India’s New Sexism of ‘Safety’

by Neeta Lal

Nirbhaya Vigil

Candlelight vigil in Chennai, India to show solidarity for the Delhi rape victim known to the world as Nirbhaya, or"fearless one". Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Kannan B and used under a Creative Commons license.

December 16, 2013 marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Nirbhaya, the young physiotherapist who died after being brutally gang raped and assaulted with iron rods on a moving bus by six men, including a minor, in New Delhi. The inhuman act cut short a young and promising life, outraged an entire nation, and triggered worldwide debate over the Indian society’s appalling treatment of its women.

The outcry that followed Nirbhaya’s death helped break the eerie silence around violence against women and prompted modifications in laws on sexual violence. It catalyzed the government to appoint a commission to draft stringent anti-sexual assault laws and a raft of legislation was pushed through. Perpetrators of gang rape receive a 20-year sentence; stalking, voyeurism, and sexual harassment was criminalized; and six new fast-track courts have been created solely for rape prosecutions.

But, as India remembers the 23-year-old victim with candles, flowers and poignant placards, the point to ponder is this: has the whirligig really helped ordinary Indian woman feel more secure?

Two more cases of rape came to light in January. One involved a 20-year-old woman who was raped in public by as many as 12 men on the orders of tribal elders in a village near the eastern city of Kolkata. According to the local police, the sexual attack was a punishment for an “unauthorized” relationship with a man from another village and the woman's subsequent failure to pay a US$ 800 fine.

Another case was that of a 51-year-old Danish tourist who lost her way near New Delhi railway station and was raped by a group of men who pretended to guide her to her destination.

As an independent professional who has traveled the world, and mother to a young daughter, I am still wary of stepping out of my house unescorted after dusk. I have cut down on my socializing and I refrain from late evening work appointments. A group of boisterous men, a mobike zipping sharply by, or a stranger asking for directions – all seemingly innocuous encounters – spook me, especially if I am alone.

It was not always like this in New Delhi. I remember going out with my girlie gang during my college days for night movie shows, to restaurants or the occasional discotheque, and then taking the night bus home. My mom would be up waiting for me as mobile phones were not a part of our daily narratives then. But, I could indulge in all that fun without any ostensible threat to my safety.

Unfortunately, it is different story today. If I am out for an assignment and my 14-year-old daughter fails to call me within minutes of reaching home from school — at about 3 pm — I panic. I call her every other hour just to check that the door is properly bolted and that she does not let in a stranger. Tanisha stays home most evenings and I prefer it that way. All her extracurricular activities and classes happen only over the weekends, when I or her father can escort her.

Indeed there has been a major unhappy fallout of this obsessive focus on women’s safety -- a clampdown on our freedom. Women in my circle bemoan that they feel increasingly cloistered. Wardrobes are altered to avoid `unwanted’ attention (no skirts or tight jeans), socializing is whittled down, and extracurricular activities that requires one to stay back after college/school hours are avoided. From early (often arranged) marriages and strict curfews to living under lockdown in hostels, young women in India are encountering a new sexism camouflaged as "concern" for their safety.

“The Nirbhaya incident was a blow to every independent woman in the country,” admits Vanika, 23, a hotel employee in Delhi. “First, my parents asked me not to work night shifts or wear western clothes. Slowly, they started pressuring me to get married. Last month, they brought three marriage proposals for my consideration.”

Vanika chose one, an engineer she is currently engaged to because she does not “feel like stressing my family out.” Yet she rues the fact that she is being pushed into marriage at a time when she would rather focus on her fledgling career.

The premier Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) University in the southern city of Vellore, with over 17,000 students, was in the news recently for suspending two women students who questioned the institute’s decision to impose arbitrary checks on women students, including requiring them to return to their hostel by 8.30 pm while male students faced no such curfew. Women are also being discouraged from socializing with men, participating in inter-college events, and have to adhere to stricter dress codes.

“The rape was the 9/11 of our times; it has changed our lives forever,” adds Pinaki*, a mechanical engineering student at VIT.

