South Asia


NOTE: This is not a normal opinion piece, since I’m not actually advocating for one point of view over another. Rather, this is just speculation, and musing like this seems more like providing a perspective than just impartially imparting information.

South Asia, or the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and sometimes Afghanistan), is usually included with East Asia in academic discussion, business strategies, bureaucratic organization, racial categorization, and journalistic parlance. Bowing to common practice, I’ve categorized it as such on this site. But is this fair?

South Asia has as much in common with West Asia as it does East Asia. Geographically, the region is defined by its mountainous borders, but in the west, the mountains are lower and taper off before meeting the sea. Also, there is a famous, much-used pass over the Hindu Kush (the mountains). On the other hand, East Asia is separated by the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountain range. Contact over these peaks is much harder, and there isn’t much of a gap between the Himalayas and the sea.

This has meant that historically, people came to South Asia from the west more than the east. The Aryans — the main racial group in the area — originally invaded from the west. Alexandros the Great invaded from the west. The Kushans invaded from the west. The Ghaznavids invaded from the west. The Mongols, despite being situated to the north and east of South Asia, invaded from the west too. The Mughals invaded from the west. And so on. The only invasion South Asia suffered from the east was the Ahoms in the 1200s — and they only conquered Assam, a small corner of the region.

West Asia’s great philosophical tradition is Islam, which came to South Asia thanks to all those invasions and is now the second-largest religion there. East Asia’s great philosophical traditions are Buddhism and Confucianism. The former originated in South Asia but is now very minor there, while the latter has negligible influence.

South Asia’s main languages are Hindi and Urdu (which are sometimes lumped together as “Hindustani”). They (especially Urdu) share much of their vocabulary with Persian and Arabic — West Asian languages.

Artistically, there is much in common between West and South Asia. Persian styles of painting and calligraphy influenced South Asian art beginning in the Middle Ages. South Asian sculpture is thought to be influenced by Greek artistic standards practiced in Afghanistan long ago. Much of South Asian architecture — domes, minarets, imposing gateways and courtyards — is imported from Persia as well. The Taj Mahal, India’s most recognizable landmark, has more in common with Persian buildings than many others in India. South Asian musical instruments descend from West Asian cousins.

In the culinary sphere, South Asian food shares features with stuff cooked up in West Asian kitchens. Bread is the staple food, and it’s usually flat, like breads in West Asia. Dairy is ubiquitous (which is why cows are so revered in India) — butter, milk, yoghurt, ghi (clarified butter), panir (a type of cottage cheese) — while traditionally, at least, it’s absent in East Asia. South Asian sweets like halva, kulfi and faluda have roots or counterparts in West Asia.

Racially, South Asia’s people much more closely resemble Persians and Turks than Asians further east. There are broad variations across the region, of course, but Aryans (especially Pashtuns, an ethnic group in Afghanistan and Pakistan) are related to Iranians. The Mongoloid facial features of East Asia are rare in South Asia apart from the Himalayas. South Asians also dress much more like West Asians than East Asians: men sometimes wear turbans, women sometimes wear veils. The salvar kamiz, a commonly worn tunic-and-trouser combo, originates from West Asia. Anecdotally, I have noticed foreigners tend to confuse South Asians and West Asians, but rarely with East Asians.

Given the range of similarities between South and West Asia, why is South Asia even lumped in with East Asia at all? There are similarities in this respect too. As mentioned above, Buddhism was an Indian import, and Hinduism was once widely followed in Southeast Asia too. In ancient times, East Asians would journey west to study religion in South Asian universities — this is the basis of one of China’s most famous stories, Journey to the West. There is a theory that Indian theater influenced China’s. The Chola Empire in south India once conquered Sumatra. The historical experience of colonialism unites South and Southeast Asia more than West Asia (although Northeast Asia had a substantially different experience). Although they vary dramatically from country to country, pagodas, that classic feature of East Asian architecture, evolved from South Asian stupas. Curry, the hallmark of South Asian cuisine, is also eaten in Southeast Asia and Japan. Rice is popular pretty much everywhere (although again, South Asian varieties are quite different from East Asia’s). Myanmar, thanks mostly to Britain uniting it with India in colonial times, has a lot of South Asian influences (food, clothing, Muslim minority communities).

