Making the City Hers
I must have been ten years old, on my way to school in a public B.E.S.T. bus in what was then Bombay. As always, the bus was crowded with men and women on their way to work, but I had managed to get a seat. Suddenly the woman in the seat across the aisle pulled a slipper off her foot, waved it threateningly, and brought it down on the man next to her. I did not know enough Marathi to understand what she was shouting at him. But soon others in the bus joined the woman in roughing up the man. He was trying hard to shrink in his window seat and make himself as small as possible. Then the bus came to a halt and its citizens threw out the man. The bus that went on filled with an unspoken friendship; everyone seemed to be on the side of the woman. She still looked angry, but she was quiet now. She sat straight-shouldered, as if she knew exactly what the people in the bus, and the city at large, owed her.
It must have taken all of ten minutes, my first spectacle of what I would learn, many years later, to call “sexual harassment”. The shouting and the man being beaten must have been frightening for a child; but at this distance, what I recall is my getting off the bus at school, feeling safe. What made me feel safe, perhaps, was the confidence that there were others, a lot of others, who had no doubt about an ordinary working woman’s right to go about in public, unmolested.
There must have been any number of less reassuring stories in the Mumbai of that time and in the decades that followed; but the city was, and is, relatively friendly to its women. Relatively is important, I learnt, when I moved, after years in Mumbai and Chennai, to Delhi.
In the early eighties, there was no metro in Delhi, and I had to change two buses to get to work. At this point in my life, I must have looked like a caricature of respectable Indian womanhood, my starched cotton sari wrapped modestly round a visibly pregnant body. But being a monument-in-the-making to that great Indian temple, motherhood, did not make a difference to the fact that I was a woman in Delhi. A woman with a body, alone in a crowded bus. I learnt the basic survival tactics, the handbag hanging behind to protect my back, safety pins on hips, that sort of thing. But still it meant being cautious about where you went and who you went with. It meant worrying about getting a lift back if you were out at night. It meant being aware, a good part of your waking day, that you are a woman, and that at any minute, anywhere, the abrasive city would turn on you through one of its ordinary citizens who had turned into a male predator.
Delhi, of course, does not hold a monopoly on male predators. Indeed, a quick reference to the anti-women state of the world may be a good idea to pre-empt any smug and easy “Western us versus Eastern them”. Like the rest of the world then, India has its own versions of keeping women well within real and imaginary lines. There are instances of harassment of women, various forms of violence against women, in any Indian city or village. The lower down on the class or caste or community scale, the more vulnerable the woman. But Delhi – the large area now called the National Capital Region -- seems to have taken upon itself the symbol of everything in India that is determined to treat its women as unequal citizens. It seems astonishing, and admirable, that the city’s women have not grown paranoid over the years; that they still go about their work and their lives; that they still partake of what the city has to offer, and fight for their right to do precisely that.
On a Sunday evening in December 2012, a young woman and a male friend went to see “The Life of Pi” in a mall in the Saket area of South Delhi. (In one of those ironies our lives are made of, Saket means heaven; it is also an ancient name of Ayodhya, the place that is believed, to the considerable cost of present day Indians, to be the birth place of Rama.) The twenty-three-year-old woman was a physiotherapy student, the bright spark in her family. Her father moved to Delhi from his ancestral village in the early eighties, and after a long struggle to make a life for his family in the capital, now worked as a baggage loader in the airport.
On their way back from the mall, the couple got into a bus. The bus turned out to be the kind of unlicensed bus that can run in Delhi after paying a few bribes. Much worse, the bus had five men, including the driver, who were, in their words, “looking for fun”, having already robbed a passenger and thrown him off the vehicle. What followed was an unbelievably brutal gang rape of the young woman, which left her with part of her intestines hanging out. Both she and her injured friend were thrown off the bus onto a road. They lay there bleeding, naked, for forty five minutes before the police arrived and the woman was taken to hospital.
No city, least of all Delhi, is a stranger to all kinds of violence against women. But this time the city erupted. The crowd gathered outside the Safdarjang hospital where the woman was fighting for her life. So did the media. Students distributed candles and we lit them, silent for the most part. There was a strange combination of disbelief, fear and anger in the air.
In the heart of the city, in the heart of its map of power – Parliament House, Raisina Hill, Rashtrapati Bhawan, India Gate, Rajpath and Janpath, Jantar Mantar – it was mostly anger that drove large numbers on to the streets, from old women to school children. In the first couple of days, many who had been marching for years for women’s rights were stunned – as were the police -- by the numbers, the baby-faced girls screaming with determination, We want justice!
Inevitably, the numbers swelled with the usual suspects and their accompanying crowds: politicians and aspiring politicians, “godmen”, several rightwing groups not exactly known for their devotion to the progress of women. Everyone was outraged; but the “solutions” were hotly contested. Would hanging the rapists be a “deterrent” when the statistics showed so many instances of sexual assault by members of the family or the neighbourhood? Did “protecting” women mean policing them more, literally and otherwise? Was this brutality evidence of patriarchy in general? Of urbanisation? Globalisation?
