versa in the south, and they managed to convince everyone else to vote accordingly.)

Northern Cameroons was soon absorbed and integrated into Nigeria, although transnational tribal ties linger, as they do across Africa. But Southern Cameroons faced the prospect of joining a much larger country where everyone spoke French and where many were in thrall to French culture. It was nervous, but initially the 2 former colonies formed a federation, where each had its own government and prime minister, with a president presiding over a weak central government in Yaoundé (in the French zone). But Cameroon’s founding father, Ahmadou Ahidjo, like most other African leaders, eventually came to crave more power and crushed all opposition to his rule. This included pesky West Cameroon, which was fully absorbed into a unitary republic in 1972 (hence the date on the map above).

English-speakers (“Anglophones”) were mollified by constitutional guarantees that their language would be respected; Cameroon is officially bilingual. Anglophones are often appointed as ministers in the national government. The unique administrative structures set up by Britain also remain intact. But Cameroon is a dictatorship; its president, Paul Biya, has clung onto power since 1982, which makes him 1 of what are derisively called Africa’s “dinosaurs” (really long-serving rulers). Threats to his power — or to national unity — are not tolerated.

CURRENT SITUATION
Anglophones complain that they are 2nd-class citizens in their own country. French-speaking (“Francophone”) judges sent to their regions don’t understand British “common” law (France uses a different law code promulgated by Napoleon). Francophone teachers sent to their schools can’t easily communicate with their students. Yaoundé generally ignores the west or takes it for granted, since the region is cloaked by a veil of English.

Some Anglophones go even further and complain that they are actively discriminated against. Government funds are often linked with the tribal ties of the relevant ministers in Africa, and when the national government is dominated by Francophones, that means West Cameroon goes undeveloped. Attending school in the rest of Cameroon or getting a job in the big cities (both of which are Francophone) is hard for Anglophones, since they can’t understand their teachers or coworkers. There is widespread suspicion that, in the name of national unity, the bilingualism drive is really just a way to get all Cameroonians to speak French — something many Anglophones are reluctant to do.

Protests against the government have come and gone in Cameroon; they are usually tied to economic problems (which might say something in itself), and although in 1990 they played a role in getting Biya to liberalize a bit and allow other parties to run in elections, the language situation has not changed much. The latest outbreak of protests began in October with a lawyers’ strike. It then expanded to include teachers and eventually big parts of West Cameroon, to the extent that towns were declared “ghost towns” on Mondays and everyone would go on strike. (Those who dared to go to work faced arson and beatings for breaking the strike.)

The government responded with repression. Police broke up the protests and arrested anyone openly calling for secession (as “Ambazonia”); at least 6 protesters were killed. More deviously, it also pulled the plug on West Cameroon’s Internet. From January until April, the Anglophone areas — already separated from many Cameroonian websites by their language — were cut off from the Internet altogether, partly as punishment, partly to squelch any organized resistance. The west is one of Cameroon’s most economically vibrant regions, dubbed “Silicon Mountain” due to its tech start-ups. The Internet blackout cost it $3 million and forced everyone to keep in touch via texting instead. Anyone needing to use the Internet had to take the day-long journey into the Francophone part of the country on Cameroon’s crummy buses.

So is Cameroon headed for civil war and breakup? Probably not. Secession is very hard to actually achieve in Africa; the last time it happened was in 2011 (South Sudan), and not only was that a rare and remarkable event, but it’s gone REALLY badly since. Even without government repression tying up their organizational efforts, Anglophone groups are very divided. Some want an independent Ambazonia, others want to go back to the “good old days” of federalism, others just want more decentralized government and local autonomy. Within West Cameroon, there are tribal divides and a rivalry between the “Graffi” of the Grasslands in North West Cameroon and the coastal people of the South West. Some are suspicious that talk of secession is just a ploy for Anglophone politicians to grab more power.

Francophones, meanwhile, are not very sympathetic. They make up 80% of the country and think Anglophones are whiny. They point out that other parts of the country are worse off (like the north, which is harried by the jihadist rebels of Boko Haram) and comparatively quiescent. Anglophones get plenty of central government positions, including the prime minister’s office, and they tend to be pretty content and pro-Biya once they get them. And as Emmanuel Anyefru points out in “The Refusal to Belong,” Cameroonians have many bonds that cut across linguistic lines. Both Anglophones and Francophones like Cameroon’s catchy makossa music, eat plantains and fufu, drink beer and palm wine, watch Cameroon Radio and Television, and enjoy the formidable national soccer team. A pidgin form of English is also widely understood across the country, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to speak in school or the office.

Cameroon’s experience sheds some light on how important languages are for bringing a country together. A common language — especially a colonial language, since they come from outside and are not ethnically biased within African contexts — can serve to bind wildly different tribes and cultures together. Lacking this, it’s harder to conjure up a sense of national identity. When the linguistic minority is as small as Cameroon’s is, it makes the feeling of victimization and discrimination even more acute. Although it’s by no means a perfect solution (except for the most passionately nationalist, anyway), Canada might be a good model for Cameroon. With a small but fiercely proud Francophone minority overshadowed by an Anglophone majority spanning the continent, Canada is sort of the reverse of Cameroon. But a bilingual national identity is carefully cultivated in Canada, and national politicians are expected to be fluent in both languages.