It’s fair to say that South and East Asia have a lot in common, but notice how many qualifications I included, and it’s hard to deny that West Asia had at least as much influence. Another important factor to consider is that basically all of the influences flowed from South Asia east, and not the other way around. Chinese culture has had little impact on India, as I noted in an earlier post.

While I am unsure why South Asia is often lumped in with East Asia instead of West Asia, I have a theory. The term “East Asia” (or often just “Asia”) is really just a replacement for an earlier Western term: “the Far East.” From a West European perspective, South Asia was already pretty far east, so everything from that point onward was labeled the Far East. Combine that with the imperial linkages Britain established between South Asia (then just “India”) and its colonies in Southeast Asia, like the annexation of Burma and the settlement of big Indian communities in Malaya, and you can see why in the British mind, South Asia’s connection with East Asia was emphasized over its connection with West Asia.

In addition, I get the feeling that South Asians and those that study South Asia aren’t too eager to see the region merged with West Asia. Like it or not, West Asia has a bad reputation now, thanks to its unending violence, religious fanaticism, and rigid dictatorships. Politically, it’s hard to draw a connection between West and South Asia (except maybe Pakistan, thanks to the heavy military and Saudi influence on its government and society). India has been one of Asia’s most stable and successful democracies, and political scientists are puzzled trying to draw comparisons between it and anywhere else sometimes.

Most likely, South Asians would say that their region isn’t part of any other and that they are unique. There is some truth to this, and I would argue that anyone who tries to lump it in with another area is being a little lazy or reductionist. South Asia — India especially — is strongly defined by Hinduism, a native philosophical tradition. Linkages with West Asia are less strong in South India and Sri Lanka, which have tended to move to their own rhythms. South Asian economies resemble neither the development models of East Asia nor those of West Asia. South Asians are much more likely to look towards neighbors in the region or the West than to either West or East Asia. But consideration of the evidence suggests that South Asian connections with West Asia should be given some more thought at least.




Image source: AP

Pakistan lies at the fault line between “West Asia” (the Turkish, Arab and Persian-dominated areas in the southwestern part of the continent) and “South Asia” (the Indian subcontinent, which begins roughly at the Indus Valley which forms Pakistan’s heart). It’s an unstable, unpredictable country, one which has given policymakers, diplomats and businessmen migraines for decades at least (if not its entire existence). Newsweek magazine even called Pakistan “the most dangerous country” in the world a decade ago, and the evaluation has caught on. While it’s a little hard to stay perpetually terrified of a country for that long, the sad fact is not much has changed.

So what’s the problem? Pakistan isn’t a war zone or a failed state or a criminal hotbed. What makes it so dangerous?

Pakistan was born out of a violent partition of the old colonial Indian Empire in 1947. It originally included what is now Bangladesh because both areas are mostly Muslim (almost all Muslim now). It had numerous defects right from the get-go: a big refugee population, multiple languages, a divide between the dry, dusty mountainous and desert regions to the west and the fertile river valley in the east, a lack of a real political precedent within its borders, hostile and dangerous neighbors, and the usual Third World problems (poverty, illiteracy, superstition, overcrowding, etc.). And that’s not even counting the huge split (the size of India!) with its eastern section.

Pakistan did have a substantial cohort of British-trained and educated professionals to make up a decent governing and business class, something that it still benefits from today. It had a visionary founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah. But these benefits only went so far; Jinnah died within a year of independence and his prime minister was assassinated. Pakistan’s leaders proved to be feckless, squabbling, incompetent and corrupt. Its internal divisions, especially between its western and eastern wings, grew wider and wider.

About the only institution in Pakistan that was widely respected was the army (and even then, not so much in the eastern wing), which was also trained along the British model but much more tightly disciplined than the government. It chafed under civilian control, so in 1958, after a period of 4 prime ministers in 2 years, the military took power, following the lead of other chaotic, artificial postcolonial states. The Pakistani military would go on to launch coups again in 1977 and 1999, and military dictatorship has come to characterize Pakistan. Even when the military isn’t in charge, it still wields enormous power from behind the scenes. Elected officials are too scared to run afoul of it, given what happened to the Bhutto political family (father Zulfikar was hanged, daugher Benazir was assassinated).

