Thursday, February 12, 2009

Women's Issues: Valentine's Day, women Drinking - radical Hindu group says such Western influences violate Indian culture

In Indian cities, women heading to bars for a drink and people celebrating Valentine's Days have become a common sight. But a radical Hindu group says such Western influences violate Indian culture. Their opposition has triggered a fierce debate on changing values in a country where large sections are still conservative.

Shops in a New Delhi market are doing brisk business as Valentine's Day approaches. Some people are buying gifts for their partners, others are ordering flowers.

In big Indian cities like New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, the day is celebrated with enthusiasm - especially by young people.

But many young women say they will keep their celebrations low key.

"We have to be a little bit cautious….things can happen anytime, anywhere," said one woman.

"I understand there is a limit, you can't be kissing in public, but holding hands, that should be done," said another woman.

The note of caution is being sounded after a little-known, right-wing Hindu group called the "Shri Rama Sena" vowed to stop people from celebrating Valentine's Day, saying it is against Indian culture. The group, based in the southern Karnataka state, has warned that boys and girls caught courting in public risk being taken to a temple and forced to marry.

Few people might have paid heed to the threat. After all, this is not the first time that Hindu radical groups are opposing Valentine's Day.

But last month's images on national television of members of the Shri Ram Sena assaulting women drinking at a trendy bar in the southern city, Mangalore shocked people across the country.

The television pictures showed men chasing and beating up several women. The head of the group, Pramod Mutalik, says the women had subverted Indian culture by drinking and dancing with men and had to be prevented from going astray.

Mutalik, who was arrested and released on bail, is now asking the Karnataka state government to ban Valentine's Day celebrations.

Mutalik says love does not happen in a day. He says Valentine's Day is about lust, not love, and is against Indian culture.

The "moral policing" by the Shri Rama Sena has sparked widespread public outrage. Several women's groups have led protests against the group and have vowed to defend their rights and freedom - whether to have a drink at a bar or celebrate Valentine's Day. India's minister for women and child development, Renuka Chowdhury, calls the opposition an attempt to impose Taleban-style values.

In the wake of the attack on the pub, several voluntary organizations have stepped out to oppose any effort to disrupt celebrations on Valentine's Day. One of them is the Earth Saviour Foundation, which plans to post group of volunteers at markets and other prominent places in New Delhi to "escort" couples who want to celebrate the day. The group's head, Ravi Kalra, says, in a modernizing country, women must be allowed to do whatever they want to.

"We need to go along with the modernization and time is changing now. It is not like before, 20 years or 30 years, when ladies, or girls or daughters were not allowed to go to schools or in a pub. Now, time is changing. We are all equal," said Kalra. "We need to understand ladies are being given a similar portfolio, like men, and we need to respect them. They must have liberty."

However, sociologists point out that large sections of India remain conservative and have still to get used to a new generation of urban Indian women who are far more liberal than their predecessors. These women are educated, have stepped out to work, are exposed to Western influences and refuse to be restricted by traditions.

They are women like Geeta Kapoor, who works at the World Bank in New Delhi. As she lights a cigarette, she says nothing will stop her from celebrating Valentine's Day.

"We all have a right to live. We all have a right to enjoy…Nobody is sort of getting amoral in these places and I really don't know what these so-called moral police are up to," she said. "I mean, it is ridiculous. We all have a right to live. It is a free country…I am not scared of anything."

But sociologists say it could take decades for the new position of women to attract widespread support.

Published with the permission of Voice of America

Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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