On 15 August 2020, India’s seventy-fourth Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stood on the ramparts of Delhi’s majestic Red Fort and gave a speech on sanitary pads. Modi’s jaw-dropping choice of subject for one of the most solemn speeches of the year reverberated across social media and beyond. He talked of providing them for one rupee apiece and of empowering women, hailing their contribution to India’s booming economy.
Women loom large in Indian culture. This is the country personified by Bharat Mata or Mother India, a goddess-like woman commonly depicted wearing a saffron sari and brandishing the Indian flag, with lions roaring at her feet. It is the country of Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister described by many Indians as the original Iron Lady. In India’s dominant religion, Hinduism, the pantheon of gods contains numerous goddesses, from Durga to Parvati, from Kali to Lakshmi. India’s great holy river, the Ganges, seen as the fount of purity for Hindus, is named after the goddess Ganga and commonly personified as female.
Yet something is awry in the great republic. India has failed its women on virtually every front. One third of Indian women over the age of fifteen are still illiterate, according to the World Bank. Only 9 per cent of India’s MPs and members of the Legislative Assembly are women,