My city is not mine. I have always felt this, but only realised it fully last week, when, in the aftermath of the unspeakably brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman by six men, I began talking to women around me about safety. This is not a new subject. I have grown up and into an understanding that this city is hostile towards me, and that everything possible must be done to keep me safe.
My safety, my mother tells me, has always been a primary concern for her. No men in the house. A maid supervising the daily carpool to school. Boarding school and college abroad. Having spent her youth getting pawed by men in DTC buses, once only narrowly escaping an acid attack, she was determined to shield me from what she knew to be a harsh city for women. Every effort was made, every resource utilised to ensure I could circumvent the hazards of this city and be the independent person I was already becoming—elsewhere.
I now understand that that alternative would have been to stay here, in the city but removed from it, skirting its edges, tunneling through it, being smuggled in a tightly regulated bubble between illusory safe spaces—ones with gates, or guards, or a cover charge—like so many young women I know whose parents can afford to keep them safe, to hold them apart from the city.
Though irreproachable in its intent, the tragedy of this approach, as my mother puts it, is that you can’t give your child the confidence to operate in the world. Indeed, our collective fear of the city transforms it into an adversary, with whom we interact tentatively and only when necessary, careful not to do anything to provoke its ire.
We abide by a hallowed yet vague code of conduct: don’t stay out after dark, don’t wear anything that shows off your legs, don’t trust strangers, especially men, don’t stand out in a crowd.
We negotiate our own curfews: no autorickshaws after 8, no metro after 10, no driving alone after 11.
We permit ourselves small conditional freedoms: if you must go out, go in a group with boys, go to someone’s house, go only to this or that safe neighbourhood, take a driver.
One or another of our well-wishers arms us with a laundry-list of good faith measures: wear a dupatta, take my Swiss-army knife, here’s a bottle of pepper spray, why don’t you buy a padlock, a metal torch, a sharp umbrella—just carry it, please, for my peace of mind. Pin-up your bangs. Wear leggings under your skirt. Don’t get into an auto with two men in the front seat. Text me the cab’s licence plate number. Call me when you leave the restaurant, and then again when you get into the car. Have someone walk you from the restaurant to your car. If you’re driving yourself to a movie at night, don’t go to one in a mall. Why would you take an auto when I can pick you up? Why would you take a bus when we have a car for you? Why would you drive when we have a driver? What if a bunch of cars corners you and forces you to stop? Never get out of your car if someone hits it. Don’t slow down for male cops.
And in the news: a buffet of nightmares. We are fed fear all our lives, and, as adults, are expert navigators of an obstacle course of terrors. Being safe in this city is a full-time job, but the only skills you develop doing it are self-censorship and avoidance. A whole generation of women brought up in hiding, never learning to swim for fear of drowning. Who do we become, in all this? Fugiti- ves from our own city and our own lives, expending all our energies and using all our resources to avoid getting raped.
And yet every woman I talk to knows that there is no foolproof way to avoid it. I speak to a 21-year-old who has moved to Delhi from another city where also she lived alone for several years, mastering the art of keeping a low profile. She tells me she doesn’t feel too afraid anymore, perhaps because she is accustomed to constant vigilance, or because she has reached the end of her tether.
“I’ve lost my hang-ups. If I’m late, I’m late. I’ve done my part. I try to be respectful of the society that we live in, but there’s only so much I can do. Whether it’s apathy or stupidity, I’ve just realised that there’s really nothing you can do to be safe. If I have to be raped, it’ll happen. Pepper spray won’t help, being with a man won’t help, the police won’t help, society won’t kick in, humanity won’t kick in, protests will happen and fizzle. As women, we’ve exhausted all possibilities. And if I still can’t go out at night, then screw it.”
The sentiment is echoed by other women, fed up of the things they’ve been told they must do to keep safe. A 25-year-old who grew up in a single-parent household finds it irritating that she even has to think about things like what she wears and how she travels. “I decided I wasn’t going to stop myself from doing things just because it was unsafe.”
She speaks of repeated rows with her mother over her comings and goings. Regretful of the pain and anxiety she has had to cause her mother, she says it was a conscious trade-off with the independence and fearlessness she insisted on cultivating in herself.
“I’ve done a lot of stupid shit consciously. Nothing bad has happened, and that’s not true for everyone, but it’s made me feel confident. Now I don’t feel helpless in the city.”
