Growing up in Delhi can be quite an experience. It’s big, loud, dirty, and noisy. Delhi must be learned. It must be negotiated. I grew up in Delhi. I navigated public transport, walked through dusty streets, drove from one end of the city to another, and all the while learned and lived the rules of being a woman in Delhi’s public spaces.
There are probably more rapes in Delhi than in anywhere else in India. Last year alone, there were 572 rapes reported in Delhi, and 657 cases of molestation (1). And those are just the ones that got reported. If you’re a woman, Delhi is a bad place to be. Delhi women learn to negotiate these dangers with behavioral modifications and uncertain prayers. There are some unwritten rules to being a woman in Delhi. These rules reinforce the blame-the-victim mentality in cases where women are molested or raped. Was she wearing a short skirt? Was she alone? Was it dark? Or, as the evil creatures who gangraped a young woman in a bus this month asked, why was she out in public, after dark, with a man?
A woman who is sexually violated is often considered to have presented some sort of provocation, but the truth is, being a woman in a public space is provocation enough for some patriarchal Delhi men. They see women as possessions, as objects to be controlled, and, frighteningly, as sport. The staring, the harassment, the groping, the rapes, these experiences that violate and traumatize women are often shared masculine performances of fun.
Growing up in Delhi, I grew up in an atmosphere of sexualized domination and an all-pervasive, quotidian, vague-but-real terror. The fear of walking alone at night. The fear that the men “teasing” me might decide to do more. The fear that nobody would help me, even if they heard my cries. The fear that no one would believe me. The fear of rape, of murder. It’s a pathological fear that is rooted in social discourses of honor and shame. Sexual violence is a powerful weapon of gender oppression because of its association with shame. It isn’t just a sexual violation, it’s a social and psychological one.
If you haven’t been a woman in Delhi, you might not understand this fear. It’s normalized, everyday, internalized. It lives under the surface of your skin. It lives in the quick walk, in the bowed head, in the extra-large safety pin clutched in your fist as you travel in a bus. It lives in the slight speeding up of your heart as you walk home after dark, in the pounding of your pulse as you race away from the van that slid to a stop next to you, door sliding open and laughing men inside.
The fear is matched by a constant, simmering, suppressed anger. It’s not possible to live in a state of endemic oppression and chronic fear and not be angry. It’s just, mostly, women don’t think about it, and when they do, they’re afraid to show it. What if you yell at the guy who groped you, and he pulls out a gun and shoots you? It’s happened. Not that women don’t strike back, but there’s always the knowledge that this might go bad, and that onlookers may not help you.
And this is what Delhi women learn to navigate. We normalize and internalize the fear and anger to such an extent that we often forget they’re there, particularly if we can afford to travel in the relative safety of private cars and live in the relative safety of cosmopolitan worlds (not that there’s no violence there). Privilege changes the nature of women’s movement in public space, because even as they move in public spaces, they carry their private spaces with them as protection.
The everydayness of fear alters women’s daily behavior and choices. What to wear, where to go, how to travel, what career path to take–from the smallest to the largest decisions, a concern for personal safety often underlies most women’s decisions, and, very often, it is at the subconscious level. Delhi women learn not to “dress provocatively”, which is meaningless—as though dress was provocation. Don’t talk or laugh too loudly in public. Don’t make eye contact with strangers. Ignore the men making obscene suggestions to you. Don’t stay out too late with boys. Don’t stay out too late with girls. Don’t stay out after dark alone. Be careful. Be alert. Beware. Role-expectations and presentations become internalized, and are followed because of the constant fear of sexual violence.
Violence, or the threat thereof, is used in a patriarchal system to create fear and keep women in their “place”. Public sexual violence becomes a punishment for women’s transgression into the public sphere, an arena that is traditionally male. Sexual violence is normalized and legitimized by the underlying perception of the very presence of women in public spaces as being “provocative” behavior (2).
As a paternalistic authority in a patriarchal system, the Indian state perpetuates ideologies of shame and honor in its legal system. The Indian state encodes many sexual crimes against women under the rubric of “outraging a woman’s modesty.” This stresses that what is important here is the modesty, not so much the physical, emotional, or mental well-being of the woman. What is modesty? Per the Supreme Court of India, “the essence of a woman’s modesty is her sex” (3). It is women’s sexuality that is carefully controlled under this seemingly innocuous discourse of “modesty”.
Ergo, women, if they want to be protected, must be modest. And this modesty is defined in highly patriarchal terms: staying indoors as much as possible, dressing in as all-covering a fashion as possible, being unobtrusive, and so on. There is a normalized discourse of behavior that is socially and culturally accepted and adopted, to the extent that even laws that ostensibly protect women from sexual persecution, in reality, only serve to protect patriarchal notions of women’s place in society and their fragile sexuality and honor. If we are to counter the reality of sexual violence, we must begin by dismantling the discursive structures of normalization of patriarchy and paternalism, of honor and shame, that perpetuate it.
What changed? Why are women taking to the streets to protest sexual violence? Surely, the brutal rape and murder of a young woman provided the catalyst. Perhaps it was just one incident too many. Surely, the fact that the young woman was from Delhi, a middle class student, just going about her day as all Delhi women do, roused Delhi’s usually apathetic middle class to rage. This was not a faraway Kashmiri woman, a faceless brutalized rural Dalit woman, unknowable and easy to ignore. Perhaps what struck a chord in Delhi’s middle class women was the thought, “that could have been me.”
I’ve been reading comments that talk about the clash of tradition and modernity in India, and how that might be at the root of this protest. I’m not comfortable with that discourse and find it homogenizing and exoticizing. What is indubitable, though, is that there have been significant social changes with the advent of globalization and liberalization. Perhaps the most significant one that I have noticed in my research is the awareness of possibility. Globalization brings with it changes in the flow of information—suddenly, people see the world. It’s at their fingertips, on their phones, in their living rooms. And the thought occurs—things don’t have to be this way. Arjun Appadurai has noted that in the era of globalization, imagination is a powerful force. It can be used to oppress, but it can also be use to resist, to emancipate, and to visualize new possibilities (4). What young India is doing today is imagining new possibilities for Indian women. Things don’t have to be this way. This could be a city, a country, where women don’t have to be afraid, or angry, or constantly alert. Where they could enjoy the same freedoms as men do, the freedoms to do the small things—wear what they like. Be outside after dark. Have a drink. Not be ogled. Not be touched without permission.
Things could be very different, if only things would change.
- Pratiksha Baxi, 2001. Sexual Harassment. www.india-seminar.com/2001/505/505%20pratiksa%20baxi.htm.
- Arjun Appadurai, 2000 Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination. Public Culture 12(1): 1-19.