A Woman in the City


Devika Bakshi in Open The Magazine:

My city is not mine. I have always felt this, but only realised it fully last week, when, in the aftermath of the unspeakably brutal rape of a 23-year-old woman by six men, I began talking to women around me about safety. This is not a new subject. I have grown up and into an understanding that this city is hostile towards me, and that everything possible must be done to keep me safe.

My safety, my mother tells me, has always been a primary concern for her. No men in the house. A maid supervising the daily carpool to school. Boarding school and college abroad. Having spent her youth getting pawed by men in DTC buses, once only narrowly escaping an acid attack, she was determined to shield me from what she knew to be a harsh city for women. Every effort was made, every resource utilised to ensure I could circumvent the hazards of this city and be the independent person I was already becoming—elsewhere.

I now understand that that alternative would have been to stay here, in the city but removed from it, skirting its edges, tunneling through it, being smuggled in a tightly regulated bubble between illusory safe spaces—ones with gates, or guards, or a cover charge—like so many young women I know whose parents can afford to keep them safe, to hold them apart from the city.

Though irreproachable in its intent, the tragedy of this approach, as my mother puts it, is that you can’t give your child the confidence to operate in the world. Indeed, our collective fear of the city transforms it into an adversary, with whom we interact tentatively and only when necessary, careful not to do anything to provoke its ire.

We abide by a hallowed yet vague code of conduct: don’t stay out after dark, don’t wear anything that shows off your legs, don’t trust strangers, especially men, don’t stand out in a crowd.

We negotiate our own curfews: no autorickshaws after 8, no metro after 10, no driving alone after 11.

We permit ourselves small conditional freedoms: if you must go out, go in a group with boys, go to someone’s house, go only to this or that safe neighbourhood, take a driver.