Season 3     EPISODE 2
March 8, 2022

Have gender attitudes really changed in our country?

Writer and professor Nivedita Menon speaks with Sujata Khandekar, Founder-Director, CORO about gender equality and norms in India, and how we can change traditional attitudes towards gender.

18 min read

Edited transcript of the episode:


Rachita: The World Economic Forum publishes the Global Gender Gap Report, which looks at gender equality around the world. Last year India slipped 28 places, earning a rank of 140 among 156 nations. What’s worse is that our ranking has consistently and steadily declined ever since this index was created 15 years ago. While depressing for sure, this shouldn’t be that surprising. Indian women are still missing from public spaces; most lack political representation and income security. Gender-based and caste violence is more prevalent than we care to admit. As a society, we also often refuse to acknowledge citizens who might not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth. In fact, when we measure gender equality, we don’t even count people whose gender identity or expression doesn’t fit neatly into the male–female binary.

The last few decades have seen landmark judgements in India focused on greater gender equality. But while some things have changed on paper, the big question still remains: Have gender attitudes really changed in our country?

Our two guests on the show, Sujata Khandekar and Nivedita Menon, are going to tell us what they think about this.

Sujata is the founder-director of CORO India, one of the country’s foremost organisations in grassroots leadership and activism. CORO works specifically on changing social norms that perpetuate and justify violence against women. The organisation has also built women’s grassroots leadership across different marginalised communities and ethnic, gender, and religious minorities.

Nivedita is a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, and one of the founders of, a collective blog on contemporary politics. She has also been the recipient of the A K Ramanujan Award for translation instituted by Katha. She is the author of several books, including Seeing Like a Feminist and Recovering Subversion: Feminist Politics Beyond the Law, and the co-author of Power and Contestation: India Since 1989.


Rachita: Sujata, my first question is to you. You have been working at the grassroots for more than three decades now, particularly with women. Can you talk about the changes you’ve seen over the years through your work when it comes to gender attitudes?

Sujata: I think in the last few years we have been seeing changes. The process of social change is on. Sometimes you see the visible outcome, sometimes you don’t. And I must say that the changes are not happening uniformly to all women or in all domains. Society accepts [the] notion of equality in some domains, while outrightly rejecting it in other domains. So, for example, domestic violence was seen as the fate of womanhood … so natural that violence was not even seen as violence; it was seen as the norm. But now we see a significant shift in how women perceive the violence happening to them. They understand and realise that it is violence. And then measures such as our Domestic Violence Act have also given them tools to challenge that violence. So it is being established [that] violence against women is not the norm. That is one change. Or even women’s roles and family—no more are they confined to the private domain within the four walls of households. Women are coming out for [their] workplace, for education, etc.

And to give you a concrete example [of] how things are changing, we have the mobilisation of single women, that is, women who are divorcees, deserted, unmarried, widows, etc. And they themselves added a fifth category to this—women who dumped their husbands. These are five categories of women who have come together to mobilise themselves. Actually, what is a norm in this mobilisation, in this network, currently is the way the women dress, wear jewellery, the way they put flower strings in their hair. And they have consciously done it. Our friends in the campaign tell us that whenever there was a festival, ‘She used to get really shy, run away to the field and hide. Because people didn’t want her. She was seen as a bad omen. They didn’t want her to wear good clothes, jewellery, etc.’ So that has shifted and now dancing, celebration, up-to-date outfits, flowers, everything has become a norm. I think this is revolution. And when I talk about this change in gender attitudes, I think in this way the processes are changing and evolving.


Rachita: Nivedita, taking a slightly broader lens, can you talk about how gender attitudes have changed over the past few decades? In particular, could you talk about the role that policy may have played in shifting gender attitudes?

Nivedita: I completely agree with Sujata that the change has not been in all domains and for all women, but there has been change. Any of us can tell that there has been a definite shift in attitudes towards gender across the board. In the last five to seven years, the kind of violence that has been unleashed on non-conforming women, Dalits, etc. is a kind of counter-revolution. It’s a kind of pushback against the transformations that have taken place over 10 or 15 years, or maybe more than that—two decades. So I think you can see the change in gender attitudes in ideas around whether women should be in professions. As we know, poor and working-class women have no option but to be working, whether as domestic servants or construction labourers. So this idea that it’s unusual to see women in professions is a typical middle- to upper-middle-class phenomenon. And that shift has taken place in the middle to upper middle class in terms of the idea that women are supposed to be in professions, that to be a professional woman is just natural.

