Why do public spaces in India remain unsafe for women?

“Akeli ladki khuli tijori ki tarah kyun hoti hai”

Writer-actor AnujaJaiman recounts instances from her own life of facing and fighting gender discrimination in public places that is horrifying more often than not


It is disgusting to be a woman in India. We have a cultural climate of misogynism. It occurs as odd that one has to look at the watch to be able to step out of the house in one’s country, one’s city, neighborhood. While one half of the gender does not feel ‘scared’ to do it, the other half (almost) feels petrified to. That shouldn’t how it must be, right? That mustn’t how it has always been. There must have been a time when all genders walked the streets as they liked, when the awareness of vulnerability didn’t lie between the legs.

I have felt disgusted to be a female innumerable times since I was young. It began with an awareness of men staring at my chest while on my way to school in a tempo. I must have been all of 12 or 13 years old. It’s been nearly two decades since then and it only got worse. Going to school, in a public transport vehicle at 7 am is a public space that must not make a pre-teen threatened.

My mother never let me go out to play in a field near the house I was born in, in Dehradun. This memory is from when I was 7 years old. My brother was allowed to go and play, and years later I understood that it wasn’t her discrimination of her kids’ genders. It was her fear for my safety, that my brother at an age of 10 would not be able to ensure. The field was a public space where in the early 90s a girl child could not be sent out to play. That’s unsettling.


PC- Brinda Sud for Girlscount

It wasn’t until I was slightly older that my notion of why would anyone do anything to a kid, was answered the rough way. I was 14 or 15. On my way back from school I spotted a crowd near a ration shop not too far from our house. A 5-year-old girl had been raped and she had died. It hit me hard. I tried to picture it. I couldn’t quite do it. I even went to the bathroom to investigate myself and since I was studying the male and female human anatomy at school, I tried to measure the girth of what a penis must be like, comparing with the width of my fingers put together. It was too horrible to even begin to imagine as I stared at my fingers. All I could think was a 5-year-old is too small. Her vagina must have been unbelievably tiny. How could a man ‘rape’ someone that young? That day has stayed with me. It comes back to me each time I hear reports of child molestation.

Is this too graphic for an article about access to safe public spaces for women and girls? Why?

When I set out to write about this subject, I wanted to do a vox-pop. But I am choosing to draw instances from my own life because I am an average citizen of this country, and like most women I have come across, I am a witness and a victim to ugly instances over the years in public spaces. A middle class existence does not have you dropped and picked up every day to and from school in a chauffeur or parent-driven car. I never had a school bus to travel via, so it was always a public transport. It is imperative for public spaces to be accessible and safely so for all genders, not just women. But far more importantly for women and young girls, simply because we are born on this planet with as much sense of belonging to our land as the male. The fact that one is born with a certain organ makes that person weaker and open to menacing leers, stalkers, molesters and rapists is as absurd as it is true.

Why must I be forced to carry a pepper spray in my bag every single day? Why must I look behind me when walking down the street at 10 pm? Why is an akeliladki treated like a khulitijori? (And why must a khulitijori be touched at all?)

Speaking up against men who brush against your breasts, chest in general, shoulders, behind is not a phenomenon that should be branded as ‘modern’ as I once was while travelling via a DTC (Delhi transport corporation) mudrika bus from Delhi University north campus to south Delhi. It is the right thing to do.

On my third day of getting admitted to Delhi University, I stepped off a DTC bus with tears in my eyes. DTC buses required you to climb from the gate at the back and make your way towards exit from the front gate. The bus was packed and for a 3 kilometer ride, I do not have a count for the number of times I was felt up, squeezed, pinched, pushed against, rubbed, groped and repeat. It was of course packed three times its capacity or maybe more. The buses were different than they are now. I wonder if the situation is any different. I didn’t have family here to pick me or drop me. My parents had taught me how to use public transport in the town where I grew up. This day, from June 2002, refuses to fade from the memory.

Once, I was told off in the metro by an old-ish lady, in the women’s compartment. Her son boarded the metro with her. A grown man in late 20s or early 30s. I asked him to walk down to the next box. He said a bunch of mean things to me and refused to go. His mum, stepped in and said that the fact that I was clad in jeans and was wearing a t-shirt and spectacles is why I was misbehaving. And that my parents had not taught me tameez. It made no sense to me, but I realized a few minutes later that I was shaking with rage. The man didn’t budge. His mother painted me as a brash, outspoken woman. No one else in that compartment stepped in. There must have been at least 20 other women present. This incident dates back to 2007-08. I was appalled at her for enabling her son’s behavior! The Delhi metro is a public space, and I feel comparatively safer (by many notches) travelling in it ever since the women’s-only box was introduced. That incident shook me because of their insistence that I was wrong. It threatened my sense of safety in moving about in India’s capital city. This was not the first time, of course.

