Women invest a lot of time and energy in taking “safety” measures, just how much might surprise you.

When fear is normal 25 Indian women tell us what they do to avoid assault
Features Women's safety Friday, October 14, 2016 - 18:59

To an outsider, an Indian woman's life would seem like a thriller film: she is constantly on guard, turning around to check who is following her, seeing a potential villain every time an auto or cab driver looks at her. She arms herself with discreet but dangerous weapons: pins, knives, pepper sprays, umbrellas and so on. Whether she is in her own home or on the streets, the looming threat of sexual assault and rape never leaves her.

And it doesn’t matter if the woman wears a burqa or a mini skirt or if she is urban, educated, and is from a middle to upper class background.

How much worse does it get as we go down the ladder? Women invest a lot of time and energy in taking “safety” measures, which have been normalized to an extent that they do these unconsciously.

Dress

Even though a woman's choice of clothing has never stopped sexual harassment, most women worry if what they're wearing is "appropriate" for where they are going. Or even if they're in their own homes and are expecting a male visitor.

Sangeetha Arunachalam, a chartered accountant from Chennai says, "I always walk with my head down on the road. If I'm sitting in a public place, I put my huge handbag on me so it covers my torso. Even now, I wear my dupatta covering both shoulders when I have to walk down the road. I hold my saree or dupatta close to me so nobody can pull it."

When the question was initially posed to her, Sangeetha did not believe that she cared all that much about safety. "I realize only now how scared I am, when I thought about what all I do to feel safe," she says.

Deepa Harishankar, a freelance writer and editor from Bengaluru, states that she wears "behenji" clothes deliberately when she has to go to places that are "sleazy". "I'm taller and larger than most Indian men. I think that deters lone predators," she says. However, Deepa always carries a lighter in her handbag and used to keep a can of pepper spray too.

Ranjani, a content writer from Kochi, says that she wears “dowdy” clothes on days she knows she will get home late.

Jaya Shravan, who moved from Paris to Mumbai recently, believes that she feels safe in the maximum city and wears what she wants without fear of judgment. But outside of Mumbai, especially when she goes to cities that are considered more conservative, Jaya makes sure she doesn’t wear anything “revealing”.

Women also tend to wear shrugs or shirts over their party wear if they’re going to a club, pub or fancy restaurant. “I don’t have a car and take cabs, so though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what I’m wearing, I end up covering all that I can to avoid leery looks,” says Manaswini*.

Weapons

 “I keep a three-fold umbrella in my handbag to use as an improvised weapon,” says Neena*, a journalist from Kerala. Other favoured “weapons” to counter an attack range from a pin to a hand gun.

Apart from having all “safety numbers” in her phone for nightly travels, Chennai-based Aruna* also carries a small knife in her purse.

But for Anne Preethi, who now lives in the US, these usual methods were not good enough. She says, “Around 9 years back, my dad had some serious health issues and had to be hospitalized often. My mom was in the hospital with him and it was me and my sister staying alone at home and traveling alone at odd hours back and forth. That time, we had a creepy guy who would jump over the compound into our house at night and try to open windows late into the night.”

Anne complained to the police but that didn’t help. So she and her sister adopted two dogs from the Blue Cross! Though the puppies were only a month old, Anne says that the man stopped his visits.

Contact

Every woman is very particular about her phone having sufficient charge to last the trip when she steps out of her home.

Someone’s knowledge of their coordinates appears to be the most effective precaution in warding off any danger. Several call a friend or a family member and tell them the number of the auto or car in which they’re traveling.

Ranjani switches on the GPS on her phone to make sure the auto or cab driver is taking her down the correct path.

Even when they are at home, women make sure they’re in contact with someone when a home delivery is expected or they have to let someone inside the house for repair work.

Ranjani says, “When I lived in Bengaluru for a few months in a paying-guest accommodation, workers would come in the room for minor maintenance work. I’d make sure that the door was wide open. I’d also make it a point to carry my phone in case I need to reach out to someone in case of emergency.”

Neena speaks loudly so her neighbours know that she has a visitor. She also positions her small daughter near the door so the latter can run out and call for help if needed!

Aruna has adopted another approach altogether – she doesn’t let the delivery person come home. She prefers going out and collecting her package and makes sure she is not being followed back home.

Assorted paranoia

Jaya Shravan never tries out clothes when shopping because she’s afraid the trial rooms would have secret cameras.

Deepa Harishankar never gets off or gets into a car when she’s parked in basements without checking if all is well.

Shruti*, from Delhi, makes her father, brother or male friend sit next to her in a theatre so she can avoid strange men molesting her in the darkness.

Sowmya, from Chennai, used to walk 800 metres alone from her workplace to catch her bus. But after the murder of Infosys techie Swathi, she only goes with a gang of known people.

Interestingly, women who have lived in India but have moved to other countries like the US and Singapore, feel far safer in their new surroundings even though it isn’t as if gender-based violence does not happen in these countries.

Hema Sridhar, who currently lives in the US, sums it up: “ I lived in India only until 21, not much I remember…but I think one thread of my brain cycle was always dedicated to being aware of who is staring, who is approaching, is everything ok and so on. I was never on my own there.”

The women The News Minute spoke to were in the age group of 20 to 35.

(With inputs from TNM reporters)

*Names changed to protect privacy

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