When it comes to sexuality, queer identities, and non-gender-conforming love, there’s been a shift. And there is greater visibility of these issues.

When it comes to sexuality, queer identities, and non-gender-conforming love, again there’s been a shift. And there is greater visibility of these issues, of people who subscribe to these spaces. And there is a shift in the way in which sexual violence is perceived. Think of the MeToo movement and how women speak up about the ways in which they face sexual harassment. I do, of course, want to reiterate what Sujata said—that this is not some kind of revolution across the board. There have been shifts, but there hasn’t been massive social transformation. There is still violence against people. There’s transphobia and violence against trans people, women, Dalits…And even among those whose attitudes have shifted on questions of sexual violence, sexuality, and women in professions, there would still be very strong class and caste prejudices and an inability to recognise their own caste and class privilege. So their views may have shifted on other things, but their caste and class prejudices would be intact.

When it comes to policy and law, there have been a number of important judgements and laws. For example, the judgement that recognised trans people as a third gender and the reading down of Section 377. The Domestic Violence Act (which Sujata mentioned) is a very, very important act that has transformed the nature of the ways in which women feel they have to be in a marriage. But my sense [is] that laws and policies come out of social churning; laws and policies don’t effect the transformation. So if you think about Section 377, there’s been massive mobilisation around it for decades on the ground; this is also true regarding the trans judgement. We have to recognise that laws and policies reflect social transformation; they don’t bring about social transformation.


Rachita: What both of you have talked about is the different kinds of shifts we’ve seen. Whether it’s at a population level or within families, households, and so on. But, like you have said, it’s never easy, right? It often takes a lengthy, prolonged fight because we’re shaking up the status quo, so to speak. So, Sujata, can you tell us about instances when you’ve seen traditional gender norms being challenged, and what the fallout has been? And, also, if you could talk about what’s possible when people are able to shift those norms?

Sujata: So, the first thing for any change is the resistance and, especially, how women’s identity gets constructed, for example in our upbringing. The values that we have ingrained in us are inequality, subservience, humiliation, injustice, insults. These values, constraints, get imbibed in our upbringing and become part of our personality and behaviour. Then they lead to some stereotypical expectations that the society has for you—how you should behave, what you should say, what you should not say, etc. When you try to cross those boundaries, there is bound to be backlash. What we have seen is that society does policing, ensures that you don’t cross those boundaries. And if you [do] cross them, they have punishments [for you]. Punishment and fear, looming fear, are probably also the cost that we pay for this change initially. Because you have the consistent fear of losing your family honour, losing your near ones, your relatives, etc., your children’s pain, desertion … And then you’re also punished—physically beaten, raped, thrown out of the house etc.—when you try to transgress this boundary. Men deserting wives is very common. And that is, in a way, acceptable to society. But if women ask for divorce, or women say, ‘I want to stay on my own,’ that is seen as challenging the stereotypical expectation and the social norm.

One of our friends—she had a very violent marriage—decided to stay on her own with her four-year-old son. She was telling us horrifying stories, like how she gets knocks at 2 am, 3 am. And these knocks are from both men and women. Women come and ask her if she needs any help. Men come and ask, ‘Are you okay?’ But she says, ‘I know that everybody wants to see what I’m doing inside the house, who’s with me. They want to keep vigilance.’ And she was saying she has a neighbour—a man—who has no wife and two children. But nobody asks him whether he needs any help, that too at 2 am and 3 am. These are tools to pressurise you, to terrorise you. These are also ways of punishment.

We have a Pardhi friend (from the Pardhi community). She had to pay a big price in terms of completing an ordeal on the suspicion that she had a relationship with someone the community saw as a ‘lower caste person’. She had to carry a red-hot iron, walk some distance, and throw it in the garbage. And whether her hand burned or not was the point of assessment of whether she had done wrong or not. So that’s customary.

The mental and physical stress that a woman undergoes is the cost she pays for challenging the gender norm.

There are different ways of punishing, assessing, keeping vigilance, policing. I would also call it backlash. We talk of the investment we are making in changing things, changing gender attitudes, but there is also so much investment made in not changing those attitudes in terms of social norms, practices, etc. So I would call that backlash, and the mental and physical stress that a woman undergoes is the cost she pays for challenging the gender norm. The same friend I was talking about, who gets knocks at 2 or 3 am, started working with women, and last year she was in CII Foundation’s Women Exemplar Program. That’s why the kind of support you get to deal with that backlash is so important.


Rachita: You mentioned the Pardhi community earlier. For listeners who may not know, could you explain what the Pardhi community is?

