J.J. Rousseau´s moral code and India´s issue with gender equality


“I hereby make a covenant with you which is wholly at your expense and wholly to my advantage; I will respect it so long as I please and you shall respect it so long as I wish.

J.J. Rousseau was one of the most suspiciously acknowledged philosophers and political analysts of the 18th century. For publishing his ground-breaking analysis about social relations and governance – the famous “du Contrat Social (The Social Contract)” – in 1762, he was celebrated by the society as the intellectual forerunner and spark of the French Revolution (1789-1799) and was simultaneously disdained by the monarch and aristocrats for questioning and finally annihilating their ascendancy. Even today, his perceptions of a well-governed people and morally well-established relations among citizens are fundamental to political discussions on how to rule and be ruled. Even though J.J. Rousseau himself rose pertinacious plea against the advancement of the fair sex, selected statements of the First Book of the Social Contract can be put in today´s context in order to explain the current state of women´s rights and harassment issues in India.

In the last years, the reported rape cases accounted for approximately 25.000 victims annually. Even though the actual number goes far beyond this figure, it cannot be captured, since most women are severely oppressed by their families or police officers to drop their charges on rapists. To name only a few, the recently most shattering cases were the gang rape case in New Delhi, December 2012, when a girl got raped my a metal stick and afterwards thrown out of the bus; the young, pregnant girl who was raped twice and then set on fire in a village in West Bengal this January; the two sisters who got raped and hanged on a tree in a village in Uttar Pradesh in May 2014; and the 6-year-old school girl from Bangalore who got raped by school staff this early July. The whole world is just left in schock and with this one question: Why?

In Chapter 7, Book I, “The Sovereign” he describes why men conduct these crimes and what makes them cross the line of common sense and moral barriers.

For every individual as a man may have a private will contrary to, or different from, the general will that he has as a citizen. (…) and fancying that the artificial person which constitutes the state is a mere fictitious entity (since it is not a man), he might seek to enjoy the rights of a citizen without doing the duties of a subject. The growth of this kind of injustice would bring about the ruin of the body politic.
(The Social Contract, Penguin Great Ideas, p.19)

In this statement, J.J. Rousseau basically describes that once the individual doesn´t feel affiliated with the society itself or does not have the appropriate fear of legal enforcement by the state, he might rather selfishly follow his personal endeavors rather than the general will/moral contract. And here lies the problem. India´s legal system is dilapidated and its decision-making careens between the best offers of corrupt officials and corrupt judges – short: it is not reliable. Uneducated men with addled minds, patronized to the lowest status within the society and a medieval mindset – these people don´t have anything to lose and they just as well won´t fear a broken judiciary. But in the rest of the article we will see, that a well-functioning and respected judiciary might have an influence on the over-all situation of sexual violation, but is not the key to erase the problem.

Since the discussion about gender violence and sexual harassment spread like a wildfire through out the Indian and global media since December 2012, various statements and attitudes could be culled. Indian officials are frequently stated that the real problem is not the misbehavior of men, but rather the provocative behavior of women:

  1. India has a lot of migrant workers, they don´t see their wives in a long time… sometimes even for months!
    Don´t we have long-distance relationships in other countries as well? Sometimes families are separated for even years, because the father is working as an expat in another country, is working in mines or is traveling around the world for field trips. Does the distance justify violence?
  2. Many workers/low caste/low class people come from villages with conservative cultures. Once they are in the city, they are exposed to girls wearing shorts/skirts/dresses. When women present themselves half naked, they shouldn´t be surprised that these men want to lay their hands on them…
    In other countries, people can be nude publicly, can wear swimwear and still women don´t have to be worried about their safety. The problem lies somewhere totally else.

Obviously this is not a problem of women´s insinuating exposure of their bodies, but a question of moral education among the male population and a deep-rooted idea of a women and its role in the society. Without going to deep into the topic (since that could fill books), it is important to mention that the inferiority of women is predominantly rooted in the interpretation of religious scriptures, and since religion is still a very influential system in India´s society and a very powerful tool in Indian politics, the situation for women has hardly changed over the last centuries. Additionally the individual perceptions of early philosophers have shaped how women were and still are depicted – dependent, imperious and pleasing housewives. As mentioned above, even J.J. Rousseau himself was denying any kind of advancement for womanhood, he rather declared that ‘a women should never for a moment feel herself independent, that she governed by fear (…), and made a coquettish slave (…), a sweeter companion to man, whenever he chose to relax himself’ (A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft, 1792). But his ideas of moral behavior and his attitude towards the malpractice of slavery can just as well be transferred to modern times and be used to explain the mindset of the men today.

“For what right can my slave have against me? If everything he has belongs to me, his right is my right, and it would be nonsense to speak of my having a right against myself.”
(The Social Contract, Penguin Great Ideas, p.9)

In Chapter 4, Book I, “Slavery”, Jean-Jacque Rousseau illustrates with this statement the mindset of the tyrant, which might have been the monarch, the land owner or any family who kept servants. To make sense of this statement in context to the atrocities hold against women in India today, we recall . J.J. Rousseau`s definition of the fair sex, when he expressed that women should be kept and “educated” to be slaves in the house, with the only duty to please their men. A similar mindset can be found in India – after year´s of feminist activities primarily in rural areas remaining, but even some urban conservatives still hold on to this inferior philosophy of women´s status within the household. As mentioned before, religion plays a big role in the moribund advancement of women´s rights in India. Many social structures originate from religious scriptures such as the Law of Manu and remain untapped, since no one dares to question ancient, religious rules. For instance, the Law of Manu defines the role of women in families as the following (Law of Manu, cited by Nayar et al., 1997: 324):

  • The father protects her in childhood;
  • The husband protects her in adulthood;
  • The son protects her in old age;
  • At no time in life a woman deserves to be free.

Derived from this statement, we can conclude that women can just as well be seen as the “slaves” of the families. A large number of women are uneducated and illiterate, whence it makes them dependent on their husbands. Since their “destiny” is narrowed down to domestic activities, they are neglected to work and neglected to own property (even though the Hindu Women´s Right to Property Act, 1937 legally permits female ownership!), academic or economic aspirations are undesirable.

In order to draft a conclusion here about the “Why?” of sexual harassment in India, we come back to J.J. Rousseau´s statement about slavery and put it in relation to the just now compiled information about women´s rights in India. She doesn´t own money or property, she is dependent on her husband and after the wedding she is officially his “property” – basically: He owns her. All these circumstances combined with a low level of moral education make men feel superior. And as Jean-Jacque Rousseau mentioned, ‘what right can she have to revolt, if she doesn´t have any rights?’ we can conclude, that in these men´s perceptions women are not there to criticize or reason. Women are men´s toys, their inferior objects of power and their companions for pleasure, and if they dare to act insubordinate any violation may be justified. This also proves that sanctions, such as the death sentence, won´t make any difference in the behavior of these men, because in their own little world their actions is completely right and just.

For that we have to say, that women as well as men have to stick together and educate the morally uneducated through individual and governmental initiatives – because the real level of a country´s development isn´t depicted in the GDP, but in the equality ratio of its population.


Picture credits (both): cnn.com

Are you interested in this topic? Read more about Women Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets – Challenges and Opportunities for Women in China and India, Female Entrepreneurship in India or watch a short video about Indian Women Entrepreneurs.

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