Last year, I spent nine months in India as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar. Mentoring some young ladies in New Delhi, I learned that their families had forbidden them from using public transport because it was too dangerous to do so.
On Dec. 16, 2012, a young 23-year-old girl was gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi, as she and a male friend were returning home after seeing a movie. She succumbed to her injuries 29.
This incident has stirred up memories, some from the recent time in India and others from growing up in Delhi.
I am a 50-year-old proud American citizen. I grew up in Delhi, and left when I was 23 years old. I was raised by a single mother who worked as a receptionist in a government-owned bank. By the time a Delhi girl from a middle-class family such as mine is a pre-teen, she is taught about “eve-teasing” and educated about what is “proper” for her to do, by her well meaning protective parents and family. “Eve-teasing” is understood all over India to include all manner of threats, harassment and unwanted attention that women face from men in the streets. Between the ages of 12 and 23, on the streets of Delhi, I had already faced many whistles and catcalls from roadside Romeos, groups of men hanging around street corners and other public places. In the crowded buses in Delhi, as I went to my school or college, there were incidents of inappropriate touching by strangers. The more offensive incidents involved men pretending to fall on me so that I had to endure full body contact with someone leaning into me or even rubbing against me.
The coping strategies I was taught were primarily to ignore and avoid. Stay home unless you absolutely have to go out. If you must go out, do it in safe daylight hours, preferably accompanied by a sturdy healthy male member of your family, a brother, father, uncle, or someone who you trust enough to stand up to the unknown men who might target you. Don’t go out after dark. Dress conservatively. Cover yourself completely. Do not even wear clothes that fit too well – as merely revealing the shape of your body would be inviting trouble. Avoid eye contact. Move away and stand somewhere else or get off the bus, if you can safely do so. Experience taught me many more ways to cope. I learned to carry a book bag that was big and fat so that it could be strategically positioned on my body to act as a shield between me and anyone who came too close for my comfort. If he was using the overcrowding to get too close, I learned to “accidentally” step on his toes or jab him in the solar plexus.
I had to fend off these daily humiliations all alone. It was not proper to speak about it. Even now, when I am old enough and live far enough away, I can’t talk to anyone about it.
Yet the India of my youth was led by a woman prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, who was elected for a record four terms. Women such as Vijaylakshmi Pandit and Sarojini Naidu fought for India’s freedom alongside Mahatma Gandhi. The school texts taught us about the valor of Queen (Rani) Laxmibai of Jhansi, a leader in the rebellion of 1857 against the British. The announcement of birth of a baby-girl was often announced as the home-coming of Laxmi, the goddess of wealth. Many other goddess are female. Durga or Kali is the goddess who conquers all evil by slaying demons. Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, music, dance and other art forms.
In recent years, India has had a woman president, Pratibha Patil, and has several prominent political leaders such as Sonia Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, just to name a few. Women occupy important leadership roles in many corporations, such as Dr. Kiran Majumdar Shaw and Naina Lal Kidwai, among others.
Yet young ladies going to the university may still take the ladies-only special buses. On the Delhi Metro, every train has a ladies-only compartment. Women still need these options as everyone knows that public places are not safe for women.
These symbols and experiences of womanhood represent the contradictions of India. A woman can be a respected leader in society, with potentially a goddess-like status. Or she is the unacknowledged shadow presence living under the protection offered by the home, the men in her life and the powers that be. Her virtue and womanhood is measured by the extent of self-effacing sacrifice she is capable of and the magnitude of silent suffering she can endure, all for the greater good of the family and society.
Recently, one brave young lady died fighting to her last breath. Millions identified with her struggles and understood that it could have happened to any one of us. The collective outpouring of mass grief, anger and frustration is an acknowledgement of these daily struggles women endure silently. That the protesters have finally taken to the roads is a sign of the new India where silently, with black ribbons tied across their mouth, they want to communicate that enough is enough.
My wish for the future of India is one where women don’t have to choose between being warriors or goddesses. We are human too, and deserve the same basic human rights, such as to dress as we wish, to go when and where we wish to go, to not be touched without consent, and to be able to speak about our concerns.
Let us start with a move away from silence towards speaking about this.
Women and girls are not property, no matter how precious that may be. Finally, instead of women being taught to stay home after dark, I suggest having days when the men must stay home after dark because that too will make it safe for women to be out and about.
(The author is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga, Calif.)