Single in the city
Safety and security issues are paramount for the growing number of women who are single and working or studying in Indian cities. They might be up against multiple odds and pressures but they are ready to face them with grit
Taru Bahl

Radhika Tomar lived in a rented accommodation in West Delhi. Though she kept a low profile, word got around she was single and alone. One day, walking home late, she was waylaid by a man who stopped his car to seek directions. While explaining, she realised he was making obscene gestures. She ran, stumbling, tripping and crying as she did. Over the next six months, he hounded her, always taking her by surprise and inevitably he was in a state of undress. She could not share her agony with anyone. Terrorised and frightened, she quit studies and returned to Bhopal. That was 20 years ago. Are things any different today?

According to Rashmi Jha, a lecturer in Kolkata, there is greater awareness and women are more confident but crimes against them haven’t abated. Rather, trespasses on their modesty are more incriminating. What has changed is their picking up cudgels to seek justice. Going by news reports, whether it is a BPO employee’s molestation or acid thrown on a girl by a jilted lover, an increasing number of them report incidents and bring culprits to book.

The swelling number of single women moving to cities to study, work and live independently is only growing. But their lives are far from rosy. From owners being wary of renting them accommodation to navigating physical spaces and dealing with vendors, they deal with challenges all the time.

Jyotsna Rai, programme manager with New Concept Information Systems in Delhi left her native town in Sikkim in 2002, making Bangalore, Chennai and, now, Delhi her home, transitioning from college hostel and paying guest to tenant. She notes that while today there is a special cell to assist women from the Northeast,a decade ago, there was rampant discrimination.

India is at the bottom of the safety index in the world 
Mallika Bajaj, chief marketing officer mixilion, delhi

Just get out there and act as someone who will not take nonsense
priyanka Sanwal, student of design, amity university, delhi

My perception of safety is to be free — free to work, live and party
Sapna Poti, head corporate hr, itc infotech, bangalore

Are cities different?

"The sense of security and safety I felt in Mumbai and Pune is different from Delhi. In the former, I walked out any time without feeling threatened, but in Delhi after 7 pm, I feel unsafe without an escort.Being on my own has taught me to be on guard and take charge of myself, my body and my life. My efforts are directed more towards not getting into a spot in the first place, and if I do, deal with it myself. Keeping my room mates informed of my movements, being watchful and carrying a pepper spray are my safeguards. My best weapon against miscreants is also to not look meek, helpless and vulnerable; dress appropriately; and not seek attention from strangers. Having a ferocious-looking German Shepherd at home has helped too.

Twentytwo-year-old Mallika Bajaj, Chief Marketing Officer with Mixilion, Qatar, a company that is into crowdsourcing and marketing solutions, has this to say, "I’m very safe, when I’m away." Raised with just the right mix of protection and freedom, she and her Geneva-based sister, have been out of the house since they were 18. Having lived in India, Melbourne, London and the Middle East, she feels, "Melbourne is the safest, then Middle East, followed by London and when you have put all continents in between, there is India."

Different cities have different cultures. So while a Delhi club or pub may have special "women-only" hours, other cities may want to keep them away. Like Priyanka Sanwal, a student of design at Delhi’s Amity University, found in a lounge in Bangalore, a board with, "Women not allowed to dance on the floor". Either the owner did not like women or this was his way of ensuring their safety.

Labelling and tagging

According to Mallika, "There is an unsafe nip in the air everywhere and threat perceptions are more from the educated elite. They are the ones quickest to label women, "if you have a phoren look, you must be loose. If you dress in shorts, skirts or tank tops, it is legitimate to be teased and if you resist, it is okay to be roughed up, since you have anyway asked for it!."

Priyanka came to Delhi when she was 18, living as a paying guest close to the campus. Initially, her gut instinct helped her to impose restrictions, such as no drinking, late nights and venturing out without male company after 8 pm but she still never felt 100 per cent safe, moreso since people were always trying to gauge her personal status, asking probing questions.