(Or Cameroon could just try more political liberalization, although dictators usually hate that.)

SITA’S SUCCESSORS

Sita Sings the Blues

Sita rejects Ravana’s advances — not that it does her much good in the end. Image source: Nina Paley

The Ramayana, one of India’s 2 great national epics, tells the story of Rama, a virtuous king and incarnation of the god Vishnu, and his equally virtuous wife Sita. Rama is banished for 14 years to a forest, but Sita joins him out of loyalty and love. Her beauty and grace are known throughout the land, and eventually attract the attention of the demon lord Ravana. He kidnaps her and whisks her away to his island kingdom, where she rejects his advances and pines for Rama. After an epic journey, he finally comes to rescue her and slay Ravana — only to question her purity and force her to walk through fire to prove it. Even then, his subjects disrespect their queen, and Rama hears of a washerman who beats his wife for cheating on him, raging, “You think I’m like Lord Rama?” Rama addresses the issue by banishing Sita into the wilderness again, to live out her days and bear his children with a pious sage.

Sita is now worshiped across India as the ideal woman, with her chastity, devotion and beauty admired by millions of Hindus. The virtues she embodies, and the nature of her relationship with her husband, remain the model for Indian women millennia after the Ramayana.*

That’s not to say that nothing has changed. In colonial and precolonial times, women were sometimes reduced to slave-like status. They were married as little girls to men they didn’t know, thanks to marriages arranged by their parents. Their main role was to serve their husbands (and before that, their fathers) and stay secluded in the home. They were not expected to walk next to their husbands, call them by name, or look them in the eye. Should their husbands die first, they were denied his inheritance and doomed to live in terrible shame. The honorable solution was to jump into their husband’s funeral pyre. The British were especially offended by this last one, and outlawed it; most of the other traditions decayed over time or were banned by the Hindu Codes passed in the 1950s.

Yet the status of women remains low in today’s India. If not slaves, they are still often treated as household servants. A Muslim-influenced tradition keeps many of them inside the house most of their lives. When in the presence of men other than their husband, they cover their faces. Gender segregation is standard for most activities. Women have few opportunities to socialize, other than outdoor tasks like fetching water or group activities like foot-dying. They are systematically excluded from “important business” even if they manage household finances and welfare in reality.

India Women

Image source: Ashok Sinha/Getty Images

Although polygyny (one husband, multiple wives) is a thing of the past, other marriage traditions endure. Girls are still sometimes married off when they are very young (like 8). Divorce is legal, but shameful and heavily discouraged, trapping many women and girls in unhappy arranged marriages. To offset the financial burden of a wife, her parents are expected to pay a dowry to the husband’s family; these can be crushingly expensive, including fancy items like cars and TVs for the upper classes or cows for the lower classes.

Girls are discriminated against from a young age; although education is a major problem for both genders in India, since many parents prefer to have their kids working rather than “waste” their time in school, girls are kept out of school more often. Even in school, teachers focus more on boys. As a result, the literacy rate for girls is only 65.5% — 16.5 points below boys. Boys are often favored by their parents and get more food, with the result that girls are more likely to be malnourished. Girls also get medical attention less often than boys. Infant mortality is 1.47 times higher for girls than boys.

Gender discrimination even starts before birth. Partially because of that dowry looming in the future and partially because of the financial burden associated with girls in general, Indians often try to abort girls before they are born. The practice is most common in the north, which is poorer and more traditional than the rest of India in general — but it’s also most common in the northwest, which is better-off than the Ganga Valley to the east. This is most likely because richer families have easier access to ultrasound, which lets them determine the fetus’s gender. In areas without abortion clinics or ultrasound, families can always resort to infanticide.

These are all long-standing problems that have vexed Indian policymakers, feminists and human rights activists for decades. But the current issue that has most galvanized these groups and attracted the most international attention is sexual violence. It’s a big problem in India, ranging from petty issues like sexual harassment on trains and on the street to massive ones like gang rape and murder. The incident that brought the issue to the fore was a gang rape in Dilli, the national capital, on a nighttime bus ride in 2012. A medical student had gone to the movies with a male friend; the assailants knocked out the friend, then raped the student with an iron rod. She did not survive. The attack touched a raw nerve and brought thousands of aggrieved women (and a few men) out into the streets to protest the lack of safety in India and a culture of impunity around rapists.

Rape Protest

Image source: Youth Connect

Many of these problems stem from a common root: a general lack of law enforcement in India. As I pointed out before, plenty of sexist practices have been outlawed, and many of the ones I listed are illegal too: sex-selective abortion, dowry, rape, domestic violence. But they survive just the same, thanks to a combination of quiescence on the part of women and apathy and chauvinism on the part of mostly male police and courts. Indian cops rarely care if women come to them with rape stories; sometimes they laugh them off. Rapists go unpunished, which only emboldens them to strike again and again. As a result, women give up and resort to taking measures for their safety… and ultimately, spending more time in the house. Sometimes they take matters into their own hands, as when an enraged mob of women lynched a serial rapist after the court failed to punish him, but generally men get away with it. Sometimes cops even join in the rape.

