Surviving as a woman in urban India

June 8, 2009

As I stood waiting for an auto rickshaw near India Gate in New Delhi last December, three big cars slowed down within a quarter of an hour to check me out. They waited for a few minutes and then drove away without anyone getting out.Many of my friends have experienced much the same thing — especially in India’s capital, a woman walking in the street is too often seen as fair game if a man isn’t with her.When I came home, I checked myself in the mirror to see what it was about my appearance that caught their eye.Bespectacled, with no make-up, dressed in loose fitting jeans and a baggy sweater, I could not figure out why. I asked my husband, “Who do I look like?”He laughed and said, “In Delhi you just have to be a woman, how you look doesn’t matter”.I have been traveling by myself on Delhi’s public transport since my college days. Bus conductors have tried to brush against my fingers while giving me a ticket, and well-dressed, middle-aged men have whispered in my ear to ask for my phone number.These experiences have changed the way I behave on the streets of a city I otherwise love. I avoid looking auto rickshaw drivers in the eye just in case they get the wrong idea and I’m always on my guard against gropers while walking, especially in markets.I avoid driving alone after eight-thirty to avoid male drivers following me, or worse. A media colleague working at one of India’s national TV channels was killed last year while driving by herself late at night. At the time, the chief minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, said the girl should not have been so adventurous as to travel at three in the morning. She later said her remark had been blown out of proportion.A friend told me she complained to police when someone tried to snatch her bag in the market. Instead of investigating the case, the duty officer started questioning her about just what exactly she thought she was doing out at eight-thirty in the evening.When I look back at the families I knew growing up, I can begin to see why some men seem to think the way they do. As an only child, I had a pampered upbringing. But when I was invited to other families for lunch or dinner, if the dining room was too small to fit all the guests, the men would always be served first and given the best portion of the food.If a family could not afford to send all their children to private schools, it was invariably the girls who gave way and went to a government school instead. One of my friends, when he was a teenage boy, could go on dates without having to explain himself. But all hell would break loose if his sister had a similar adventure.When the friend of mine was looking for a suitable husband, her parents introduced her to a lot of people. She told me about one conversation she remembers: the first thing the man asked her was, “do you smoke, do you drink?”When she asked why, he said “you can’t take such girls to your mother.” He himself did enjoy a tipple, and needless to say she didn’t marry him.ALSO READ: Domestic abuse plagues India’s upper crust


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I visited Gurgaon/ Delhi last year when I was newly married, and I agree with this opinion. I would never want my wife or daughter going out in the NCR region on their own, don’t know what’s wrong with the attitude there. Night and Day compared to anywhere else in India. Great cultural degeneration there unfortunately.I wouldn’t marry anyone who smoke and drank either, but neither do I so I am not being a hypocrite. Most crime is associated with Alcohol.

Posted by yoyoma | Report as abusive

Where are your parents staying now……theoretically they should be co existing with you and your husband in same house along with your husband’s parents.If they are not than please question yourself.Why?….why they are not staying with you.You may have many answers…….but in reality of our society…..boys(majority)support there parents ….so they are given extra pampering.When girls/ladies will start supporting themselves financially and there parents….society mentality will change automatically………come on do it and see the change yourself.

Posted by Manjeet | Report as abusive

Irrespective of geography, across the world, women are disproportionately at receiving end of sexual/gender-related crimes…mild and serious. I do not justify it, but it is a statistical observation.On the other hand, morality does not matter to the upper classes and the lowest classes. Delhi, with its disproportionately (in India) higher share of the rich and famous, always seems to follow a different ‘moral’ code vs. rest of India.Going by the publicity Delhi got, one would think there is something different about Delhi vs. other metros or big cities when it comes to attitudes on the street. Is it because such news/incidents from other metros are ignored or supressed? Or is it truly that other metros have a more progressive attitude? Why don’t we hear about Bangalore, Hyderabad, or Bombay in similar vein?And lastly, to be fair, for every innocent woman molested on the street, I can show you a woman willing to do anything for a good life. And for every man molesting a woman, I can show a man who desists from such activities. Again, this is not a justification, but the picture should not be made black-and-white.I don’t deny what you are saying about the different treatments meted out to girls vs. boys. But I think these two are separate issues. Especially in the metros, things have changed considerably.So, my question to you: why Delhi?

