One body, multiple owners: the co-ownership mindset in India

In early June this year, two teenage girls were raped and hanged to death when they were on the way to the bathroom in the fields. I’m appalled that cruel violent incidents happen again and again and again and nothing changes. My desire to understand what’s driving this perverse behaviour has led me to a lot of different concepts, theories and some broader issues, one of the most important of which is ownership.

How do modern western and Indian models of ownership differ? How do you know when you own something?

My definition of ownership is when you control the controllable aspects of the object, decide what happens with/to it and are the recognized authority by others in doing so. It’s my own definition (no pun intended, I own it). My argument is that ‘co-ownership’, which I define as the state where multiple people own the same object/entity/whatever, is pervasive in Indian culture and the cause of an incredible amount of unhappiness at best and extreme violence at worst.

I don’t have data on ownership, and indeed accessible data on abstract concepts like ‘values’ and ‘mindsets’ is hard to find (I’ve tried). But I have talked to many Indian women of different generations – from my age up to my grandmother’s age and reflected on my experiences. Here is ownership from some of the angles we have seen it.

Example 1: Parents own children, especially daughters
Many Indian parents have a sense of ownership over their sons and daughters. This comes out in various forms. One is that you often can’t make decisions fully independently about career or personal life.

A friend of mine got into an Ivy League business school recently and was contemplating whether to go or not. Her father told his friends and relatives that she had an offer but was thinking about it. Their reaction was “Well, what are you going to tell her to do?” They were shocked to hear him say “It’s her decision”.

Here quite simply is how decision-making compares in India versus the West in general, and especially for ‘traditional’ families:


The decisions we make together in the Indian model range from: what subjects you study in high school, anything you do romantically before marriage, who you marry, whether you can divorce or not if you’re unhappy, sometimes whether you have children or not.
So basically you’re not a sole owner of your mind, body or life. It’s a partnership, and some shareholders have more share than others. Many of us are controlling shareholders, but let’s not forget, many others have a significant majority.

This ownership can extend to the unborn child in a woman’s womb too. Harpreet Kaur’s case is particularly tragic. She was the daughter of Jagir Kaur – a member of the Golden Temple committee (Shiromani Gurudwara Prabandhak Committee to be precise) – a key religious leader and figure. Her daughter, Harpreet, fell in love with a man who her mother did not approve of. Harpreet ran away with the man she wanted to marry. Jagir hired people to track her daughter down and kidnap her and bring her back. Harpreet was now pregnant. Jagir was furious that someone in her family was carrying a baby against her will and forced Harpreet to get an abortion. Not wanting to catch media attention, she didn’t want to take her daughter to a hospital and instead forced Harpreet into the hands of a quack in a village where she thought the abortion would be inconspicuous. It turned out not to be that inconspicuous when Harpreet died as a result of her forced abortion. Tragic. Jagir Kaur is free right now. Her daughter’s body was cremated straightaway without conducting a post mortem and the case had many twists. It’s an extreme case where the ownership dial was turned up so high that Jagir thought she had every right over her daughter and her daughter’s unborn child.

Example 2: The hindi word for husband ‘pati’ means ‘owner’ or ‘master’. You have a boss at home and the lower hand in major decisions.

For instance, Crorepati = owner of a crore (ten million)

Not so subtle, eh?

So the language makes it obvious. But the saddest thing is how this often plays out in reality in more subtle ways. As owners and masters, men make the big decisions. As a Mumbai-based friend pointed out, the striking thing about India is that upper or educated classes have very similar value systems in regards to the status of women. And worst of all, women hold women back and share these views. I know as I’ve met a few  women with master’s degrees who themselves treat women as commodities.

My friend gives the example of marriage logistics as a case of dominance. Two of her cousins got married a few years ago. “It is, in most cases, expected that a girl will leave her job, city and relocate to where the husband is after marriage. The option of finding a location which works for both people isn’t even considered. Even if this means the girl will be unemployed for a year or two in the new city, that’s ok. Both my cousins had to leave their job when they got married and moved to where the husband was. They both stayed unemployed for a year in the new city until they found their bearings again. Moving to a city which your husband knows but you don’t automatically gives him the upper hand in the relationship – as you are now unemployed, friendless, and unaware of things around you.”

Another friend points out  “many women are genuinely happy doing this kind of thing because they always believed that this is what they were always meant to be doing…these women do not feel oppressed or limited in any way, because their ambitions never exceeded their circumstances.”

Example 3: The backlash against people who try and free women

One of my friends from Oxford, an Indian female lawyer, used to volunteer in a domestic abuse legal advice NGO in New Delhi. She still lives in New Delhi, working as a corporate lawyer, but had to give up working for the domestic abuse NGO. One of the reasons for her leaving was that a number of her co-workers had acid thrown on their faces by angry husbands. These husbands were angry that someone was trying to give their wives rights, and take away their right to beat them.

