The myth of a safe-for-women India
Our relentless talk about respect for women and love for the motherland mean nothing to women the minute they step out of their homes
A friend of mine travels to and from work by Uber. She uses the app on weekends too and spends approximately 40 per cent of what she earns on cab fare. On days when she can't find one — and this is a more common problem than you would think — she waits for office colleagues to drop her, sometimes waiting two hours after finishing her work for a lift.
She does this not because she loves throwing away her money, or because she can't be bothered to use public transport like a million others, but because she finds Bombay's streets traumatic.
I didn't take her very seriously when she first mentioned this to me, because I had used public transport on my own since the age of 12. I also took into consideration the fact that my mother, classmates in school and college, and other female colleagues travelled by bus and train regularly. And yet, it was only after I stepped outside her office alongside her one evening, that the reality of what she was trying to convey started to make sense.
My friend walked out with her head bowed, headphones on her ears, doing her best to block out the 30 odd men who began staring at her the second she stepped into their view. They continued to follow her with their eyes until she stepped into a cab with me.
My presence was ignored, although she told me that it helped because none of them had whistled or made a sexually suggestive remark. She mentioned a younger colleague who had walked around the corner only to find an older man flashing her, which had left her traumatised.
The cab we were in didn't make her feel secure either. The driver used his rear-view mirror to stare at my friend at every red light, and I read about numerous complaints made to the traffic police later that week from women upset about rickshaw drivers using their mirrors to do the exact same thing. When I asked my friend about security and Uber, she mentioned being asked to step out of a cab on more than one occasion, for daring to ask the driver to turn down the music or switch on the air-conditioner.
A search on Twitter corroborated her story, with women across India sharing horror stories of why their drivers had abandoned them on lonely streets at odd hours, simply because they said something that was perceived as criticism. Other stories involved drivers taking routes that weren't recommended, making unauthorised stops, driving under the influence, or attempting unwarranted conversations with passengers. The most worrying thing about all these anecdotes was the way they ended — with the fact that not one of those women had access to customer support or any kind of protection from anyone.
To put this into perspective, millions of women across India travel under inhuman conditions because they have no choice, and the ones who do have choices don't necessarily believe they are protected either. The first response to anyone introduced to these stories is disbelief, followed by accusations of exaggeration. The myth of India being a safe place that respects women is so strong that we have all collectively bought into it and help propagate it in our own ways. What we fail to do, in the process, is acknowledge the role played by Indian men across the spectrum, in making women feel insecure.
I have tried and failed to imagine living under the constant scrutiny of men. My sex protects me and allows me to walk the streets without a second glance or thought about what people around me think. If you're female, you will disagree with this almost at once. If you're male, I urge you to speak to a female friend or family member and ask her if this is how she feels. The responses may surprise you.
Indian women are citizens of a country that are being effectively denied the right to live freely because we have yet to accept the existence of a problem. Their inability to accomplish simple tasks without scrutiny and the implicit threat of censure, attack or rebuke, can
take a toll that can require a lifetime's unlearning.
My friend should be able to walk down any street or travel by bus, train, rickshaw or cab, without thinking twice about it. We want to build the world's tallest statues and 100 Smart Cities. Why can't something as fundamental as safety for women be on our fancy lists instead?
When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper
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