‘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.