How Dangerous is Delhi?

29 Mar

For an instant yesterday, the most read article on New York Times online was one on Delhi’s rape situation and reputation as the most dangerous city in India for women, even more so than Mumbai, India’s largest and most dense, population-wise, city.  This article scared the daylights out of my Dutch-Afghani hostelmate who came to India recently and left me wondering again how this should affect my social life.  We had both read the brutal rape and murder cases lining the local newspapers every day.  Brutal, because the rape cases were usually gang-rapes and the details (this link is a bit old, but still representative of today) were too lurid to occur on a regular basis.  The majority of rapes in the United States are perpetrated by people who know the victim–a less random event.  Nevertheless, I considered the focus on rape & murder cases as part of the sensationalist journalism prevalent in Delhi, which also dedicate front-page headlines to Bollywood gossip and spend little time on actual news, such as the Libyan revolt.  (If you are in Delhi, the Times of India is the lone exception.)

To promote security, my dormitory (called hostel in Indian-English), like most in India, has strict rules.  You must be back before 8:30 p.m. and if you will stay out past then, then stay the entire night out.  The hostel doesn’t trust rickshaws or any form of transportation in the night.  Both the parents and the girls in my hostel, including my Dutch-Afghani hostelmate, appreciate these rules and “security” is the top reason they have chosen to live at the hostel.  My female classmates, who live with their parents outside the hostel, make sure to get home before sundown, cutting short any hang-out time.  Indian females generally prefer to travel with a male companion for safety, which explains why the compartment cars of the Metro are jam-packed with men, noses pressed against the windows, and the women-only cars are practically empty.  Only the wealthier can afford to stay out late, because they have drivers or own a car.

During the Indian festival of Holi, my hostel banned venturing outside in daylight.  Holi, the festival of color, is supposed to be Carnaval-like, a merry splattering of people in organic paint that takes months to scrub off your skin and takes never to be scrubbed off your clothes. But it can turn ugly in Delhi.  Sometimes, people throw rotten eggs & nasty waste instead of color; people drink; there are increased gropings.  My friend met a person headed to the Netherlands for an eye operation because she was hit by a sharp object during Holi.  It’s hard for me to judge how serious the damage can be on Holi.  The first list is typical of any public celebration.  The second one is a bit extreme, and also an isolated case.  My hostelmates, all of them, confirmed the wiseness of staying indoors during Holi, citing cases of how sometimes, people pretended to be drunk just so they can cause extra mischief.   There were no reports of murder or rape in the next day’s papers.*  I suspect that Holi is probably just as safe as Carnaval in Bolivia or Halloween in NYC:  do venture outside, but take some caution.

I also suspect that Indians take a little more caution than perhaps Westerners do.   Often, my classmates prefer to stay indoors or try to prevent me from venturing out at certain times and places, saying that it’s dangerous, but unable to qualify the danger.  (Often, I do it anyways, and everything is okay, as it should be.)  They seem to hear a few stories and structure their fear around those sometimes isolated events. I can understand. In a conservative society, preserving virginity is important.  My Dutch-Afghani friend, a Muslim self-described as “very Asian”, tells me she would rather be murdered than raped.  While my Spanish friend and I shrugged off quick gropes at crowded tourist sites (and temples!), she was furious for us, saying that she would yell at anybody who tried to touch us or her.  Girls at school don’t hesitate to call our administrator to report “ragging” (verbal harassment) by drunks they encounter while walking to school.

The commonness of groping, ragging and general harassment of women in Delhi speaks to the repression of Indian men in society.  Gender lines are severely drawn.  In classrooms, men and women sit on different sides.  No touching between men and women, which is quite ordinary in most societies, but strange given how touchy-feely Indians are (anybody seeing men hold hands here knows what I’m talking about.)  Most of the girls I know have never dated a boy, though they are given complete freedom by their parents, and choose an arranged marriage over a love marriage.  They are confused and curious on notions of love, but shy to experience it for themselves.  An Australian-educated Indian once said, laughing but serious, “Indian men are sleazy because they are repressed!”

One day, as I forgot and wore shorts in a Muslim district, I caught boys staring at my legs, not sleazily but in curiousity, and other older men took pictures, perhaps in a sleazy way.  My first reaction was to cover my legs, but then I thought defiantly, let them!  Perhaps by making it more common, women’s legs can be liberated, men can be less repressed, and ragging will decrease.

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