When I lived in Delhi I remember having heated arguments with a friend of mine, a well-known journalist, about the potential of China over India. He was a supporter of India, a democracy where he was free to interview and investigate the stories he chose. I was a dedicated Sinophile arguing that democracy was useless if it failed to meet the needs of all India’s inhabitants – how could a country claim to be a democracy when half of the population, India’s females, were not safe to go out in public on their own?
I moved to Delhi in 2003 for two years, representing a major airline in the North India region. I was in my late twenties and single. Soon after my arrival there was a spate of sexual assaults against foreign women in Delhi that were widely publicised, including the rape and murder in 2004 of Australian woman Dawn Emilie Griggs. She had just arrived in Delhi and was brutally killed by the taxi driver who had picked her up from the airport. My company discussed the possibility of moving me out of Delhi.
I was assaulted or abused on numerous occasions whilst living in Delhi. One assault was at the hands of a senior official who had significant control and influence over my company’s operations in India. I had no choice but to continue dealing with him – to refuse meant asking to be transferred which would have been detrimental to my career. Another occurred in a lift in the building of a client. I would normally take the stairs which were safer, but on this occasion they were closed for painting. Luckily the doors opened a few floors down and a second man entered who came to my assistance. There are many good men in India who hope that their daughters and sisters could live free of fear and reach their full potential.
Living in Delhi, a scarf was always draped across my front. I rarely wore a skirt. When I walked outside I would place one hand across my chest and one hand near my groin ready to grab any sneaky hand that attempted to touch me. Female expats shared stories at dinner parties of being groped, laughing about it as part of our ‘Delhi’ experience. At least two of my colleagues suffered significant sexual assaults. As a single woman, it was unthinkable that I would bring a man home to stay overnight, lest I attracted the disapproval of my driver or the guards that kept an eye on my house and on whom I relied for protection.
This was my experience – an expat, relatively wealthy and protected. The small glimpses I had into the situation of my female staff were often more shocking. Their lives were controlled by their husband’s family with whom the inevitably lived. They arrived at work flustered and distressed after a bus journey filled with straying hands of male passengers. At least one of my team suffered serious abuse at the hands of her in-laws.
I am glad that, at last, the plight of women in North India is finally being addressed. It saddens me that it has taken the most extreme crime – a young girl viciously beaten with a metal rod, raped multiple times and then thrown from a moving bus – to finally motivate this movement. When I lived in India, I was shocked by the position of women. The epidemic of sexual assault of women in Northern India is not a new phenomenon and the ignorance of this situation has remained a deep frustration for me.
The world is now discovering the same reality that I understood when I lived in Delhi – India is no democracy as long as women continue to be denied their freedom and suffer daily sexual abuse. But I am ashamed that, like many in Delhi, it took this most extreme of crime to motivate me to write about my experiences and join this movement. Let us hope that there will be a political and cultural shift to address attitudes to women in this country. May the ‘Daughter of India’ rest in peace, and may all other women who have suffered so terribly have the chance, at last, to enjoy their share of the freedom that is promised by India’s democracy.