Deconstructing Stereotypes: The Misrepresented Status of Women in India versus Western Societies

Western media always projects India as being the most unsafe country in the world for women.

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Where women are worshiped, there dwell the Devas. Wherever they are not worshiped, all actions inadvertently fail.”

~Manusmiriti 3/96

Western media and intellectuals often label India – The Land of the Hindus, as the ‘rape capital’ of the world. This characterization stems from ‘HinduDvesha,’ a disconcerting bias against a civilization that traditionally reveres women. Such biased generalizations overlook the depth of India’s respect for women, manifested in the veneration of female deities and the rich history of women’s contribution to Hindu culture. They also ignore India’s efforts towards combating societal issues. Thus, painting a singular, grim picture of the country is not only misleading but also reflects a prejudiced perspective.[1]

International media neglects the country’s rich diversity, dynamic culture, and rapid progress in numerous sectors. Headlines such as “India: The World’s Rape Capital?” from The Sydney Morning Herald and “India’s Rape Problem Needs a Rewiring of Society’s Attitude” from CNN project a disturbing image of a country grappling with deeply rooted societal issues, such as violence against women.

Certainly, India confronts significant issues related to gender-based violence, like many countries across the globe. However, the constant spotlight on this issue in international media risks reductively defining India by this problem alone, failing to capture the wider panorama of its vibrant social and cultural landscape. Indeed, these narratives can permeate not just the psyche of foreign audiences but also the consciousness of Hindus themselves in a phenomenon known as “stereotype threat.” This phenomenon can inadvertently result in reinforcing negative stereotypes, deep-seated pessimism, and erroneous beliefs about India’s societal issues.

The narrative that often depicts India as the ‘rape capital’ of the world is demonstrably challenged when we examine data on reported rape incidents per 100,000 citizens. The statistics from[2] completely shatter the myth.

South Africa leads this data set, with 72.1 reported incidents per 100,000 citizens, Sweden with 63.54, Australia with 28.6, Belgium, the United States, and the United Kingdom each with over 27 reported incidents per 100,000 citizens find themselves high up in the infamous list. Most European countries also feature well above India. On the other hand, India is positioned towards the lower end of this list, with a rate of 1.81.

This is not to say that India doesn’t have serious issues to address when it comes to violence against women—it does. However, painting the country as the world’s epicenter for such violence, as many media narratives do, lacks a certain fairness and objectivity when we examine global data.

The Role of Women in Global Faith Traditions and Hindu Society

Switching gears, let’s delve into the significant role of women in global faith traditions. Few religions worldwide feature prominent female deities in revered positions. From Guanyin, a female bodhisattva in Buddhism, Amaterasu, the sun goddess in Shinto, to the Virgin Mary in Catholic Christianity, female deities’ prominence varies across global faith traditions.

Hinduism, however, presents a unique approach to this with the philosophy surrounding Durga, Saraswati, and Lakshmi. These goddesses symbolize physical strength, education, and wealth respectively, forming a divine triad that underscores the essential elements of personal empowerment and growth. This holistic approach to female divinity and empowerment stands in contrast to every other faith, demonstrating a profound respect for the feminine within the religion and Hindu culture.

The Rich History of Women’s Participation in Hindu Scriptures

Further, in the realm of education, Hindu culture offers a legacy that the West often overlooks. There exists a lesser-known (to The West, that is) yet significant, legacy of women sages contributing to these sacred texts. Approximately twenty-one women, known as ‘rishikas’ (female sages), made significant contributions to the Vedas, challenging the prevalent notions of gender and intellect in religious discourse.

The Rig Veda, one of the four primary Vedas, provides ample testimony to the wisdom and spiritual insight of these women. For instance, sage Agasthya’s conversations with his wife, Lopamudra[3], are reflective not only of the latter’s intelligence and virtue but also of an ancient culture that valued dialogue and intellectual exchange between genders. Their discourse illuminates the richness of Vedic philosophy and the integral part women played in its development.

Among the thousand hymns of the Rig Veda, ten are attributed to Maitreyi, a female philosopher and seer. Her contributions underscore her significant role in shaping the metaphysical and philosophical foundations of Vedic thought. As a ‘rishika,’ or female sage, Maitreyi’s spiritual insights were held in high esteem, forming a part of the timeless wisdom encapsulated in the Vedas.

Another luminary in this ancient constellation of women sages is Gargi. Her profound hymns go beyond mere prayers to the deities, extending into metaphysical realms that question the origin of existence itself. When King Janak of Videha hosted a ‘brahmayajna,’ a philosophical congress centered around the fire sacrament, Gargi was one of the key participants. Her presence at such a significant event reinforces her status as a respected philosopher and sage.

These instances serve as a testament to the noteworthy contributions of women sages in the composition of the Vedas. They not only challenge contemporary criticisms of gender disparity in Indian culture but also underscore a forgotten narrative of women’s intellectual and spiritual authority in ancient India. The legacy of these ‘rishikas’ casts a new light on our understanding of the Vedas, prompting us to acknowledge the timeless wisdom of these women sages.

The Journey of Hindu Women’s Education: From Vedas to Today

The trajectory of women’s education in India, from Vedic sages to illiteracy, is a poignant reflection of historical forces and cultural shifts. During the Vedic period, women like Maitreyi and Gargi were revered scholars, contributing significantly to the philosophical richness of the Vedas. However, by the time of India’s independence in 1947, only about nine percent of girls were literate.

Several factors contributed to this stark regression. The most significant was the social upheaval caused by relentless invasions from Islamic marauders. These invasions led to customs like child marriages[4] as a measure to protect girls from abduction and sexual violence. Consequently, girls were confined to domestic roles early in life, with little or no access to formal education. As societal fears for women’s safety intensified, their mobility was further restricted. This lack of freedom, coupled with the risk of abduction and rape, resulted in fewer opportunities for girls to attend schools, further impacting their literacy rates.

Educational neglect was exacerbated during the Mughal era. Mughals placed little emphasis on education. Their neglect was particularly stark in the case of girls’ education, which was virtually non-existent. The Mughal era, thus, marked a period of significant decline in women’s education.

The arrival of the British in India subjected the country to Victorian morality, which upheld patriarchal norms and consigned women to secondary roles in society. Consequently, women’s education remained a low priority, reinforcing the cycle of female illiteracy.

Post-independence, India has made substantial strides to rectify these historical injustices. As of now, the literacy rate[5] for women has leaped to 77%. While the journey from Vedas to illiteracy to the current status has been arduous, India continues to strive towards achieving universal female literacy, a testament to its resilient spirit and commitment to gender equality.

Redefining Female Empowerment: A Hindu Perspective

As we examine the trajectory of women’s roles in India, it’s crucial to revisit the concept of ‘female empowerment.’ Often seen as a Western construct, ‘Female Empowerment’ in the Hindu context requires a nuanced understanding. The women of India, from Vedic women sages to modern-day leaders, have held positions of power and influence since ancient times. The concept of ’empowering’ women, therefore, may be misaligned with an ethos that has traditionally seen women as inherently powerful individuals, integral to the societal, spiritual, and intellectual fabric.

While the Western narrative frequently criticizes India’s gender issues, overlooking its rich history of revering and empowering women, the nation is undeterred in its pursuit of gender equality. The future of India is being shaped not by external criticisms but by its commitment to embrace the power of its women, echoing the wisdom of its ancient Vedic sages.


[1] Is India really the most dangerous country for women?

[2] Rape Statistics by Country

[3] Famous Female Figures of Vedic India

[4] Child Marriage: Origin, Reason, Effects And Laws

[5] Indian women’s literacy rate increased by 68% since Independence: Report

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