Protect Me,Protect My Freedom

How the obsession with safety is curbing women’s choice and mobility

Written by N V Shoba | Published: December 15, 2013 5:14 am

Twenty-six-year-old Mallika (last name withheld on request) hasn’t eaten out in months. “I am not allowed to go out after dark,” she says. A year ago,she was living her dream. A software engineer,she had just made her way into the managerial echelons. She was dating a former colleague and the pair spent their weekends partying,trying sushi and mixing martinis. Mallika was all set to move out of her parents’ flat in west Delhi and into her own two-bedroom apartment in Ghaziabad when the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in a Delhi bus on December 16 last year shook the nation and stopped millions of Indian women dead in their tracks.

For Mallika,the shock would pass but life would never be the same again. “The incident was a blow to every independent woman in the country,” she says,a year later. “First,my parents asked me not to work night shifts or wear western clothes. A month after that,they brought three marriage proposals for my consideration.” Mallika chose one,a corporate lawyer she got engaged to four months ago. She still lives with her parents,sharing a room with her 74-year-old grandmother because she doesn’t “feel like stressing my family out by staying away”.

The outcry that followed that long night of December broke the silence around violence against women,but the obsessive focus on safety has only shackled women. From early — often arranged — marriage and strict curfews to living under lockdown in hostels,young women face a new sexism disguised as concern for their safety. “The rape was the September 11 of our times; it changed our lives forever,” says Amritha Sarah Matthews,a 23-year-old aspiring playwright,who moved from Kochi to New York this summer because her parents felt India was unsafe for women. “To people who have always been bound by traditional ideologies of gender,this was all they needed to cast their daughters in their own mould: as coy girls who stayed at home and tended to the kitchen,” says Matthews.

The ripples were felt down south in Tamil Nadu,where private universities and engineering colleges turned the war on rape into a war on women’s freedom. Just two months ago,Vellore Institute of Technology (VIT) University in Vellore sent home two female students for demanding equal rights. The university,with over 20,000 students,keeps women students on a tight leash,asking them to return to their hostel by 8.30 pm and check in at the gate every time they leave or return to the campus. Men are free to move about as they please and may return to their quarters by 11.30 pm. The two women who publicly questioned the discriminatory treatment were summarily suspended and their Facebook posts about a futile attempt to get the administration to relax the in-time for women were taken down. The students,however,did leave behind an online poll taken by 400 women students of VIT that shows the extent of their discontent at the university’s restrictive rules. An overwhelming majority of the students voted that discriminatory hostel in-times for men and women were not required to ensure safety. Ninety-seven per cent said self-defence and alertness training classes for women students,not confining them to their hostels,could help prevent sexual assault. “What does it matter what the girls think? The university will not relent,” says a third-year B Tech student at VIT,on condition of anonymity.

The administration also frowns upon women socialising with men on the campus,she says. “If we walk with male students,the guards blow the whistle and ask us to separate. Women are not even allowed to walk to the library (located inside the securely guarded campus) after 9 pm. We must wait for a half-hourly bus,” she says. “If all they want is to prevent rapes,they can just as well confine the men instead of the women.”

Following the spate of sexual offences across the country,colleges in south India have reportedly clamped down on women’s freedom,imposing stricter dress codes and discouraging their participation in inter-college events. It is with profound unease that Aditi (name changed on request),19,a student of commerce at a reputed college in Bangalore,wears a dupatta over her shoulders. A few months ago,a sari-clad professor hijacked a lecture one morning to advise female students to dress “modestly and carefully in these troubled times”. The men were excused,as they always are,Aditi says. “I feel no safer in a salwar kameez,” she says.

For many teenagers and younger girls,gender has become the overarching narrative of their lives,says Mumbai-based Geetha Prabhuram,who has a 15-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son. Ever since news of crimes against women,especially minors,started pouring in,there has been a perceptible shift in parenting in urban,middle-class India,she says. “For the first time,I heard urban,educated parents who only have sons say they were relieved they didn’t have daughters,” she says. An HR professional,Prabhuram worries about the safety of her children and says she may opt to stay at home when the family moves to Delhi next year. “We cannot punish our daughters. We must educate our sons,” she says.

It is not punishment if it will help you stay out of harm’s way,argues Gayatri Ramaswamy,who works for Doordarshan in Mumbai. If her 14-year-old daughter Anagha fails to call her within minutes of reaching home — at about 1.30 pm — she panics. Anagha stays home most evenings when her mother is away at work and Ramaswamy prefers it that way. “All her extracurricular activities,like music classes,happen over the weekends,when I can escort her,” says the 47-year-old.

Sanhita Mallya,from Jamshedpur,whose 22-year-old daughter,Rashmi,works for IBM in Bangalore,says middle-class parents are programmed to be paranoid,especially if their daughters live thousands of miles away. December 16 coincided with Rashmi’s first day at work and as the Mallya family watched the news,the ground shook beneath their feet. “For a minute we thought we would bring her back home,” says Mallya. “Every time there is a case of violence against women,like the recent ATM attack in Bangalore,we panic,” she says,adding that she calls Rashmi over a dozen times in a day. “South India is safer,more cultured. I wouldn’t send my daughter to Delhi or Mumbai,” she says.

In Delhi,the epicentre of crimes against women,fear is an ideology easily peddled. Tanvi Gupta,a 24-year-old fashion designer who co-owns The Purple Sack,a label of accessories,says her joint family of 13,which was once permissive of late nights,now closely monitors her activities. She is expected to be back home early unless accompanied by a trusted associate. Early-morning yoga classes are out of the question and trips outside Delhi,for business or leisure,have been put on hold. “I am urged to drive everywhere and not stroll on the street. I am not allowed to go to my warehouse alone at any hour — I am always escorted by a domestic help,” she says.

Surveillance isn’t half of it. “Ever since the case,my parents have been pushing me to get married. It is very important to them that the man I marry has a house in a central,secure area in Delhi,” she says. Gupta herself is more cautious and has switched to a more conservative wardrobe. Her mother,Anjali,48,says the case has left her insecure about her daughter’s safety. “I do not even trust the domestic help now,” she says.

The young Indian woman,besides facing everyday dangers,is now also besieged by misplaced protectionism and hothouse parenting,robbing her of her identity and freedom. “It’s an alarming reaction to an alarming crime,” says Mallika. “But it’s not going to prevent the next rape.”

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