Such endemic street harassment is not about sex; it’s about threatening women for daring to leave the private sphere. It’s a form of control over women’s ambitions and lives. And when such a culture is widespread, it gives men permission to use women as the target for any excess anger they might have.
“Rape culture,” as young feminists now call this, isn’t limited to India. It lives anywhere that has a “traditional” vision of women’s sexuality. A culture in which women are expected to remain virgins until marriage is a rape culture. In that vision, women’s bodies are for use primarily for procreation or male pleasure. They must be kept pure. While cultural conservatives would disagree, this attitude gives men license to patrol—in some cases with violence—women’s hopes for controlling their lives and bodies.
~E.J. Graff, writing in The American Prospect
Go read the whole thing, it’s a good analysis of a broader problem, and not just one in places like India. The message of purity culture in American fundamentalism is the same thing–female bodies aren’t their own, they’re the property first of their fathers and then of their husbands. It’s why I’ve always been kind of creeped out by that trend in Christian culture of fathers giving their daughters heart-shaped lock necklaces where the father keeps the key until he gives it to the husband on his daughter’s wedding day. It’s another way of reminding a girl that she’s not her own agent, she’s the property of men, and men are the ones who get to decide what to do with her body.