Posted by Paritosh | Report as abusive

Delhi, with it’s disproportionately high share of rich and famous, seems to follow it’s own ‘moral’ code. For every innocent woman molested on the street, I can think of a woman who would be willing to do anything for a good life. And for every man, who indulges in denigrating women, I can think of a man, who got in trouble for standing up for a woman. This is no defense for the treatment women receive, but I do want to make sure things are not portrayed black-and-white, since they are not (or rather, shouldn’t be).Going by the publicity Delhi got, I am wondering if it is really the traditional attitudes towards the girl-child or women – btw, some of these attitudes are perpetuated by women themselves – e.g. mother, mother-in law. Anyways, one would think that these attitudes have undergone a major change in the metros at least.Why are we not hearing such news/incidents from Bombay, or Calcutta, or Bangalore? Is it because such news/incidents from other cities are ignored or suppressed? Or is it that other cities truly have a slightly more progressive attitudes?So, my question to you: Why Delhi?

Posted by Paritosh | Report as abusive

i have a small difference of opinion with one of the comments given earlier.Girls do like to support themselves, and their parents. However, before they could prove themselves, they are shunted down by the family and the society.Hey, i would like to quote my own personal experience. In one of my relatives’ family who had a boy (elder) and a girl, they spent a hell lot of money to give a good quality education to him, denying such an opportunity to the girl who had a better academic track record than his elder brother.what i find is, there is a complete ignorance in so many parts of our India about the potency of a girl. Till they realise and acknowledge girls, such incidents will continue happening.

Posted by bala | Report as abusive

Hanit@On crime, wish you would have put in some links, surveys in this area, comparisons between cities (alteast Metros). Delhi has bigger problems than other places in my view. Who else than CM Delhi Shiela Dixit will help this.Manjeet: Financial status of a woman will not change how a roadside romeo will look at a woman. So crime is a separate issue. It is romeo’s problem that he needs some cold shower.@Where are your parents staying now……theoretically they should be co existing with you and your husband in same house along with your husband’s parents.–Let us say parents decide the property will be shared between daughters (not sons), will men still support their parents?–NO. That women will also get their part is not implemented in reality.These days increasing # of parents live independently, not with their sons and a very small # of married women regularly financially help their parents. Have you noticed that few generations ago, parents will not stay overnight with their married daughter and will not even drink a drop of water. If they do they will bring their own ration. These days parents do not hesitate to live with their daughters for months–happens more often when the daughter is earning. Evolution is slow and its is hard to notice small positive changes.The struggle for social equality, between man and a woman will keep on going. Enforcing equality in each sense of the word is an artificial concept since each gender has its own stregths.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

Why Delhi??Because its at the centre of the three most MCP cultures in the country – Punjab, Haryana, UP

Posted by Abhijit | Report as abusive

In India although there is western influence in almost every aspect of life, however India is not the West (Canada, America, UK ext). The law enforcement in India is not as strong as in the West, due to out of control increase population. Having said that in India more people are God fearing and so more spiritual than in the West.Women have to be smart (samrath) like many are, like yourself, to live and work in India. Women are naturally more spiritual than men. So they may use their awareness to elevate above the situation, and realize the nature of the limited mind that we are all born with. some men who are driven by their lustful minds, because they think that physical connection is the only way to get peace or pleasure or joy. They have not yet found that the joy and pleasure or peace of mind that we experience through external activities such as drinking, drugs or lust, is in reality comes from within. We have learned to relate the joy or peace of mind to external events. This learning have been learned through millions of years, since this mind is very old. As this mind is becomeing more and more evolved or enlightened the opposite also increase as it is still entraped in its own game. Finally the Enlightenment is the death of the mind while we are still living(egolessness) or in future life(birth).Having a broad realisation helps understanding why people do what they do.

