If You Want to Know How Safe India Is, Ask Women These Questions

Dear Indian men, instead of defending India, please ask real, everyday women if they feel safe or not.

7 min read

Once we stop bristling at a perception survey, let’s try to hear what women are saying about safety.

In March 2014, two months before the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – led by its indefatigable foot soldier Narendra Modi – came to power, a party campaign on Twitter made women’s safety a core election issue. The poster, with Modi’s picture on it, bluntly stated that women have repeatedly come under attack, and the time is ripe to vote-in a government that would fix the problem. No prizes for guessing whose government that would be.

Four years down the road, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey, based on the feedback of 548 experts, has found that India is the world’s most dangerous country for women, followed by Somalia and Saudi Arabia.

Understandably, the government is bristling. The response has been swift and brutal—outright dismissal and denial – and of course, questions about the intent and methodology of the poll.


Setback in BJP’s Image

Two things have been intriguing to watch since the survey was published. It predictably triggered the defenders of national pride, so much so that they descended as a flock on the timelines of women, determined to drown any voices raised in favour the survey. Thus, establishing the awful irony that’s almost become a part of our social life.

Secondly, it exposed the double-standards of our elected representatives who used the same survey in 2011 to flog the government of the time, when India ranked fourth in a list of most dangerous place for women to live in, while calling it flawed and malicious in 2018.

At that time, Modi tweeted: “India is considered 4th most dangerous for women. When will she feel safe & symbol of positivity? (sic)”

And a couple of days and several high-decibel television panel debates later, it no longer matters whether a 548-member survey is truly representative of half a billion people. It has embarrassed India and the BJP government (and these days many seem to think the two are synonymous) – and retribution must be swift.

Those outraged – both men and women – and some obviously ideologically aligned with the government – were quick to establish that an “expert view” that places India below Saudi Arabia – for key indices that measure violence against women – lacks credibility.

Thomson Reuters Foundation made it clear that this is a “perception survey”.

Here’s How ‘Perception’ Works

Now here’s the thing about perception. To Indians, being placed below Saudi Arabia in gender violence is an abomination because Saudi Arabia is globally perceived as a nation that puts severe restrictions on women. It’s immaterial to the rest of the world that Saudi women are the driving force behind sluggish but certain changes in representation in the past few years.

And the collective fight against an oppressive regime cannot be easy in a country where male guardianship prevents women from leading full lives.

The Saudi Vision 2030 document aims to increase women’s participation in the workforce from 22 percent to 30 percent by 2030. Whatever policy changes happen, the women are bringing the change, while fighting a perception battle that perhaps isn’t dissimilar to India when it comes to how the West sees us, albeit the scale and scope are markedly different.

There’s data on both sides to support arguments. While Thomson Reuters cites data to show that the reported cases rose by 83 percent between 2007 and 2016 — four cases of rape reported every hour — the Ministry of Women argues that larger numbers of rapes indicate a police procedural environment favourable towards the reporting of crimes against women.

The government said there was an “effort to malign the nation”, which is essentially a tool to silence any adverse voices about a country, riding a wave of ultra-nationalism.

It’s always downhill from when “maligning” a nation’s image assumes greater importance than introspecting why a group of anonymous opinion-makers found India even worse than Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia in six key areas that define a woman’s wellness – namely healthcare, discrimination, cultural traditions, sexual violence, non-sexual violence and human trafficking.


A Whole Lot of Mansplaining

There’s a lot to be said about the poll’s methodology and whether 548 experts represent India’s population. There’s also the problem of anonymity of the stakeholders and lack of clarity about the distribution in gender, location, and economic parity.

Apart from politicisation of the poll, reactions of men have been the real eye-opener. They’ve criticised a perception poll with some perceptions of their own.

“Surveys like this are grossly hurtful, far too casual and slippery in their conclusions,” wrote Bikram Vohra in FirstPost. He added, “Despite our aberrations and horror stories that hit us in the solar plexus now and then, it is a safe bet that 95 percent of Indian men respect their women, take care of their families and are good providers (as much as possible). For every issue over dowry and violence there are a thousand husbands who get up in the morning and go to work to ensure there is food on the table for their wives and daughters,” he wrote.

