Back to Forum

Infrahumanization of Women in India

The traditional understanding of dehumanization is an explicit and brutal deprivation of humanity in its entirety. In the last decade, researchers like Leyens and colleagues (early 2000s) introduced the term “infrahumanization.” This refers to the tendency to perceive out-groups as less defined than in-groups in terms of uniquely human characteristics such as higher order cognition, refined emotions, and language,[1] which distinguishes it from its close cousin dehumanization. These researchers posited a distinction in the amount of “humanness” people attributed to their self and own group as compared to out-groups, which is known as the infrahumanization effect. For instance, the Flemish Employment Service in Belgium recently conducted research on their own job websites, which give companies with information about potential job candidates. The results revealed that employees with foreign sounding names, even though they had equal qualifications, had 15% less chance to be selected for further information than their Belgian sounding counterparts. It goes without saying that these kinds of subtle biases can have a significant impact in everyday life and continue to handicap an important part of our population.[2] Discrimination can arise from either a predisposition to attribute more positive traits, resources, facilities, help, etc. to the ingroup (i.e., ingroup favouritism) or a tendency to ascribe more negative properties to the outgroup (i.e., outgroup derogation).[3] Whereas, the term “dehumanization” refers to the denial, in part or whole, of the humanity of a person or group of persons.[4]

A larger number of studies addressed the consequences of infrahumanization of women[5] in which they are subjected to various forms of violence.[6] Inflicting and undergoing violence in various subtle forms that cause physical and mental agony in everyday life, has been conceded as part of inter-personal relationships. The cruelty and hate that exists in the powerful and the cunning is manifested in the exploitation of the weak, particularly women, which is a horrific form of infrahumanization.[7] Men, who believe their in-group is more human than the out-group, lead women into an inhuman state by their continuous enslavement and brutality towards women. The process of infrahumanization of women that gives rise to violence against them is gradually increasing globally with the change of time and at a faster rate than ever before, whether in the family, society, workplace, or politics. India is no exception.

As a result of infrahumanization, modern Indian society is confronted with a slew of complex and troubling issues that put women at risk.[8] In India, women constitute half of the country’s population. Inequality based on gender still persists despite constitutional guarantees of equal rights and opportunities for both men and women. Despite increased educational enrollment, more legal provisions, political opportunities, and better health care facilities in modern India, the status of women in family and society still continues to be extremely low in many areas. There are crimes perpetrated against women in their families as fetus, as infant, as bride without enough dowry, as a wife incapable of bearing a male child, and as a helpless widow. Above all, if she is a working woman, she often has to labour from dawn to midnight oscillating between jobs at home and workplace.[9] This is how the survival, development, and responsibilities of women have been monitored in Indian families.

Since the nineteenth century, the incidence of violence in all kinds has increased, including spousal abuse, abduction, verbal assaults, and so on. The Indian Penal Code (IPC, 1862) has identified rape, kidnapping and abduction for different purposes, homicide for dowry, mental and physical torture, sexual harassment, and importation of girls, as crimes against women.[10] Among many forms of violence against women, a good number of cases go unreported owing to social stigma, drawbacks in legal mechanism, fear of retaliation, and other factors. Another form of atrocities against women is associated with their status as dalit women, who struggle for their survival and justice. The concepts of ‘high and low,’ ‘purity and pollution’ exist due to the caste system[11], which restrict the changes in dalit women’s status. For example, in one incident in 2017, in Utter Pradesh, dominant caste peasants desecrated and killed an 8-month pregnant dalit woman for touching a bucket belonging to the upper caste. They are marginalized and oppressed on account of caste, gender, and class, making them the downtrodden among the downtrodden.[12] Gender inequality must be addressed in order to solve the problem of violence and atrocities against women.

In the media, women are frequently exploited rather than exalted. They are often treated as objects rather than as humans with inviolable dignity, in order to satisfy others’ desire for pleasure or power.[13] Even they become victims, justice is not meted out to them with a favorable treatment and cases of violence accelerate as it is clear in the cases of rape. No government, of past or present, has been able to tackle and resolve the increasing number of rapes.[14] If the accused harasser is a high-ranking official, it is common that they secretly victimize the complainant, witnesses, and supporters of the abused. This conveys the impression to women that no matter how often they complain, nothing will change. In consequence, when it comes to sexual harassment, the most common approach adopted by women is to ignore it or remain silent.[15] Despite the fact that cases are filed, and First Information Reports (FIRs) are registered against the culprits, victims rarely receive immediate justice. For many years, the perpetrator may have a status of convicted prisoner or get bail, until he is sentenced after a long time.  It would mean that the legal provisions do not heal the wound nor provide legal protection to women keeping her dignity. They are not respected as women and after the violation they are not respected as victims. For example, when a 19-year-old girl was gang-raped and murdered in Hathras district in the north-Indian state of Uttara Pradesh on 14 September 2020, the political masters interfered and distorted the laws, forcing the cops not to do their jobs.[16] Even in the most infamous case of Nirbhaya’s death following brutal rape in December 2012, no attitudinal change has happened in the society except legislation update.  Though every day and every 15 minutes rape occur in the country, it is disappointing that a civilized and democratic country like India, with one of the world’s most progressive constitutions, is unable to administer justice due to the difficulty in interpreting criminal codes and statutes.

