Is India safe for women?

‘Stop smiling and showing everyone around you how friendly and approachable you are.’

This is one of the tips I have sometimes given to a European woman who was due to travel to India on work, in the course of a ‘Doing Business in India Training’. It came as no surprise to me when a senior lady manager, a very warm and friendly one, told me of the Indian men she met while on a business trip there who sent her messages and called her in Europe incessantly after she was back here. I had to tell her to be careful. She didn’t see that her exuberant and friendly personality could have been misunderstood by the men who kept ‘connecting’ with her. Over the years, I have refined and improved my ‘do’s and don’ts’ list based on the experiences of women inside and outside India. Last Sunday, I spent an exciting afternoon. I had received an invitation from FCCI (Foundation for Critical Choices for India) for a seminar entitled ‘Female Safety in India: a Reality Check’ and I went. The location, a hotel on the edges of Schipol airport served as a reminder that the movement of people occurs when borders are open and when people feel safe enough to move.

In light of this, is India a safe place for women? If you trust Reuters then no, it is not. The Thomas Reuters Foundation report brands India as the most dangerous place in the world for women. The FCCI seminar was a response to the publication of this report. Seven years ago, a similar Reuters survey had resulted in India joining four other nations as the most dangerous. The others were Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan and Somalia. This year, India topped the list. Listening to the FCCI presentations and the interactive discussion that followed, one thing was clear – a lot of effort went into the research, presentation and implementation of this seminar over an issue of extreme relevance.

The presenters, panelists and most of the people who responded, including myself expressed our apprehensions about the methodology followed by the Reuters Foundation. However, everyone agreed on one thing about the situation of women in India. As the Dutch would say ‘er is werk aan de winkel’. To which one could add: veel werk. In other words, there’s much ground to be covered. Roll up your sleeves and get on with it. There’s a serious problem here. It’s as old as the hills.

I had a question. Quite apart from the Reuters report, what is it, in the present day atmosphere that feeds into people’s perception that India is a very dangerous place for women? To which I received three answers and I summarize:

  • India is worth noticing. It counts on the world stage
  • 24/7 media coverage in India ensures that these stories get out, which in turn feeds western media
  • When a people has the ability to be self-critical and self-reflective (as Indians do, in this respect), then they are vulnerable to attack from outside

These answers help us to understand what lies behind the perception. If one wants to count oneself in with the movers and shakers on the world stage, then women are going to have to be free to cross borders safely – which include a range of places from home to school, college, workplace, village, town, country street and yes, disco, café, restaurant, park, shopping mall and cinema hall at all times of day and night, if they choose. With or without men. But the biggest border that needs to be crossed lies not outside, but inside the minds of men and women. Because violence against women begins at home, along with mother’s milk as was also rightly pointed out in this seminar.

And true, media, which includes social media and India’s free press give these stories a life that, in more repressed parts of the world would never see the light of day. Not in the least, the demonstrations and public displays of protest as happened in response to the ‘Nirbhaya’ rape in 2012, and more recently, the call to action that the #Me Too movement has encouraged are certainly a mark of a democratic, non-violent struggle to overcome the violence that women face on a day to day basis amongst urban and/or the literate layer. They reflect the voice of this group of women. Our mothers and grandmothers were not spared any of what we face today, and often from the men and women they trusted the most but they couldn’t find anyone to share their traumas with. So this is a big change.

And lastly, about the ability to self-reflect and be critical. The intense response of the last seven years has given visibility to a privileged group of women speaking up about an evil that some activists, social workers, policy makers, lawyers reformers, artists and women who are none of the these, have been relentlessly working on for decades. Tirelessly hammering away against the edifice of patriarchy, often at a great cost to themselves. In India, the hard work of combatting violence against women received impetus when women were burnt. First for the sake of honour. Then for the sake of dowry.