There’s another tension in Indian society at work here: the massive gulf between its educated, Westernized, urban elite and its religious, minimally educated, rural masses. India may have been founded by the former and had its legal code written by them, but the latter makes up the bulk of the country. Most Indians only have a hazy idea of “Western” values and modern lifestyles, and they certainly haven’t been internalized. When these people migrate to the cities, clashes and tension result, including sexual violence. One reason the 2012 gang rape incident sparked so much outrage was because the victims were middle-class and the assailants were petty thugs, appropriate symbols for the fear and distrust separating the classes in India (as in China and elsewhere).

That being said, it’s not as if sexism is unheard of among the Indian elite as well. Remember that comparatively well-off northwest India has the most sex-selective abortion. Members of India’s far-flung diaspora, which is mostly well-educated and well-off, also look for doctors willing to tell them the sex of their fetuses and willing to abort them. Boys are more pampered and valued by their parents. It’s also not like men are the only bad guys here; Indian women can be fierce defenders of sexist attitudes as well. They have a dreadful reputation as being bitchy mothers-in-law: treating their daughters-in-law as personal servants, doting on their sons at the expense of the daughters-in-law, setting unreasonable expectations for them. There’s an entire genre of TV dramas about nasty mothers-in-law.

Finally, it must be emphasized that I am focusing on the negative aspects of gender in India. The statements I have made here are strictly generalizations. India has made huge strides in treating women fairly since independence. In most parts of the country it is now unusual not to send girls to school, and they usually do well. Plenty of families all over the country value and treasure their girls and don’t seem them as a financial burden. In cities especially, women are entering the workforce in great numbers. Call centers were a crucial factor here: they favor hiring women because they consider them better team players and less trouble in the workplace. The software industry is now 30% female. Women are breaking down more and more barriers and entering different professions; there are female CEOs and bankers. Women are prominent in Indian politics, both at the national level (Indira Gandhi ruled the country for a total of 15 years; her daughter-in-law Sonia governed from behind the scenes for a decade) and the state level (Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu all have or had female chief ministers). Local government bodies reserve a third of their seats for women. There are prominent examples of powerful women in Hindu mythology (the goddesses Durga and Kali) and Indian history (the queen of Jhansi, who rebelled against the British East India Company).

India is a vibrant and noisy (if sometimes chaotic) democracy with a very active media and public discourse. Indians have a right to protest and often exercise it. Women are becoming more outspoken about their problems and put more and more pressure on politicians and men in general to get their act together. The reaction to the Dilli gang rape was proof of that. Female celebrities, like their male counterparts, are using their fame as a platform to speak out about issues that matter to them — sexual harassment, education for girls, child marriage. In the villages, women stand up for themselves more and more, pressing for more say in how families and villages are run, more safety when going to the bathroom (“bathroom” here often meaning a field), more affordable sanitary napkins. NGOs, foreign and domestic, encourage more feminine agency under the assumption that women will be more responsible stewards of their communities. (Of course, women have always exerted leverage behind the scenes.)

But the hurdles for women in India remain daunting. Politics is still male-dominated; the prominent women in the political arena mostly relied on dynastic ties or celebrity to get where they are. Indian politicians can be bluntly sexist, blaming the victims in rape cases or dismissing the issue. India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has spoken with outrage about rape and sexual assault, but he also abandoned his wife at a young age and gave Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, the backhanded compliment “despite being a woman… she has zero tolerance for terrorism.” Sexuality is a taboo topic in India (although it’s gradually loosening up); it’s debatable whether this has anything to do with sexism, but there are theories that sexual repression is linked with rape and sexism in general. Informal and technically illegal village councils enforce patriarchal codes and use rape as a punishment for women who break them.

The fundamental task for India is probably to address the underlying sexism and double standards in its culture. Its founding father, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru, recognized this, but changing a culture with millennia of tradition behind it is tough. Modern attitudes toward sexuality and feminine behavior are often considered Western and therefore alien to Hindu values. India might have many female role models, but for girls in isolated villages deep in the interior, those role models might as well live in a different country. Old-fashioned virtues of purity, honor, devotion, submission, and servility predominate.

In many ways Indian attitudes towards women and gender have parallels in the Muslim world (and India has a large Muslim minority). But Hinduism, all in all, has proved more flexible toward foreign influences and changing attitudes. India’s democratic society and culture of free speech encourages its people to speak their minds and question conventions. Teeming cities like Dilli, Mumbai and Bengaluru are more open to the outside world than their counterparts in the Muslim world. South India has a decent record on female education, health, and workforce participation. All these things point to a more optimistic outlook on gender for India than, for example, its neighbor and rival Pakistan. In the meantime, the steady stream of outrageous rape headlines in India’s press continues to tarnish the country’s overseas image.

*

For a modern (and very innovative) take on the sexist messages of the Ramayana, I recommend the weird animated movie Sita Sings the Blues. Also, I should mention that Rama’s friend Lakshmana is also revered for his loyalty, and that submission and loyalty are traditionally celebrated in India regardless of gender.