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Why Are Indian Women Afraid Of The Streets?

Posted: November 21, 2014

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Most women in India know what it feels like to be scared and alone on the streets at night. Here’s an account of one woman’s terrifying experience on the streets, and why we should all take note.

You can run, but you can’t escape. You can fight, but it won’t end. I am talking about the fear of being harassed, molested, and raped in spaces that seem threatening in a city. It wasn’t a shock, but a sinking revelation of how I live with the constant fear of being attacked, when I lost my way travelling on the streets of Delhi, yesterday.

It was around 7 in the evening when I decided to leave a very posh part of Delhi to arrive home (not so posh, I believe). I was supposed to take a metro train to my place, but good weather lured me into taking an auto-rickshaw. The moment we put the meter down, my mother called. We were chatting about everyday issues when I realized that I was at an unfamiliar place.

I didn’t panic because it was a brightly lit area with traffic moving. I hung up the call with my mother and executed the map application on my phone. I entered my address, and it showed me that I was 15 km or 27 minutes away from home. With utmost confidence I started directing the driver. He was following my instructions, but I realized I was travelling to an area I had never gone to, before.

It almost seemed like I was outside Delhi, but my app continued to show me the directions, so without hesitation I kept relaying them to the driver. After driving on a desolate highway for 10 km, I asked him to take a right turn. But in utter confusion, he turned to the left. I yelled at him. He frowned, and started yelling back at me for not knowing the way and making him waste his time. I ignored him (or least tried to convince him that he wasn’t bothering me) and started giving him a new set of directions.

I yelled at him. He frowned, and started yelling back at me for not knowing the way and making him waste his time.

By now my phone was showing me that I was an hour and a half away from home. I was starting to panic. I could feel a slight throbbing in my head. But because I had no other option, I kept listening to the phone. After 20 minutes, we were stuck outside a very narrow lane which was surrounded by high walls (like forts). You couldn’t see the sky until you stuck your head out of the auto. The lanes were dimly lit and so narrow that even a two-wheeler couldn’t enter. All I could see was groups of men on all sides.

My first reaction was to see if there was a woman around, but none could be seen. Yes, not even one. I checked my app – I was now 2 hours away from home. My lips were quivering when I asked the driver to turn around. He looked at me and said that the auto has broken down. For a minute, I couldn’t breathe. I tried looking around for help but I couldn’t see anyone or any other public conveyance I could hop on to.

I finally spoke and asked the driver to repair the auto, as no other vehicle was around. He said it wasn’t possible and stayed put at his seat. He wasn’t moving a muscle, while I could hear every inch of my body screaming for help in my head.

I peeped out of the auto when a young man asked, “Madam, can I help you?” I shook my head and looked the other way. On the other side was a young boy telling me that he could repair the auto if I gave him Rs. 500. I could see a crowd of men starting to gather around me. But I continued to peep out. After what must have been 2 minutes, but felt like an eternity to me, I found an empty auto crossing us.

I yelled at him to stop but he looked at me and ignored. I took out some cash from my wallet and gave it to the driver before running to catch the other auto. I slipped and fell flat on the road in an attempt to catch the auto. I could hear men laughing at me and hooting.

I slipped and fell flat on the road in an attempt to catch the auto. I could hear men laughing at me and hooting.

Without looking up, I gathered my stuff and started running towards the main road when I saw another auto. I tried stopping him, but he continued driving. I ran after that auto for a couple of minutes, yelling at him to stop. Looking frustrated, he stopped and asked me what the issue was. By this time, tears were trickling down my eyes.

I told him where I had to go. He refused and said he couldn’t go there. I almost bent down on my knees and begged the auto driver to take me home. I knew there were men staring and smirking at me. I tried not to care and went ahead begging. The driver finally agreed to go and asked me to pay him 200 rupees more than what the meter would come to. Obviously, I agreed without giving this proposition a single thought. After 55 minutes I was on a road I recognized. My head was still throbbing. I was still teary and was holding on to my bag as if it had another piece of heart to keep me alive.

I reached home after being harassed and looted. While I was trying to calm myself, I kept thinking: What if I wasn’t able to get up after my fall? What if I didn’t have money? What if I was attacked by men there? Somewhere between tears and anger, I started analysing – why wasn’t there any woman on that road? Would this incident have affected me so much had I seen a woman around? Would I have been more confident if I had seen a woman loiter the same way as men do? Also, if there was a woman auto-driver would have I felt differently?

Somewhere between tears and anger, I started analysing – why wasn’t there any woman on that road?

To have women around is not a confirmation of safety, but it does give you a sense of confidence and solidarity. Again, that solidarity might not be mutual, but to think of it as such helps you fight the inherent divisive forces of patriarchal structures. The incident might seem one of many that women go through on an everyday basis, but sometimes these vulnerabilities hit you harder than you want to believe. Yesterday, I was so angry at the city for not being friendly to women. I realized that most of us know that danger lurks at every corner, but it is ghastly to realize that we have made dark, dangerous alleys a part of our everyday lives.

This is the time when I think of the debates on making the cities women-friendly. But I guess just policies won’t simply change the scenario. It’s the architecture, structure, and aggressive nature of the dark alleys that needs to be changed. My story definitely isn’t unique, but it does capture all that has gone wrong in making public spaces safe and friendly for anyone other than heterosexual men.

Pic credit: Image of a sad woman via Shutterstock

A feminist at heart, Shivani graduated in Political Science from Lady Shri Ram College and

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