Posted by Satyajit Singh | Report as abusive

This article depicts the true picture of a girl in Delhi or anyother Metro city. The working women are more prone to these things, me too working in Gurgaon and have gone through many such situations coz of which i have to keep something for my safety in my purse, coz i know i can’t rely on the general public to help me, it’s me who have to be strong and fight for myself if I have to live in this cruel world.

Posted by Divya | Report as abusive

@ Rajeev — First i am not talking about crime……i commented only on gender equality……Problem is indian women cribs a lot on equality in all sense but when it comes equality in terms of responsibilities they shrug it off with lame excuses like husband/in laws don’t allow bjah balah.@Hanit — In lighter mood….i don’t think you faced such an harsh condition.I think those car owners were still decent……..they just tried there luck…waited…and than went.Think of if somebody had halted exactly where you was standing and pulled you inside the car.And for your husband’s comment “In Delhi you just have to be a woman, how you look doesn’t matter”.This was not only those car owner’s mentality but even your husband’s also…..otherwise he could have said “Darling it is not there fault….you really looks stunning”………LOL.

Posted by Manjeet | Report as abusive

Hi Hanit,You have hit the nail on the head. You just have to have a female form in north India–that is all for the males here to leer, try to grope or get close to you without consent. Bottom-line, besides years of pampering by their parents and other members of the family, the males of northern India in particular are a sexually frustrated lot. This all the more so because they see the sexually explicit stuff on TV/DVDs/movie halls but have no outlet for their frustrations so they take it out on women in the streets. They think that every woman under 50 is like those cheap item numbers/film stars/dancing extras they see on the screen and therefore can be–and deserve to be–targeted. Really sorry that you and other women face such harrassment on the street and can’t be yourself. India has really a long way to go before women can come out and be themselves. The fact the police themselves are extremely vile and are frustrated male chauvinists themselves makes things worse (Note how many women are raped in police stations). Good luck as I don’t things are going to change quickly for Indian women.

Posted by Syed Mansoor | Report as abusive

Hanit:You and your readers will find these few links interesting:“We saw the girl and the boy…and we forced ourselves in”Please cover yourself, I am feeling awkwardandOn Jeans, Indian Men and Indecent Behaviour”

Posted by B Shantanu | Report as abusive

This is true only in Delhi and UP. There is absolutely no regard for civility and decency. You will find this rare in other parts of India and this is almost non-existant in Southern India. Facts are facts.

Posted by AKJ | Report as abusive

@Why Delhi??Because its at the centre of the three most MCP cultures in the country – Punjab, Haryana, UP- Posted by Abhijit–The follow up is to ask what is the scenario of “women molesting” in each of the above 3 states. I cannot speak for UP and Haryana but I can tell that at least 10 yrs ago, Punjab was much safer than other states (to my knowledge it still is much safer than many places).Women molesting and gender equality are separate issues and 2 problems may or may not go together.On gender equality, girls/boys ratio is a good indicator of the status of women. I am ashamed (being a Punjabi) that Punjab is one of topmost in low girls/boys ratio. Data from surveys tells that richer states like Punjab, Delhi, Gujrat and Haryana have the lowest ratios. The ratios are lower in urban areas. Richer areas of Delhi have lowest ratios. The ratios in certain parts of delhi are sickening. Ratios are strikeingly different in different religions. So money, education is not everything, it takes more than that. Dowry is one the biggest problem in all these areas……….Manjeet: you are right, that comment should have been addressed to Hanit, but I addressed your gender equality point too. May I know your gender?

