How it feels to be a woman in India
February 4th, 2013
11:01 AM ET

How it feels to be a woman in India

By Shreyasi Singh, Special to CNN

Editor's note: Shreyasi Singh is a New Delhi-based writer. The views expressed are her own.

There’s little about my life that should create a sense of fear. I’m in my early 30s. I have a good job as an editor at a business magazine in New Delhi. I am fortunate enough to live in an upscale gated community in a Delhi suburb – the kind of place that shields you from the daily exasperations of India’s power, water, traffic and noise pollution woes. I don’t even have to drive myself anymore – like many who are comfortably off in India, I have a driver. Yet, despite these considerable advantages, can I really describe myself as empowered? And more importantly – am I even free?

For a start, I don’t dare walk the few hundred feet to the nearby coffee shop near my home after 8 p.m. (Indeed, despite the wide, well-paved roads, it isn’t a pleasant walk at any time of the day). Too often, I don’t feel like I can stand at a crossing in Delhi and hail a cab without hunching my shoulders in hopes that my chest will be a little less obvious. And almost reflexively when on public transport, invisible antennae go up all over my body ready to sense the slightest unwanted touch or sign of harassment.

Even more annoying, why does my cell phone have to buzz with an almost suffocating stream of text messages from my family checking when I’ll be home every time I’m out after 10 p.m. – even when I’m in a car with a driver that we trust? If it’s like this for “privileged” me, what must it be like for the tens of thousands of women who use public transport every day in this city, or the many more tens of thousands across the country who don’t even have to leave their home to feel unsafe, mistreated or disempowered?

Of course, none of this is new – nor is it news to millions of Indian women. Sadly, such experiences had become so much a part of a woman’s day-to-day life here that many of us had stopped questioning the unfairness of how unsafe most of our cities are for women. Delhi, for example, has been dubbed the rape capital of India, with 17 percent of reported cases taking place here in 2011 according to official numbers that are believed to grossly underestimate the problem).

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In many cases we have learned to accept that we should dress sensibly if we were going out, that we shouldn’t be “stupid” enough to want to stay out at night alone, and that we need to master the art of maneuvering our backpacks and handbags into a shield to protect our bodies on public transport.

But for me, at least, this lazy acceptance of the notion that this is just the way things work here was shattered by the gang rape of a 23-year-old girl in Delhi in December. If anything positive can come of this truly shocking, violent incident – one that made headlines across the globe – it is that it might have acted as a wake-up call to the many of us who had grown complacent.

As the sordid details of the incident – in which six men allegedly brutally raped a girl as she travelled home from a movie on a bus – were pored over in the media, I felt angry and almost ashamed to be Indian. What good is a growing economy or the world’s second largest military if half of the population can’t venture past their own doorstep without complete confidence?

We are the world’s largest democracy, yet tens of millions of us are treated like second class citizens – last year, the World Economic Forum ranked India 105th in the world in terms of economic opportunities and education for women. According to India’s most recent census, the literacy rate among women is about 65 percent, compared with more than 80 percent for men.

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Fortunately, I was far from the only one shaken by December’s tragedy, and some tangible initiatives look like they may have been born from the public anger unleashed by the incident. As a member of the media, I found it encouraging that so many mainstream organizations took such strong editorial positions, and refused to let the story simply fade away. Indeed, there was a significant focus on the too often unreported crimes that take place against women on a daily basis.

More encouraging than the media outrage, though, may be the decision by the government-appointed Justice Verma Committee, which has spoken in an incredibly brave, non-moralizing and surprisingly plain way in laying out recommendations for changes to the laws that govern sexual crimes in India, including faster trials and punishments that fit the crimes. The committee has also proposed a Bill of Rights for Women.

Of course, these recommendations will inevitably have to navigate numerous delays and debate before they can be enshrined into law (if, indeed, this happens at all). And even once they are, it will take time for laws to translate into tangible changes in our police stations or district courts, which are supposedly the first custodians of justice, but so often end up being callous accomplices.