Example 4: Rampant ‘eve-teasing’ in public places

No woman is spared ‘eve-teasing’ in India which is a euphemism for sexual harassment. By ‘no woman’ I mean you can be of any caste, religion, wearing the most conservative clothing in the world, be very unattractive, of any nationality and you will get harassed if you spend enough time in most parts of India. This is very surprising news to many western women who’ve never experienced such a thing here. I’ll even define what kinds of incidents I’m talking about. If you’re on a bus, men will grope you, lean against you, sing a song in your ear, brush against you. On the street or in shopping malls, they’ll follow you. This is so common in any situation – to the extent that in the anti-rape protests that followed the brutal rape of a 23 year old student in New Delhi, men were using the opportunity provided by big female crowds to grope women!! I listened to my New Delhi friend about this issue of harassment on the streets. She told of how she was scared to get out of her car if there was bad driver who hit her car in the back or was obstructing her way. Because who knows what they might do to you if you stepped out? She said one of the core reasons why men in India behave the way they do in public is because they view women as public property. You wouldn’t call someone a trespasser for walking on their own lawn right? And you are everybody’s lawn.

It’s important to note that there is variation within in India in how women are treated – this is the case for anything obviously – big countries have variation, even cities have variation. Harassment is generally worse in the North, especially in Punjab and Haryana. Punjab also has some of the worst gender ratios in the country, with certain areas having a shocking 300 women per 1000 men (source: India dishonoured, a guardian short-read I highly recommend as a data-rich introduction to women in India). Aborting female foetuses and killing female babies after birth, for example, by putting them in a pot and then burying them in the ground, has led to these ratios.  Mumbai is felt to be safer than New Delhi. There are some matriarchal areas in Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. Cases of violence and assault are so under-reported, however, that it is hard to trust the data. Googling maps of violence yielded some counter-intuitive results, that Punjab was not as bad as Rajasthan etc. We have to take this data with a pinch of salt which is why I have written based more anecdotally for now – the very fact that women from upper middle-class families had so many examples to share points to how prevalent the lower status and co-ownership of women is.

Example 5: People owning each other’s hair

In this example, I show how ownership extends to men too –  a more general illustration of co-ownership.

In Sikhism, you’re not meant to cut your hair. To be clear, this point is illustrative about ownership, not religion (a topic I’ve been told to avoid by people who love me and don’t want me to die young). So one man I know had kept his hair and tied a turban for 40 or so years since his birth. He did not believe in this rule at all but did it to please his family and in particular his religious father. After his father passed away, he did what he had always wanted to do and cut his hair. The rest of his family were outraged and disowned him. I thought about it and on some level, what it seems to imply is that his family own his hair. People in some Sikh families own each other’s hair.


In a later blogpost, I want to look at what drives the mindset of ownership. I think it’s the view that women are physically and mentally inferior to men. By the way, no way do I believe this view is exclusively an Indian phenomenon (I’d be denying obvious evidence if I thought that). It’s just noticeably less prominent in Anglo-Saxon countries, whereas in India it’s the elephant in pretty much every room and is so in-your-face it is suffocating for people who believe in equality.

When I was in India a few months ago, we used to laugh and smile when our driver stopped to let the cows pass on the road. My Canadian friend, who saw a man slap a woman in New Delhi on the street, postulated half-jokingly what he had come to understand as the hierarchy in India: Man, Cow, Child, Woman.

It certainly seems the case sometimes. The father of the teenage girl hanging from the mango tree had gone to the police station to find out what had happened to his missing girl. At first they said she would be ‘returned’ after 2 hours by the guys that had kidnapped her. He said he would not have registered a report if she had come back because ‘boys borrow girls all the time’ in that region, referring to ‘upper caste’ boys and men from families with power and clout. When you combine being a woman and being ‘low caste’, you are really owned big time.

She, sadly, did not come back. Hers and many others died in cruel circumstances, with little change in attitudes following their deaths. Let’s at least do their memories justice  the best way we can. Quite often these days, women fear describing themselves as ‘feminist’ for being seen as aggressive. Feminism is defined as ‘the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities’ (Merriam Webster dictionary). I can’t understand why anyone would not be feminist! Women from all cultures,  let’s reclaim ourselves – we own ourselves, no one else does.

With special thanks to my family and friends, particularly Nupur Joshi who exchanged many emails with me on this topic sharing her examples and thoughts, and is an epic source of encouragement.



2 thoughts on “One body, multiple owners: the co-ownership mindset in India”

  1. Regarding your example two, this bit of trivia might interest you. In Middle English, the word “wyf” is simply “woman”, while “housbond” of course is “keeper” – see [animal] husbandry. She is his woman; he is her keeper. The subtexts are, sadly, exactly the same in English; it’s just that as time has passed and terminology has drifted, the etymology in this language has become a little more obscure.

    Interesting blog. I’ve been working my way through it.

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