The response through recent protests are not the first in India. That the voices of the urban, middle class women are seen and heard today reflects an India in rapid transition, and puts the problem squarely on the agenda. So much so that during a recent intercultural training for Chinese women managers due to travel to India, they asked my colleague Esther Janssen (Culture Inc.) if she thought India was a safe place for them to go to. Despite China’s allegedly limited access to the more broadly used sources of the internet and social media, they knew exactly what they had to ask.

Is India a more dangerous for women than it was before? No, I don’t think so. That’s the perception, but the problem has been around for a long, long time, and is alive and well even today.

Satyarani protesting the alleged dowry murder of her daughter, Delhi,1982

Thomas Reuters Report on the most dangerous place for women

Reason

There aren’t many surprises for me through four hours of screen time as I sit through the documentary ‘Reason’. I imagine this also holds true for all of us who have been watching with great dread how those, following the ideology of the killers of Gandhi have taken upon themselves the task of ‘Hinduising’ India. I’ve been watching, and Anand Patwardhan, the filmmaker, true to his style, was right there in the middle of it, with his camera, inches away from folks for whom threatening, beating, maiming and killing has become a way of life. All in the name of a Hindu nation.

In ‘Reason’ Anand, a seasoned and independent filmmaker, whose films are funded by himself, exposes us to a multitude of voices on the side of reason: those who work non-violently, who mobilize, who demonstrate, who ask questions, who stand up, who speak, who show by example, who do the right thing against this rising tide of terror. Because that is what it is. This version of championing Hinduism looks to fascism as the ideology to adopt to ‘make India Hindu’, as one of its prominent members candidly declares.

One gets to see doctor Dhabolkar, who with his ‘anti blind faith’ movement tries to build awareness about what is behind the miracles that god men perform in the name of god. Dhabolkar, with his twinkling eyes and mischievous smile is an endearing figure, as is the wife who loves him. Widowed, after Dhabolkar was killed while on a walk by someone on a motorcycle. There’s Pansare, who with humour and tact is the moving force behind inter-caste marriages in his region. This version of building a society got him killed. By someone on a motorcycle. And there’s Gauri Lankesh. As Time put it ‘… a veteran Indian journalist known for her outspoken criticism of Hindu nationalist politics has been shot dead in Bangalore’. By someone on a motorcycle. The killers are hard to find under the present regime even as masses of people gather peacefully to demonstrate and declare ‘I am Gauri’. They wiped out the symptom, but the disease persists. For the Hindu nationalists and the killers, the name of this disease is freedom.

‘Freedom’ from this definition of nation is what the voice of reason cries out for, and we hear this voice in force on the screen before us.

 

 

 

Anand Patwardhan in Amsterdam for IDFA 2018

 

 

 

 

And freedom is what a young and promising man chooses when he becomes his own killer. A Dalit, otherwise called ‘untouchable’, who was one of the very, very few to make it to the status of a PhD candidate in a university – ostracised and shunned passes on, and leaves behind a letter for us to read. In his words: ‘I have no complaints on anyone. It was with myself that I had problems. I feel a growing gap between my body and my soul. I have become a monster. I always wanted to be a writer. A writer of science. Like Carl Sagan. At last, this is the only letter I am getting to write. I loved science, stars, nature, but then I loved people without knowing that people have long since divorced from nature. Our feelings are second handed. Our love is constructed. Our beliefs coloured. Our originality valid through artificial art. It has become truly difficult to love without getting hurt. The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made of star dust’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rohith Vemula’s voice, now reproduced by Anand in his film, and by others, like me leaves us believing in miracles. That one who grew up in deprivation, one so young  and so vulnerable could convey in so few words, in a foreign language, truths that we hear every day but cannot listen to. In the voice of a poet that surpasses the binaries of reason vs. faith.

Rohith’s letter

 

Blue Match

‘We’d like less smoke. We’d like our eyes to burn less when we cook’.

These are Vandana Radhakrishnan’s words, repeating what rural women in Hoskote in South India have told her.

And there on the screen before me, the huge irony of other words in Dutch come home to me: ‘absolutely a man’s work – burning a wood fire’ . Because that is what we believe here in the Netherlands. Wood fires and men are made for each other.