As I took part in a demonstration protest in Jantar Mantar, Delhi, following the gang rape, it became increasingly clear to me that Justice Verma can only try to help fix the official narrative surrounding women and crime, justice and rights. The more difficult – and sometimes uncomfortable – challenge is to alter mindsets and speak up. This means not just saying something when a bright young woman is gang raped and her innards torn out using an iron rod, but each and every time a girl or woman is treated unfairly in our homes, colleges and offices.

And for me, maybe by contributing to this fight, and speaking up instead of just accepting prejudice, I have a chance of finding greater empowerment. But am I really up to it?

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Topics: India • Women

soundoff (229 Responses)
  1. Melbourne

    Finally senseless ideas from Indians just stopped! Just accept that you Indians dont know how to respect women. You all are animals.

    April 7, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Reply
    • bolts

      I agree. Accept the fact that you don't respect women as much as other cultures do. It is a shame but only truth will set you free.

      August 20, 2013 at 2:07 am | Reply
  2. Cynthia

    Yes my sister, you are indeed up to the fight. Voicing your opinion is the cornerstone of the new India you wish to build. Shreyasi Singh, I pray for your safety and that of the many women and girls in your country. I hope that this is the beginning you seek.

    April 21, 2013 at 10:12 pm | Reply
  3. sara

    I am from India. I get molested everyday in some or the other way. Indian men are animals who take advantage of women as soon as they know they are alone. When I am on the road trying to get to somewhere suddenly the road becomes empty and the guy in the road takes advantage and tries to dash me or touch me and pass like they didn't do it on purpose. I am a teenager and I dont have a boy friend because I am fat and its pretty scary to be lonely girl in India. I dont have no one who can help me. And I am literally tired of fighting with every1 that does that to me. I am literally so tired of these that I want to suicide. Is there any1 who can help me?

    May 14, 2013 at 10:49 am | Reply
  4. vherna86

    Oh!I love to visit India someday, when it's safer. It's very sad that a country with a very rich tradition and culture (yes, I believe it's not all bad) and very rich literature is not safe for tourists or for women.

    May 16, 2013 at 4:52 am | Reply
  5. Ant-Virginia


    August 22, 2013 at 6:06 am | Reply
  6. Ant-Virginia

    i had written a huge message to you however, seems like i would have to write it again cause it never got posted...:(
    Virginia.....get your facts correct about INDIA...we are a population of 10 times more than the United States of America..there are good and bad people everywhere in the world but the unfortunate sadding truth about INDIA is that ratio is 70 % (animals) to 30 % (saviours/good men/people of GOD)....The whole issue sorrounding what hurting attrocities and really saddening events that happened to Cross or maybe many foreign nationals who come here really puts us INDIANS to shame and that would keep happening its never gonna improve but just worsen...but there is a way vigilant all the time ! never go out into strange places or transports alone without someone you know pref a male maybe a good indian as well...secondly make noise whenever something like this happens scream make noise alert the people around u to help out ! im sure there would be one person out there who will stand up and protect you ! that is what we indians do all the time and trust me this is how we protect our loved ones cause we have learned over a period of time that freedom in INDIA was never meant for girls and thats the honest truth....however thats the only way out dont get into comparisions and fights about INDIA and the US or any other nation just learn to accept the bitter truth and protect your self always keep a teaser gun in your purse that is allowed these days in some parts of India....There is however another side to the coin as well....there are many foreign nationals who come into our country and lure people into bad things best example is GOA ! be there once and see what happens there....cause everything is so damn cheap for US citizens or Euro people considering the weaking rupee....they are the basterds who pay money and have keeps and prostetues in INDIA....anwyays i can go on and on....GOD BLESS AMERICA and maybe INDIA as well....

    August 22, 2013 at 6:18 am | Reply
    • Kallol

      So u suggest that converting to Christianity will solve the problems?

      October 8, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  7. hoeodo

    Don't they poop in the streets in India?

    August 22, 2013 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • David

      No fool thats in Pakistan .

      August 22, 2013 at 11:32 pm | Reply
      • ani-virginia

        hahahah nice one does it matter guess hoeodo is a poop cleaner thats why hes asking ?

        August 23, 2013 at 3:12 am |
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