Voices of women in India’s “rape capital”
New Delhi, India
By Mansi Thapliyal
My city is known as the so-called “rape capital of the country”. They say it’s unsafe, it’s dangerous, it’s full of wolves looking to hunt you down. A lot of it may be true. As a single woman working, living and breathing in New Delhi, I have had my fair share of stories. But the labels and opinions associated with the city were accepted on one level – no one questioned them, no one asked why – until a brutal tragedy one cold December night which shook the world and forced everyone (the authorities, the public, the lawmakers) to ask themselves uncomfortable questions and focus the on safety of women. It is still an ongoing, raging debate, thank heavens.
Meanwhile, I decided to focus on what Delhi’s women face and what they think about it. How do they go on with their lives, their work, their families? Just trying to understand the magnitude of how unsafe India’s capital is became one of the most challenging and emotionally exhausting assignments of my career.
From call center executives to advertising professionals to tea stall workers, everyone has their stories and how they cope with it. Take the example of Chandani, 22, one of the few female cab drivers in the city. As she drove me around the city, a policeman stopped us at a barricade near India Gate. When he saw that a woman was driving the cab, he scraped his jaw off the floor. “You also drive a cab?” he said with an expression that suggested that he had spotted the Abominable Snowman. “I am doing a very unconventional job for women. Given that I do night shifts, I carry pepper spray and I’m trained in self-defense. Initially I faced a lot of problems but driving cabs at night has helped me overcome my fears,” Chandani said.
Overcoming fears, learning self defense, carrying pepper spray or sometimes, even knives – as is the case with Sheetal, who works at a night call center. After the brutal gang-rape of a physiotherapy student on December 16th, she picked up a knife and it has been in her handbag ever since. She says she has not stopped working night shifts or going out late with friends. “Something which needs to be changed is the mentality of men in the city, not my working hours or clothes,” she says.
Clothes; don’t wear miniskirts, don’t be revealing, don’t invite trouble.
Don’t invite trouble? “It does not matter what I wear, I still get stared at on the streets by men,” said Richa Singh, a middle class working woman who stays away from her family. Friends and family keep on giving her instructions about what she should wear and when she should step out of the house. She acknowledges that they mean well but is fed up with all the curbs being put on her.
On the other hand is Nalini Bhartwaj, a successful business woman and a mother of two children. She carries a Walther PPK semi-automatic. Though it is rare for women to carry guns, she says it is enough to shut up anyone trying to molest her or even pass a comment if she brandishes her gun.
Then there is the eternal question which perhaps only urban women in Delhi have to face: public transport vs private vehicles, which is a safer option?
“I made the decision to use public transport as my primary way of moving through the city because I really believe that it is my right to be able to use public space, just as much as it is of any man’s. Not using the metro or an auto or a bus or a cycle rickshaw (because it might not be a safe thing to do) is not an option in my mind because if I stop myself from living my life in ways that are most convenient to me, I’m giving into fear and ceding my independence,” said Simrat who works for a non-profit arts organization.
To validate her point, one evening I went out to shoot at a time as normal as 7.30 pm, looking for general shots of women walking on the street or waiting at the bus stop. I walked past two bus stops but I couldn’t find a single woman so I thought I would wait and see. And to my surprise, the frequency of the buses were more encouraging than the number of women standing at the bus stop.
Meeting these ordinary women living and working under extraordinary circumstances made me realize what women have to go through and the sometimes extreme steps they may have to take to ensure their safety. India has progressed as a democracy, but essentially somewhere we have lost sense of where we stand as a society. The anxiousness of being safe while going on with their daily lives is something that occupies a lot of their time and thoughts – just like it does mine. There are a lot of uncomfortable facts that we have to face about ourselves. Things have changed a lot, in terms of the public discourse happening in our country and society, but things have remained the same in lots of ways. There is this fear psychosis that women in this country live with. While profiling them, while seeing them through the lens, I saw myself too.