Tight military control was justified in part by Pakistan’s hostile international environment. To its southeast looms India, a mortal enemy that Pakistan has always regarded with fear and misgivings. To its north is Afghanistan, a turbulent, poor and unpredictable country. Beyond Afghanistan was the Soviet Union, a Communist superpower. Fearing a squeeze from both sides by the infidel menace, Pakistan made 2 strategic alliances to ensure its security: America and China. America was interested in containing the Soviet Union and also distrusted India. Sino-Indian relations went sour after a 1962 war, and relations with the Soviet Union weren’t too great either. China may also be Communist and infidel, but it was more distant than the USSR and less expansionist.

Pakistan may have a big, powerful army, but it pales in comparison to the Soviet Union’s or India’s. (This was demonstrated in a series of wars with India, none of which Pakistan won, some of which it definitely lost.) To compensate, Pakistan has relied on espionage; its spy agency, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), became one of the world’s most active, weakening Pakistan’s enemies with propaganda and boosting its clients with government funds. It played a crucial role in the long war in Afghanistan by channeling monetary and military aid to the mujahidin fighting the Soviet Union there in the 1980s. In the ’90s (but also earlier), it did the same to insurgents in Kashmir, a territory split between Pakistan and India that Pakistan has always claimed and that has been a perpetual thorn in India’s armor.

Just to shake things up a little, Pakistan has not been immune to the current of Islamic radicalism coursing through Muslim countries. It had been founded as a secular country with Islam interpreted more as a cultural unifying force. But the bloody ethnic cleansing that accompanied Partition purged it of most minorities, and ordinary Pakistanis are mostly devout. Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’80s, believed that Islam needed to be encouraged more to give the country a stronger unifying force and fighting spirit. He built Muslim schools (madrassas) across the country and encouraged the development of Muslim political parties and Quranic education. Saudi Arabia, the Muslim world’s biggest and most pious spender, became a patron, with Saudi preachers imported to spread its puritanical Wahhabi doctrine. The Afghan fighters both countries favored — first Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, then the Taliban — were Islamist (which means that they want Islam to play a role in national politics).

There are several reasons for this. Many Pakistani officers, generals, politicians and spies are personally pious and see Islam as the only true bond across cultural and ethnic lines (especially in the Afghan war’s original context as an anti-Communist jihad). Pakistan explained to its American sponsors that jihadists fight harder and with more conviction (although Hekmatyar challenged this interpretation with his deadlocked struggle to take Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, in the early ’90s). From a strategic point of view, Pakistan wants a friendly government in Kabul to keep Afghanistan’s unruly and problematic warlords in line and to stem the flow of opium out of that country. Its clients have been Pashtun, an ethnic group along the Pakistani border. They have assumed they will be more pliable and easier to work with — and more likely to rein in the Pashtuns within Pakistan, who also tend to be unruly.

As anyone who’s been paying attention to world affairs for the last few decades can tell you, this strategy has created problems. The Taliban proved to be much more zealous and puritanical than Pakistan was comfortable with, banning music, soccer, toothpaste, TVs, and Western clothing, among various other things deemed non-Islamic. It hosted terrorists in Afghanistan who operated on an international scale. When they attacked America in 2001, it brought a 2nd superpower crashing into Afghanistan, with Pakistan roped in as a base for the American invasion. Pakistanis now found themselves fighting against the very government they had installed.

The Taliban have since lost power, as has Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s dictator during the ’00s. America, after a brief surge in 2009-11, has withdrawn from Afghanistan, preferring to use drones to nail unfriendly mujahidin from the sky.

But less has changed than meets the eye. The military, as ever before, wields enormous power within Pakistan, and despite what its civilian government says, it is still sponsoring the Taliban, guided by the same strategic assumptions as before. Russia (although influential once more) is no longer the key force within Afghanistan that it once was, but India has renewed good relations with Afghanistan. This only exacerbates Pakistan’s fear of encirclement and keeps its supply lines to Islamists and terrorists flowing.

