Daily Disgust: The Daily Delhi Commute

I have lived in New Delhi most of my life. To my disgust, embarrassment and anger, as a necessary condition of living in the city I have had my breasts squeezed in a crowded public bus, felt a guy's hardness against my leg in a Metro and have had my buttocks pinched several times.

I am not alone. Every single woman who has had to travel by public transport in the city has faced molestation and in extreme cases, rape with chilling regularity. "Eve-teasing" is a deceptive-sounding euphemism in India for public sexual harassment or molestation of women. The use of the word "Eve," for the first woman, implies that the woman is in some way responsible for her own torture.

What did I do about such embarrassments? Glad you asked. I've had the honor of slapping two of my assailants and I chased one off the bus, aided by other irate passengers. But truth be told, my objections have often been dismissed by friends and seniors and even the police as frivolous.

"These are the unavoidable hazards of being a working woman and there's hardly any point complaining," an aunt once advised me. Actionable remedies? What's that?

Almost all my colleagues and neighbors have experienced such debasing treatment, their privacy invaded by strange, sick men as they tried to navigate their chaotic lives, juggling jobs, kids and homes.

New Delhi has the dubious distinction of being the country's rape capital as well as being its capital city. The reputation is well-deserved. Last year, the city reported 572 cases of rape, up by about 10 per cent from 2011, and substantially more than other cities of comparable size like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Cases of crime against women, a policewoman tells me, are "highly sensitive" and the registration of a case totally depends on the victim. In a raft of cases, the victim herself backs out and does not want a case registered due to social stigma or shame. It is estimated that fewer than 10 percent are reported.

But I feel this conspiracy of silence should be broken as more and more Indian women come out to claim public space as equal citizens. Breaking through an ossified mindset, Indian women are no longer confined to the four walls of their homes, but are leading enriched lives. They are climbing the corporate ladder, going out to malls, movies, parties on their own, with boyfriend or a live-in partner, as did the raped and murdered young woman who recently kicked off the furor through the terrible things that happened to her.

Having lived and worked abroad and traveled to 42 countries (alone as well), ironically, I've felt far safer in alien surroundings than in my own home country. I've been to a late night Moulin Rouge show alone in Paris, visited restaurants/cafes, walked around London after dark, taken public transport across America, Canada, Hong Kong, Of course men have tried to cozy up, offered to buy me drinks etc. But that's as persuasive as it's got. Touching or coming on too strong? No.

Is it the strong deterrents against sexual assault that keep men in check abroad? And is it the glaring deficit of those very checks in India that embolden Indian men to misbehave openly with women here? Indeed, how have things spiraled so out of control as to make sexual offenses everyday affairs?

Daily reportage of crimes against women in newspapers and on 24X7 TV news channels has surely contributed to breeding insensitivity about such activities in a large demographic who are just thankful that it's not their sisters or wives who have been targeted. These people discuss the episode over a hot cup of coffee and then move on till the next gruesome episode comes along to capture their mind space.

Nearly, 24,000 rape cases take place across the country every year. And media attention is invariably focused overtly on rape. This, I feel, seriously diminishes the gravity of the several other forms of harassment that women encounter every day. Eve-teasing is thus dismissed as a minor, harmless offense even though it is pervasive and happens everywhere - on streets, inside cinema halls, in public transport, and in virtually every public space.

Politicians disingenuously pass the buck by blaming women for inviting this form of harassment upon themselves by wearing the `wrong' kind of clothes (read western wear), going out after dusk, visiting pubs, discotheques, hotels et al. This well-entrenched bias, an offshoot of Indian society being patriarchal in its social norms and practices, catalyzes other social malpractices. The birth of a daughter is thus seen as `unfortunate', and people are happy to get rid of a female child even though it is unlawful.

Female feticide is openly practiced across wide swathes of the country. A study published in 2001 by the British medical journal, Lancet, stated that more than 10 million fetuses have been aborted in the country in the last two decades. Of the 12 million girls born every year, 1 million do not live to see their first birthday.

Like political actors, the police too, prefers to look the other way. It is an open secret that fed up of police inaction, people resort to medieval forms of justice to punish sexual offenders in the smaller towns. They publicly shame rapists or eve-teasers by tonsuring their heads, blackening their faces and parading them through streets.

"What else are we supposed to do? asks Roop Devi (name changed) of Jhajjar in the northern state of Haryana, who was so harassed by local goons that she even contemplated suicide. "Had my parents not got the culprits punished through the local panchayat (the smallest administrative body at the village level), our lives would have continued to be living hells!" she told Asia Sentinel in a telephone interview.

Where does the solution lie? Women activists say `concrete measures' to protect women are the only way out. These should include stricter controls for buses, taxis and autos, a thorough verification of the bus drivers, increased police presence, greater police accountability and more women cops.

However, apart from administrative changes, attitudinal changes towards women also need a revamp. Baying for the rapists' blood, or putting them through inhumane forms of torture won't solve anything. What we need is public sensitization through a concerted print and audio-visual media campaign and gender-sensitization training programs for politicians and the cops. And while we're at it, it wouldn't hurt to make laws against rape as strict as they come.

(Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist; neetalal@hotmail.com)

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