‘We are less safe than cows’ say Indian women

Behind the mask: The slaughter of cows is completely banned in six states in India. © Getty

The epidemic of violence against women in India has prompted some to wear cow masks, saying that the sacred cattle are safer than women. How much effect will this campaign really have?

One December day in 2012, Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old female psychotherapist, boarded a bus with her friend in Delhi, India. There were six others in the bus, including the driver. They all raped the woman and beat her friend.

Singh was transferred to hospital in Singapore 11 days after the assault, but died of her injuries.

The incident exploded into the national and international media. Huge numbers of women marched on the streets of every major Indian city to protest against the government, who were seen as failing to provide adequate security for women, and for turning a blind eye to similar events.

But although the event brought the plight of Indian women to the attention of the world, police statistics show that reported rapes and molestations have not significantly fallen since. According to the government, a rape is reported every 15 minutes.

The conviction rate for sexual offences has actually declined.

At the same time, there has been a surge in violence against religious minorities and low-caste Hindus in the name of protecting cows, an animal revered by many Indians.

Seeing this bizarre juxtaposition, an artist called Sujatro Ghosh has embarked on a project that features women wearing cow masks posing outside landmarks, on trains, or lounging about in their homes.

“The core issue is women’s rights and protection,” he said. “I’m not against protecting cows. But I’m concerned about my country’s sociopolitical scenario.” He added that “actually fighting with these politicians or extremist groups physically was never an option … so my intention is to create awareness.”

Although women in India enjoy a legal status far exceeding that of many other Asian countries, the country is still a dangerous place for women. Conservative estimates put the number of people involved in the sex trafficking trade in the tens of millions.

But India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, has focused on increasing punishments for cow smuggling or slaughter since taking charge.

Can this campaign really make any difference?

Feeling cowed

“Yes it can,” say some. By pointing out these absurd double standards, Ghosh is attempting to embarrass his country’s rulers in front of the world — and causing embarrassment is a much more effective tool than simply being angry; it actually raises awareness through the medium of humour. This will help a lot.

But people care deeply about animals, and not just for religious reasons. Many find the suffering of a dog more intrinsically shocking than the suffering of a human. And in a country with such deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes, and where the authorities have failed so gravely, such a stunt will have no impact.

You Decide

  1. Will this project make any difference to the plight of women in India?
  2. Do you find the suffering of an animal more shocking than the suffering of a human? And if so, which animals?

Activities

  1. In groups, design a poster and slogan which raises awareness of violence against women in India.
  2. Write a letter which would explain to the Indian government your ideas on what should change in India.

Some People Say...

“You should judge a society on how it treats its women.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That violence against women is a serious problem in India. Hundreds of rapes and molestations are reported every day, with many suspecting that a majority are never reported to the authorities. This is due to the deeply patriarchal nature of Indian society, as well as the failures of the police and the government, thanks to incompetence, wilfully turning a blind eye and a lack of resources in one of the world’s most crowded countries.
What do we not know?
Whether campaigns like Sujatro Ghosh’s can really make any difference. Attitudes are gradually changing: there are more female MPs in India than ever before, for example. But in a country where inequality between regions is huge, it is no surprise that many still hold outdated views on women.

Word Watch

Jyoti Singh
Since there is a law in India that does not allow the press to publicise a rape victim’s name, the victim has become widely known as Nirbhaya, meaning “fearless”.
Low-caste
India’s version of the class system, where your status in society is rigidly determined by your birth and the caste of your parents. The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories — Brahmins (teachers, priests, intellectuals), Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), Vaishyas (farmers, traders, merchants) and the Shudras (manual labourers).
Revered
In Hindu-majority countries, bovine milk plays a key part in religious rituals. In honour of their exalted status, cows often roam free, even along busy streets in major cities.
Sex trafficking
Most women trafficked into prostitution are taken from their homes in the countryside. Many are trafficked in childhood.
Narendra Modi
Modi, India’s leader since 2014, is a Hindu nationalist. This means that he believes in uniting India under a homogenous, Hindu culture.