By Amrita Mukherjee
“Don’t ever take a cab late in the night if you are alone.”
“Don’t wear anything that would draw attention to you.”
“Avoid walking in areas which are not crowded or well lit.”
“Never accept a drink from a stranger at the nightclub.”
When I was just out of college in the mid 90s these were the things virtually drilled into my head by my parents, elderly relatives and older cousins.
Strangely in 2014 when I was planning to move back to India after being a resident of Dubai for seven years, these were the same things my friends kept telling me.
I thought nothing has changed in the last 20 years. In fact, I realized the fear surrounding eve teasing, molestation and rape has become worse now.
It is about this fear of safety of women in India that Nora O’Donnell of CBS asked Indian journalist Barkha Dutt at the Women in the World Summit in the U.S. recently.
Barkha Dutt defended India saying that India has had a woman PM four decades ago, has paid maternity leave, has reproductive rights for women and it’s just unfair to label India as unsafe for women.
Is this fear misplaced then?
I would say this fear is not without reason. After the Nirbhaya rape case that occurred in 2012, it is “normal” to see at least one rape or molestation case being reported in the media every day where the age of the victims ranges from four years to 75 years.
While there continues to be a debate whether there is an actual increase in rape cases or whether there’s an increase in the cases being reported to the police, one thing is for sure, contrary to popular belief India is way behind countries like the U.S., UK, Sweden when it comes to rape statistics.
But every country is dealing with their own issues. If date rape and pedophilia are issues in the UK rape on campus is a major issue in the U.S. In fact, Time magazine did an entire cover feature on it titled The Sexual Assault Crisis on American Campuses in its May 2014 issue.
India singled out
Then why is India being singled out as a nation of rapists?
Is it because of the brutality associated with rape in India? After Nirbhaya was violated with a metal rod it was as if the “metal rod” became a standard of violation and the worst case was reported recently when a man violated a six-year-old with a metal rod in March this year.
It could be because the number of reported gang rapes is also comparatively higher in India. Park Street case, Delhi bus case, Badaun gang rape, Shakti Mills gang rape in Mumbai and the recent rape of a 71-year-old nun by dacoits in West Bengal, have made headlines recently.
It also could be because of the violence and viciousness experienced by rape victims in India, that it has brought the country to the forefront of the debate on sexual harassment of women.
In an interview to Dubai-based Friday magazine Leslee Udwin, the maker of the documentary India’s Daughter said: “I would argue rape is institutionalized the world over and the degree is different here in India. It happens in the UK too, but there it’s a different level of the same disease. It’s like having grade A cancer and grade C cancer. It’s about how severe the problem is.”
I would say Udwin has been able to pinpoint the real issue. India is an emerging society where women are defying age-old norms and making their own place in the society. While millions of sensitized Indian men are with women in this endeavor there are also a large mass of men and women who believe that women should stay within the “set rules” to maintain the equilibrium of Indian society and culture. And sexual assault is a means used to subjugate women who want to step out of these set rules.
Despite all the modernization and progress India continues to be plagued by issues like female foeticide, child marriage, bride trafficking, dowry deaths, marital rape, molestation, groping in public spaces, eve teasing, sexual harassment in the workplace and the possibility of getting sexually abused because of a lack of toilet at home.
I think this is what Leslee Udwin has described as Grade C cancer.
There is a social movement in India that is demanding a change in the Indian social structure where safety of Indian women is in focus. There is a demand for an environment, where women can enjoy a “real” sense of freedom every time they step out of their homes.
People are raising their voices against a culture where eve teasing, molesting, raping, victim shaming have been accepted as part of the system.
Women are refusing to be “stared at” – once again a very Indian thing – groped or verbally abused. See these videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SDYFqQZEdRA
The real picture
While it is wrong to say India is very safe it is also wrong to say India is completely unsafe for women. But India needs to do much better with sensitization, education, economic development and a quick justice system.
Now coming back to where I started. Back in India after seven years I have realized that men today are more involved in the discourse on women than they were a decade back, there are more women out on the streets late in the night, more women driving scooters and cars, more women dressing up the way they like and more women raising their voice against any kind of abuse.
Recently I stepped out of my home at 11.30 pm to get emergency medicines for a neighbor’s child. I hailed a cab alone and told the cabbie to take me to a medicine shop that was open all night. The cabbie waited for me in front of the shop and told me, “If you don’t get it here we will go to other places and you will only go back home with the medicine. Don’t worry.”
Another time at around 9 pm my five-year-old son slept off in the cab. The cabbie parked the car, came out helped me get out with my sleeping child, carefully gathered all my bags and offered to assist me till my doorstep.
We usually write about our negative experiences (that’s how cabbies in India have also got labeled) and rarely focus on the positive ones.
We do so because it helps us go with the flow and add to the narrative that is being created by some. But sometimes it is necessary to go against the flow and bring in alternative narratives, incidents and arguments that show a better picture of India – the other India where women are achieving new heights, asserting themselves and making a difference.
I think Barkha Dutt wanted to talk about this India.
Amrita Mukherjee is a freelance journalist who writes on social issues in India with focus on women. She divides her time between Dubai and India and blogs at www.amritaspeaks.com
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