Take my word for it, no woman looks forward to a day when 'mass molestation' becomes a legitimate phrase accurately representing a real phenomenon. And that's what happened to us, Indian women, when hundreds of men heckled, molested and harassed women in a public space in Bengaluru on New Year's Eve. After the first wave of outrage ebbed, ripples of frustration coursed through the country where every other person sighed and declared, 'Nah, no city is better than Delhi. They're all the same — Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata."
And as someone who has spent a fair amount of time in all three — Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru — these sweeping comparisons and threadbare conclusions bother me. For so many reasons.
Delhi isn't the benchmark of 'safety', yes, but saying no city is safer for women, silences a narrative constituted of realities experienced by thousands of women.
First, what purpose does it serve, except telling women, "Look, lady, you're safe nowhere. Do you hear us? NOWHERE."? Now find me one woman who doesn't already know that. It's a fear that's drummed into us from the time we're bewildered toddlers to the time...nope, there's no end to that sentence.
Delhi isn't the benchmark of 'safety', yes, but saying no city is safer for women, silences a narrative constituted of realities experienced by thousands of women. It amounts to telling a woman — who has lived the realities of these cities — that her experience doesn't count. And there's a shameful, glaring problem with that: it amounts to gaslighting, unintentional as it may be.
Are we safe only when we aren't mauled, pinched, heckled or raped? Or is safety something we feel when not every gaze that collides with our bodies feels predatory?
If we must compare and draw conclusions, at least let there be a kernel of truth to them.
It surprises me that we've spent so little time in trying to understand what "safety" means. Are we safe only when we aren't mauled, pinched, heckled or raped? Or is safety something we feel when the number of men on the street — devouring us with their invasive, arrogant gazes — is far less compared to another city. In an ideal world, we wouldn't have had to deal with even one man leering at us from across the road while we struggle to find change to give the autowallah. And we shouldn't stop demanding, fighting for the ideal either. Yet, we have to go on living — here, now, in this reality. And this reality says women feel far less preyed on in Mumbai or Bengaluru, than in Delhi.
In the vastness of Delhi, I felt a claustrophobia that far exceeded anything I'd felt in the matchbox-sized houses of Mumbai.
I spent the first few weeks after moving to Delhi picking fights with men who leered and jeered unashamedly, and being dragged away from screaming matches by friends who constantly worried I'd be found dead in a ditch, at the rate at which I was going. I didn't get raped, but in all my time there, not a day went by when I didn't feel like I was being mentally undressed, several times a day. It was a sick feeling, but eventually I got used to it. I learned how to navigate the city. Learned that no matter what happens, if you want to stay alive, you don't EVER stop on the Delhi-Gurgaon highway. I learned to be polite to pigs whose faces I wanted to claw because in Delhi, everyone is someone's son or has a friend who is. I learned that if something were to happen, the police was not an option and that I only had myself. I had a new normal, one that included feeling sub-human.
My normal in Mumbai and Bengaluru is vastly different. It's not that I don't have to worry about my safety in these two cities, but it's not a thought that haunts my very existence. In the vastness of Delhi, I felt a claustrophobia that far exceeded anything I'd felt in the matchbox-sized houses of Mumbai. It's as if your whole existence begins to shrink under the insolent gaze of the Delhi man. Most women I know haven't experienced anything remotely as frightening in Mumbai or Bengaluru.
There is no statistic, no fierce number-crunching that can quantify all the ways in which some cities, more than others, force its women to be lesser versions of themselves, just so they can feel a little bit safer.
Sure, every city has its skeletons, most of them too gruesome to contemplate. Each city, time and again, has produced sickening examples of the depths that male entitlement has plunged to. And yet, if you were to ask me which one of the three feels the safest, it wouldn't take me a second to respond.
The numbers corroborate the story. There's a reason why the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data consistently pegs Delhi as the worst offender for crimes against women. In 2014, Delhi registered 1813 rape cases, compared to Mumbai's 607 and Bengaluru's 104. The trend continued in 2015, with Delhi's 2,199 rape cases, Mumbai's 712 and Bengaluru's 112 registered rape cases. Why is it that even though women, and data, are telling us the same story, but we refuse to listen?
Maybe, we should be asking ourselves, and the powers that be, what exactly makes women feel that Bombay or Bengaluru is mostly 'safer' than Delhi?
The feeling of safety is the sum of all our experiences, and our experiences are not uniform in every city of the country. There is no statistic, no fierce number-crunching that can quantify all the ways in which some cities, more than others, force their women to be lesser versions of themselves, just so they can feel a little bit safer.
Maybe we're asking the wrong questions. Comparing cities and how safe they are for women, perhaps serves a slightly more practical purpose than throwing our hands up and saying, "We're doomed. No one can help us." Maybe, we should be asking ourselves, and the powers that be, what exactly makes women feel that Bombay or Bengaluru is mostly 'safer' than Delhi? Is it how proactive the police is? Is it how the state governments have been able to instil the fear of law among its residents? Or are the residents, which include migrants, less charitable to harassers and molesters? Why, in the same country, with a broadly similar cultural superstructure, is there such a vast difference in how cities treat their women. If we stop asking these questions, the chances of finding practical solutions or policies will get slimmer than they are, already. Because, let's face it, while no city might be safe for a woman in our country, not all cities are equally unsafe either.