Delhi is one of the most unsafe cities for women in India. Delhi is also the city where I was born and brought up. It’s the city where I discovered my politics and myself. It’s the city that confuses me and frustrates me the most, it’s the city that makes me feel sad and it’s the city I hope can show me some optimism, maybe a ray of light and hopefully sooner rather than later.
The recently released documentary India’s daughter, portrays the rape of a young medical student. The documentary got me thinking about my role in the struggle to achieve a safer, more women friendly and most importantly patriarchy free Delhi. What will it need for me to make this change happen, do I even have the power to make a difference?
In 2012, when the rape of the young student flashed across all news channels, there was an uproar in Delhi. India Gate was coloured in rage, with thousands of Delhi- ites protesting for justice. Many of my friends and family participated in these public protests, it felt as if Delhi had exploded and many of its citizens demanded change. Many friends were beaten with ‘lathis’, the police abused some, while others were subjected to tear gas, but this public protest had only one goal in mind, justice for Jyoti. Civil Society looked upon the law to uphold justice. There was hope that the law would impact and transform in some ways the patriarchal power structure in society. A special committee was appointed and the convicted were sentenced to the death penalty.
However, there has been ringing in my mind, in what way has this ruling impacted the current situation in Delhi? Is Delhi now a safer city for women? Did those public protests that united Delhi to fight for women’s rights have any long lasting impact? If you ask me, unfortunately I will have to say NO.
I still feel as unsafe in public places, I still get harassed on the streets, I still avoid the Delhi streets at night, I still feel like society thinks I am the problem, I still feel parents have different standards for girls and boys, I still feel the Delhi man lurks around with a privileged feeling and I feel that the sense of security and equality has become more of a distant dream. So my answer is a resounding No. There may have been a change in attitudes, buts its yet to be seen reflected in the everyday lives of people.
However, to claim that these protests did not have any meaning and value at all would be incorrect. A public protest, an act of collective action has its place and is an important aspect of expression, and in this case communication with the State. Public pressure forced a fast track ruling of the case.
Menon says, that the law is limited in its power to provide justice and ‘emancipating’ women can not be only be regarded as the responsibility of the Law. I agree that legal redressal is an important aspect and does help to reflect justice but in an incomplete and perhaps unwilling way. The Law can help at ‘suppressing the autonomy of power’ of a patriarchal society but it doesn’t consider the ‘production of oppression.’ (Menon, 2004, p.213) The State does not have control over the power dynamics that govern everyday lives of men and women in Delhi. Perhaps we need to dig deeper into the unequal gender based power relations embedded in society, try to understand how intersectionality of issues such as caste, class, religion, region etc impact gender relations.
Collective action in the form of protests like the one that happened post the 2012 rape case created a stir at that time and let the State know that there is a group of people who oppose gender based violence and believe in the legal system to provide for justice. However, this kind of public protesting has shown to have limited reach and impact on gender justice in India.
From the way I see it, women’s subversion is woven into the social fabric of India and it will need a lot more than public protests to make changes in this social fabric. Reading Scott’s Small Arms Fire, reinforced my belief that fighting hegemony or dominant social structures or male privilege in Delhi is not about the odd protests that each of us has participated in as part of our struggle to fight for a women friendly safer Delhi; it is the everyday “action” of resistance. To change any kind of attitudes and breakthrough structures of patriarchy in a society that believes and thrives on male privilege we will have to protest everyday, it will have to reflect in the way we talk, walk, the choices we make in our life and the risks we are willing to take.
This brings me back to where I had started, what would it need for me to make this change happen, do I even have the power to make the difference?
Are we, am I protesting everyday? Am I resisting the pressures of patriarchy in my life? What are some of the forms of protest used by many of us middle class Delhi-ites? Somehow, to me it seems that a lot of us have begun to accept the current order of patriarchal Delhi and have manipulated our forms of protests accordingly. Scott, in his paper talks about how often the weak defy social order but only enough as to not overtly confront the powerful. Further Scott says that its not like the weak are not aware of their position, but are making a choice that is less risky and is calculated in a way that they are able to make their point without feeling the brunt of it.