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

I can really empathise with your experience. Frankly I do not think it is just Delhi alone, most metros have this problem and your title is more apt, surviving in urban India.Even so, the only time I have been effected by similar behaviour has been in Delhi a long time ago. Just after the Bangla Desh war when we were posted in Delhi, my wife and her friend were waiting for me and the other lady’s husband outside the Plaza. Seeing them alone, two young men had been bothering them with snide and personal remarks for quite a while before we arrived. When we got there, we were able to grab hold of one of them and assisted by bystanders, who had been witness to it all, managed to teach the guy a lesson I hope he still remembers. The only difference between then and now would possibly be that maybe others would not be as supportive to-day.As to why Delhi is probably the worst of the lot, I can only hazard a guess. Maybe the reason is excessive money coupled with the fact that almost everyone in Delhi knows someone, who knows someone, who can fix matters. Perhaps their idea of justice and the law is that they apply only to those who cannot buy it or fix it.

Posted by Dara | Report as abusive

Have you seen any of the recent Indian movies? If you have, you’d realized that the Indian are very sex-craved people. And if you don’t believe me let me give you this undeniable fact: There are a billion Indians. Yes, a billion. How the hell else do you get a billion of Indian without quite a bit of sex and sexuality. And let’s not forget the Kama sutra and all that ish.Now I’m not saying sex and sexuality is abhor-able as long as it’s in the confines of home and with the spouse. I’m just making an observation that a culture so fixated with sexuality will indeed have some of the perversity spilled into public. And someone else said, Indian people are sexually frustrated from watching so much about sex in their dramas, movies, televisions, internets, etc. They can’t find an outlet. But these ill behaviors are not ever excusable. Think about your mother, your sister, and your wife.Also, you’ll find some Indians in West talking about their culture as if it’s the best thing since even before sliced bread and the rest of the world is corrupt and perverse. But this article put things in perspective. So next time I hear one of our “aunti-ji” singing praise of Indian culture, I’m pulling up this article.Signed,Self-hating-Indian

Posted by Not_Indian | Report as abusive

While I agree with several of these comments, I object to the ones that locate the problem only in Delhi. From my recent travels to South India, I can vouch for the fact that South Indian men are no laggards when it comes to open ogling, passing lewd comments with lewd gestures, and surreptitious groping when they can get away with it. In fact, I felt more awkward wearing trousers (fairly baggy) while walking around Chennai than I do in Delhi.A friend who has travelled across India by bus rates Tamilian men as the worst offenders when it comes to molestation. Goa is no better, where a middle aged friend was groped on an early morning walk by a local youth.Before we start Delhi and North India bashing, the bottom line is – north or south – women unaccompanied by a man are seen as fair game by the Indian male.

Posted by Anu | Report as abusive

Every culture has it’s problems. Here in America women are taught by the media and their college professors to have contempt and even hatred for men. Men are driven out of the family by government welfare and verbal abuse. I live alone and am one of the lucky ones who never sired children, never had to pay alimony. I’m the ace of the cheap sports: hockey, horseback riding, ballroom dancing, radio controlled planes. I’m building my own house in the woods and already have it outfitted with solar panels, woodstove, greenhouse, ect. Ready for Obama’s Greater Depression. As a nurse, I work with some Indians, they have a nice family life full of love and affection. Best regards, Chris Berg

Posted by Chris Berg | Report as abusive

I think there is a direct correlation between how orthodox a country is in terms of being “chaste” and “cultured” and the crimes on women. You will find the best examples in countries like Afghanistan under the Taliban where women have no rights.I have lived both in India and the West and I think it is essential for there to be a proper education in youngsters vis a vis sex and respect for the opposite sex. Boys in India learn disrespect for women right from their childhood where any news report of rape is greeted by comments from his parents such as what was she doing out so late or she was asking for it with that skimpy outfit.This is the same as saying punish somebody for carrying money rather than the thief who robs him.We like to delude ourselves as being superior to other countries culturally but frankly I dont see much difference. There is a huge uproar related to attacks on Indian students in Oz. But is it any different from the attacks on North Indians in Maharashtra? Until we ditch these double standards and hypocrisy, we will always remain a “developing country”.