The results are plain to see. In 2008, terrorists supported by ISI attacked a major hotel in Mumbai, India’s biggest city, and went on a bloody rampage in the city. In 2011, it was revealed that Usama bin Ladin, the mastermind behind 9/11, had been living in Abbottabad, Pakistan (home of Pakistan’s military academy) for 5 years. In 2015, it was revealed that Mullah Umar, the Taliban’s deposed leader, had died — in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. In all cases, Pakistan vehemently denied that it was involved in any way, despite the substantial evidence saying otherwise.

As a result, Pakistan’s relations with America are in decline. Evidence of covert Pakistani support for the Taliban was obvious from the beginning of America’s invasion in 2001 (particularly since America’s intelligence agency, the CIA, had cooperated with ISI on covert support in the ’80s). Repeated American requests to stop have been ignored. Instead, Pakistan has grown testier and testier with the US, since Pakistani civilians occasionally die in American drone strikes. Conspiracy theories and exaggerated atrocity stories circulate freely within Pakistan, leading to an 11% approval rating for America. Americans weren’t a big fan of the bin Ladin thing, either. The result is that America is showing more interest in a cooperative relationship with India. Relations with China remain strong, and may even be improving thanks to China’s famed engineering and development capacity. On the other hand, China is worried about Islamic militancy too, since it has a Muslim population in its west and its workers in Pakistan have to worry about getting shot or captured.

While the turmoil in Afghanistan remains a distant problem for most Pakistanis, who live in the Indus Valley, it is hitting closer and closer to home. Peshawar, a major Pashtun city and a focal point for fighters slipping in and out of Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass, is pretty close to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. A home-grown Taliban offshoot, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, along with various other terrorist groups inspired by militant religious rhetoric, attacks targets inside Pakistan — a public school in Peshawar, Christians celebrating Easter in a park in Lahore, a police academy in Quetta. Muslim sects like Shi’ites and Ahmadis are routinely attacked and persecuted. A climate of fear and intolerance is oppressing Pakistan’s urban centers, and anyone known to be spreading un-Islamic ideas or practices is in danger of assassination.

The final unpredictable element in Pakistan is its nuclear arsenal. Rattled by India’s nuclear test in 1974, Pakistan has secretly been developing and stockpiling nuclear weapons as deterrence. Although the world freaked out during the Kargil War with India in 1999, Pakistan has not used them yet (and hasn’t fought an open war with India since, even though the insurgency in Kashmir boils on). But Pakistan is guilty of passing nuclear technology on to other interested countries like Iran and North Korea. With Peshawar such a short distance from Islamabad, the prospect of Taliban fighters or their brethren getting their hands on nukes is definitely a prospect that makes diplomats break out into sweat.

This, then, is the dilemma of present-day Pakistan. It has an elected and generally respected civilian government, but the military runs the show and subverts the government’s will when it feels the national interest is at stake. It relies on passionately Muslim mujahedin to keep Afghanistan weak and divided, even if this means an increasing threat of an Islamic insurgency within itself. It condemns America’s drone-centered policy but basically relies on it to deal with insurgents it’s too scared of taking on itself. It relies on its huge military, nuclear stockpile, and network of informants, insurgents and terrorists to keep India distracted and reactive, thereby increasing its own security, even though it provokes continued mistrust and hostility from India.

Pakistan still has several strengths. It has one of the world’s biggest populations, a substantial professional class, some manufacturing, and a military disciplined and unified enough to hold the country together. It is not as extremely Islamic as Afghanistan used to be and Iran and Saudi Arabia still are. It cooperates with America on counter-terrorism (when it suits its own interests) and occasionally shows interest in peace talks with India. But its growing network of zealously Islamic political groups, ethnic divisions, and ongoing lack of economic development continue to hold it back and inspire concern. Calling Pakistan the “world’s most dangerous country” might be up for debate, but it’s certainly one that has frustrated and confused outsiders for a long time.



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.