In December 2012, 23-year old medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey boarded a private bus with a male friend. She was brutally raped, tortured and murdered. It made headlines across the world and sparked widespread protests in Delhi. I hope the world never forgets it.
The six perpetrators were arrested, jailed and found guilty by a newly-established fast track court. All were handed the death penalty except for a 17-year old juvenile who was given a three-year sentence in a reform facility. I am staunchly against capital punishment but when the sentences were announced, I wavered on that. I couldn’t comprehend how six human beings could do that to another human being without one of them having just a little smidgin of conscience to speak up and stop the others. The torture they subjected Jyoti Singh Pandey to was monstrous and inhuman.
When we moved to India 16 months after the crime, friends and family were concerned for my safety. I reassured them (and myself) by saying that I was going to be a lot more fortunate and safer than many other women who have no means but to travel by foot or by public and shared transportation as we have our own vehicle and driver. To a large extent this is an accurate statement. I am cocooned.
Some argue that India has come a long way in terms of gender equality. Long before Thatcher, Indira Gandhi was the second female elected head of government in the world ever, pipped only by Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Ceylon by 6 years. With the rise of the middle class, more girls are receiving an education and going on to university and paid professional jobs. More females are even being allowed to choose their own husbands and life partners. So things are changing. And to be clear, women suffer from inequality all over the world.
In 2015, a movie called India’s Daughter, made by Leslee Udwin was released by BBC. It unapologetically shines a harsh, unflinching light on the rape case and India’s culture of victim blaming, misogyny, patriarchy and twisted sexuality norms. In it, one of the perpetrators and their defence attorneys are interviewed. The lack of remorse from the perp is outrageous. What’s even more enraging is the views of the defence attorneys that Jyoti somehow brought this on herself and their statements that a woman provokes a man to rape because of her lustful appearance and as such belongs in the home, in purdah away from the lascivious eyes of men.
Keep your women under control, or they will be raped, was the message.
It is not all bad and I have it very easy by comparison. I am only subjected to a range of micro-agreesions on a daily basis. I am only leered at and brushed occasionally and have had the fortune of only having my arse pinched a handful of times. There is an even an Indianism for it: eveteasing. At a subtler level, I am sometimes ignored whilst my male companions are spoken to. Micro-aggressions aren’t only doled out by men. I have had middle-aged aunties stare disapprovingly at my exposed legs beneath my knee length dress on 40ºC days. At an insidious level, I sometimes catch myself changing my outfit five times because I didn’t think the previous one was conservative enough. I am acutely aware that I am female here. For all my discontent, there are women who are far worse off, who suffer family abuse, sexual violence, acid attacks and rape.
If I have given the impression that India is horribly discriminatory or unsafe for women to visit, I’d like to correct myself now. India has many fabulous females in positions of prominence in government, industry and society. There are women championing the cause of all and for other women. Not every man is a harasser and many are respectful and reverent even of women.
If you are a female traveller of reasonable means, you will generally be well looked after and perfectly safe. Make arrangements through reputable agencies, err on the side of caution, trust your instincts and travel with someone if you can. I often wander around Delhi on my own, it can be done with the proper precautions. Although I still rail against this, I have also learned to dress more modestly, be careful about who I make eye contact with and to be aware of who is standing around me. It would be a true shame not to see the wonders of India at least once in your life and there is now a lot more awareness about women’s safety and the authorities are trying to do more to protect women.
Eve teasing is even outlawed.