Voices of women in India’s “rape capital”

January 22, 2013

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.


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Mansi, you did a great job on your coverage of this story. In addition, your photographs are significant images of women exercising their rights to live their lives, out at night, just like anyone else should have the right to do, without being harmed or threatened in any way or form.

In a “Perfect World,” women and girls (anyone, male or female) should NEVER have to fear being abused or molested at home or out in public, but we all know this is not a perfect world…far from it.

After reading your story, I read another story on this topic, also at Reuters: http://blogs.reuters.com/india/2013/01/0 9/short-skirts-bad-stars-and-chow-mein-w hy-indias-women-get-raped/

I was sickened and shocked at the ignorance, arrogance, and flat-out idiotic attitudes and statements made by these ‘so-called’ educated leaders from India. These people (the ones cited in the other story) blamed women and girls for being abused and becoming targets of sexual harassment and rape.

Oh, and don’t forget, instead of accepting blame for some men’s and women’s warped beliefs on the cause of sexual crimes, why not just blame America and the West. Shifting blame always works – use a scapegoat when possible – slight-of-hand to get the attention off the ills found in Indian society, which stem from ignorant beliefs and bankrupt attitudes toward women.

Rape is NOT a new crime: Rape is mentioned in historical texts going back to the times of Ancient Greece (i.e., Zeus disguised as a swan rapes Leda). Mythology is one thing, but because it is pointed out in ancient texts, it was real crime committed in ancient societies.

The notorious and ruthless, Genghis Khan, the 12th century Mongolian warlord is considered the most prolific murderer and rapist in History. Modern science has discovered that nearly 1 in every 200 men share the same kind of Y chromosome, which could have only (most believe) come from Genghis Khan’s reign of terror (from the 2003 genetics study by 23 co-authors, published in American Journal of Human Genetics).

The crime of rape is a well-established form of terror, which seems to have been committed and sanctioned by armies throughout time. This sort of brutality is seen in History from the earliest and ancient ‘civilizations’ (Greek, Persian and Roman, and well, probably everyone else too). Nothing has changed over the centuries with widespread rape being the order of the day in more modern times too (i.e., “Historians believe some 2 million German women were raped after Soviet and Allied forces defeated Hitler’s army in the spring of 1945.” [From “Silence Broken on Red Army Rapes in Germany,” by Eric Westervelt on NPR, and other information from “Ravishing the Women of Conquered Europe,” by Kevin Alfred Strom].

During the Bosnia War (ethnic cleansing), from 1 March 1992 to 14 December 1995, “rape was used as a systematized instrument of war by Serb armed forces predominantly targeting women and girls of the Bosniak ethnic group for physical and moral destruction. Estimates of the number of women raped during the war range from 20,000 to 50,000.” [Wikipedia – Rape in Bosnian War].

“According to Margot Wallström, U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, only 12 cases out of an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 (rape cases against Bosnian women) have been prosecuted as of 2010.” [Cerkez, Aida (26 November 2010). “UN official: Bosnia war rapes must be prosecuted.” Fox News].

At one talk I attended, an aid relief worker, working in Bosnia during the war, told a gruesome tale of how the Serb and Croat rapists would hang women’s and girls’ underwear in trees, each panty symbolizing a rape – and this person said that trees in Bosnian towns were littered like this.

I believe modern civilization must wake up; however, because rape has been happening for thousands of years, attitudes apparently have not changed significantly on what triggers some ‘animals’ (violent uncivilized criminals) to commit violent sex crimes, mostly against women and girls.

Even back in ancient times, educated thinkers such as Lucretius defined rape quite accurately: “In the 50s BC, the Epicurean poet Lucretius condemned rape as a primitive behavior outside the bounds of an advanced civilization, describing it as ‘a man’s use of violent force and imposition of sexual impulse.’” [Original source, Pamela Gordon, “Some Unseen Monster: Rereading Lucretius on Sex,” in The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), p. 105; and, Lucretius, De rerum natura 5.964: Violenta viri vis atque impensa libido.]

The comments of the Indian politicians and religious leaders (cited in the other Reuter’s blog) about rape, are sickening and uneducated at the least. Certain quarters need to change their education and attitudes about how they think about sexual crimes, as Lucretius points out; rape is primitive behavior, uncivilized, and MAN’S violent force against another person to act upon some sexual impulse. It is about causing extreme oppression and FEAR!

STOP blaming women!

Men who commit rape have a dysfunctional idea of right and wrong, a warped sense of values, and they either are, or they act like extreme sociopaths – How possibly can one human violate another in this violent manner and have an ounce of remorse in their body? Yes, it is sociopathic.

Posted by Kepler667 | Report as abusive

Excellent Article!
India has a very long way to go and before calling itself a democracy. Hopefully, this incident brings about positive changes. First and foremost, one has to begin teaching male children at home and in the classroom in schools right from kindergarten to respect women. Today in India domestic abuse in families across economic, social, communial is epidemic which needs serious addressing. If India wants to be a regional or world economic power, it needs to address women’s issues, they are half the population which can’t be ignored and surpressed. The legislative, executive and judicial systems need a complete overhaul of the medieval mindset which needs routing out. It’s not only men that have misogynistic mindsets, its the women too, whether to please their men folk or they just are one can’t tell. At the end of the day, it all boils down to education, and if the present political leadership isn’t willing to understand and cahnge with the times, then they are completely out of touch.

Great photography, love the photographs!

Posted by Los-Iguana | Report as abusive

Good Job done… This sort of brought back my own struggles in the city I was born. I thought it was my right to move around freely and do stuff i my way. But time and again, men in the city made me realize it was more their city than mine. My daily course of action would be decided by them. My mode of transport, dressing, talking, behaving, everything else will be decided by them and not ME. But I still love Delhi with all my share of everyday battles. This city has made me strong!

Posted by Snoopyjourno | Report as abusive

Hello Mansi,
Good article, highlighting the problems, but not much has been done overcome the problems.
We will be launching shortly a mobile phone App and SMS echo system to connect the user with the Police. We are looking for help from young individuals who are willing to represent us in various city. This will not only help young women who are traveling for work, it will help the the local and foreign tourists too. The tourism to India is down by over 30%.
You can contact me at ashwani@hamarisuraksha.com


Posted by AshwaniNarula | Report as abusive