Having pontificated for two days over the tornado of protests that have hit Delhi, I found time to contemplate if I *really* knew what they were protesting about. So I asked someone who has lived there and experienced the alternating splendor and horror of Delhi; my wife. This is what she had to say.
I love Delhi, the city. I love its wide, open roads, its wonderful architecture. I’ve made great friends in Delhi. I went to a wonderful school in Delhi. I’ve also suffered in Delhi. I’m one of millions of women with tales to tell of how Delhi has ground our self-respect and security to dust. General descriptions of harassment can’t adequately describe the horror a woman faces every day in the city. There isn’t a single moment when you’re walking its streets that you can think “I’m safe, I can breathe easy and enjoy the sunshine. What a lovely day!” If you have breasts, you’re fair game. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, how old you are, you can be a man’s property. You can be used for his gratification. You can be dominated.
I don’t want to recount the hundreds of times I’ve been groped in crowds in Delhi. Hands moving over you, pinching your bottom, rubbing your breasts as you desperately try to find some inch of ground that will be safe. Women routinely carry sharp objects like needles and drawing instruments to dissuade such attacks but there are too many incidents to deal with.
Once, while attending a wedding in Delhi, I was at a friend’s place and was about to leave for the venue. I called the bride’s mom to tell her I’ll walk down to the venue and I heard an unmistakable sense of terror creep into her voice. She dropped the bonhomie and almost shouted at me to stay where I was. She would send a car. I laughed and told her that she was being ridiculous. Her response was that of anger. “Stay where you are. DON’T MOVE! I’m sending a car. DO NOT walk alone, especially all dressed up. There’s no telling what might happen.” The venue was two blocks away in Southex, a very posh part of Delhi. It was five thirty in the evening and it was broad daylight.
I accompanied my friend’s relatives to a function at Pragati Maidan. With us was her 70 year-old grandmother. The lady was a widow, dressed in the characteristic white sari. She hobbled on a walking stick. The ground was crowded and dusty. As we made our way through the crowd, a young adolescent boy shoved his hand between her legs. He felt up a seventy year old woman hobbling on a walking stick. We were unable to reconcile this incident with any semblance of logic or sense. Why did this happen? Just. It was a female with female parts, which of course are the property of every human in Delhi blessed with a penis.
As a student in Delhi, I’d attend tuitions literally across the road from where we stayed. The proprietor was a burly man with a shy fourteen year old son. Every evening, after classes dispersed, it was that young boy’s job to make sure we girls safely crossed the street. That’s all. He’d just stand outside the gate and make sure we crossed a distance of fifty feet safely. He wasn’t worried about us being hit by cars. He was making sure we didn’t get molested. If a mob of men had shown up, the poor boy wouldn’t stand a chance. And yet, he’d be there every evening, standing alert and looking responsible for us.
If you think misogyny and sexism are the refuge of the rich and powerful alone, think again. As I sat in a car in Delhi, a beggar came up to my window, begging for alms. A pathetic creature shod in tatters. He saw that I was a woman and suddenly his demeanor changed. His face lit up in an evil sneer and he started flicking his tongue in and out. I was so stunned I laughed. Here’s this pathetic creature with no food or clothes to sustain him but so desperate was his sexual need and so fearless his demeanor that it trumped all else. A woman can be fucked. Should be fucked. Oh, and can I also have some money for food?
Delhi’s sexist culture is a festering cesspool that permeates its families. A friend of mine lived in a joint family in a palatial house. Rich, educated folk. I remember we were nine year old girls, hanging out at her house, playing with Barbie dolls. Her younger male cousins barged in and started creating a ruckus. We shooed them away, treating them as a nuisance but they had a stunning response up their sleeve. These boys brought their GI Joe figurines and said “hum tumhare Barbies ka rape karenge”. We were stunned. These were six or seven year old boys. They probably didn’t even know what rape was. They didn’t even know how it was done. But they knew it can be used to teach women a lesson. They must’ve heard their fathers and uncles talk about putting women in their place. “Zyaada bak bak karegi toh uska rape kar denge.” This is also why I find casual remarks or jokes about rape extremely unfunny.
