27/01/2016 8:12 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Where Being A Woman Means Looking Over Your Shoulder

Rear view of a businesswoman looking out the window at the cityscape in Beijing, China
XiXinXing via Getty Images
Rear view of a businesswoman looking out the window at the cityscape in Beijing, China

One of my classmates, an aspiring journalist got an excellent job offer in Delhi. She did not take her dream job. Her father put his foot down, saying, "Delhi is not a safe place for girls, especially if you're a journalist." And that was that. This incident took place a couple of years ago, but it's still fresh in my memory. Even today, so many parents think Delhi is unsafe for women.

I think Delhi gets undue attention because it is the capital. In my experience, other cities can be just as bad, if not worse. Is there any city in India which can be termed safe for women? "Eve-teasing" (can we please just retire this archaic, minimising term and call it sexual harassment already?) is a phenomenon that transcends the boundaries of region, religion and caste. Whichever state I have been to, wherever I have stayed, I have heard stories of sexual harassment. Yes, the prevalence may vary from place to place, but regardless of where you are if you're a woman you're probably looking over your shoulder, ducking your head or quickening your pace on the streets.

In my hometown Hyderabad, I have come across indecent behaviour mostly in the city buses. I once yelled at a molester who refused to move an inch away from me. All the passengers in the bus looked at me as if I had lost my mental balance. No one spoke in my support. Even worse, I never expected them to. In the countless incidents that I had witnessed, the onlookers... well, they just looked on. Sadly, that is the state of affairs in our society. People pray to myriad goddesses but don't find it in their hearts to give women basic respect.

"People pray to myriad goddesses but don't find it in their hearts to give women basic respect."

For a while, I thought that other cities would be better than Hyderabad. But when I moved to Trivandrum for work, my experience was even worse. There, girls were advised to shut themselves in at home after 7pm (this implied "curfew" was 9pm in Hyderabad). Safe is a relative term after all. In fact, a few years ago I read an article published in Tehelka, which also touched upon problems faced by women journalists in Kerala: "People outside Kerala, especially those taken in by the glamour of the state's Human Development Index, find it difficult to believe that women have a difficult time here. In 2004, the Malayalam Manorama sent six women reporters into cities and district capitals across the state for six days to chart their safety in public spaces. The reporters' diaries resemble mythical journeys into the Underworld as each woman writes about being groped, fondled and followed by multiple men."

Now if this can happen to journalists, who generally know how to stand up for themselves, what about ordinary women? I remember what a classmate from Chennai once said: "Once you are on the road it doesn't matter whether you are an IAS officer or a journalist, you are just a woman to some perverted men." She was reacting to an incident faced by one of our woman batchmates in Chennai, which isn't a haven for women either.

I keep wondering what we could do to make the streets safer? Should we use Draconian methods of punishment to instil a sense of fear in corrupt minds? Perhaps. But even more importantly, we need to chuck the curfews and restrictions and teach our daughters to be fearless and self-respecting individuals. This training needs to start at the school level. In fact, schools all over the country must incorporate self-defence classes for girls as part of the curriculum. The other side of the coin is we must teach our sons to be better human beings too and to respect the women outside their homes as they would respect their own.

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