There’s little about my life that should create a sense of fear. I’m in my early 30s. I have a good job as an editor at a business magazine in New Delhi. I am fortunate enough to live in an upscale gated community in a Delhi suburb – the kind of place that shields you from the daily exasperations of India’s power, water, traffic and noise pollution woes. I don’t even have to drive myself anymore – like many who are comfortably off in India, I have a driver. Yet, despite these considerable advantages, can I really describe myself as empowered? And more importantly – am I even free?
For a start, I don’t dare walk the few hundred feet to the nearby coffee shop near my home after 8 p.m. (Indeed, despite the wide, well-paved roads, it isn’t a pleasant walk at any time of the day). Too often, I don’t feel like I can stand at a crossing in Delhi and hail a cab without hunching my shoulders in hopes that my chest will be a little less obvious. And almost reflexively when on public transport, invisible antennae go up all over my body ready to sense the slightest unwanted touch or sign of harassment.
Even more annoying, why does my cell phone have to buzz with an almost suffocating stream of text messages from my family checking when I’ll be home every time I’m out after 10 p.m. – even when I’m in a car with a driver that we trust? If it’s like this for “privileged” me, what must it be like for the tens of thousands of women who use public transport every day in this city, or the many more tens of thousands across the country who don’t even have to leave their home to feel unsafe, mistreated or disempowered?
Of course, none of this is new – nor is it news to millions of Indian women. Sadly, such experiences had become so much a part of a woman’s day-to-day life here that many of us had stopped questioning the unfairness of how unsafe most of our cities are for women. Delhi, for example, has been dubbed the rape capital of India, with 17 percent of reported cases taking place here in 2011 according to official numbers that are believed to grossly underestimate the problem).
In many cases we have learned to accept that we should dress sensibly if we were going out, that we shouldn’t be “stupid” enough to want to stay out at night alone, and that we need to master the art of maneuvering our backpacks and handbags into a shield to protect our bodies on public transport.
But for me, at least, this lazy acceptance of the notion that this is just the way things work here was shattered by the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi in December. If anything positive can come of this truly shocking, violent incident – one that made headlines across the globe – it is that it might have acted as a wake-up call to the many of us who had grown complacent.
As the sordid details of the incident – in which six men allegedly brutally raped a girl as she travelled home from a movie on a bus – were pored over in the media, I felt angry and almost ashamed to be Indian. What good is a growing economy or the world’s second largest military if half of the population can’t venture past their own doorstep without complete confidence?
We are the world’s largest democracy, yet tens of millions of us are treated like second class citizens – last year, the World Economic Forum ranked India 105th in the world in terms of economic opportunities and education for women. According to India’s most recent census, the literacy rate among women is about 65 percent, compared with more than 80 percent for men.
Fortunately, I was far from the only one shaken by December’s tragedy, and some tangible initiatives look like they may have been born from the public anger unleashed by the incident. As a member of the media, I found it encouraging that so many mainstream organizations took such strong editorial positions, and refused to let the story simply fade away. Indeed, there was a significant focus on the too often unreported crimes that take place against women on a daily basis.
More encouraging than the media outrage, though, may be the decision by the government-appointed Justice Verma Committee, which has spoken in an incredibly brave, non-moralizing and surprisingly plain way in laying out recommendations for changes to the laws that govern sexual crimes in India, including faster trials and punishments that fit the crimes. The committee has also proposed a Bill of Rights for Women.
Of course, these recommendations will inevitably have to navigate numerous delays and debate before they can be enshrined into law (if, indeed, this happens at all). And even once they are, it will take time for laws to translate into tangible changes in our police stations or district courts, which are supposedly the first custodians of justice, but so often end up being callous accomplices.
As I took part in a demonstration protest in Jantar Mantar, Delhi, following the gang rape, it became increasingly clear to me that Justice Verma can only try to help fix the official narrative surrounding women and crime, justice and rights. The more difficult – and sometimes uncomfortable – challenge is to alter mindsets and speak up. This means not just saying something when a bright young woman is gang raped and her innards torn out using an iron rod, but each and every time a girl or woman is treated unfairly in our homes, colleges and offices.
And for me, maybe by contributing to this fight, and speaking up instead of just accepting prejudice, I have a chance of finding greater empowerment. But am I really up to it?