Posted by Siddharth | Report as abusive

I don’t find a cause of this problem rightaway but I can make out that there is a serious problem related to how Indians are brought up. All of a sudden, Indian middle class has grew strong. They want to imitate the western lifestyle solely from outside perspective- which is only reflected bad in the Indian media such as sex, crime, drugs etc. Although it is rarely seen that picturises the right pictures. Indian sexuality is well hidden, concealed and not worked upon properly. The time of marriage is about 30 years now, and furthermore the marriages are arranged by parents. I don’t want to debate on it but like to ask a question ‘what will adoloscents and young generation do during their full adoloscence”. Its biological, physical, psychological to develop feelings for sexual content. This is reflected in the urban society as female molestation, eve-teasing, rape, rape leading to murder, etc. The problems lies with the Indian system itself. Women are sheer victim of this reality. Gender bias is common to Indian system. Females are less priviledged as weaker sex.Root of such problems are:-growing economic gap in urban societies.-Illiterarcy-Misleading information about urban life and preconceived notions about female living in urban setup.-Misleading information about western lifestyles (compeltely wrong and falsely interpreted)-abandoning moral values which existed in the past-acceptance of values which are contraproductiveSolve these problems before they emerge as deep rooted problems.

Posted by Anil Minhans | Report as abusive

Lets us not talk anything about the West here, it really to me seems outta context. I just request every parent out there to start teaching their sons the importance of respecting every woman, let it not just be his sister, mother or near-far relatives. If everyone could manage to do this I think half the problems women face in our society would be taken care of. You dont need expensive education for something so simple I would suppose. And let it not be just a casual talk one evening over dinner. Cheers :)

Posted by Sanjay K Hari | Report as abusive

In India, prostitution is illegal,they can’t advertise, have signboards and moreover it’s unorganized, so it’s gone underground. But, it’s still flourishing more so in the metros,and it has evolved it’s own codes etc. Some of the public places, parks are being used as pick-up and drop points.You mentioned none of the occupants in the cars made any move, that’s because they wanted to confirm whether you ……….for sale or not. Since, they didn’t get any confirmation, they drove away. Just men, looking for their daily dose of romance(Sex, that’s how it’s spelled in some languages). We’re not talking of molestation here.

Posted by vinod | Report as abusive

I am agree with everyone girls are not safe in India but many times girls misusing their female banner and make men fool. After marriage if they are not happy whatever be the condition(situation) but they uses divorce case as a safest heaven they don’t think about the family member of the boy so laws should be for man also.

Posted by dev dutt | Report as abusive

Girls are then boys because at least they have laws but when girls misusing the laws even police nor the society helps them so laws should be also for man also.My main concern is that why everyone is only concern for women it means no respect for men there??????????

Posted by dev dutt | Report as abusive

i agree that girls are not safe . and i think it can be changed only when men and women both will think about it and do some thing . specially the mothers . because they have the power to change their children . if they cannot teach their children (specially son) then they have to see whatever is going on . i know what a mother(parents) can do .that does not mean that women would have fun of these making fool the men . this issue is for all . after all every one have same rights in India.and about the guest … its our tradition .. if you this should be broken then its on you ..i think whole world is was running for women and will run for women …

Posted by jatin | Report as abusive

The problem is more acute in Delhi and NCR than in other metros. In Mumbai I have seen women travelling alone at late nights too. Though I wouldn’t say it is completely safe but yes it is relatively safe here. I have been to Delhi and I must say I didn’t quite like the place.The problem Is with the way men are brought up there and also with the skewed sex ratio. In all the overall mentality of the population over there and this includes the women too. The mothers more than the fathers should make their boys realize the importance of respecting a woman.

Posted by Aman | Report as abusive

These problems cut across geographical boundaries–just the degree varies.

