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Bollywood's stereotypes play leading role in India's problems

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Neelima Choahan

The horrific gang rape of a young woman can be the catalyst for change.

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Indian gang rapists charged

The five men accused of savagely beating and raping a 23-year-old woman are formally charged with rape and murder in a New Delhi court.

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I WAS a 10-year-old when I first experienced sexual harassment on the streets of Delhi. As sexual harassment goes it wasn't much - just a wink from an older man.

I have experienced much worse in Delhi since then but I still remember being shocked by that first incident and thinking, ''but I am only 10''.

For a woman, growing up in Delhi, or visiting the capital for that matter, is like living in a war zone. You are constantly on alert. What you wear, how you look, where you go and how you go is all determined by the fear of being noticed, remarked upon and molested.

Any girl growing up in Delhi quickly learns to be wary: wary of the roving eyes and hands as well as the lewd remarks.

I learnt to sit with my arms crossed over my chest or keep a bag in front after a man reached into an auto-rickshaw at a traffic light in broad daylight and pinched my breasts. If a guy sat next to me while travelling on a Delhi bus, I would quickly wedge a bag between us so he couldn't sit too close and try to touch my thighs or sink his elbow into my breast.

As a teenager I soon understood that my safety lay in grabbing a window seat in the women's section. That way no man would be able to use the crowd to rub himself against me.

And I remember that most of the time no one came to my help - until a few years ago when I went back to Delhi for a holiday.

On my last day in India, I was just thinking how Delhi had changed when a guy in a busy west Delhi market tried to grope me. I hit back, aiming for his crotch. I missed, but I was surprised that a couple stopped and asked me if I needed any help. Delhi it seemed had changed.

Where earlier such incidents would be passed off as ''eve-teasing'', today it has roused so much anger that the whole country seems to have become galvanised.

People are looking for answers and wondering why a nation that boasts of worshipping female energy in the form of myriad goddesses can mistreat its women. The all-pervading Bollywood has a role to play. In the 1980s film Shriman Shrimati (Mr and Mrs), an elderly couple solves marital problems. The couple saves a modern woman, who has ambitions to be a model, from being raped.

The woman realises just in time that unless she ''toes the line'', she will fall prey to dirty men who only want her body.

Repentant, she returns to her dorky (and clearly mismatched) husband and breastfeeds her child (a sign of her redemption and acceptance of her role as a mother/traditional woman).

The moral of the story: women who cross the line are susceptible to rape.

Then there is the ''family film'' from the 1990s Hum Aapke Hai Koun? (What Do I Mean to You?). Actress Bindu plays a modern woman who is also (surprise, surprise) a shrew.

But she sees the error of her ways when her long-suffering husband is finally, yes, finally, forced to slap her. The next shot shows the woman as having switched to wearing traditional Indian clothes and having fallen pregnant.

That one slap helps the husband claim his manhood, tames the shrew and helps her regain her femininity and true purpose in life.

Then there is Dabangg 2, released just a few weeks ago, with the famous song Fevicol Se (With Superglue) where the heroine sings a song while gyrating in front of a police officer.

She tells him she is like a tandoori chicken and he should wash her down with alcohol. Not exactly romantic.

In an interview, the actress, who in real life is cosmopolitan and from a very established Hindi film family, said the song would be played in auto-rickshaws, taxis, bars and clubs.

Clearly, the song is aimed at the average man on the street.

According to Indian media, four of the six men accused of the recent gang rape lived in a slum in posh South Delhi and most were in menial jobs.

Bollywood, with its starkly black and white characters and its emphasis on women as Madonnas or whores, perpetuates stereotypes which, when combined with patriarchy's notion of ownership of women, becomes a frightening mix.

Bear in mind there are thousands of men from small towns and rural India who migrate to the country's capital looking for work, often forced to live in appalling conditions.

After India's independence in 1947, governments (mostly ruled by the Congress Party at the centre) have failed to establish law and order, build character and create equal opportunities. Bad governance is at the heart of the problem. So, too, is the apathy of a people who fail to hold their representatives to account.

Somehow, the horrific rape and subsequent death of the 23-year-old student has touched a chord and roused citizens from their indifference. The anger is not just about the rape but the dismal state of the country.

Hanging the culprits for the heinous rape and now murder of the young girl, who had her whole life ahead of her, cannot be a solution.

For any lasting effect, Indians need to keep pressuring their government to deliver on far-reaching reforms or maintain the rage all the way to the ballot box.

Neelima Choahan is a journalist on The Courier in Ballarat.

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