“What it does represent is a constant process of testing and renegotiation of production relations between classes. On both sides—landlord-tenant, farmer-age laborer—there is a never-ending attempt to seize such small advantage and press it home, to probe the limits of the existing relationships, to see precisely what can be gotten away with at the margin, and to include this margin as part of the accepted, or at least tolerated, territorial claim. “(Scott 2008, p.255)
I have been wondering if testing these margins with careful steps is enough to challenge patriarchal norms? Or can we classify it as the more realistic and practical option?
“One of the reasons behind the increase in incidents of eve-teasing is short dresses and short skirts worn by women. This in turn instigates young men.” Chiranjeet Chakraborty, ‘Trinamool Congress legislator’
One form of protest against this statement would be to wear what we want, when we want and where we want, especially for all of us who have participated in public protests against mindsets such as these. Except, you will find many young Delhi-ites (including me) being selective about their choice of clothing depending on which part of Delhi they are in. You will see women in “attention seeking” clothing mainly in parts of South Delhi, which is perceived as more progressive as opposed to perhaps Old Delhi, which is perceived to be more conservative. Unfortunately, this selection is not based on ‘free will’ but the internalization of the impact of power dynamics of a male privileged society. Choosing to wear ‘attention seeking’ clothing maybe a form of protest (often against family, fighting patriarchy in the house) for many of us but the fact that we choose to wear these clothes in places where they may be more acceptable, where the risk of being harassed is limited is a sign of fighting a patriarchal society but at the same time accepting the current social structure.
“Girls should be careful at what time they move out in the city.” Asha Mirje, ‘NCP Party’
Many girls in Delhi do go out at night and by themselves. But have we taken back the night? No. There is still a fear of the night, of a space that does not belong to women and a space that has not been reclaimed yet. Going out at night includes a calculated cost benefit analysis of risk. If public transport can be avoided, it is avoided, if not then the latest safest time is calculated so as to avoid being in a vulnerable situation alone at night. Where we may go is also dependent on how high it measures up on the safety quotient. For many of us going out at night is a statement in itself, but its execution is so restricted. We are letting Delhi know that we exist at night and have rights, but it enacts itself out in restrained ways so as to avoid a showdown.
“Hey hottie, what an ass, I want to grab you” or “kya tot maal hai” are common words to hear for a woman in the streets of Delhi. “Eve teasing” as it is called is a common form of harassment, often turning into ass grabbing, chest grabbing and other forms of violence, verbal and otherwise. You will be surprised to know that lots of women don’t respond to these advances, common behaviour is to ignore the situation and pretend like it didn’t happen. Again the question is, ‘Why’, especially if we are out on the streets protesting against such behavior every time Delhi is struck with a news breaking rape case? Well, because, taking a stand can be precarious. Most men in Delhi roam around almost as if they have a social license to harm. If I am in a public space with potential supporters, I may respond to my violator but If I am alone, if there is a group of boys, if I feel scared for the consequences of either being attacked physically or otherwise I may not protest at all. I may not make it known that the man on the bus is rubbing himself against me (yes, been there, faced that)
Protesting and fighting these everyday daily battles are not easy and yet it is this form of everyday resistance that is so important to fight against women’s subversion. For many of us it becomes much harder because the everyday battles start at home, its starts with fighting our own family and friends. So is fighting with your parents to go watch a movie at night, but choosing to go to a theatre that is considered safe, “barely” an act of rebellion? Or labeling this tiny victory as “just” survival, being both cynical and arrogant?
Are these victories too small and insignificant? My head tells me we need to win bigger battles, take larger risks but my heart knows how much courage it takes to confront that man on the bus.
We seem to live in a Delhi, where there is neither complete defiance, nor is there an absolute rebellion. Have we begun to “define what is realistic and what is not realistic and to drive certain goals and aspirations into the realms of the impossible, the realm of idle dreams, of wishful thinking.”(Scott 2008, p. 236)
I don’t know what the answer is, we are fighting small arms but is it time to pick up the AK 47s?
Menon, N. (2004). Recovering subversion: Feminist politics beyond the law. University of Illinois Press.
Scott, J. C. (2008). Weapons of the weak: Everyday forms of peasant resistance. yale university Press.