Sujata: Pardhi is a tribal community. They were notified as a criminal tribe under the British regime; after Independence they were denotified. But that stigma remains. So [they’re] kind of an ultra-marginalised community. Wherever the Pardhis are staying, if any crime happens in the vicinity, they are still the first to get arrested.


Rachita: Nivedita, Sujata was talking about how society polices and punishes. I was curious to know why there seems to be so much anxiety and pushback around bending what society approves as gender roles, whether it’s male, female, or other genders? Where does this fear of not conforming come from?

Nivedita: Well, it’s about maintaining social order, right? This social order is based on caste hierarchy. It’s based on community identities being given a certain place and occupying this specific space in society. It’s based on extreme class inequality. This entire social order is based on the compulsory institution of heterosexual marriage, and the family that emerges or is sanctified by the heterosexual, patriarchal marriage. It is this family that will give you your caste identity, your religious community identity. It will tell you where you are in the social system; it will give you your privileges, it will give you your discrimination. This is the unit that is at the base of every single inequality in the modern society that we live in. Now, this family depends on very strict ideas of what is a man and what is a woman. This has biological connotations; it has cultural connotations.

In Europe, bodies with both kinds of sexual organs were called hermaphrodites (now we would say ‘intersex’). Those bodies were actually acceptable and seen as normal and natural until the 17th century, 18th century. That is when the policing of these bodies starts. And in our societies, it starts with the coming in of colonial modernity. But now it’s been naturalised: the idea that all of us are born exclusively male or female, the idea of endogamy, that marriage should always be only within permitted limits…You can see the kind of anxiety about inter-caste and inter-religious community marriage. You would kill your own child rather than live with your child married to a person of another, usually lower, caste. Also, you will notice that women being married by men of other religious communities and castes is seen as more dangerous for the family than if the men marry out and bring women from other communities and castes. Because that is what the role of the woman is assumed to be—that she maintains the identity of the family.

And the purity of her uterus is absolutely crucial to this process. The idea to ensure that no man can have sex with her and possibly impregnate her, except a man of her caste found for her as her husband, produces the extreme policing of women. So under these circumstances, [with] people not conforming to their gender roles, claiming to be other than the gender they were assigned at birth, or accepting the gender they were assigned at birth and performing gender differently, refusing to be proper men, refusing to be proper women, inter-caste marriages, inter-community marriages…there is so much anxiety. Because it is about maintaining a certain social order, which retains and fixes caste and class hierarchies, controls women’s sexuality, and ensures that property passes from the father to his son. Now, all of this requires very, very strict boundaries for people.


Rachita: If it is about maintaining the social order, and, in a sense, so many of us in society are complicit in maintaining the social order, how do we bring about change? Sujata, you’ve been doing this for a long time at CORO. How do you cause a shift in people’s attitudes towards gender?

Sujata: Changing gender-related attitudes is a long process. First [there is] denial, then come justification and acceptance, and then behaviour, which is still a distant thing. Getting that [change] embodied into your behaviours is still a challenge. And it also has internal and external factors. But one thing we experience from our work is [that] dialogue is a very powerful tool to initiate change, to initiate thinking, to initiate critical thinking. And I’m saying it is for both men and…women are also…our socialisation is so complementary, being men and being women. So women also think through the lens of men; with women, too, there has to be dialogue. You can’t be judgemental about the way she is behaving or her constraint; you have to be non-judgemental, non-threatening. The dialogue should be based on equality, parity, communication, mutual empowerment. And that helps even with men. We are working with men extensively while dealing with violence against women because we have to bring them as partners to the table. They are part of the problem, but they’re also part of the solution.

So I would give you an example. We are also working in Muslim-populated communities. And this triple talaq issue was really hot then. Everybody was either on this side or that side, and there was no middle ground. People were not ready to think about each other’s positions. And we have lots of vibrant Muslim women leaders who were actually talking about triple talaq. So this is a maulvi who actually issued a circular in the community that said, ‘Don’t entertain these women because they are anti-men and anti-religion. So don’t allow them to come to your homes.’ That was [the] kind of resistance or opposition he had towards these women. And then what happened was that a team of seven, eight women—our colleagues, leaders—went to have a dialogue with him, and quite a few of them were divorcees themselves. So they talked about their strife. And he just didn’t pay any heed in the first conversation. But we continued with that. And I’m so happy to tell you that he is our ardent supporter currently. He’s our fellow working on constitutional values, where he has come up with a curriculum that sees the similarities and convergences between the Quran and the Constitution. And he teaches that to young kids from his madarsa. When I asked him, ‘What was the tipping point?’ he said, ‘Actually, your approach. When your team was consistently putting their point across and pushing for it, they made space for me to speak. They tried to understand where I’m coming from, and then I realised you are not as bad as I was thinking.’ From there, the dialogue started.