Trusting the law

On her way to the metro in an auto recently at a traffic crossing, a cop in uniform asked Priyanka if he could hop in and get off at the next signal. He asked if he could make a quick call from her mobile. Little did she realise he would call himself from the number, save it and then harass her for the next six months. It was only when she lodged a police complaint that the lewd calls stopped.

According to Sheena Dilima, who is working with a magazine and staying in an apartment shared by seven paying guests, "In Mumbai, even if an all-women group is dancing in a pub, they will not be harassed. A man may come and ask one for a dance, offer to buy a drink or invite you to his table, but will leave on getting a cold shoulder. This is not true of folks from elsewhere. She recounts an incident where a rowdy group from Delhi were on an adjacent table. Their constant remarks were so offputting that the girls had to seek the help of bouncers to get them off their back. A coping strategy which she and her friends developed is to ensure when partying, one of them stay sober. This helps because then all decisions are sane and there is a balance in what is decided, said and done. This has saved them from many sticky situations.

"Most single women I know have had some interface with cops and will not pin hopes on them to bail them out when in trouble." She recounts how when registering a complaint for loss of her mobile phone, she was asked insulting questions, kept waiting for four hours and made to feel as if she was a criminal!"

Having a man around

For Radhika Bakshi, whose husband is in the merchant navy, skype is her best ally. Every time the plumber, courier fellow or chowkidaar comes to her flat in Mumbai, she gets her husband on call and tells him to keep talking, so there is a male voice from the bedroom, while the fellow does his job and leaves.

Priyanka encourages her brother and father to make frequent trips to allow folks to keep guessing as to who stays in the flat. Kavita Daftary, team leader of a leading BPO in Gurgaon, has not disclosed her marital status (separated). "Apart from hitting on me, I would be expected to work late hours and carry work home." She allows colleagues and bosses to presume she is married.

According to Sapna Poti, Head Corporate HR, ITC Infotech, Bangalore, "From what I have seen, a woman is unsafe, irrespective of whether she is married or not." She has seen girls being harassed even when their boy friends and husbands are with them. "To me, it is important to have confidence in the civic administration and law makers. Only then can I feel safe. My perception of safety is to be free – free to work, live and party," and why should that be so difficult, she asks.

Support system

"You cannot play helpless. Just get out there and act as someone who will not take nonsense" says Priyanka. Jyotsna sums up with wise words: "When you take the decision of being by yourself, the timidest of us learns to manage. We just have to get better at that, without waiting for city infrastructures to support us. A girls’ best bet are her own common sense, coping strategies and support system, especially in cities like Delhi, where bystanders thrive, watching hapless women being harassed without batting an eyelid."

A Single Woman’s Safety Tool Kit

Be more fearless about speaking your mind, be it in the police station, public place or within homes and offices
Use digital and social media to share evidence, vent and mobilise opinion/support
Learn to act tough and demand justice
Use your own resources, tools, aids and systems to make yourself safe.
Avoid public transport at night, and shun shady lanes, ill-reputed restaurants and dark stairwells
Do not be over-friendly with people you have only just met
Carry an emergency number at all times for a person who you can call anytime for immediate help

Efforts to make cities gender sensitive

A Delhi-based women’s training, documentation, communication and resource centre, Jagori, has done pioneering work in raising the bar on creating safe spaces for women. Jagori’s initiatives include:

Safety Audits in commercial, residential and educational areas in Delhi to identify issues and concerns, which make a space safe/unsafe for single women and girls.
Safer Cities Free from Violence against Women and Girls Initiative in partnership with Department of Women and Child Development, Govt of Delhi an UN Women to create cities where girls/women are safe and able to access their rights.
Gender-inclusive Cities Programme initiated by UN Trust Fund in support of actions to eliminate violence against women to create cities that are inclusive and respect the right of all people, including women, to live, work and move around without fear or difficulty.