Posted by rajeev | Report as abusive

In many ways India has not changed at all, inspite all the economic growth. It makes me nauseous just recalling the grooping in buses, markets and just walking on the roadside. It used to make me feel dirty just being touched by weird disgusting men/boys. Women have never been respected in India, though we pray to Goddesses. The mothers need to teach their sons how to treat women. But, these men and their moms dont respect other women unless its their own. Women are looked at as objects, parents trying to force their daughters into early marriages, restricting their education and future. Having been in US for years now, I can truly say that women do have the power, freedom and respect.

Posted by VA | Report as abusive

I agree, the problem lies in the very basics of our society and the “stereotypes” embedded in our culture. Unfortunately, we are so used to these things happening around us that nothing really shocks us.Mutual respect and treating genders equally needs to taught at a very early stage in every household.

Posted by Misbah | Report as abusive

Agreed perverts exist in a city like Delhi,but most of the problems you mentioned arent country or city specific.This could have happened anywhere.Indian society has been a patriarchal one, so ladies serving men first has been a common thing, correct/incorrect I aint going into it, but out of respect/subservience, it has been happening.But this happens only with the ladies, if even as a girl you were made to sit, I am sure either you didnt show too much intent to eat / you really belong to a very orthodoz family.It aint general to “urban” India.Nothing personal, at the cost of being called a Male Chauvinist Pig, I would say your article is a stereotyped story of ab “abala naari” , getting harassed.It aint about “Urban India” ,its about the male tendency to crave for sex and this happens eveywhere aroung the world.Having said this, I do not support the tendency, but from an article point of view this one has no content and makes a boring read

Posted by SN | Report as abusive

It gets worse:Taliban in India

Posted by B Shantanu | Report as abusive

The patriarchal society that most of us have accepted without questioning is a result of our upbringing which to an extent is influenced by the media. Girls have always been taught not to drink, smoke or have multiple boyfriends but the same teachings don’t apply to boys. A modern Indian woman is given the freedom to express herself only to be questioned by the majority of society. This stereotyping and narrow minded perspective will not change till vital institutions such as the media do not change their outlook on the girl. For example, several Hindi serials, that have become a staple diet for a most Indian families, portray a “good Indian” girl as someone who only dresses in Indian clothes, never goes out at night without a man and does not have any ambitions for herself. While the “bad Indian” girl is always portrayed as someone who only wears western clothes, goes out at night with a man and gets drunk to a point of no repair with only one shot (that is very rarely if at all possible!). Reality is different! Good girls can have ambitions for themselves, go out without a man and have a shot without getting drunk. Till the media, one of the most influential tool, does not take a responsible stand on educating women and families about the reality of being a girl change will take forever!

Posted by P_K | Report as abusive

I think the Indian mindset prevents us from treating women with equality and that will take a long time to change. My personal view is that we we have to create avenues/ services which empower women and give them the freedom to break from shackles which are imposed by society in general and by men in particular.
Freddie Mercury was right in saying “I want to break free” and though that was about being gay, it pretty much applies to women in India.

Posted by Roopak | Report as abusive

My message is in reply to Poritosh’s comment dated June 8th 2009.The kind of thought with which the blogger has posted the blog and poritosh has replied dates atleast half a decade back.Firstly girls irrespective of a male sibbling are fortunate enough to receive decent upbringing if not pampered.This is not confined to metros but as well as tier I,II cities and smaller places in India.Gone are the days when younger sisters were elder brother’s old winter pullovers or use his school text books.And neither do girls grow up with the mentality of thinking about themselves,own wardrop,makeup kit,finally marriage and life after that.In todays time while schooling ,they start shaping there mind in order to select the convinient career path.They are responsible,optimistic ,trendy ,career conscious,satirical and at the same time undertsanding.According to me this is beyond gender,its an individual element.

And as far as Delhi is concerned and its comparison with other metros,it is no doubt scary when it comes to gender humiliation.Other metros definetly differ in tone and feel of the city.A 20 year old girl walking in ashram, gk, daula kuan area of Delhi at 10.30 pm would surely feel a difference while walking through Whitefield area of Bangalore, which is an outskirt .

Posted by kohinoor | Report as abusive