It's easy to visualise the Pune teenager who arranged to meet her boyfriend the day before Friendship Day recently. Just 15, she must have been flushed with excitement at the prospect of feeling special and desirable, and coming home later from the rendezvous floating in that delicious dreamy delirium that characterises the early days of a relationship. But the boyfriend brought along three friends for some 'fun' and they raped her in turns. The following day, the girl hanged herself. In their tragic interplay, i imagine she was seeking love while he wanted sex. Her humiliation and death reveal how the dating game in India is going horribly wrong because boys and girls are playing by different rules.
Girls are eager to explore their newfound social freedom to experience the headiness of loving and being loved. Physical desire is obviously an important part of this exploration because the hormones of a teenage girl are fizzing just as furiously as those of any young male. But girls venture into this new world almost utterly defenceless and, as mostly small-town ingenues, are vulnerable to the first predator who comes along.
So girls are filmed undressing by their boyfriends. The MMS clips are sent to friends or used for blackmail. Girls who end relationships have acid thrown on them. Girls who reject boys' advances are stalked and threatened. In the West, young girls absorb vast amounts of information about relationships before acquiring their first boyfriend. From TV programmes and debates, magazines, playground gossip and conversations with mothers and elder sisters, they develop a sixth sense for detecting a false note or a whiff of aggression that could endanger them.
More than information, certain ideas have entered their minds. The theories of the feminist movement from the 1970s onwards in the West made women aware of the power dynamic between men and women. The ideas of Germaine Greer, Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedman filtered down into popular consciousness. No doubt, they were diluted and reduced to slogans by the time they reached the woman on the street but they nevertheless coloured the landscape of her mind.
This process has been absent in India where such debates have been largely confined to women's groups and magazines such as Manushi. Here, girls plunge into the dating game intellectually blindfolded, groping (excuse the pun) for signposts as they navigate this new terrain. They possess none of the psychological tools to discriminate between genuine and fake interest. Having had arranged marriages themselves, their mothers and elder sisters are of no help.
Quite apart from the limited help available from their families, even the wider culture around them fails to imbue girls either with sense or suspicion. How can it? For centuries, social norms have imposed strict social segregation. The new freedom for the sexes to mix is so new that society has barely woken up to its implications. Whereas in the West, relations between the sexes evolved gradually, over decades, in India, the process has been squeezed into 10-15 years, jumping from Jane Austen to Paris Hilton in the blink of an eye.
As girls, without being forewarned, rush into the arms of their beaux, they misread the signals. Exacerbating their vulnerability is the desire for male attention that virtually consumes girls at this age. Not all young men, of course, are hell-bent on abusing their new access to women. Plenty of them treat their girlfriends with respect. But many, just like the girls, misread the cues.
They see a woman in a bar wearing attractive clothes as 'available' because they have never been educated by literature, films, books and newspapers to grasp the notion that a woman can be drunk, dressed revealingly and behave suggestively but if she says 'no' to sex, it means no. They too are confused. All the old familiar rules have gone and it's a free-for-all. Just the other day, at least in some circles, they were taught to believe that any woman who displayed pleasure during lovemaking, even with her own husband, was a whore. Now they have to learn that women can pose semi-naked, smoke and drink and yet must be treated as respectfully as they treat their mothers.
India has moved from segregation to mingling between the sexes without any of the attendant debates on sex, feminism and contraception. There has been no transition. Many men have leapt from believing that women should be sequestered inside the home to expecting their girlfriends to take responsibility for contraception. Girls pop the 'morning after' pill casually, rather than as an emergency measure. The boyfriends are happy to be carefree and few even bother to find out whether there could be repercussions on the girl's health.
Young Indian women need to realise that many of the new sexual freedoms that were hailed initially as 'liberating' in the West (such as the availability of the pill) turned out to carry a heavy price. When neither side knows the rules because the rules are still being worked out, the dating game becomes potentially lethal. ( The writer is a journalist)