Amrit Dhillon, for The Straits Times

India's age-old notion of the ideal woman

Women carrying their children walk back to their homes after casting their vote at a polling station at Putsari village in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam on April 12, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS 
Women carrying their children walk back to their homes after casting their vote at a polling station at Putsari village in the north-eastern Indian state of Assam on April 12, 2014. -- FILE PHOTO: REUTERS 

WHEN an Indian man praises an Indian woman, listen carefully. Note the adjectives he uses - obedient, dutiful, submissive, sacrificing. This is his notion of a perfect woman.

The media coverage of prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi's wife has shown that not much has changed since the Delhi gang rape over a year ago, despite the anguished debates that took place then over women's status and mistreatment.

Little is known about Mr Modi's wife Jashodaben Chimanlal, except that they had an arranged marriage and lived together briefly as teenagers before Mr Modi told her that he wanted to pursue public life. He urged her to go back to her parents and resume her studies. For about 45 years there has been no contact between them.

She shot into the limelight recently from a lifetime of obscurity because Mr Modi, 63, acknowledged her formally for the first time when he put "married" on the nomination papers he filed as a candidate in the general election. Mr Modi and his  Bharatiya Janata Party are tipped to win.

The acknowledgement unleashed a media storm. The ruling Congress party accused him of being a cad by deserting her. By all accounts a gentle and dignified woman, Ms Chimanlal, a retired school teacher, has been thrust into the media glare because Mr Modi's opponents want to use her as a stick to beat him with.

Up to this point, the story is pretty straightforward. Then Mr Modi's supporters and relatives rushed to defend him and praise Ms Chimanlal. I agree with them on one point. In an age when spurned women sell bedroom tittle-tattle about their failed love affairs with celebrities to the tabloids, Ms Chimanlal's refusal to flog her story is commendable.

The problem begins with how Mr Modi's relatives applauded her. They praised her for fasting and praying every day for Mr Modi's welfare, for possessing only five saris, for giving up rice to please the gods to bestow good fortune on Mr Modi, for never remarrying, and for making no demands on him despite being deserted. "That is a true Indian woman for you," said Mr Modi's sister.

There we have it. This notion of the ideal woman is identical to that of 18th- or 19th-century India. It commands total devotion, regardless of the husband's conduct. It requires the husband to be treated as a lord.

All the impassioned debates that followed the Delhi gang rape on why Indian men treat women so badly were just the frothy foam of the urban, educated classes.

Dive deeper into the lower regions of Indian society, particularly in rural areas, and you will find that this image of the perfect woman predominates.

Fasting for Mr Modi's welfare and success? It means she should have no sensual pleasures, not even eating. Possessing only five saris? The better to keep herself plain. Never remarried? Of course not, she is not to seek happiness or the fulfilment of human desires. Made no demands on him? The ideal woman does not assert herself, merely accepts what comes her way.

The men (and women) who praised Ms Chimanlal's qualities never wondered if a man would behave the same way if his wife abandoned him 45 years ago. In fact, I am somewhat surprised that the condescending and self-serving commentary on Ms Chimanlal has not attracted more outrage from young Indians.

But then, this election campaign has brought depressing new lows in public discourse on women, so perhaps, there are too many offences to respond to. Politician Mulayam Singh Yadav revived that old chestnut by saying that the recently convicted rapists were just "being boys" when they gang-raped a woman.

His colleague Abu Azmi sank further, demanding that women who have sex outside marriage be hanged, including rape victims.

Such comments are repulsive, though, to be fair to Mr Yadav, his main point was that the death sentence is too severe for rape, which is a valid argument. The only redeeming point that can be made is that India is far, far behind on the trajectory of feminist thought and progress on gender equality.

It is going to take time for the Indian mentality to change. Let's not forget that, even in the West, in the early days of the feminist movement's campaign for equality, women demanding their rights were often cast as ugly, frustrated harridans unable to find a man.

If the ideal Indian woman is still long-suffering, meek and abject, it will be a long time before a free, independent woman who knows her own mind and wants to live on her own terms can ever be acceptable.

Imagine if the media had dashed to her home to find Ms Chimanlal drinking, having fun and partying instead of praying.

Women, too, having undergone the same cultural conditioning, have a long way to go. I mean, why on earth is Ms Chimanlal abnegating herself for a man she has never had any relationship with?

She is just like all those millions of brainwashed Indian women who, in survey after survey, say their husbands are justified in beating them if they burn the dinner or go out without their permission.

In fact, why not turn Ms Chimanlal's story upside down and portray her as a strong, self-sufficient woman who has enjoyed a life and fulfilling career without a man, exemplifying Gloria Steinem's apothegm that "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle"?

The writer, a former BBC journalist, is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.