No means no, in Paris or Delhi
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Delhi, our capital, also has the dubious distinction of being India's number one rape city. Women are molested and raped with almost clockwork regularity, the latest being the gangrape in a moving vehicle. So, while most Delhi-ites are eating, watching television, sleeping or just going dully about their humdrum lives, there is a woman out there who is struggling to scream and fight off a group of men who await their turn to satisfy their lust.
I lived in Delhi most of my life. I've had my breast squeezed by a passing cyclist who pedalled off at a frenetic Tour de France pace afterwards, been groped in crowds, felt a guy's erection as he pressed against me in a DTC bus, had a man spit a mouthful of bright red paan on me, been the target of many a lewd remark or gesture. In India, we even have a term for this kind of behaviour, "eve teasing". But that was then, Delhi in the 1970s.
Delhi of the 21st century is different. Now, as traditional, patriarchal "won't let my wife/ daughter work" attitudes are slowly dissolving, more and more women are joining the work force, working late hours, even the graveyard shift. Women are thankfully no longer confined to their homes but are earning a living alongside men, commuting to and from work in autos and public transport. The new, young, urban Indian woman goes out to malls, movies, parties, on her own or with her boyfriend; is more sexually liberated, lives in a flat-share or maybe even has a live-in relationship. She is on her way to becoming an equal partner and financially independent. She is acquiring a voice at last.
But all this, of course, makes women more visible, more accessible. And there's a new breed of frustrated men out there that feel they're entitled to help themselves to a slice of the cake. The "cake" being this new Indian woman who is smart, who dresses as she likes, who works late and plays till even later, who is independent and doesn't give this kind of macho, uncouth male a second glance. So, what's a guy to do? He has to go out and get what he wants by force. But coward that he is, he does not dare do it alone. He ropes in a few buddies. Numbers lend enchantment to the game.
This is the Delhi that I read about in newspapers and rediscover each time I go back from Paris, my home for the last 15 years, where, in general, a "no" from a woman means a no, where it means hands off. In Paris, it's all about seduction, winning the woman over, charming her, propositioning her maybe, but not coming on to her willy-nilly, sexually assaulting her or taking her forcibly. As a woman, I can go to a late night movie or restaurant alone, walk around Paris after dark on reasonably well-lit pavements or take public transport secure in the knowledge that there is police patrolling not only in the streets but also in the metro. The police here are held accountable and take all complaints seriously. Functioning CCTV cameras ensure offenders are quickly identified. Taxis are regulated and have to prominently display their licence number as well as the number to be called in case of a complaint. Taxi drivers live in fear of losing their licence. In general, the deterrents against sexual assault are strong and the punishment sure. But what essentially makes Paris safer is the attitude towards women. Sure, sexual harassment exists, domestic violence is still under wraps, crimes against women do occur, but in general the public space feels secure because men treat women with respect. And there is a civic sense that prevails, which turns bystanders into active defenders should it be required.
In India, familiarity with crimes against women through media accounts breeds indifference for the large majority who, for the most part, are just glad it isn't them, or their daughter or sister; who are momentarily shocked and sad and then shrug it off to get on with the business of living their lives. From the safe confines of our homes we read about these horrific rape cases with a feeling of impotency and fret about the safety of our young daughters and their friends.
The Delhi gangrape of a young 23-year-old would-be physiotherapist in a moving bus by men high on booze, out on a "joyride", changed that impotency into boiling outrage. Now, the victim is no more. She slipped away, unaware that she has become a symbol for more stringent legislation, faster justice and more adequate protection of women.
Now is not the time for the blamegame and petty politicking; nor is it a time for a partisan approach or facetious remarks by our politicians or their kin. Now is the time for India to honour this daughter by ensuring the guilty are punished in record time and by adopting immediate concrete measures to protect women and make India a safer place for them. These should include pedestrian-friendly cities through better street lighting and usable footpaths, stricter controls for buses, taxis and autos, including police verification of the drivers, increased police presence, greater police accountability, more women police. But more than systemic changes, what is required are attitudinal changes towards women and the inculcation of a civic sense through concerted, targeted print and audio-visual media campaigns for the public at large and gender-sensitisation training/ re-training programmes for teachers as well as police personnel. And if we would transform medieval, misogynistic attitudes and deep-seated prejudices into a more enlightened approach towards women, we can hardly do it by baying for the rapists' blood or by pushing for medieval or inhumane forms of punishment.
Let the Delhi rape victim's death serve as a defining moment for women's rights. Then, she would not have died in vain. If India can send missiles into space and stake its claim as a nuclear power, surely, it can provide a safe public space for its women?
Kapoor-Sharma is a freelance interpreter and writer based in Paris
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