"Common-sense" suggestions about choosing safe neighbourhoods and dressing sensibly don’t really help women stay safe.

Drunkards nosy neighbours lecherous men Safety struggles of women living aloneImage for representation
Features Women's security Thursday, October 13, 2016 - 15:29

Deepthi has been living alone in Bengaluru for the past two-and-a-half years. And while Monika Ghurde’s horrific rape and murder disturbs her, she knows the feeling is only going to last about a week or so. “I’ll be extra careful for the next week or ten days and then it will be business as usual. We anyway have to be on our guard all the time,” she says.

In modern, urban India where hoarding after hoarding thrives on advertisements claiming to be feminist and empowering, daily life is a tightrope walk for most women living alone. Strong and independent but wary of returning alone after a late night out, comfortable in their skin but wanting to drape a shawl over a strapless top when the doorbell rings – these are some of the dilemmas the modern Indian woman lives with in order to feel ‘safe’.

“It’s this dilemma that never goes. As a free thinking woman, you cherish the freedom that comes with living alone. But then there’s only so much that you can do without a concern for your safety right?” says Arushi, who has been living alone in Delhi for two months now. Though the 24-year-old lives in a standalone building in a reasonably upscale neighbourhood in the capital, she says that the security issues she faces as a single woman are “humongous”.

For instance, she once had a drunk man knock on her door at 1am in the morning demanding rice. The next morning, she had been locked inside her house. After the caretaker unlatched the door from outside, Arushi’s neighbours told her that they had never seen the man in the building. In another  instance, she was told that someone was trying to climb the shoe-rack kept outside her house to get a peek inside.

The knowledge rattled Arushi and she informed her landlord, who assured her that such things wouldn’t happen again. So far, the promise has been kept.

Chennai-based Reshma has been living independently for about a decade now and has had more than her share of unpleasant incidents. “Once, a man knocked on the door at 10 in the night asking for water. I refused to open the door and when I went to the balcony, I saw a few more men waiting below,” the 40-year-old recounts. Though the man and his friends left after a while, Reshma couldn’t help but imagine dozens of horrific scenarios of what would happen if they had knocked down the front door.

While Deepthi hasn’t found herself in a dire situation so far, she finds comfort in the fact that she has her own car, which means she does not have to rely on public transport or cabs late in the night. “I also ensured that the neighbourhood was friendly and safe when I moved in. The residents in this building have been living here for a few years now,” she says.

Among her everyday precautions, Deepthi makes sure her front door is always locked. She doesn’t try out too many too new delivery places for groceries, and locks the door even when she goes inside to get the money after receiving a package. “The restrictions I have to place on myself are annoying but I can’t really help it,” she maintains.

But despite all the precautions a woman takes when she lives alone, there’s no escaping the male gaze from the store owner around the corner, the neighbor or even the driver who usually spends the day in the parking lot. “You can’t really tell your neighbors to fire their drivers like that. But they’re always there, looking at you when you come and go. There are no background checks, people just hire them based on another person’s recommendation,” Deepthi says.

For Arushi, it’s the particularly urban problem of having neighbours but having no relationship with them. “You know they are there and you know they are watching. Sometimes I wonder if I should go say hello. But they could also do the same instead of staring at me,” she says.

So is there really a way for women living alone to be safe? A preliminary internet research throws up all kinds of suggestions from choosing a safe neighbourhood to not having male friends over to dressing “sensibly”. However, Reshma’s experience shows that these things cannot really act as a shield against untoward instances. She recounts an incident a few years ago when she was dressed in a salwar-kameez, with a dupatta covering her head and riding her bike home.

“I noticed a few men following me so I took a better-lit route instead of the usual one. They didn’t stop following me and kept trying to grope me. Two cars passed by and didn’t stop. One truck stopped, but the driver didn’t alight, possibly worried about his own safety. Finally, I saw a patrol car at a distance and they noticed the men. But the men escaped before the cops could chase them down,” Reshma recounts.

The lack of patrol cars in her neighbourhood in Bengaluru bothers Deepthi, who hails from Chennai. “I don’t know how much they can help in case something untoward happens, but it makes me feel safer,” she says.

Reshma says that the police response to calls from women about harassment is not always as prompt as desired. "In another incident where a man misbehaved with me one night, I called the police helpline number. The lady who picked up asked me if the man was beside me. When I said no, she said she couldn't help and I should go to a police station and file a complaint. It was around 10.30 in the night at the time."

But is it only the police and government’s responsibility to ensure women are safe?

Some responsibility, Arushi opines, must be taken personally. “I think I have made a conscious decision to not hold back and live in fear. Safety is a concern but I know the safe places I can go to or seek help like the police or my friends and colleagues in case something untoward happens,” she says.

Reshma says that installing CCTV cameras and conducting thorough background checks of residents as well as staff should be a must. “Instead of taking their claims at face value, cross-check their address and claims. It may just act as a deterrent if they have foul intentions,” Reshma insists.

And then there’s civic responsibility, which no law can outline but is necessary nevertheless. “Any community will consider preventing theft its responsibility. Similarly, ensuring the safety of people living alone, whether men or women, should be a communal responsibility too,” Arushi says. 


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