A year after a deadly rape, Delhi women not keen on self-defence classes
Riddhi Mittal took a big professional risk when she moved back to Delhi in September to start her own software company. She did not want her personal safety to be part of the risk, especially considering the gruesome tale of the deadly Delhi gang rape that made headlines around the world one year ago this week.
Mittal, who earned her undergraduate degree and master’s degree in computer science at Stanford University in California, and was an intern at Facebook and Microsoft, was apprehensive about returning to the city, now that it was dubbed “India’s rape capital,” so she signed up for self-defence classes.
“I was here in Delhi in December 2012 for my winter vacation when (the rape) happened. So I was tracking it 24×7 when I was here, and even when I went back to the U.S. in January when my vacations had ended,” said Riddhi, 23, who lives with her parents in South Delhi’s New Friends Colony.
The idea of altering her daily life in a way that forced her to mostly stay indoors to avoid “getting into danger” didn’t appeal to her. She signed up for a course at “Krav Maga India” and started taking classes at the centre’s location in the posh Saket suburb.
“It has helped me a lot because it has trained me how to best defend myself in a situation of crisis. I can kick, punch, scratch—do whatever I can to save myself with confidence. I can actually dare someone to try and hurt me now,” she said.
The rape and torture on a Delhi bus of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student by six men and her subsequent death last year sparked riots and led to changes in laws designed to penalize rape and sexual assault. The assault also highlighted the daily harassment that many women face in India, particularly in cities such as Delhi.
As a result, many self-defence training institutes in Delhi saw a sharp rise in the number of queries from women and some new enrollments in the months after the December 16 gang-rape and murder. But, both numbers dwindled soon after.
“There was an initial rise in the number of queries. Almost five or six queries every day were coming in as compared to five or six per week. However, conversion is extremely low. And now queries have gone down again,” said Pooja Agarwal, an instructor at the Seido Karate institute. The exception, she added, is corporate-sponsored training, which has grown since last year.
Among those who find it difficult to attend self-defence classes is Palak Johri, a fourth-year B. Tech student from Sharda University.
“I attend college in Greater Noida, which is quite a distance from where I live. I have so many extra-curricular activities to take care of as well. By the time I am through with everything, I am left with no time or energy for anything else, particularly something that’s as physically taxing as Karate or Krav Maga,” said Palak, a 20-year-old resident of Noida.
“Most importantly, where are the good-quality classes? I am really happy for women in Delhi who have found reliable instructors in their neighborhoods. But I really think there’s nothing within 5 miles of where I live,” Palak said, adding she has attended seminars on self-defence which she found very useful.
Another woman who joined Krav Maga classes and stuck to them was Asees Chaddha. Like hundreds of girls who travel in state-run DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) buses in the city, the 20-year-old student from Delhi University’s Jesus & Mary college was used to catcalls, crude barbs and even men trying to touch her, discreetly or openly. On most days she kept quiet, giving offenders ‘the benefit of doubt’. The day she spoke up against one man, who she knew was touching her inappropriately, the Sukhdev Vihar resident realized there were few who she could count on for help.
To her shock, passengers on board sided with the offender. “Someone from the rear seats said, “apne kapde bhi to dekho (look at your own clothes),” insinuating that the sleeveless kameez and salwar that Asees was wearing were inappropriate and somehow justified the man’s behaviour.
“Another guy said itna hai to utar jaao (if you have such a problem with what’s happening, then you should just get off the bus).” Worried that the offender now had the support of others on the bus and could try something even more unpleasant, Asees got off the bus.
That episode convinced her that she could not depend on anyone but herself to ensure her safety. She chose Krav Maga. Barely five months into the training, the third-year sociology student is an ardent fan of the Israeli self-defence technique, which focuses on “real-world situations and efficient and brutal counter-attacks”.
“I realised I couldn’t expect my father to be on call or the public to always stand up for me.” Asees now travels around the city, attending college, teaching classical dance and even designing and selling ethnic Indian wear to a group of female clients.
Agarwal is not the only instructor to see interest fluctuate with headlines.
“The spike happened at the level of enquiries because there was just so much talk in the media. That generated paranoia of sorts. But the actual conversion rate was extremely low,” said Anuj Sharma, chief combat training instructor at the Safdurjung center of Invictus, a self-defence and fitness institute. Its Delhi centre sees up to 40 new enrollments per month. At 10 new members every month, membership at their Gurgaon centre southwest of Delhi is far less.
What’s more, male students significantly outnumber women at such institutes. Ishita Matharu, an instructor at Krav Maga India, puts the ratio at “never above three women” per every 10 men. Abha, a self-defence trainer based in Noida, a large suburb southeast of Delhi, said several men turned up at the centre to get trained in martial arts. They said that the high rate of crime puts the onus of protecting “mothers, sisters and female colleagues” on them.
Cost does not appear to be an issue, at least for women in the region’s growing middle class. At Seido, regular Karate classes cost about 1500 rupees ($24) per month. Each class is 90 minutes to two hours long, and is held four to five times a month. Krav Maga charges 4,000 rupees ($64) per month apart from a one-time registration charge of 1,000 rupees ($16). For women, the monthly charges are 3000 rupees ($48). At Invictus, a couple can sign up for total monthly fees of 2,800 rupees ($45).
Pooja Agarwal, instructor at Seido Karate Institute’s Noida centre, believes that a month of self-defence classes cost less than what many in Delhi spend on food, drinks and movie tickets on a single night out of fun. Others agree money is hardly the problem. Anuj Sharma from Invictus said that while they must charge those who can afford to pay, someone who can’t may still attend if ready to provide volunteering services, say, as an instructor in slum areas. Pooja has often done pro bono work for government school children. And attendance remains thin at the “Stay Away” programme that Ishita Matharu, Krav Maga India’s instructor, provides to women for free on Sundays.
“The usual excuses of being busy with work, not wanting to give away Saturday evening, other personal plans, etc., all seem to be scoring over and above taking charge of one’s own safety. The belief that women seem to be living in is that bad things do happen, but they will not happen to me. Or at best restricting one’s movement outside the house at certain hours seems to be the choice,” said Pooja, who has been learning and teaching Karate for nine years now.
Both Riddhi and Asees believe parents often fear their daughters might injure themselves in these classes. They feel the long distances that one often has to travel to reach training centres are another deterrent.
“Often, parents are also convinced that no kind of training for women can stop men intent on hurting them”, added Asees.