Cooking on an open fire by burning wood is equivalent to smoking 60 cigarettes a day, and it’s women’s work in India. And they don’t exactly do it because they’d like some warmth on a cold winter’s day, or because they want to roast their sausages and marsh mellows on it.

It’s about meals every day. 60 cigarettes a day every day because your family and you have to eat. A hundred million a year die from diseases related to cooking daily meals.

Relaxing after a meal in the Garo Hills

When Rolf Boerkoel found himself ‘smoking’ while sharing a little house with his hosts in rural India while on a leadership programme, he came upon the perfect match for his vision: ‘the social value of a company or organization is, for me, an essential and challenging given’. He also had the perfect match in a partner. Rob Nieuwenhuizen says about himself: ‘the circular phenomenon – to create with what there is, inspires me’. Together, they pooled their skills and came up with ‘Blue Match’. Now there are women in south India, producing, distributing and of course also using smokeless stoves, run not on fossil fuels, but on pellets of bio-degradable waste that come from the farms around them.

 

Rolf Boerkoel with a Blue Match stove

Pointing to a stove next to to him, Niewenhuizen says: ‘truly a product for women, by women and of women’. Listening to him give a presentation in a gathering in Haarlem of ‘Small Medium Businesses’ with a connection to India, I am almost envious about how effortless he makes his and Boerkoel’s dream come true appear.

 

You have a vision. You share it. There’s someone listening. That someone is a person or the universe itself. Together, you get a little rock rolling from the top of the mountain. It gathers volume and momentum as it moves. This, then is the principle of making dreams come true.

The stove at this moment is the little rock around which other earthly things have stuck. Like – microcredit, in order to make it affordable for these women, employment for the women making it, training and personality development for the ones learning to distribute it, a saving of Co2 emissions that could go up to 3.5 tons a year if the momentum catches, innovation in the form of throwing in some coconut shells when the money runs out and the bio pellets can’t be bought.

And not in the least, the win-win on two sides of the world. Because ‘Blue Match’ professes to be a business for profit.

Do I need to add that the word ‘profit’ has more than one connotation for its managers?

 

Website of Blue Match

Little India Big India

My fingers, clutch a piece of dosa, with its aaloo filling just dipped into warm sambhar and cool coconut chutney and do manage to make it into my mouth, and mmmmm, mmmmm. MMMMMMMM. The taste of home. “It’s this stupid; this is the main reason that I, and I suspect many thousands of others have found ourselves here in ‘Little India’ “ I tell myself. It’s a wonder I got from the dosa stall to a table, five steps away without the dosa, chutney and sambhar flying off the plate I hold. As I savour the food in my mouth, taking ever so long to feel every flavour I possibly can before it’s all gone, I hear a young man on the opposite side of the small circular table we are standing around say, “I like it here because this feels like the ‘Mumbai locals’ ”. He catches my eye as I smile and he smiles back. I keep my elbow close to my body so not to knock down the morsel making it’s way from hand to mouth of his companion, next to me. Yes, we are home. Back home where, to place your foot down requires some planning, some foresight and sometimes more serious strategies as does the placement of your elbow. The elbow is a very useful tool when you need to get off a ‘Mumbai local’- otherwise just called a train.

Did this young man, smiling happily at me, a stranger, ever in his young life think he would miss a Mumbai local train? I seriously doubt it.

The transition from most major Indian cities to the Netherlands consists of many different factors to adjust to. Some of these, one can fathom easily. The cold. Not being surrounded by idli-dosa and the like. Less obvious ones are: stepping out of the airport or a train station or a car and taking in a breath of air that doesn’t smell of diesel, petrol or chemicals; getting used to words that contain the same alphabet as English but look different and are sometimes rather long. Like the board in Schipol airport that reads: ‘babyverzorgingsruimte’. Familiar and yet not.

