Caution or Courage? A Sad Calculation

A midst the deluge of news that is covering Delhi’s, and more broadly India’s, moral decline, gender discrepancy, and ineffective governance, I thought I should write about how the incidents over the past few weeks have affected my life as a single woman living in what is now considered one of the least safe cities for females. To be fair, Delhi was considered unsafe before the tragic rape of December 16th, and that incident was, for a variety of reasons, the one among countless others that caught the attention of the media and public at large. Perhaps it was the unusual cruelty, the previous “safer” image of South Delhi (where the incident occurred, and where I live), or simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, but occurrences like that are sadly common even though they are chronically under reported. For me personally, however, the events on and after December 16th shattered the false sense of security that I had built for myself with carefully curated strategies and beliefs.

I have written previously about traveling alone as a woman and having to re-arrange my life around modes of transportation and accompanying guardian friends. What December 16th has opened my eyes to, terrifyingly, is that no mechanism for safety that I previously employed could have helped me, or any other girl, facing the same circumstances that the student faced on that night. The rules of not traveling alone (and of having a male friend with you), of carrying some sort of weapon (in my case, a can of mace), of avoiding Delhi’s border areas, of being extra cautious after 10pm, were all rendered embarrassingly futile by this gruesome brutality. And both fortunately and unfortunately, stories like these have become even more common in the news following this particular case. Women hung, thrown off trains, or burned after being raped are stories that we wake up to on a daily basis. Great that reporting and coverage may be increasing, but the fear and paralysis these stories impose on the women that live here may be having the opposite effect than one would hope for.

I will not delve into theories of why these attacks seem so much more common, and their form so much more psychopathic, in India than in other countries. I am not qualified to comment on the societal and cultural roots that contribute to the creation of these monsters (and the question is being well debated on multiple media outlets). It is also unclear whether the attacks since December 16th are a result of increased reporting and media coverage of rape, or whether the attention garnered by the rapists is in some sick way fueling even more men to gain notoriety. Whatever the case may be, however, what I do believe is that the idea that women need to be “protected” is the wrong framework to be working under in order to make fruitful progress on the status of women. Women should not need curfews, should not be required to wear longer and heavier uniforms in schools, and should not need to operate in gender-confined zones in every sphere of public life. The more you separate women and “protect” them with specific laws and restrictions, the more vulnerable you make them the minute they step out of these boundaries and try to live like a normal person. Women need to stop being discussed as mother, sisters, and daughters, because that still defines them in the context of another person, and in India that other person is almost always a male who should shield them. Until then, I’m convinced that shallow rhetoric around the respectability of the woman, her “promiscuity”, and her right to function as an ordinary citizen at all times of day and night in a city will continue to be questioned in cases of sexual assault, and further relieve the rapists of full responsibility at a societal level.

As an educated, independent, and proud female, I know that the answer to this crisis is not to start living in fear and cordoning myself off more than before. But what I’m realizing is that is much easier said than done. I don’t want to have to start sitting only in the women’s compartment of the metro, but all of a sudden I feel myself noticing the stares of men even more than before when I don’t. I don’t want to keep looking behind my shoulder on my seven minute walk to the gym after sunset, but I find myself doing that and walker faster just so I can get inside in a hurry. I enjoyed the public buses from time to time to see the variety of humanity that a public bus exposes you to, but I have essentially been forbidden by my parents to ever use a public bus in Delhi again. I have never before considered buying any sort of weapon beyond a keychain sized can of mace, and now I find myself eyeing pocket knives wondering “what if…”

I don’t, and never have, considered myself to be of the paranoid type, except when I think that my slight stomach ache might portend a case of tapeworm. But unfortunately I find myself torn between this belief that women need to reclaim their space in public spheres and tear down these boundaries that make them more vulnerable while “protecting” them, and this growing fear of actually being caught in a dangerous situation because I threatened the status-quo or somehow unknowingly challenged a man’s sense of belonging and self worth in this society. When a man used to stare, I’d often glare back until he got embarrassed and stopped looking at me. When a car continuously honked at me, a pedestrian with nowhere to step aside, I would enjoy continuing to block his path to prove the point of pedestrian right-of-way. I find myself shying away from these little victories, instead trying to be as discreet and unnoticeable as possible. As a 5’10” girl that towers over 99% of the population, that’s a near impossibility. More than anything, there’s a sad pit at the bottom of my stomach wondering when women in this city, and all over India, will be able to enjoy the chaos that India offers without having to calculate the probability that this enjoyment will destroy their life.

Sanjana's interests lie in the intersection of geography and economics, and in understanding how resources can be better allocated amongst the rapidly growing populations in the world's urban centers. Sanjana spent her undergraduate career focused on development economics and environmental issues, including teaching in rural villages in Mauritius, working on the Energy and Environment team at USAID, and growing Stanford's energy/environmental student organization across other college campuses in Singapore, Sweden, and Denmark. Sanjana's passion for international development work stems from her time spent working and living in India, as well as her experiences living and traveling abroad as a child. She joins the Fellowship after three years of corporate business development experience at Intuit Inc, which included a six- month marketing assignment in India launching a new software service for the Indian small business owner.

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One thought on “Caution or Courage? A Sad Calculation

  1. I would like to thank you for sharing this post. I greatly appreciate how you articulated the conflict of your experience and spoke perfectly to similar encounters I had while traveling alone as a woman in Brazil and South Africa. Your words are applicable to women’s experiences everywhere. Thank you.

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