LADY SHRI RAM COLLEGE FOR WOMEN, NEW DELHI, INDIA
What is fear?
It is the unpleasant, raw, and primal emotion that engulfs us when we are stuck in an unlit alley with a dead phone. Or when we hear of the bomb-blast at that street you’d just shopped at. Or when we watch the first few moments of Hannibal Lecter’s screen time. It is pinned to a person, a place, or a situation, that can be comfortably and prudently avoided in the pursuit of a normal life.
What if the situation covers an entire city?
Living in Delhi involves a peculiar sort of neurosis. It drives one to dive, skirt, and flit across the canopy of (male) arms and legs to reach the women’s cabin in the metro. It is evident in the involuntary surfeit of panic that rises like bile when a motorcycle swerves too close…only to veer and speed away with a gust that ripples your dress. The streets of Delhi are a fun house of mirrors, where you look up and find grotesque, distorted versions of you reflected in the public gaze.
What happens when the line between fear and prudence begin to blur?
We build up an arsenal of behavioral patterns to deal with the insidious assault: wear tights under our skirts, travel only to the prescribed list of “safe” neighborhoods, allow ourselves to be picked up by the chauffeur or our parents whenever possible. What happens when these measures—no autos after eight, no programs beyond nine, carry all defense equipment short of actual firearms—stop becoming frustrating indicators of a larger malaise and solidify into rigid, unquestioned habit? The most pernicious aspect of this fear is precisely how internalized it has become, so much so that the irrational terror that seizes one when a man brushes past doesn’t even merit a second thought, forget a discussion. Our entire schedules and aspirations are molded by this deceptive fear, a fear that, in the words of Aung San Suu Kyi ,1 “masquerades as common sense or even wisdom”. We are reduced to a state of perpetual caution, sustained by a collective amnesia that suppresses any thought of how ridiculous this existence is.
This kind of “diffusive anxiety” fractures our relationships with people outside of formal institutions, coloring them with eternal suspicion. We assume a Hobbesian, misanthropic approach towards the sea of humanity, constantly buffeted by a frenzied sense of self-preservation that distrusts the city and its inhabitants. The deeper psychological repercussions are beyond our comprehension.
Living in Delhi, we recognize that none of us is alienated from the specter of violence: we have been groped in a line or whistled at in a rickshaw, we know of a friend who had a stalker or fought off molestation from someone familiar. Living in Delhi, there comes a stage when we realize that one cruel stroke of misfortune can slice through our cocoon of precaution in the matter of seconds. December 16, 2012 was a watershed moment in our association with the city, not because we were compelled to burrow further into our dens, but because we grasped the fundamental truth that beyond a point, we cannot control what happens to us on the streets and markets of Delhi. We chose, then, to discard the straitjacketing edicts of fear. We chose to travel in buses, use the subways, and occupy the wide avenues of the city. Our actions loudly and insistently maintained that the safety of women is the responsibility of the government, its mechanisms, and the civic society that enables it.
In such a movement, an environment like Lady Shri Ram is invaluable. It becomes an oasis where the dupattas come off and raw anger bursts forth from the pressure of constant vigilance. It is a space where we entertain the incredible idea that our right to unrestricted mobility and expression is what the state and society must uphold, respect, and protect. We mobilize ourselves around the apparatus of privilege, using it as a mode to board the bus rather than call for the car, as a means to take risk instead of avoiding it. Our privilege empowers us; it also reminds us of the legions of women in India who do not have the privilege, thus reinforcing the urgency of a combined female presence in the public sphere. Societal wisdom deems us reckless. We see it as necessary and long overdue steps to recoup the city from a male prerogative.
In the protests that burgeoned at the heart of the capital, there was a particularly outstanding and influential speech made by Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Alliance (AIPWA). She called out the dismal rate of conviction in rape cases, the patriarchal policing of women under the guise of “safety”, and the endemic practice of victim blaming and shaming that are endorsed by elected politicians and biased judiciary. She asserted the freedom of women to dress as they like, to walk outside at what time they like, for whatever reason they like, making a potent demand for bekhauf azaadi ,2 or the right to freedom without fear.
Freedom without fear. This is what we’re fighting for, an inch at a time.
1 Burmese freedom fighter, Nobel Laureate, and alumnus of Lady Shri Ram College.
2 Urdu for freedom (azaadi) without fear (bekhauf)