And then, there are the less obvious factors like the silence. As the deep sleep of the jet lagged begins to wear off, and one thinks of rising and shining, the stillness is overwhelming. Where is that connection to the world through sound that never seems to cease in ‘Big India’? You rise finally, unable to listen to the only voice in your head, which is your own. You part the curtain gingerly and look out of the window. Where are the human beings? These empty streets, and the deafening stillness envelop you and you know you have arrived in the Netherlands.

But here in ‘Little India’ it is Diwali. The tent with its dazzling lights cannot contain the ever growing arrivals, the music, the chatter and clutter, the song and dance, the appetites and cheer, and so, we have spilled out onto the square, where of course, there is Indian street food to be enjoyed. And you don’t need to elbow anyone because there’s no getting off this train in a hurry. The food will keeping passing from hand to hand and hand to mouth, the songs will be sung, and little dance steps will cover every corner of ‘Big India’ on the stage. Here all the silence of the months gone by will be vanquished in one fell sweep, and sound will fill the air all day long. Here, where you can hardly put your foot down, there is room for little babies and young ones to entertain themselves in their own way. Here there is place for charities to tell of good deeds. And, not in the least here are the flavours from north, south, east and west of ‘Big India.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just like ‘Big India’, there is in the heart of ‘Little India’ time and place for everyone and and everything and all of it all together. And one doesn’t have to feel homesick any more.

‘Little India’ by another name is called Amstelveen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Link to FB page: Diwali Amstelveen

 

 

Madam Ines

From my vantage point, I can see through the windows on the first and second floors opposite me. Three  screens. In each of them, women, single or in the company of other women.

I am playing ‘bluff’ with my companions in an Indonesian restaurant on the first floor on the other side of the street. The apartments are well lit, the night clear, we are above street level, and I sit facing a window that looks into theirs. It’s an open invitation that I will not refuse. A choreography of simultaneous movements meets my eyes… she’s opening a packet of chips, settling on a sofa, collecting a handful, showing a companion something on a mobile phone and laughing, getting ice out of a refrigerator. Soundless visuals to which I add a voice over in my head ….. “she’s just returned form a hard day’s work, wonder how much it cost to buy that property in the centre of this city…where is the car park… a full length mirror in the living room hmmmm curious …. I hope she’s not lonely…wonder if anyone else lives with her.” My voice over makes them out to be women who are paid for their work and take decisions about how and where they want to live. Mistresses of their own fate.

Earlier that day, I visited the ‘Open Air Museum’ in Arnhem. Whole neighbourhoods, houses and buildings have been dismantled from their previous locations and rebuilt here. In some of them, people in costume ‘dwell’ amongst the real objects and machines and communicate with visitors. This is how I could revise the workings of a steam engine and a windmill with some help. In other buildings, stories are told on televisions screens, like the one of Mr. Lau, immigrant from Hong Kong who started the first Chinese restaurant in Maastricht. The restaurant is there with its larder intact.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With so much to see and experience, one might have missed Madam Ines completely amongst objects that fit in the world of men of those times. A huge warehouse – a reconstruction of ‘Van Gend en Loos’ showcases the firm in the business of the transportation of goods to and from railway stations. From the time of horse run carriages to vans and trucks. Underneath the wheels of a carriage is a declaration: beautiful horses and beautiful women cost money to maintain. It is in this warehouse that Madam Ines is to be found on a little screen beside a full-length display of a male uniform and boxes and crates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madam Ines is in uniform too, and one has to strain a bit to hear her on the screen. The interviewer asks her why she decided to be a chauffer, the first in the Netherlands. There were personal reasons, she replies almost shyly. Yes, she had to follow a course, where she learned about loading and unloading cargo. Yes, she laughs, sometimes it is heavy work. We see her carrying a bunch of uniforms on a hanger, delivering them, getting a signature and driving her truck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A subsequent search on the internet reveals little about Madam Ines. Did I hear her name properly, I wonder. Does it matter? She’s another ancestor of mine, who for reasons she didn’t share, stepped from one role into another, woke up in the mornings put on her uniform, and left home to earn her bread.

And now I see her through a glass, not in uniform, getting her dinner plate, and settling into a chair. Just another moment in the day’s routine. Only in another age.