Only laws don’t help because it is in the hands of the implementer. So, we need a mindset shift.

I mean, laws are there. Nivedita was talking about laws and she said they reflect what is going on in the society. But only laws don’t help because it is again in the hands of the implementer of those laws. So, we need a mindset shift and seeing equality as a value in our life. That comes only through dialogue and not by thrashing each other or taking completely opposite positions. Because by fighting this way, we lose this space of resilience. If we are crossing the boundaries, ideological boundaries, then this is probably the most effective way.


Rachita: Honestly, it’s so much easier said than done, I feel, sitting here and listening to you. Because we do have biases that we sometimes don’t realise we have. And I think, like you said, just maintaining a sense of equality in these conversations and an openness to listen makes such a difference. But two questions come up for me that I’d like to ask you, Nivedita. If dialogue is the only way or is one of the most powerful ways, then what do we do when there is no space for dialogue? And we’re seeing this happen increasingly today. We’re seeing it not only in India, but also in many parts of the world. And the second part of the question is: How can we expand the conversation, like Sujata was saying, so we move beyond our own circles and sort of bring other people in as well? So what do we do when there’s no space for dialogue? And how do we expand the conversation?

Nivedita: When it comes to dialogue, we have to recognise that even inside the spaces that are supposedly ours, there is a range of differences of opinion. The first level of dialogue is with people who share a vision with us. But, within that space, there are inequalities of privilege, caste, and class; there are inequalities of who has legitimacy to speak; there are hierarchies of age, often…So the first level of dialogue has to be among ourselves on questions of caste, privilege, class, all of that. And that can be quite bitter. And that can be quite divisive. And we have to figure out ways in which that doesn’t happen. That is our first big hurdle or our first big struggle; that is the first space of dialogue.

The second level of dialogue is with people who could be our allies, like the maulvi in Sujata’s case. We could and should reach out just beyond that to people who may simply be people, organisations, sections, who may simply not have thought through certain things. So this again starts from the home. You’re talking to your father and mother, brother, uncles, and then you talk to your neighbour. The second level of dialogue is with people who may listen, who simply have not thought of an alternative. And they don’t respond violently when you suggest something, but they actually start thinking. And many of us are doing that all the time.

Now the third [is the] outer circle of those whose purpose it is to maintain a certain social order. So here we are talking about individuals, but we are talking about a very highly organised right wing, which has control over institutions, which has control over structural spaces, particularly in the past few years. So you’re talking about a highly organised project to transform the country in a particular direction. There you reach the limits of dialogue and conversation, because the response to dialogue and conversation is actual physical violence, or it is the use of state institutions to silence you, jail you, not permit you to say the smallest thing. It is the use of coercive institutions like the police; it’s the use of instruments like the law. A private citizen can file a case for sedition against anybody if they feel that their nationalist sentiments have been hurt. Then, of course, there are very well-organised IT campaigns, trolling, people who are paid to troll you…these things have been, you know, well established.

And women particularly face very violent trolling and rape threats and death threats. When you reach that domain, what is our alternative? We don’t have one. We don’t have any weapon other than our insistence on non-violent protest and non-violent dialogue, which we will keep up, and the idea is to isolate that outer circle. The idea is that the middle circle should expand more and more. And I think that is also happening. I mean, it’s not that it’s not happening. But, at that level, when you face violence in response to dialogue, we still have only…I will never forget the image of the man with a gun at Shaheen Bagh (Delhi). He’s walking towards the protest with his gun and a young student is walking towards him, not running away from him, towards him. And he’s saying, let’s talk. He’s walking towards him. Not violently; he’s unarmed. He’s walking towards him because he just wanted to engage him. This is our mode—you’re faced with a gun, [still] you try to engage. You see, we don’t have any other option. So that’s what we’ll keep doing, I guess.


Rachita: You know, there’ve been important policy changes, but they need to be enforced and implemented effectively, right? You mentioned the NALSA judgement, which was a landmark judgement, because it was the first to legally recognise non-binary gender identities and also uphold the fundamental rights of transgender people in India. But today we know that the greatest perpetrators of violence against the trans community in India are actually other law enforcement officials…the police. You know, we don’t know if there are separate toilets everywhere as yet, access to targeted healthcare and hospitals, and so on and so forth. And, of course, the NALSA judgement is just one example of this. So what are the structural changes that we need? And how do we know things are changing for the better?