It irritated her to live in fear, especially when, in the course of her work on human rights, sexual violence and public health, she met people who had been through much worse, and those who were taking greater risks every day of their lives. She is clear her risks are not the same as theirs. “I am in a privileged position. I choose where I go, when I go. It’s when you have to do something every day against your will that it becomes a problem. Otherwise it’s all a lark.”
When I listen to her, I think of all the times I’ve heard the question, “Why do you want to take an unnecessary risk?” I suppose that depends on what you understand as being necessary, and what it is you’re calling a risk. It is not necessary that my friend take the bus home at night, in that her circumstances do not constrain her to only that option. This lack of constraint is what she calls her privilege. But, perhaps, if we live in a city where something as basic as public transport is so unsafe as to be seen as a compulsion, a last resort, a risk, it is another kind of necessity that motivates her to do it anyway—the necessity of conscience, of asserting control over her choices, of carving out a place in public space.
My friend constructs her privilege as something that enables her to take such a necessary risk—“I know if something happens, I will have support”—rather than something that excuses her from having to take it. This is a crucial difference. By deploying her privilege to choose to do something considered risky, like taking a bus at night, she has transformed that action from a compulsion to an empowered choice.
Another woman, 24 years old, understands that privilege is no guarantee of protection. She narrates to me my own experience of studying abroad, becoming convinced of the centrality of public transport to city life, then coming home and having to argue with her parents about taking an autorickshaw. At first it was a matter of embarrassment and convenience—it was ridiculous to have to rely on your parents’ car and driver—but eventually, she realised that a car and driver are no guarantee of safety in the first place.
Soon after she moved back to the city, she was stopped by cops in outer Gur- gaon in the middle of the night for no reason, with two younger girls in the car. While her driver sat paralysed with fear, she negotiated the release of her car’s insurance and registration papers. A friend of hers was in a car with friends when they accidentally brushed past a man in a narrow street, and found themselves watching terrified as their driver and the boy in the front seat were pulled out and thrashed.
“There are degrees of safety,” she says, “but by and large, anything can happen anywhere. You could lull yourself into a sense of security. But if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.
I value my independence. I want to do what I want, whenever I want. I’m not going to let a threat of violence deter me from that.”
It is this refusal to let fear stop their lives that is motivating so many women I know to resist their unnatural coddling, jump their security detail, and confront the spectre of the city. Each of them has negotiated, and is continually negotiating her individual balance between prudence and principle. But simply being terrified is no longer an option. “It’s not that you don’t feel scared. But when you do, you just tell yourself to shut up. You have to push yourself,” my bus-travelling friend says, push yourself against your fear, even of getting raped.
Those talking about rape being the worst thing that can happen to a person, she says, are merely reinforcing its power as an act of subjugation. Why is rape any worse than a brutal beating, she asks. Because we have subscribed to the patriarchal carp about rape being a violation of honour, a destruction of identity, an “annihilation of a human being” as one young protestor screamed into a TV camera last weekend on Raisina Hill.
Growing up with the threat of such an annihilation hanging over our heads, we are intimidated to cede our stake in our city, our slice of public space, ostensibly in favour of a flimsy sense of security. Our parents, terrified too, yell at us, lock us up, try to give us the best protection money can buy, but a sense of safety cannot be bought, it must be fought for, and the fight is not merely against rapists, or indifferent police, or weak government, but also against ourselves and our inherited fears.
That my friend takes the bus is not a gesture of stupidity. It is a considered act of bravery. It is a challenge, to the world and to herself, of a person who no longer wishes to remain in the grip of her fear. You could tell her there is reason to fear. She will tell you she has no right to be afraid in a world where she is automatically shielded from so many worse fates. You could tell here it is unrealistic to act on her ideals, but what she is actually doing is acting out her ideal. Counterarguments are irrelevant. “You get to a point where you just have to live.” How are you going to talk her out of that?
This is why so many women have responded to the rape of a 23-year-old girl from Dehradun not by battening down the hatches and hiding, but by barrelling into the street to reclaim the space that was denied her. To cast our bodies into the city like ballots, affirmative votes for our place in this city, protests against the default monopoly of men over space. This is my city, we are saying, and I am here. I am here to take up space, I am here to reassure the next woman she can be here, I am here to provide with my presence one more defiant answer to the question “What do you think you’re doing here?” I am here to alter this city’s character, I am here to combat the normalcy of my absence, I am here as an argument against fear. Gawp, glare, gossip, but get used to it, I am here.