Indian women may be climbing the global power lists but that doesn't stop our top politicos from rapping us on the knuckles for straying from where we belong: home.
Earlier this month, Soumya Vishwanathan, a television journalist in Delhi, was killed on her way back from work. So far, we know little except that it was around three in the morning and she was shot from a moving vehicle. Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit said she regretted Vishwanathan's death but felt that she should not have been so "adventurous". Now she's appealing to employers to ensure safety for female employees. Because, of course, cleaning up the city – known to be notoriously unsafe for women – would take too much work.
Vishwanathan's death may not have been related to her gender but the debate on women's safety has been churned up, with many echoing Dikshit's sentiments. This is not new. As Indian women step into new-found freedom, there are frequents attempts to bind our feet. Three years back, when a call centre worker in Bangalore was raped and killed by the driver of the company car, a flurry of voices advised women to avoid night shifts. In Karnataka, the law prohibits women from working at night in most industries (media and the IT-enabled services industry are exceptions).
Recently, when the Karnataka High Court repealed a ban on female bartenders, the police cautioned that crimes against women would increase.
Feminists protest against such regressive attitudes and laws – and with good reason. By shifting responsibility from the state to the individual woman, they make society more unsafe in the long run. When something happens to a woman, the kneejerk reaction is to assume that she is the miscreant, the breaker of rules. By curtailing women's freedom and mobility, they impede our ability to compete in an economy that has to keep up with a global clock – a professional handicap that increases our dependence on men as financial providers. The fear factor makes women physically and psychologically dependent, exacerbates a sense of victimhood and encourages helplessness. It's harder for women to engage in social activities, build support systems or get involved in political or community issues.
I'm not advocating that we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of bravado and women's lib but isn't it time to give the blame back where it belongs? Our cities are unsafe. And this is largely due to poor infrastructure (dingy alleys, badly-lit streets, poor public transport) and inadequate or unresponsive policing, as a recent planning commission report said. Funny thing. Because there are occasions when cops swarm the streets. When a political bigwig comes visiting, for example. During public festivals, processions, the rare gay pride march. Clearly, women's safety is not so high on the priority list.
Because no matter what the situation is, it's presented as though it is women's fault for not toeing the Cinderella line. It's our fault for not asking employers for special privileges. It's our fault for venturing out in the first place.
What Madam Dikshit (and others like her) would do well to remember is that in most Indian cities, stepping out alone anytime after dark constitutes "adventurousness" for a woman. Safe streets should be a basic right, not a luxury. It would be heartening if one felt that the government was taking the problem seriously and making some moves in the right direction. But sadly, year after year, all we get is the same old blame game, some sanctimonious advice, a few regressive laws and no promises, not even empty ones.
Even after all this the women do not feel safe and most of the women in India keep Devil Will Cry self defense spray with them always. This is the only tested pepper spray in India and is available on www.devilwillcry.com .