For many Indian mothers with young daughters, fear has become the overarching narrative of their lives. Asha Ramani, 53, based in Pune in South India, says she calls her 27-year-old daughter at least a dozen times a day as she works in a different city. “The ground beneath my feet shakes if she doesn’t answer the phone in the first three rings,” admits Ramani. “Often she’s upset with me for being so obsessive, but I can’t help it.”

Many mothers admit to forcing their daughters to turn down lucrative job offers in Delhi, considered to be the epicenter of crimes against women. There is a different kind of pressure on men too. Incredulously, prospective sons-in-laws need more than good looks and a decent pay packet to be eligible in the marriage market.

“My parents insist that I marry a man who has a house in a central, secure area in Delhi,” shares Shalini Tanwar, 27, a school teacher. She admits she has had to forego two good offers from well-to-do families simply because the boys resided in suburban areas!

Misplaced protectionism and hothouse parenting? Perhaps. But as Ramani puts it, “It’s an alarming reaction to an alarming crime.”

The government has initiated a slew of measures to make life safer for women. Following Nirbhaya’s rape, all buses in Delhi were to be fitted with a GPS system and home guards deployed in each. However, a source in the ministry of transport reveals that only about a thousand buses have been fitted with the GPS system as of now. Worse, thousands of school and contract carriage buses do not have it yet. There were plans to install web cameras inside 200 Delhi Transport Corporation buses, but not a single one has been outfitted to date.

Perhaps that is why the Metro is considered a safer option by women. Ever since the service began in 2002, the Delhi Metro – which ferries 25 lakh commuters today -- has been identified as the only “safe” public transport system in the National Capital Region. The presence of closed circuit television cameras is reassuring say passengers, more so as their footage is strictly monitored by the central office. In case of any incidents, women passengers are urged to inform the train operators at the next station.

Such measures notwithstanding, social activists and lawyers complain that while cases of extreme violence fetch prompt police action, the police follow-up is tardy in the everyday and far more common cases of sexual harassment and assault.

“The problem is that the guidelines for handling sexual violence cases at police stations are rather ambiguous,” admits a Delhi female police officer wryly. “The system makes it extremely difficult for women to register complaints. Only the very brave come forward to do so.”

The officer elaborates that victims are often made to wait for hours before the first information report is lodged. Victims are shunted from one police officer to another and dissuaded from filing a report. During this period, they may be interrogated insensitively or even be exposed to the accused who intimidates them. “None of this is in keeping with the newly introduced Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act (PCSOA) 2012 guidelines or the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013,” adds the officer.

Also, despite the brouhaha around Nirbhaya’s case, and a constant media vigil, incidents of rape in India have doubled in 2013 as compared to 2012. By October 2013, the total number of rapes reported reached 1,472 as compared to the 642 reported in 2012. Molestation cases ratcheted up from 612 in 2012 to 3,182 in 2013, while harassment cases saw an upward spiral from 125 to 850.

Senior police officers say these statistics do not reflect an upward spiral in rape cases, but rather are indicative of how more women are coming forward to report these cases now. But the fact still remains that 1,472 women were raped in the 10 months after the country imploded in the aftermath of the New Delhi case.

Where does the solution lie? “Clearly, there’s no one solution to this problem that has many dimensions to it – social, economic, political,” says psychologist Dr Kamla Suri who treats victims of sexual abuse. “But a good beginning would be for society to change and especially for men to be sensitized that if they maltreat their women, it will only make for unhappy families.”

Suri does observe that gradual but discernible changes are in the air. “More women are taking their perpetrators to task, they’re getting support from society and the media, laws are being tweaked. But it’ll take time.”

Until then Indian women will have to keep their fingers crossed and hope that there is no danger lurking round the corner!

*Name changed upon request.

About the Author:
Freelance journalist Neeta Lal writes on politics, lifestyle trends, environment and gender issues for news syndicates, internet publications and newspapers such as The Guardian, Inter Press Service (IPS), World Political Review (WPR) and Asia Times. A post-graduate in English Literature and Journalism, Neeta has also been a scholar at the International Summer School, Norway and Concordia University, Canada. Having traveled to over 30 countries, she is also in the process of writing a travel book. Neeta enjoys cooking, gardening, traveling and photography. She lives in New Delhi with her husband and two children.

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