Nivedita: The fact that there is no calm, the fact that there is such a big pushback from the right wing of different sorts means that there is change. But I think one structural change that we can actually talk about practically, and which could be a campaign, is a recognition of the sexual division of labour, and how it produces burdens and hurdles for all women. By sexual division of labour, I mean the normalising of the idea that women are responsible for reproduction and men are responsible for production in the public domain.

If you look at even the reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions, many studies have shown that women are usually very young or much older; in their childbearing and home-running age, they do not enter politics.

Most women are also involved in production, but almost no man is involved in reproduction. So this is the sexual division of labour. And what the sexual division of labour does is at very high levels, like at the level of if you’re a CEO then you have the idea of the glass ceiling, because you voluntarily stepped back from many, many kinds of work that you could do because of your responsibilities towards your children and the home. And then, as you come lower down in the class hierarchy, it also explains why there aren’t so many women in public politics, because their responsibilities are so great. So if you look at even the reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions, many studies have shown that women are usually very young or much older; in their childbearing and home-running age, they do not enter politics. You do that when you can hand over everything to your daughter-in-law, or if you haven’t started [a family] yet. Then women voluntarily clip their wings. If you ask class 12 students, ‘What are your aims and ambitions?’, the way boys will speak and the way the girls will speak will be very different—because girls are already aware of the limitations by the time they’re 17 or 18. Even if they want a job, they know what kind of job will enable them to still be a good wife and mother. Now, when we recognise this, if we work towards a campaign of social and state and employer responsibility for childcare…that’s it. Just one small thing—that the childcare responsibilities cannot continue to be privatised like this. They cannot continue to be privatised into nuclear households or even joint family households where only the women are doing this work. 

Children are communities as well; they’re called human resources for a reason. So every employer, from the contractor on the building site to this multinational company, all the way, wherever there are people employed, [should ensure] there are childcare facilities. Not just for women, there should be childcare facilities for all employees. Now this will have a ripple effect of employment, because there will have to be people running those childcare facilities and their children should also be part of that space. So they’re not leaving their own children behind to come and run these crèches and day-care facilities. I mean, if you think of one small change, this is a doable thing—it is practical; it can be effected. I would say this would be my suggestion for a structural change.

Sujata: If we want women to be in the public domain, to be taking responsibilities outside their homes, doing different kinds of work, then childcare—everything that restricts you from stepping out of home…So, structural requirements are also providing these kinds of facilities, which are enabling for women. Like having crèches, having community kitchens, etc., which ease out her burden, which is stereotypically her burden or her job, and eliminating the restricting factor. We talked about the backlash when you try and change anything that is stereotypical. So having very strong support systems there, having a support system in the nearest environment; somebody in, say, a remote part of Maharashtra cannot depend on an organisation in Mumbai or support in Mumbai. The support has to come from the nearest environment where they all can collectively take care of that. 

There is structural change that is needed in education, because our education teaches so much inequality, right from the upbringing, childhood. And I consistently feel that, while working, most often we are very reactive to what happens, and all our actions are more incident-based. Where there is some incident of inequality or violence, we respond to that or react to that. And I consistently feel that work has to be done on mental structures and mental models…those structures, patterns models because they are so deeply embedded into it. To get out of it is a challenge for everybody, whether it’s a man, a woman, or a trans person, anybody. Because that has constructed [a] kind of identity. So then they can be equitable, and that’s what I call a structural change. And that is my expectation from the process and the movement.


Rachita: Sujata, Nivedita, thanks for being here today.

There’s a lot we have covered today, but I’d like to conclude with two things. The first is that we often don’t think about the investment that goes into maintaining a certain status quo or social order, whether it’s toxic masculinity or the pressure to fit into neat gender roles. It’s important to recognise that while the anxiety around disrupting gender norms causes mental and physical stress, so does the need to abide by a rigid system.

Second, we can achieve little without dialogue, and dialogue carried out on an equal footing. And both of you have shared examples of breakthroughs that are possible through dialogue. This is in fact one of the main reasons we began ‘On the Contrary’—we find ourselves in a society where there is less and less tolerance for differing perspectives and world views.

So thank you both for today. While it’s easy to feel dejected about how much work is left when it comes to changing gender attitudes, I want to leave this conversation on an optimistic note—grateful for what has been achieved and how far we’ve come in the past few decades.

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