India Needs to Get Over Its Prudish Sexual Attitudes

"Eve teasing" is a symptom of sexual repression.


Twice a year, in spring and fall, India's Hindus celebrate Navratri, a nine-day festival during which they pray each day to a different female deity. Navratri culminates in "kanya puja," or a day of maiden worshiping: Every household invites over the young girls of the neighborhood and, led by the father or patriarch, bows before them, washes their feet, prays to them, offers them a specially prepared feast of vegetarian delicacies and showers them with gifts and money.

Growing up, I would make several weeks' worth of allowance on that one day. But this ancient practice wasn't meant to pamper the girls. It served to remind men of the qualities—mental courage, spiritual wisdom, purity of mind and strength of character—embodied in the feminine spirit, without which, according to Hindu scriptures, the cosmos would collapse into decadence and chaos.

Such veneration of women may surprise foreign observers of India, considering the recent epidemic of rapes there and publicity about the everyday harassment that Indian women face—lewd gestures, catcalls, groping and worse. Some have blamed modernity, suggesting that India needs to return to its past. But when it comes to "eve teasing" (as this practice is euphemistically called), I would argue the opposite: It is precisely the stubborn hold of India's prudish culture that has made many Indian men so callow.

Arun Arushi Narodin, who writes for the online magazine Bodhi Commons, reports that 90% of urban women in India experience harassment. But that almost certainly understates the problem. I've never met an Indian woman—rich or poor, upper or lower caste, pretty or homely, young or middle-age—who hasn't been harassed. Indeed, street-level harassment is like traffic for drivers, an unavoidable nuisance women confront whenever they leave the house. It fundamentally alters how they walk, talk, travel and dress in public. It impels them to assume a body language least likely to draw attention—to cover themselves, as it were, in an invisible burqa.  

I first felt myself donning this burqa sometime in my midteens as I walked with my mother to the market near our home in New Delhi and a group of young men started hooting, whistling and singing Bollywood songs. My mother hissed at me to walk quickly and avoid eye contact. Had we been accompanied by my father, the loud harassment would have been replaced with more surreptitious gestures. This mostly low-level nuisance turns into molestation in crowded buses or public spaces, as men grope or press against trapped women. My mother instructed me to have a sharp elbow or a safety pin always at the ready, advice that is still handed down to Indian girls today.

What is the cause of this phenomenon? Some argue that the uneven economic growth triggered by India's two-decade-old liberalization has left many men feeling emasculated. Young girls flaunting their newfound wealth in sparkling malls and fast-food restaurants, it is said, are producing a backlash of jealousy and envy from less-well-off men. "Men's loss of power and control over women has made professional women particularly vulnerable, especially in male-dominated work environments and in public spaces," writes Rasna Wahra for the Daily Nation. But street harassment predates liberalization by generations. My mother endured it 50 years ago.

Others suggest that harassment is the product of rapid urbanization, which has flooded India's cities with village hicks, who lose their heads on seeing (relatively) liberated women roaming around freely. That would make sense if urban men from "respectable" families weren't also among the offenders. And then there is the feminist explanation: patriarchy, which sees street-level harassment as an assertion of male domination. But India is arguably less patriarchal now than it has ever been, and the problem remains.

Unlike rape and sex-selective abortion, which represent a genuine devaluing of women, sexual harassment in India is, I believe, an expression not of the power of Indian men but of their helplessness. It's a pathetic attempt to have a sexual encounter, no matter how meaningless and evanescent. Its real cause is free-floating male libido with no socially acceptable outlet.

India's sexual mores and institutions are rooted in a pastoral past, when people died before 50, so marriages between minors were the norm. Families in villages would betroth their children, at birth sometimes, and have a formal ceremony after both attained puberty, when the girl went to live with her husband's family. This arrangement, now banned, had many horrendous downsides, but it produced an organic harmony between the sexual needs of individuals and the social expectations of monogamy and chastity.

Today the average marriage age in India has risen to 22 for women and 26 for men. Yet virginity and chastity—especially for women, but also men—remain prized virtues. The vast majority of marriages, even in large cosmopolitan cities, are arranged. But even love matches can't be openly consummated before marriage, thanks to the taboo against premarital sex. Girls are expected to go from their father's house to their husband's, virginity intact.

The upshot is legions of grown, unmarried men who have never had sex. It is their repressed libido that expresses itself in weird social pathologies such as harassment. Trying to stamp out harassment with the tougher laws that India has recently embraced—declaring stalking a crime, setting sentences of five years for groping, one year for lewd gestures—will help at the margins at best. A problem rooted in natural urges is unlikely to yield to legal quick fixes.

What would work? Nothing short of transforming India's puritanical culture and giving men and women more freedom to forge sexually mature relationships outside of marriage. The reform process is already under way among the urbanized upper classes. Bollywood movies, generally a good barometer of social trends, are increasingly depicting cohabiting couples in a favorable light. "Living together before marriage is not a crime," Deepika Padukone, a famous actress, recently declared.

But the process will take generations. Given India's starting point in ancient traditions, one can hope that it will result in a balance healthier than what has unfolded in the over-sexualized West. But unfold it must, because the status quo demeans India's daughters—and warps its sons.

This column originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.