A solo female traveller in Delhi

I’ve lived 8 of my 25 years in this maddening city and I’ve loved and loathed it in equal measure. I love wandering about Delhi in the winter sun. I love the ruins of the Sultanate surrounded by parks and colonial houses in Lutyen’s Delhi. I love the food.

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However, just like every other big city, Delhi also has an ugly side. Jyoti Singh, a 23 year old physiotherapy intern, was brutally gang raped and murdered by a group of men in Delhi on December 16th, 2012. Her rape and murder sparked a wave of protests across the country which ultimately led to an amendment in the Indian Penal Code. Leslee Udwin’s documentary “India’s Daughter” is based on this incident and includes a one-on-one interview with one of the accused in the case, Mukesh. In the interviews in the documentary, the accused as well as the defence lawyers in the case have maintained that rape is as much (or more) the fault of the victim as the rapist and that women who are out after dark are not “good” and thus, deserve to be raped. The Indian Government however, has obtained a restraining order against the screening of this documentary concerned that it is a “conspiracy to defame India” and that such defamation would have an adverse impact on tourism. This restraining order, however, has ensured that almost everyone with access to the internet (who feels passionately about the issue or has a fear of missing out on the topic currently trending) has seen it. I’ve heard (seen) an incredibly wide ranging spectrum of opinions on the actions of the government and the documentary itself.

Some people feel that the government was right to ban the documentary since it might send out the wrong signal by glorifying the rapist. Some feel that the documentary itself could have done more and that the title itself was quintessentially patriarchal and that Jyoti Singh ought to have been portrayed as “India’s promising medical student” rather than as a “daughter”. Others believe that the people watching are almost never the ones who need to and that the film is merely ‘preaching to the converted’. Many viewers have expressed the opinion that this is in fact the opinion of majority of the men in our country and that the restraining order is just another attempt by our government to sweep the problem under the carpet.

The government’s attempt to restrain viewership has been horribly counter productive. More people are sharing and watching the documentary now than they would have otherwise. As far as an adverse impact on tourism is concerned, I believe that would have been caused by the incident itself rather than a film based on it. I also believe that the attempt to restrain the film from being screened sends out the wrong message to potential tourists: that the government is in denial. Without going into the ethical issues involved, “India’s Daughter” does what any good documentary should do, it portrays reality and it encourages one to think. I believe that everyone, even staunch feminists who don’t require to be told that women are equal to men, may benefit from being exposed to a variety of views. Amidst all the repugnant and disgusting things said by the accused, he also says that the death penalty for rapists will decrease the number of rape survivors. I believe that he is correct in this regard. I also believe that it will further reduce the reporting of rapes to the police since in many cases the rapist is acquainted with (or related to) the victim.

Nothing in the film, however, is particularly shocking. I’ve heard all of it, repeatedly, from people from widely different backgrounds. Sexual harassment and crimes against women are rampant everywhere. I have seen sexual harassment on the roads, in university corridors and classrooms and sadly, even in the Supreme Court of India. Lawyers, much like the ones interviewed on screen, harass women in courtrooms, corridors and even in the library; they are a sad disgrace to my country and my profession.

Victim shaming and blaming is unique to rape and sexual harassment. For instance, if a man is mugged and robbed at midnight, he is not going be asked why he was out at night. Nor is he going to be told that, by carrying an expensive phone or wearing a nice watch, he was inviting the crime. People who say that a woman who is alluringly dressed is asking to be raped are equating the human being in question to an appealing object. However, the injustice doesn’t stop here, society isn’t content with objectifying women. They must be degraded further. This sentiment has been summed up succinctly by our dear defence lawyer: “if you keep sweets on the street, dogs will come and eat them”. The concepts of restraint and consent are truly alien to our society when it comes to crimes against women.

However, I also believe that though such an attitude might be more deeply entrenched in parts of Indian society, it certainly is not non-existent elsewhere in the world. So as fas as solo women travellers are concerned, though Delhi is not particularly safe, neither are most other places in the world. Sarai Sierra, an amateur photographer from New York, was killed by a beggar in Istanbul in 2013 after she spurned and fought his lecherous advances. Jodi Ettenberg, from Legal Nomads, has written about solo female travelling and said that the worst experience she had was in France and “not somewhere exotic”.

It is an inescapable fact that Delhi, and the rest of India in fact, can be unsafe. The recent Uber cab rape incident has cemented the reputation of this city as the ‘rape capital of the world’ for many years to come. However, does this mean that you shouldn’t travel solo? I don’t believe it does. I’ve lived alone in this city for quite a few years. I have dealt with a lot of sexual harassment especially on the roads and while using public transport (such as the DTC buses and the Delhi Metro) but I’ve also noticed that it isn’t unique to Delhi. I believe that any solo traveller, anywhere, has to exercise a certain degree of caution. Jodi Ettenberg offers some valuable suggestions in this regard in her article ‘Revisiting the Solo Female Travel Experience’. As far as exploring Delhi is concerned, I’d recommend that you find out about the area you’re setting out to explore in advance and ensure that you’re not alone on the streets after dark. I do wish things were different and that such precautions were wholly unnecessary. However, we can hope that things will be different in the years to come. The people’s mindsets ARE changing, albeit at a glacial pace. People are sitting up and talking about rape rather than just being ashamed of it and Leslee Udwin’s film, screened or not, will have a far greater impact today than it would have had ten (or even five) years ago.

For more on the issue:

Reading the Signs (2010)

Preying on innoccence (2013)

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