Do we have a reason to celebrate?

Much needs to be done before we can observe International Women's Day, writes Ami Dalal.

india Updated: Mar 10, 2006 13:40 IST

This week we celebrate International Women's day. Inancient Greece, Lysistrata led a sexual strike against men to end the Peloponnesian War. During the French Revolution, Parisian women called for "liberty, equality, fraternity" and marched on Versailles to demand women's suffrage. The first National Woman's Day was declared in the United States on February 28, 1909. Two years later, International Women's Day was officially marked on March 8th and more than one million women and men attended rallies.

On Monday, a young woman was molested next to the Chief Minister's office in the New Delhi Secretariat. The woman had arrived in search of a job and was harassed by Ranbeer Singh Negi, a supervisor for the private agency looking after sanitation arrangements for the building.

I registered little surprise that a woman could be assaulted in a high-security government building. In a high-profile case in Delhi last October, a Swiss diplomat was raped in her car after attending a film festival. On the same night, an Indian woman film-maker suffered head injuries as she fought off attackers. These attacks came soon after the gang-rape of a university student in broad daylight by members of the presidential bodyguard.

According to a 2003 survey, 75% of rape victims in New Delhi are children, and a third of them are below 12 years of age. Margaret Skiva, a Polish filmmaker based in Delhi, said the city was unsafe for women. "I am fortunate that I can move around with my husband, otherwise I wouldn't stay here," she told the Indian Express.

Bollywood stars light up cinemas with what looks suspiciously like clothed sex, music videos feature more cleavage than singing, and starlets easily talk about virginity in magazine interviews. Yet the silver screen and on-street drama plays outmuch differently, and the burden often falls on the average woman to protect herself through loose clothing, early curfews, and male escorts.

Ten months have passed since I stepped foot in India, and I am as uncomfortable walking down the street as the first day I arrived. Low-slung jeans risk revealing my navel, sleeveless shirts beg for attention, and low necklines really ask for it. Even though I live in one of the wealthiest areas in New Delhi, the angry stares of rickshaw drivers, guards, vegetable sellers, and tea-stall men follow me whenever I step foot outside of my flat.

There's something menacing about these looks compared to other countries that I've lived in. Walking down the streets of Venezuela wearing a tube-top produced admiring glances, compliments that were tooth-stabbing in their sweetness, and preferential treatment in cues, restaurants, and parking spaces. Women there love their bodies and are proud of tanning, buffing, and displaying every inch of shiny, sun-kissed skin. If alone in a deserted bar with one of those men, I'd boldly be offered a beer, a cheesy pick-up line, and a game of pool. Here, I would barricade myself in the bathroom and call the police.

In New Delhi, my pace quickens when the sun sets, and I almost break into a run if there is a solitary man walking behind me after dark. My grandmother nervously warns me to never talk to men on the bus home, and co-workers caution me to stay inside after nine pm. Sometimes I get the disturbing feeling that just being a young woman makes me a target, regardless of how modestly I talk, act, or dress.

A few years ago, India Today published a special report on gender violence with the alarming fact that The World Health Organization estimates a rape occurs every 54 minutes in India. One case documented the rape of young woman inside a police station. More shocking was a letter sent in by a male reader the following month. He wrote that the onus did not fall on corrupt police to apprehend suspects, and women were guilty of putting themselves in the wrong situations. According to this young man, the police were not to blame and neither were men; women should be held accountable for not preventing their own rapes and molestations.

In September 2003, a 22-year old nurse was raped and seriously injured in a private room of the hospital she worked in. She suffered a gouged eye and facial scarring, for which she has undergone four rounds of surgery. Later, the man offered to marry her because the stigma of rape ruined her chances of marriage.

Eight years ago in Jaipur, a court ruled that five upper caste Hindu men were unlikely to have raped a lower caste woman. The five were cleared of the gang rape of the 43-year old woman, who was campaigning against the traditional practice of child marriage.

In an undisclosed central Indian location, a court released a man accused of rape on the grounds that he was uninjured and therefore there was no evidence his seven-year-old victim had resisted. Experts say the judge did not take into consideration that the girl had a ruptured hymen and bite marks on her body or statements of those who witnessed the rape at a bus stop.

Though I had originally planned tolive in India for one year, I am tempted tostay for longer instead of returning home to the United States. My electricity is temperamental, open sewage sputtersnear my front door, cows chase me when I take out the garbage, and bureaucratic inertia stretched a visa approval that should have taken one hour into one month. Yet there is something I find quite appealing about life here.

I have seen startling progress through technology, visible inroads in infrastructure, and recent pledges for better education. Wireless internet can be found in coffee shops, new housing developments are springing up on the outskirts of major cities, and the cinema industry receives international acclaim. Despite India being hailed as an emerging superpower and my own fondness for the country of my parents'birth, how uneasy I feel as a woman in this city overrules all arguments to remain.

First Published: Mar 10, 2006 12:15 IST