12/20/2013 02:45 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2014

What Progress for Women in India Looks Like

Last week's arrest of Devyani Khobragade, an Indian diplomat accused of falsifying her maid's U.S. visa application, overworking her, and paying her just a fraction of the legally-required minimum wage in New York, has sparked an international incident. The Indian government has protested the arrest, outraged that one of its diplomats could be treated "like a common criminal." The crux of the complaint is the fact that Ms. Khobragade was strip-searched, as per standard intake procedure, by a female U.S. deputy marshal upon entering the jail where she was held until posting bail. Indian officials have described this treatment as "barbaric," "despicable" and "humiliating" to a woman in Ms. Khobragade's position. Given the magnitude of the Indian government's response over this apparent affront to Ms. Khobragade's female dignity and bodily autonomy, you could almost forget that this moral indignation is coming from a government that has barely addressed how women are treated in its own country.

Hearing the Indian government's protests, for instance, it's easy to forget that this is the same country where, one year ago, a 23-year-old medical student was beaten with an iron rod and gang-raped by five men on a bus in Delhi, and died shortly thereafter. The national and international protests that followed exposed a law enforcement culture where rape was tolerated and barely investigated in India. It took that high-profile rape, and several more in the months that followed (including the gang rape of an American tourist), to spur basic changes in the law like making stalking and sexual harassment a crime and making it illegal for the police to refuse to investigate a rape case. Yet even in 2013, Indian lawmakers would not go so far as to criminalize marital rape or make the minimum punishment for "acid violence" -- a growing crime in which men pour acid on a woman's face or body for (among other things) not responding to sexual advances -- higher than 10 years.

You probably wouldn't guess that the outrage over Ms. Khobragade's treatment is coming from the same country where women are so devalued that female feticide is a national epidemic: A 2011 study by a University of Toronto researcher estimated that there have been anywhere from 3.1 to 6 million abortions of female fetuses in India in just the last decade, mostly among wealthy, educated Indians (other estimates suggest the number could be as high as 12 million). In fact, the ratio of girls to boys aged 0-6 is the lowest it has been since the country began recording this data in 1961. In some Indian villages where selective abortion is also widespread, the shortage of women has become so acute it's led to a burgeoning bride-trafficking industry in which female children are abducted from one village to be sold off in marriage in another. Incidentally, although the 24 million child brides in India constitute 40% of all child brides in the world, last month India refused to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution (which was co-sponsored by 107 other countries) to end child marriage.

You might think, given its government's position on Ms. Khobragade's arrest, that India is a country where high-profile women are encouraged to speak out about gender violence. Instead, when Bollywood actress Mallika Sherawat told the international press that India is "a regressive country for women," she was shamed by an Indian journalist at a press conference for presenting India in an unfavorable light and not saying enough "positive" things about the country. When Ms. Sherawat stood her ground and told the journalist that she felt it was her responsibility as a woman to speak the truth, Ms. Sherawat was asked how she expected to get married if she continued to say such things about India. I suppose that in a country where almost half of its girls are already married off by age 18, it's a fair question.

At first glance, the vehemence with which Indian officials have responded to the treatment of one of their female citizens halfway around the world, by a female federal law enforcement officer, for violating the civil rights of another one of their (female) citizens, might seem puzzling. And the Indian government's response -- removing the protective barrier surrounding the American Embassy in Delhi, exposing the staff there (including many Indians) to potential terrorist threats -- might seem slightly disproportionate. But given the context, the sudden concern over Ms. Khobragade's status as a woman could be a good thing. In fact, when you look at where India is in terms of women's rights, it actually might be considered progress.