This is not a male-hating rant. It is merely a real life account of a female in this country. This really is how it is, unfortunately. I have thought to myself many times that I should leave India and try moving to a different part of the world. New York made me feel safe as I came back alone, after a late night at a pub, on a subway and then walked nearly a kilometer to where I was staying. No one followed me. It was almost 2 am. I was wary because of a psychological training that pushes me into a flight mode at the tiniest of sign. But then it is only comparatively safer. Maybe that area is a relatively safe neighborhood and US is not a place that is free of crime. On the contrary actually!

Yearly polls keep ranking India among the top five countries where solo women travelers are advised not to travel to. India, Egypt, Colombia, Turkey, Mexico, Kenya are the countries that women are warned against. It can’t just be patriarchy and misogynism that makes Indian public spaces unsafe vis-à-vis, for example, a street in Florence, Italy where a friend tells me she would at times return at 2 am or go for a walk at 4 am and not once did she feel like she was followed or stared at. People were out and about doing their own thing, not looking at you with the ‘what is she doing here alone at this time’ look. Compare that with a recent visit I made to FatehpurSikri in Agra where clad in knee-length shorts, my friend (a woman) and I, were hounded endlessly by guides, touts, vendors. They are annoying and they tail people in tourist locations across India (and maybe the world, I don’t know) but there was a strange attitude in their hounding us. It was odd (and upsetting) for me to be made aware of my gender while travelling in my own country! Outside the dargah, while we bought ourselves cans of coke for some respite from the heat, we told off one of the vendors who refused to go away. In less than two minutes a crowd of about 50-60 men gathered. I didn’t spot any women around us, except for a few female vendors at some distance (who interestingly neither hounded us nor tailed us to buy their wares). We were asked to ‘calm down’. We were reminded of being women. I was told ‘aurat ho auraisebaatkarrahi ho’. (You are a woman, and this is how you talk.)

Is this relevant? Yes. Because I never want to go to FatehpurSikri again, despite the place being an example of marvelous architectural grandeur. Because in my understanding, two female travelers, unaccompanied by any males, can be hovered around and poked and then reminded of ‘their place’ in India. And complaining to the ASI or the authorities is useless because the issue of safety is a failure of machinery so long as the State is concerned.

There are many reasons and they are connected in various ways, much like a matrix. Patriarchy and gender-divide fuels the crime rate. India has a high crime rate, and we are not a peaceful country. The root of most anger, rage and frustration stems from poverty, inequality and power misbalance. All of the three in India exist in extremes, especially the latter two. Add to that the fact that women have been subjugated for so long that them being ‘free’ and being as they like was seen and termed as ‘liberated’ and ‘modern’ a few years before the turn of the century!

I will quote one last instance. In the year 2003, after attending a live performance at the IIT Delhi fest Rendezvous, we ended up spending the night at a Barista that used to exist on the Green Park-HauzKhas main road in the same building as Hotel Sartaj. It used to be a 24×7 cafe then. This is a two-three minute walk from the Green Park metro station. There was no metro then. We were a group of about 8-9 girls from IP College. Since none of us were Delhiites, we had nowhere to go because the PGs and hostels had entry deadlines of 7:30 pm (!) and one had to take written permissions for ‘night out’. Since some of us couldn’t afford to eat at Barista, and hunger pangs were hitting hard, three of us found out from the staff that not too far, ahead of the Gurudwara was a paranthewala. Three of us decide to walk. It was between 1 and 2 am. By the time we reached the parantha point, three cars had slowed down and asked for our rate. The third one was the most dramatic for it circled us twice, an Indica, and two men in it who were inebriated kept asking us to come and sit. The parantha guy saw the terrified looks on our faces and the circling car and signaled to someone who went and called a cop from somewhere close by. The Indica left. One of my friends shook with fear. We got a few paranthas packed and walked back at jogging speed. This night, too, will stay with me for the rest of my life.

A woman, a little girl, a teenager, an old lady – every female in India needs safe access to public spaces at all times. And there is no need to explain why. There is a need to question why in our own country we feel threatened, so much and so often. I am thankful that I escaped a bunch of potentially dangerous incidents. I am also distressed that I am supposed to feel thankful that I am alive, rather than disgusted that in this century, in the capital city of the country, a person, who comprises public is not safe in spaces meant for public.

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