Indian Women in the Big City
How has the rapid development and globalization of Delhi created new hazards for Indian women?
March 4, 2012
Women do not have it easy in Delhi, whether they are local or from other parts of India. The recent globalization of the city has created new opportunities for some women, especially those working as waitresses and sales assistants. But it has also created new hazards.
It was into this contradictory realm that women from the northeast arrived in their search for work, and the media was full of stories of them being assaulted, molested and killed, of mobs encircling the rooms they rented and beating women up while the police looked on. For its part, the Delhi Police issued a safety manual for people from the northeast living in the city whose guidelines included:
— Bamboo shoot . . . and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighborhood.
— Be Roman in “rooms” . . . revealing dresses should be avoided.
— Avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily.
One afternoon, I met up with Lansinglu Rongmei, a lawyer who started the Northeast Support Centre in 2007 to help people facing violence and discrimination. Lansi was stocky and energetic, her lawyerly cautiousness alternating with a sense of regional pride that made her talk about the cases she took up of people who had been bullied or violated.
She was from a small town in Nagaland, but had gone to high school and college in Calcutta. She had moved to Delhi to study law and now practiced in the Supreme Court. But after 15 years in the city, she still didn’t feel fully at home.
“In Delhi,” she said, “they size you down and they size you up. What kind of a gadget do you have? What kind of a dress are you wearing? What kind of a car do you have? When I was a law student in Delhi University, I had friends from southern India, and from Bihar. I felt that Biharis, whom they call ‘Haris,’ are sometimes targeted no less here than people from the northeast.”
I asked her what it was like to be a lawyer in such a place.
She thought about it and said, “The racism is very subtle sometimes, but it’s there. Still, the Supreme Court is a pretty cosmopolitan place. When I am presenting a case there or at the High Court, I can wear shirts and trousers, and they won’t judge me for it. But if I’m at a district court, I have to wear a sari or a salwar kameez or they’ll be prejudiced against me.”
Lansi began talking about the kind of cases she dealt with. She told me about two women working for a Pizza Hut outlet who had not been paid their salaries for three months and who, after repeated complaints, were informed that their dues would be released in installments. There was a woman locked inside her apartment by the landlord, and another woman taking Hindi lessons from a man who insisted that she make him her boyfriend — a euphemism for wanting sex — in order to improve her Hindi.
The harassment moved easily along the bottom half of the class ladder, targeting semi-literate women who worked as maidservants as well as the more educated ones with jobs at restaurants.
It was possible to see a pattern in Lansi’s stories, of the clash between women from the country’s northeast and local men, two disparate groups thrown together by the modernity of the new India. It was the sudden explosion of malls and restaurants that had created jobs like the ones at Pizza Hut where men and women worked together. It had drawn thousands of women from the northeast, prized for their English and their lighter skin. It had also stoked the confused desires of men from deeply patriarchal cultures.
From the names of the Delhi neighborhoods that Lansi mentioned — the areas where women had been harassed, assaulted, raped and even murdered by landlords, colleagues and neighbors — it was possible to tell how they had been villagers not too long ago and had been haphazardly absorbed into the urban sprawl of Delhi.
These were neighborhoods where the local women went around wearing veils while the men eyed the outsiders, lusting after them and yet resenting them, considering themselves to be from a superior culture yet also feeling that they were less equipped to take advantage of the service economy of globalized cities like Delhi.
But just as not all men in such neighborhoods were violent towards women, there were also men who were seemingly more modern, more capable of benefiting from the new economy and who still turned out to be predators.
The case that bothered Lansi the most was that of a young Assamese woman who had worked at a food stand in Gurgaon with her boyfriend. It was a stand selling the Tibetan dumplings called “momos,” ubiquitous in all Indian cities these days. One of the customers at the momo stand, a middle-aged executive working for a multinational, offered the woman a job cleaning his apartment.
“The girl had come straight from a village,” Lansi said. “She was so naive. And I think the boyfriend encouraged her to take the job. She went to clean the apartment and the man locked her up and raped her. He kept her there for days, raping her while going to work every morning as usual.”
Eventually, the woman managed to escape and approached Lansi. Because this had happened in Gurgaon, a satellite city north of Delhi, Lansi had to fight the case at the High Court there, something that worried her.
The Gurgaon High Court was not as cosmopolitan as the Delhi High Court, Lansi felt. She thought it was more patriarchal, more prejudiced against women from other parts of the country. In the end, it didn’t matter because the woman refused to testify in court and the charges were dropped.
Lansi assumed that something had gone wrong between the filling of the case and the trial. She thought that the executive had very possibly paid money to the woman’s boyfriend and used him to put pressure on the victim. But this was a guess, something Lansi had been unable to verify. When she went to talk to the woman again, she found the momo stand locked up. The couple had apparently left Gurgaon and gone back to Assam.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India by Siddhartha Deb (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Published with permission of the author. Copyright © 2011 by Siddharth Deb.
Harassment moved easily along the bottom half of the class ladder, targeting semi-literate women who worked as maids as well as more educated ones.
There were men who were seemingly more modern, more capable of benefiting from the new economy — and who still turned out to be predators.
These were neighborhoods where the local women went around wearing veils while the men eyed the outsiders, lusting after them and yet resenting them
Novelist and professor Siddhartha Deb is a writer and professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He grew up in a small town in the northeastern region of India, a border region near Tibet, China, Burma, and Bangladesh. This turbulent region provides the settings for his novels, The Point of Return and An […]