This dehumanization of being, steady erosion of self-respect, the constant looking over your shoulder no matter where you are, is what makes Delhi such a horrible place for women. There are some well-reasoned arguments why we shouldn’t trivialize the larger issues surrounding rape by laying blame at the doorstep of one city alone, but there’s a reason for this insidious association; it breeds and lives on the fear that power creates. Let’s just call Delhi the capital of subjugation. I also need to mention that I’ve never felt this CONSTANTLY afraid in any other city in India. You can quote examples of rapes in Mumbai, Kolkata, or other cities and you’d have a point. This pathetic patriarchal culture pervades India, but there’s no other place quite like Delhi where patriarchy and power mingle to create a sense of male entitlement.
I saw pictures of these young girls standing their ground getting beaten up, screaming in the cops’ faces. Learned pundits question why. What is the point of this protest anyway? What do they want? It’s a pity they can’t even see this basic point. They want to be treated as humans again. I read about the rape in Delhi and the anger in me has refused to go away. Memories of those years of harassment came flooding back. If you’re a woman in Delhi, you’ve been groped and violated five times a day since you were eight. Since you were too young to even know what breasts are and what they can do to men. My years in Delhi exacted a heavy price from me. I’d instinctively step back when a man entered my personal space. This instinct finally started ebbing away after I moved to Pune. Even there, I’d instantly be on my guard, alert and tense, when a man looked over my shoulder as I worked on the laptop. This was because of Delhi and it took years for it to go away.
When you’d get molested for the first time you’d come back tearfully to tell your mother or the other grown women in your family. “Kya karein beta, aisa hi hota hai”. What can you do, this is how it is. That crushing realization as an eight year old girl that you’re somehow going to have to deal with this for the rest of your life. Groped by the domestic help, groped by the boy who delivers the groceries, groped by your uncle. Never being able to step out unless you have a “man” accompanying you. Men, who deal with the status quo without changing it. Men, who ironically feel a greater sense of entitlement by being the “protectors” of their women. This feeling is what that girl in the protest is screaming against.
I’m still angry when I see those pictures because I haven’t moved on. I’m angrier when I read men lamenting about what ails us. Here’s a reality check: if you’re a man, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. You have NO IDEA what it’s like to live a life that doesn’t belong to you. I understand your sympathy but have no use for it.
I’m angrier when I read scholarly articles about civil society, better governance and societal and infrastructural reforms. I read words like five years and “long term” and seethe. Of course one wants to live in a civil society that believes in redemption and the rehabilitation of its worst members but you have no bloody idea what you’re dealing with in Delhi. These are men who operate on an animal instinct. You need a brutal deterrent, employed continuously and consistently in the short term to let them know we mean business. When you’re cornered by a wolf snarling and baring its fangs do you lecture it on the sanctity of life? No, you react. If I could come face to face with these brave men of Delhi who tormented me, I’d shoot them between the eyes. Even today, if a man stares at me a moment longer than necessary I have this visceral urge to rip his eyes out.
So fuck you and your calls for long term change. Don’t waste my time talking about the next five years. Tell me what you’re going to do in the next five hours when your mother, sister or wife leaves the safety of her home and wades into the filthy muck of the city, telling herself that there’s a distinct possibility she may not come home unviolated or even alive.
Edit from Mommysan – Thank you so much for your comments and concern. I want to clarify that not all of the examples of harassment or abuse I mentioned in the post involved me directly. The incidents in the latter half of the post involve people close to me. For example, I know the 8 year old who tearfully complained to her mother about harassment for the first time, because I was present in the room with her. I know someone who’s faced abuse at the hands of family members. The point of this post isn’t to dwell on specific examples alone, but to communicate the extent to which a woman’s liberties are disrespected. It’s to highlight how such horrifying incidents get swept under the sanitized terms “molestation” and “eve-teasing”, which dulls their severity and impairs understanding of the circumstances that enable them. The examples you’ve so courageously shared in the comments will also go a long way in this regard.