That Delhi girl died.
I don’t know if I should even be saying anything. In the time between when she was assaulted and when she passed away, I was having a good time. Lots of friends and acquaintances coming in to town, and I end up coming home at hours that would be considered unreasonable back home. I often come back home by myself, unescorted. What’s more, I do everything by myself. Initially in this city, it wasn’t much of a choice – I hardly knew anyone. If I had to rely on company, I’d’ve never discovered half the spots I intimately love here, wouldn’t be doing improv, wouldn’t have gone for writing classes, wouldn’t go for random Reddit meetups, wouldn’t furnish my home, wouldn’t…. do anything!
My behaviour and demeanor would be termed ayyashi in an Indian city.
Enough has been said about the mentality of Indian men and the government and patriarchy, and I guess I needn’t repeat all of that, given others have said it better than I could have. All I know is how not being constrained by my gender set me free.
I’ve always been the good kid who walked the straight narrow path. I don’t like to take risks. I just like to be left alone to do my own thing. I don’t like to fight the system. I’m not the rebel sorts. I hate having to fight for what I need; I prefer negotiating. I’m the meek nerdy girl you don’t really notice. That said, having a father and mother like mine means you end up with interests in random things your friends usually don’t share interests in. And you know what? That combination makes life hard!
You don’t want to stay out beyond your curfew, but you really want to go for Toastmasters which holds meetings late in the evening. You don’t want to go out with a crowd that has only boys, but that’s probably the only way you can attend that concert you’ve been dreaming of since forever. It’s hard to make friends because they all live so far away and they hang out late after class and you need to leave because you don’t want to get home too late. You want to take pictures of the sunrise, but you aren’t supposed to be out that early. You want to exercise in the sun, but it’s weird to do so on the terrace because the neighbours have lechy sons.
And so on. These seem very much like problems of the privileged, I know. I’m lucky to be able to go away from home for higher studies. I’m lucky my parents save money for my MS and not for my Mrs. But the sort of roadblocks in my way are roadblocks too.
You are advised against taking Mechanical because it’s not a woman-friendly field. You want to do a project with one professor but he is a creep you don’t ever want to be left alone with. You correct a lecturer in class and he casts aspersions on your character (this really happened to me). While your mostly-male team is trying to negotiate with a professor, you are asked to step in and ‘turn on your feminine charms’. Some girls you know wear jackets in 35 degree heat because a colleague stares at their chests and the people above him won’t take their complaints seriously. You hear of a much-loved former colleague being fired for sexually harassing the office looker, and though you are shaken, you are hurt even more by your friends accusing her of doing all this just for a fat settlement (mostly because they are numb with disbelief), and you wonder what would happen if you were to blow the whistle on someone who troubles you… would these same friends who hold you so dear turn against you?
When I joined gradschool in the US, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of don’t-care I faced. No one cared I was a girl. No one looked at me weird if I stood my ground about a technical point and was proved wrong; it was expected I do that. No one cared if a researcher was a man or a woman. I couldn’t anymore rage about being discriminated against; I had to contribute equally. I could stay at lab past 2am, and I’d get escorted back by the cops. And I didn’t need that, really… I could walk back and it would be perfectly safe. No one talked down to me because I was a girl. No one made me uncomfortable with their eyes or touch. The world was telling me ‘Here, you have all the opportunity and none of the constraints, now you have no excuse for not kicking ass’. It was sort of scary because I was never used to feeling that.
When I finally had free time on my hands in New York, my mind and body initially protested greatly at my resolution to never come home before 9pm on any given day. It wasn’t safe, my mind and body yelled. There’s some catch, they screamed. I kept myself away from staying home with my entire self kicking and screaming. Soon, I was comfortable talking to strange people, going to places that I wouldn’t have dreamt of going to, and my only gripe when I stay out late is that I lose out on a few hours of sleep, or that the Q train doesn’t run express. I see me blossoming as a person, without the constant worry that someone is staring at my bosom or looking to grope me. I feel less helpless. I see myself finally get that sense of entitlement and innocence I’ve longed for for so long. Somehow it felt like I’d lost that with constantly preparing for the worst in India. There are no strangers judging me for my choices here and wondering aloud if my mother did a good job raising me. I feel free.
I’ve had shady creepy experiences, but I’ve always been comforted by the fact that things can’t get too bad, there are cameras everywhere. And that even if something happened, the perpetrators would be brought to justice. The confidence that if I called 911, the cops wouldn’t say creepy shit and get away with it.
The confidence that the rule of law was in effect in New York City.
Yes, we can go on blaming the general attitude of the people, of Indian men, of Indian parents, society and everything for what happened to so many women in India. But in my opinion, that’s not it. Strict laws and their strict enforcement can go a long way in changing how society thinks. There are plenty in New York City as well who’d be too glad to do it the Delhi way, but there are cameras everywhere, the laws are strict, the courts are strict, citizen groups won’t let go of any such case easily. There certainly are flaws in this system, and perpetrators do get away occasionally. But the fear is enough to deter a lot of people from committing crimes. Not just rapes. Mugging and murder too.
If the streets are safe, people no longer have an excuse to lock their daughters up. If the legal system is secure, rapists don’t get away scot-free. Parents of girls start chilling a bit, let their daughters go to a larger variety of places. The presence of a larger proportion of women changes the social dynamics of any place. Boys grow up seeing more and more girls in their activities, and the whole idea of the difference between the genders stops being so stark in their heads. Sure, to see change in the society and its mindset, it’ll take at the very least another generation, but as an immediate effect we can see the number of crimes go down, and that is not a small thing.
And that’s why we shouldn’t lose sight of legislating on stronger laws, police reform, judiciary reform, and electing officials who toe our line on these things.