Why women are so unsafe in our cities

India is undergoing a painful and tortuous transition, where ancient hierarchies of caste and gender are slowly giving way to modern ideas about the equality of all individuals before the law, writes Ramachandra Guha.
UPDATED ON JAN 03, 2015 11:48 PM IST

Some 20 years ago, a friend from Mumbai and I were discussing how women were treated in our cities. We both agreed that women were most unsafe in New Delhi, where the hostility to them took both verbal and physical forms. In Kolkata, Chennai, and Ahmedabad, women were rarely abused or attacked in public, so long as they conformed to certain roles. They had to dress and act demurely, in keeping with what was recognised as Bengali or Tamil or Gujarati culture.

My friend and I congratulated ourselves that our own cities were more progressive. In Mumbai or Bangalore, women did not have to wear the sari or salwar kameez to feel safe. If they were more comfortable travelling in Western dress, they were not subject to hisses or glares. In both cities, there were a substantial number of women professionals, working as lawyers, doctors, bankers and teachers. Both cities also had prominent and successful women entrepreneurs.

But in which city were women more free, Mumbai or Bangalore? My friend thought it was Mumbai, where they could take public transport at any time in a relaxed frame of mind. I answered that while the public transport system in Bangalore was appalling, women driving their scooters and mopeds to work was a common sight (whereas in Mumbai it was not).

Twenty years later, I look back on that conversation with embarrassment. To be boastful about oneself or one's family is foolish; to brag about one's country or one's city can be equally unwise. For the truth is that women are not safe in Bangalore anymore. In the last two decades the situation has visibly regressed. There is much more jeering at young women, and more physical (including sexual) violence against them too.

Women between the ages of 15 and 30 face the most hostility, but women of other age groups are scarcely any safer. There have been a series of horrific rapes of little girls in the schools of Bangalore. And attacks on elderly women have also increased. My 80-year-old mother was brutally assaulted on her morning walk; when she resisted, the attackers (three young men) pushed her to the ground, ripped the mangalsutra from her neck and left her with a gaping head wound.

To be sure, Bangalore is not exceptional in this regard. In all our cities, women in public places are extremely vulnerable, and, so far as one can judge, less safe than they were 20 years ago.

Indian society has always been solidly patriarchal. In the dominant religions of the sub-continent, Hinduism and Islam, women were assigned an inferior place in scripture as well as social practice. Now, as women refuse to subscribe to traditional gender roles, as they seek to educate themselves, take up jobs outside the home, choose their own marriage partners, and in other ways assert their independence, they face a patriarchal backlash. Sometimes the assault comes from within the family; at other times, from the larger society.

India is undergoing a painful and tortuous transition, where ancient hierarchies of caste and gender are slowly giving way to modern ideas about the equality of all individuals before the law. In recent years, there have been a series of attacks against Dalits across the country, conducted by upper-caste men infuriated that their social inferiors were becoming IAS and IPS officers. The surge in attacks on women is likewise an angry attempt by men to sustain the overwhelming social and political dominance they have long enjoyed but which is now challenged by modern notions of gender justice.

The violence against women in contemporary India has other causes too. Every year, millions of young men move from the countryside to the city in search of jobs. Not all these men get regular employment (for economic growth has been capital- rather than labour-intensive). Meanwhile, they are confronted far more directly by a culture of conspicuous consumption than they were in their villages. Dissatisfied and disenchanted, they vent their anger on women.

Another contributory factor is the images conveyed by advertisements and in films. Hoardings of expensively attired, bejewelled, and beautiful young women line the streets. Bollywood films, aimed increasingly at a rapidly Westernising middle class, portray romance and desire as inevitable byproducts of contemporary life, creating a further sense of frustration among the unemployed young men who watch them.

The crumbling infrastructure of our cities also militates against women's safety. Streets lit dimly or not at all; bad or non-existent means of public transport; an incompetent and corrupt police form - all contribute to the insecurity and vulnerability of women.

I have focused on our cities; but of course the situation in the countryside is scarcely better. Here women are suppressed even more thoroughly by patriarchal norms and patriarchal institutions. The widespread practice of female foeticide; the withdrawal of girls from school when they reach puberty; the unwillingness to let women work and the absolute bar on their choosing their marriage partners - these all confirm that women are treated as less-than-equal in Bharat as well as India.

The columnist Rahul Jacob recently wrote that women in China lead more autonomous and independent lives than their Indian counterparts, and felt far safer at work or on the road. When I myself last visited China, the delegates to the conference I was attending were taken every day from hotel to seminar venue in a large bus driven by a self-confident, calm, and utterly secure young woman - not always the same young woman. This is one sphere where we can do well to emulate China. For while 'Make in India' may be a worthy aim, 'Make Women Safe in India' is far worthier.

(Ramachandra Guha's most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha)

(The views expressed by the author are personal)

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