Well, if men are going to make assumptions about the support women get at home, here are some hard statistics: Indian men spend the least amount of time doing unpaid work, that is household work. Domestic rape is not considered a criminal offence and women have one of the lowest workforce participation numbers in South Asia, according to the Economic Survey 2017-18.


Defending Ourselves is Not the Answer

“Something very odd has been going on in the Western media’s perception and portrayal of rape in India, something that is matched only by their own positively skewed image of themselves. The 550 experts seem to have been hiding under a rock, reading only the papers that give wall-to-wall coverage of rape in India while quietly ignoring the epidemic in their own backyard,” wrote Amrit Dhillon in the Times of India.

No one is denying the markers that define progress for women in India—namely, nutritional health, gender ratio, and access to education among others. But putting the ball back in the court of the West is denial at best.

“Forget us, see what’s happening in your country” is a knee-jerk, defensive response when the West points a finger at our flaws. It takes away the genuine scope for conversation to understand why the perception about India is the way it is. Answering the prejudice of Western nations that ignore similar problems in its backyard, with more prejudice, will neither address the issue of women’s safety nor establish our seriousness as an investment-friendly destination.

Whenever the critical lens is turned towards atrocities committed against women, religious and caste minorities, it is the majority—Hindus and commonly upper-caste Hindu men—who take it on themselves to vehemently deny the accusations. Add hyper-nationalism to the mix, and you have a toxic brew of caste denial, privilege and misogyny that seek to silence any voice raised in protest, as unpatriotic. The same played out in the responses to the survey.

“Modi bhakts outraged at me for posting the Thomson Reuters Foundation report that lists India as the most dangerous nation for women, basically proving the point of the report,” wrote columnist Prerna Bakshi, with screenshots of the vilest abuse by men angry at her for sharing the report.

Add to this, the madness of the anecdotal fallacy and generalisations used to counter conversations on gender rights.

Everyday Women’s Reality

Women tweeting that they’ve travelled across India alone or with family and never faced any untoward incident is the equivalent of logical fallacy for two reasons. The report does not only count sexual assault as an indicator, it has other markers of violence such as trafficking, female foeticide and slavery. The individual instances do not dismiss the collective lived experiences.

While it’s undeniable that the Western media’s understanding of India is largely through a lens of poverty and less through its chaotic and magnificent contradictions and cultural complexities, our own response to being singled out has been shockingly defensive.

To tell women “crimes happen in all countries” and “if you feel unsafe in India, go to Saudi Arabia” establishes the perceptions that were behind the Thomson Reuters survey.

Here’s a small exercise in perception. Ask yourself and the women around you, especially those who do not have access to technology, these questions.

Are you afraid to step out at 10 PM?

Do you have an independent source of income?

Do you have sole access to that income?

Do you feel the physical and emotional labour you put in everyday at home is equal to that of a man’s?

  • Do you vote independently with no influence from male family members?
  • Do you have enough representation in society?
  • Do you have an independent voice at home?
  • Do you fear persecution by law enforcement agencies?
  • Do you feel your opinion is dismissed because of your gender?
  • Are you paid as much as a man?
  • Do you have access to a toilet?
  • Do you get enough to eat?
  • Can you read and write?

The answer to these questions will paint a fair picture – irrespective of data – of the Indian reality that drives hundreds and thousands of women out of the workforce – out of platforms that will enable them to connect to better lives. The day we can have a civil conversation with women about what stops them from leading full lives without patronising them or resorting to words such as “unpatriotic”, “anti-national” and “image of India”, we’d have won half the battle. Women are willing to talk, if men are willing to listen.

(The author is consulting editor, Reader's Digest & India Today magazine, and former deputy editor, HuffPost India. She tweets @MasalaBai. Views expressed are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same)

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