When the Reuters poll declared India the most dangerous country for women, I didn’t realise that it would cause such an uproarious denial. Some people have criticised it as wrongly labelling itself a ‘survey’ saying it is, at best, a poll. Well, the headline itself says ‘poll’ not ‘survey’. Rightly, its scope is small, and the 500-odd experts don’t necessarily have to be taken at their word. ‘India is not the most dangerous’ seems to be the argument many want to make. That India is at all dangerous seems besides the point. The most dangerous and infuriating rebuttal has come in the form of the personal anecdote. Those who have confidently declared that nothing ‘bad’ has ever happened to them on Indian soil. To them, I don’t know what else to say but ‘Good for you’ or ‘That must be nice’.
For me, the Reuters headline landed with a dull thump on top of an ever-growing pile of others. Every new headline about women in India prompts my brain to throw up a newsreel of the recent ones. Right off the top of my head, here are the things that have hit our eyes and ears in recent weeks.
Our external minister, Sushma Swaraj, was mercilessly abused online in vilely sexist terms for supporting an inter-religious couple. It’s hard to think the words ‘online abuse’ and not remember Rana Ayyub, who made international news by writing about the verbal abuse and bodily threats she gets on a daily basis? Why? For doing her job as a journalist. She is just one of many women who regularly click open their inboxes to find graphic rape threats, dick pics, pictures of human shit and incoherent, palpable rage waiting for them.
But my brain is not done yet. It goes just a little bit further back and reminds me that our national TV news channels recently exposed the identity of a survivor, flashing her face on millions of TV screens, violating the law, journalistic norms and her personhood. All for TRPs.
A little further still and I remember that I wrote a piece titled ‘No Country for Women’ – a tired headline for the weary, heartbreaking process of coming to terms with the news and reactions coming out of Kathua and Unnao. Where several of our countrymen chose to justify the rape and torture of a child for the sake of identity politics.
And before that even, we all rose up in our armchairs, outraged by the fact that open defecation isn’t just more dangerous health-wise for women, but also deadlier. Men hide in the fields, waiting to assault women as they go to ‘answer nature’s call’ or whatever the ‘cultured’ phrase for this essential life act is.
Raise your hand if you wake up with a sense of dread gripping your heart most mornings. Raise your hand if you’ve constructed your wardrobe to reflect your mood – the main one being fear of assault. Keep it raised if you take Ubers even when you can’t afford them, because coming home after dark is a terror you want to avoid. Raise your hand if you stay out late, but lie to your concerned parents, assuring them you’re “being safe” and not doing anything ‘dangerous’ or human, like meeting friends for drinks after work. Keep it raised if you never go out without planning exactly how you’ll get home.
Many of us have the privilege of circumventing potential assaulters, of accessing protection like the comfort of a chauffeur-driven car. That obviously doesn’t mean that the problem does not exist. Yes, you may have experienced catcalling in another country and brushed it off. But here’s why the same behaviour can inspire fear in India, but not necessarily elsewhere. In India, if ‘anything’ happens, you pretty much know that the law – the thing that is supposed to serve and protect you – won’t help.
There’s another reason such anecdotal dismissals are gravely dangerous. Imagine the young girl who reads such a piece and thinks that wearing long pants, sharing her location with her parents at all times and only travelling in her family’s car will keep her safe. None of these things actually prevent assault, but if she doesn’t know that, what’s to stop her from blaming herself if such a thing happens? What’s to stop her from thinking that she can’t share this experience with anyone because it clearly doesn’t happen to everyone? What’s to stop her from internalising this as shame? How will she know it’s okay to vocalise her experience and seek help and justice?
Think of the domestic worker who is regularly harassed by the men whose houses she cleans. The Dalit student who finds herself at the mercy of a musty old, well-connected Brahmin scholar. Those women who have heard so many stories of assault that they turn down jobs in other cities, afraid of being alone and unprotected.
Those who say they have never experienced anything even remotely resembling assault or harassment are closing down the already-slim space for those who have – and believe you me, the latter are far greater in number.
When I was 18, my driving instructor waited till the very last day of lessons to grope me. Repeatedly. Over the course of an hour. While my mother sat in the backseat, oblivious. She was obviously there because in her head – and mine – that was one way to prevent what was clearly happening. I felt so ashamed, I never uttered a word. Not even to the friend who had hired the same instructor. Years later, when I still didn’t have a license and my mother suggested getting in touch with the same instructor again, I managed to make a squirmy face and calm my breath enough to say, ‘He was very touchy’ and left it at that. I wouldn’t even have managed that much if it weren’t for all the women who said ‘Me too’.
There have been other incidents, more ‘serious’ ones that I have been able to talk about. But never this one, because this one happened in a way and place that I was assured it could not happen.
I know now that it happens all the time. And I’m saying it now in the hopes that someone who reads some other woman’s account of always being safe in her car with her driver, will also know that she’s not alone if something does happen to her.
Personal anecdotes are powerful – that’s why Me Too resonated so wide and far. Because for too long before that the only stories women shared were the ones in which not being assaulted was presented as an achievement.
Being harassed or assaulted doesn’t make you inferior and talking about it doesn’t make you an attention-seeker or a liar.
It doesn’t matter if India is really the most dangerous country for women. It does matter that too many women in India live in a constant state of fear. Because our newspapers tell us exactly how bad the worst possible situation is, they also tell us exactly how often that happens to women around us. And our government’s silence tells us that we’re on our own. So when we walk home alone at night and arrive in one piece – mentally and physically – we treat it as a miracle, as the chance to live a so-far charmed life for another day. We don’t need a poll to tell us this is not normal, nor is it okay.