There is no doubt that in the new India obsessed with its growth story, people have been marginalised in ways that just may help turn men into beasts that roam rural and urban jungles, looking for prey, taking out their free floating frustration on them. But this sort of brutal-system-turning-men-brutal “explanation” was simply not enough for the angry and shaken women of Delhi. While the crowds gathered on the streets, and the authorities shut down some metro stations and pulled out their water cannons and lathis and tear gas to bring back “law and order”, all kinds of people spoke on television and in public meetings, or wrote in newspapers and on the net. The government finally woke up and set up a committee, the Verma Committee, to process a range of suggestions and make recommendations. The Committee did its job; it stretched Delhi to India, examined the entire landscape, from the meanings and categories of sexual harassment, to the effect of militarisation on women in places like Kashmir and the Northeast.
Meanwhile, the anguished public debate continued. And as always, the debate engendered a counter “debate” in which public figures, politicians, self-proclaimed godmen and respectable members of the public either blamed the “victims” in some way; or screamed for capital punishment as a deterrent; or asked for more protection – read policing – of women in public spaces; or a return from wicked modern ways to good old traditional India, where, apparently, rapes, by gangs or otherwise, were unheard of.
Not many of these newfound experts on Indian women championed the more path-breaking recommendations of the Verma Committee. To acknowledge that violence against women is part of a larger societal problem, to talk of marital rape, or of what caste, class or militarisation does every day to women, was more than these people, or indeed the government, could handle. “Closure”, that trendy new solution to all problems, was achieved by a court that gave the rapists (except the juvenile offender) death sentences. And to let us know that the world that made the rape possible is still intact, the defence lawyer of the rapists declared to the media that if he had a daughter who went out with a young man at night, or had premarital sex with him, he would burn her alive.
Between the eighties when I moved to Delhi and now, judicial activism in general, and the efforts of women’s organisations in particular, have worked hard to make the city a better place for its women. They have worked in the courts and in Parliament; they have worked through contact with women and through protest on the streets. Women’s organisations have led protests against a range of horrors: dowry deaths; domestic violence; sexual harassment at the workplace; the frequent “caste atrocity”, the least atrocious of these involving women stripped and paraded naked as a lesson to their men; rape and its subset, gang rape; and increasingly, as if to tie all these forms of violence together into a bizarre twist of ugly logic, “honour” killings.
Maybe these honour crimes hold, in some way, and to some extent, a key to making a little more sense of the continuing and new forms of violence against women. Haryana, next door to Delhi, has one of the worst sex ratios in the country. It is also one of the places where the writ of the khap panchayat – the “traditional” and unofficial caste panchayat -- runs rampant. Despite the industrialization and “modernization” of states like Haryana, the khap, a cluster of villages united by caste and geography, thrives; and so do khap panchayats, feudal bodies set up to settle local disputes in the absence of law enforcement agencies. Khap panchayats are undemocratic – their members and leaders are not elected, and they are tyrannical about imposing their “rules”. They are particularly repressive toward women. The honour of the caste is seen to be vested in the “chastity” of women. They oppose equal rights for women in property, are against co-ed schools, support dress codes for women, and oppose women’s rights to divorce and widow remarriage. “Youth wings” of unemployed and lumpen men have been formed to “protect old customs and traditions by all means”.
The violent ethos bred by khap panchayats show how, in the name of “tradition”, existing power structures, unofficial or official, perform new tricks to exert control on women, dalits, Muslims, youth. Girls and boys are to follow the “rules” about who they may befriend or marry. If these rules are broken, the result could be murder, “honour suicides”, threat and intimidation, fines, economic and social boycott of the offenders and their families. Despite a veneer of modernization, the guiding principle is caste. The khap panchayats aggressively push a worldview in which caste divisions are desirable; and violence against other castes, through their women, routine. Such is the power of the “khap panchayat mentality” that the recent surge in the number of reported rapes against dalit girls has not got the kind of police, state, media or public attention they should.
A kind of khap panchayat mentality seems to have spread to Delhi, city of new and old outsiders. Such a mentality feeds into the existing power set up, and allows for brutal violence against women to keep them in control. This may serve as one possible context to “understand” the bus gang rape in Delhi, and the numerous cases of sexual assault that continue to be reported – and unreported.
Women in Delhi have long lived in a state of low-grade siege. It’s just that it’s out in the open now, no longer an urban legend that only women know to be true. My hope has always been in the women’s organisations who have worked hard and long to end this siege. But now, after the reaction to the December gang rape, I also see hope in the energy unleashed by the thousands of girls and women on the streets. As we laid siege to the presidential Rashtrapati Bhawan, young voices renting the air with their demand for justice, I recall wondering, Do they know what a city-changing, life-changing thing they are asking for?
I would like to think this energy will grow, one day at a time, into something strong and thoughtful, so we will re-learn what it is, this justice being demanded. We may then build a New Delhi.
This was first published in Moving Worlds, Volume 13 Number 2, Special Issue on Postcolonial Cities - South Asia edited by Caroline Herbert, University of Leeds and Nanyang Technological University, 2013,