Another form of abuse against women is the infrahumanization of women found in the ecclesiastical circle, that has no exception in India. The concern for it is found in the question posed by the International Union of Superiors General to Pope Francis “How is it possible that we are frequently neglected and not included as participants …? Can the Church afford to continue speaking about us, instead of speaking with us?”[17] Borrowing the words of Cardinal Leo Suenens, the daughters of Church reiterate, “Why are we even discussing the reality of the Church when half of the Church is not even represented here?” When the subject is family, sexuality, and reproduction, the absence of women’s voices and women’s votes is particularly tragic,”[18] is still relevant today.

Pope Francis adopts a different voice in response to these concerns. He addresses a sensitive issue in the Catholic Church: the exploitation of nuns and religious sisters as cheap source of labour, a classic example of the Church’s infrahumanization of women. In fact, he is aware of the untold number of nuns and consecrated women who serve as domestic help to seminarians, priests, and bishops.[19] Pope lauded consecrated women who serve as catechists, theologians, and spiritual guides, demonstrating the beauty of God’s love and mercy. Pope Francis, who walks the talk, declared that under a new constitution for the Holy See’s central administration, any baptized lay Catholic, including women will be able to lead Vatican departments. He has already named a number of lay people, including women and religious sisters in various administrative departments.[20] He is convinced that the feminine genius is good and essential, wherever we make important decisions and when new spaces and responsibilities have been opened up to the presence and activity of women both in the Church, as well as that of the public and professional spheres.[21] This is merely the beginning from a higher level, but we still have a long way to go to get to the grass root level. In India, the Church has to get involved in a process of self-critique, along with cultural and structural critique, to unearth gender and other biases that persist both within the Church and outside it. Fighting gender stereotypes deeply engraved in the minds of people is indeed the core of change in mindset.

In short, women will be deprived of their power as mother, wife, sister, and daughter unless and until both men and women begin to respect the roles each one plays and accept the contributions. The solution begins with respecting women concretely and everywhere, for the issues of women should not be limited to loud protests, agitations, and talks alone. India had a great legacy of treating women with respect. During ancient India, the early Vedic period (1500-1000 BCE), women were considered with respect and dignity. The women were provided opportunity to attain high intellectual and spiritual standard. There were many women rishis, and they were held in high esteem. In royal households, women were given respect and they even rendered a significant contribution in the making of decisions and administrative functions. They were made aware in terms of all areas and played an important part in politics as well. But in the later Vedic period (100-600 BCE) women were being discriminated. The discrimination was observed primarily in terms of education and other rights and facilities. The position of women further experienced a decline with the prevalence of child marriage, widow burning (sati), polygamy, and the purdah system[22], under the pressure of caste[23] and patriarchal systems, and the sudden developments of our time due to the advent of technology, modernization, and globalization, has somehow led to the infrahumanization and objectification of women. The time is now to recapture the beauty of the great tradition of the Indian culture by respecting women, and heeding to the demands of gender-equality and gender justice.

Short Bio, Ann Mary CMC

Sr. Ann Mary Madavanakkad, a religious nun in the Congregation of the Mother of Carmel (CMC). She has completed MSc in Psychology and Counseling, LTh in Pastoral Management at JDV, Pune, and LTh in Moral Theology at Dharmaram Vidya Kshetram, Bangalore, where she pursues her doctoral studies in Moral Theology. She lectures in different institutions, formations houses, and now she serves as the Mission Formation Coordinator in her congregation.

[1] Leyens J.-Ph., Demoulin S., Vaes J., Gaunt R. & Paladino M. P., “Infrahumanization: The Wall of Group Differences,” Social Issues and Policy Review 1 (2007): 753-775.

[2] Jeroen Vaes, ““They are Less Human than “We” are: Modern Prejudice in Human Terms,” Cahiers de I’Urmis 10-11 (2006): 2.

