Nonfiction

Close to home

27 February 2013

It shocked the world, but for Ishita Mattoo it was just around the corner. She reflects on women’s safety in India from the ground in Delhi.

On 16th December 2012, a 23-year-old woman—identified as Nirbhaya by sections of the Indian media—was brutally raped by a group of men in a moving bus. She was on her way back from a movie with a male friend. It was only 9pm, and they had taken what they assumed was the most accessible public transport home. On the 29th December, Nirbhaya died in a hospital in Singapore, after battling bravely for her life.

Protests erupted across urban India in unprecedented public anger and outrage at the incident, and at the growing reported instances of sexual assault against women. An ineffectual and defensive federal government was forced to finally establish a fast-track court to try the culprits in a country with an otherwise notoriously slow judicial system. A judicial commission was also appointed which recommended a comprehensive set of far-reaching but easily implementable policy recommendations.

For young middle-class, educated Indians caught up with the demands of a competitive education system and challenges of daily life in urban India, the incident came as a wakeup call. The girl could have been any one of us. For me, it was literally close to home. Nirbhaya had gone to watch Life of Pi, a movie I saw the following week. She had taken the bus from a bus stop close to where I had lived for some years with my parents. Her body was found in an area I passed on my way home from school.

My friends and I became painfully aware of the fragility of life and the insecurity in which we live day to day. The safety we had believed our lives to be ensconced in seemed like an illusion. Our parents’ seemingly irrational fears, their constant desire to know where we were, their preoccupation with arrangements to drop us off and pick us up—it began to make some sense. What had felt claustrophobic during my teenage years, I now realised was the creation of my safety net.

To many of us it had seemed as though their overprotectiveness occurred because we were not strong enough. It seemed as though we weren’t able to stand up to our parents’ irrational demands, or we were not able to deal with life independently. At that age, what we wanted most to do was to feel empowered enough to do things independently, to take control of our lives. These very things seemed so difficult sometimes.

When I first moved to Melbourne, what struck me the most was the fact that I finally had the freedom to move around on my own as I pleased. To take a tram or bus to university or meet up with friends, to go for a run whenever I wished. These things seem so commonplace and basic, but they meant so much to me then, and continue to. Coming back to Delhi after a year away, I realised that I have a greater sense of confidence in Melbourne.

In a city where you do not feel safe to freely move about, can you ever hope to develop the sense of independence and empowerment that an education is supposed to give you?

Young Indian women still need and want to step out into the hurly burly of India’s urban landscape. Like girls everywhere in the world, we are inspired by our dreams, hopes, and the desire to live life on our own terms. To contribute in our own way, with our unique talents, abilities and interests. We want to feel free and make our own decisions. Many of us understand and believe in our parents’ values. It’s not that we’ve been taught anything in our families that is against the principles of equality, freedom or independence. We are not necessarily caught in complex contradictory forces of liberal ‘Westernisation’ on the one hand, and ‘oppressive’ traditional values on the other.

I spoke to my friends living in Delhi about what they thought of the situation, and the position of women today.

“You know it’s not like we don’t do things just because of what has happened. One just has to be smart,” Aheli, a second year student of Chemistry at Delhi University says. “You can take an auto [home], but you can’t fall asleep on the way. Get from Point A to Point B, [but] don’t take public transport at night. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, maybe we shouldn’t have to be so careful about everything, but we can still do what we want to do, you know?”

For many, it’s not so much a battle between wanting to live their lives, and stay true to the values of their parents. It’s more a case of being able to do what they need to in a city that is not only crowded but also lacking in basic infrastructure like transport.

Most of us understand that there is no conflict between the essential Indian values and the values on which Western society is based. However there are also large parts of non-urban India, and perhaps parts of urban India where this is not the case. Here, good values connote a rejection of any Western idea, institution, practice or even form of dress—especially for women.

Manisha Parekh, a well-respected Indian artist, participated in the Delhi protests.

“What was great was that the protests were spontaneous and it was not just girls, but entire families. This showed that issues were being discussed in homes even with children. It was also true that, [while] singing songs like Hum Hogen Kamyab (We Shall Overcome) the protesters showed that there is great inner confidence and hope for the future among young people today,” she says.

“It might take a long time to change mind sets, but it’s good to see that people aren’t buckling under the stress of the times. There is an optimism and a conviction that things will change.”

There are two separate issues here. One is the perceptions of women’s social position in society, the other, that of crimes against women. The former is more complex and intrinsically linked to the latter, but ultimately the safety of women is non-negotiable. But there’s a chance that linking or analysing the two problems of safety and social position will mean postponing urgent thinking and action to ensure women’s physical safety. That is inexcusable in a democracy that guarantees freedom, equality and justice to all its citizens.

In a country racked by poverty, economic inequalities, mass migration from rural to urban areas and lack of basic infrastructure like housing and access to education for those who migrate, is it surprising that crime rates increase? Women seem to become more vulnerable in such a society. Rape laws in India don’t necessarily need revision; there is arguably adequate legislation in place for the protection of women.

However, what appears to be needed is enforcement of these laws. Forceful public opinion and activist movements may work to ensure this, and people on the ground seem confident this will happen. We should hope that the recent public outrage at the crime is able to move beyond mere shock and towards such a sustained, long term, and considered movement for better governance. It’s about a more caring and equitable society for everyone.


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