by Lakshmi Chaudhry Dec 19, 2012
I am a Delhi girl. I was born and raised in the city. Though a Tam-Brahm by birth, it is the streets of Delhi, its show-sharaba culture, calorie-inducing food that spell ‘home’ for me. But I will never, ever move back to Delhi for one simple reason: I have a young daughter
Interlaced with fond childhood memories of late night trips to Pandara Road, Lohri bonfires, and basking in the winter sun are other, less pleasant images. The ubiquitous, unashamed leering on the streets that taught me to never look up or around. The many headlong flights from men following me in cycles, autos, and cars, yelling obscenities in my wake. The constant squirming and shifting on DTC buses to avoid the man pressing his penis against me, or leaning his crotch into my face as I sat on the aisle seat. The constant vigilance required each time I took an auto, to be sure he was taking the right route, or didn’t stop to pick up a ‘friend.’ The fear of lecherous policemen on the lookout for young girls out late at night with male friends. The need to be constantly ‘escorted’ by a friend, brother or mother just to run to the cornerstore after after 7 pm. Escorts who often were no deterrent to the truly determined, like the pack of boys who followed a teenaged me and my mother into the nearby temple, heckling, taunting, and fearless.
One reason is that in Delhi — perhaps more than any other major city — what matters is not the rule of law but the primacy of privilege. PTI
The intervening decades have done little to change the palpable atmosphere of fear that shrouds the everyday lives of women in my old hometown. “It is as if there is a silent conspiracy in this city,” a woman friend tellsBBC correspondent Soutwik Biswas, “to keep the women scared.”
Biswas offers a cursory string of reasons for the city’s ‘exceptional’ reputation:
The mistreatment and abuse of women is a particular problem in Delhi and northern India. A stiflingly patriarchal social mindset, a brazen culture of political power, a general disdain for law, a largely insensitive police force and a rising population of rootless, lawless migrants are only some of the reasons. There must be many others.
It may be comforting to think that the Delhi male is that much worse than his countrymen, but the reality, as The Hindu notes, is that Delhi’s reputation as India’s “rape capital” may be misleading: “There are plenty of other places in India with a higher incidence of reported rape, in population adjusted terms — and Delhi’s record on convicting perpetrators is far higher than the national average.
A Hindustan Times survey conducted with NGO Akshara last year revealed that 95 percent of women in Mumbai — the bastion of cosmopolitanism — have been sexually harassed, and the conviction rate in rape cases in the city is a paltry 7 percent.
Delhi may not be more unsafe, but it does feel more unsafe. As a friend confesses, “In Chennai, I will run after the guy and yell at him, but in Delhi I’m too scared to do it.” There’s something about Delhi that makes its women very, very afraid.
One reason is that in Delhi — perhaps more than any other major city — what matters is not the rule of law but the primacy of privilege, be it of gender, money, connections, or political clout. Sexual violence against women in Delhi is a symptom of its subservience to hierarchy. Men flaunt their power of gender and abuse it because they can. Just like that politician who will have someone sacked or beaten up if he dares to offend. The rich guy who will mow a passerby down and drive on by.
In the case of women, this blithe sense of impunity is summed up by that quintessential Delhi phrase, Uthva lenge. What the two words spell out in no uncertain terms is this: You are not safe at anytime or any place; I can take you at whim and against your will; there will be no reprisals or consequence. It sums up the complacency of indisputable male power.
The other is a culture of violence that extends beyond the sexual kind. The bystander effect is common elsewhere in India, but in Delhi, the reluctance to intervene is compounded by the greater likelihood of serious consequences. In our capital, you won’t just be roughed up if you cross the wrong men, but attacked with rods, knives — and now guns. This is a city where gun ownership is a status symbol for the rich and a must-have weapon for the average thug, be it a lowly katta or an AK-47. The Delhi Belly scene where the jealous ex-husband and his goons wave guns in the midst of traffic on a South Delhi flyover wasn’t Bollywood melodrama but a cinematic wink at an “only in Delhi” phenomenon.
Take a culture of violence and hierarchy, add the modern Indian woman, newly at large on the streets, on her way to work, college, or a date. The result is horrific sexual assault. Patriarchy is the easy and lazy answer to the ‘Why Delhi?’ question. Saudi Arabia is more sexist than any hintertown in the Delhi-NCR region, but its women are ‘safer’ because they remain strictly under male control. The rising rates of sexual violence against women — and not just in Delhi but also other major metros and even small towns — is also a symptom of progress. Delhi women make easier targets than ever before because they have stepped outside the safe confines of the chaar diwari.
We can offer reasons upon reasons, but the more important question is this: So what is to be done?
Wise experts offer counsel about changing gender attitudes, while hotheads advocate castration or the death penalty. But as a Delhi girl, I offer a simpler, short-term solution. Rather than scream their heads off in Parliament about justice, women’s rights et al, our outraged leaders need only send out one clear message: Every woman in Delhi will be treated as the ek lauti beti of a powerful neta (Take you pick, Sheila Dixit, LK Advani, Sonia Gandhi…). Touch her and there will be instant action and severe reprisals — and not just against the men with the temerity to commit such a crime. Officials will be transferred, demoted, or sacked. Cases will be fast-tracked. And examples will be made of any party minion who intervenes in the course of justice. All those elaborate excuses about socio-cultural changes, policing problems, women’s behaviour, attire etc will disappear overnight.
Nothing works in Delhi quite like the political danda. Too bad none of our leaders are willing to wield it — just this once —for a good cause.