[3] M. B. Brewer & R. J. Brown, “Intergroup Relations,” Pages 554-594 in The Handbook of Social Psychology, Edited by Daniel Todd Gilbert, Susan T. Fiske, & Gardner Lindzey, New York: McGraw Hill, 1998.

[4] Paulus Kaufmann, Hannes Kuch, Christian Neuhauser and Elaine Webster, Humiliation, Degradation, Dehumanization. Human Dignity Violated, New York: Springer, 86.

[5] Giulio Boccato, Elena Trifiletti & Carla Dazzi, “Machocracy: Dehumanization and Objectification of Women,” TPM 22. 3 (2015): 429-437, 432.

[6] In general, violence against women is defined as a force, whether overt or covert, used to wrest from a woman something that she does not want to give of her own free will and that causes her bodily pain, emotional trauma or both. Nimisha Gupta, “Crime Against Women in India: Responsible Factors and Remedial Measures,” Pages 69-91 in Gender Equality: Various Dimensions, Edited by Yogita Beri and Punita Pathak, New Delhi: Kanishka Publishers, 2021, 70.

[7] Nimisha Gupta, “Crime Against Women in India,” 71.

[8] Most families are patrilineal irrespective of religion with the exception of some castes and tribes such as the Nairs in Kerala and the Khasi and Garo tribes in North Eastern India. Matthew Countinho, “Promoting Marital Fidelity in Family Life: Challenges in Society Today,” Pages 442-476 in Moral Theology in India Today, Edited by Shaji George Kochuthara, Bangalore: Dharmaram Publications, 2013, 444.

[9] Reeta Choudhury, “Gender Issues in Family Life,” Pages 15-34 in Indian Families at the Crossroads. Preparing Families for the New Millennium, Edited by David K. Carson, Cecyle K. Carson, and Aparajita Chowdhury, New Delhi: Gyan Publishing House, 2007, 19.

[10] Indian Penal Code. Accessed on 02.06.2022; Ramashray Prasad Singh, Crime Against Women, Jaipur: Avishkar Publishers, 2010.

[11] The foundational castes are the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (traders and artisans), and Sudras (workers). Leela Mullaiti, “Families in India: Beliefs and Realities,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies 26. 1 (1995): 11-25, 12. Due to this caste system, the values of equality, freedom, and brotherhood were negotiated in society. Anyone belonging to the lower caste who polluted temples, houses, tanks, or roads by their presence or touch was awarded corporal punishment by the Brahmins and their agents. Rajayyan, History of Tamil Nadu–1565-1982, Madurai: Raj Publishers, 1982, 182-189.

[12] Nivedha and Kanimuthu Selvi, “Vulnerability and the Act of Protest and Resistance Power of Dalit Women: Formulation of Life affirming Dalit Theology,” NCC (National Council of Churches in India) Review 140. 10 (2020) :564-571, 566, 570.

[13] Renuka Mukadam and Prachi Patwardhan, “Sexual Harassment at Workplace,” Pages 67-80 in Gender and Human Rights: Narratives on Macro-Micro Realities, Edited by Bishnu C. Barik, Pushpesh Kumar & Usha S. Sarode, New Delhi: Rawat Publications, 2010, 67.

[14] Aupama Hial, “Stand Up, Stand Out and Make a Difference…!” NCC Review 140. 9 (2020): 481-487, 481.

[15] Mukadam and Patwardhan, “Sexual Harassment at Workplace,” 80.

[16] Aupama Hial, “Stand Up, Stand Out and Make a Difference…!,” 481.

[17] “Pope Francis’ Meeting with the International Union of Superiors General May 12, 2016.” Accessed on 25.05.2022.

[18] Katherine Marie, The Church in the Twentieth Century, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2012, 399.

[19] Francis, “Behind the Pope’s “Fighting” Words to Women Religious,” February 2, 2022. Accessed on 29.05.2022.

[20] “Pope Rules any Baptized Lay Catholics, Including Women, can Lead Vatican Departments,” March 20, 2022. Accessed on 13.05.2022.

[21] Francis, “Feminine Genius is Needed in the Church.” Accessed on 03.06.2022.

[22] Naresh Rout, “Role of Women in Ancient India,” Odisha Review, 2016. Accessed on 22.06.2022.

[23] Manusmriti, the most authoritative moral code of Hinduism, written by Manu, highlighted the inferior status of women: “A girl, a young woman, or even an old woman, should not do anything independently, even in her own house. In childhood, a woman should be under her father’s control, in youth, under her husband’s, and when her husband is dead, under her sons.’ She should not have independence.” Manu, The Laws of Manu, Translated by Wendy Doniger and Brian K. Smith. New Delhi: Penguin, 2000, 5. 115, 147-148.