Empowered and aware, yet very afraid! Vinita A Shetty is an independent journalist / documentary producer As a woman journalist working in India, I know the law, I value the fact that I am entitled to justice and I’m aware that the right to safety is a constitutional guarantee. But I’ve learnt that despite being fairly bold, educated and informed, I quite often will still be seen as a piece of flesh, a powerless entity to be targeted at will and to be intimidated in an endless power game. My country is not doing enough to protect me. Nor is it making its laws stringent enough so wrongdoers dread the justice system and punishment. And that is making me afraid, very afraid. It’s not just the nature of my work that makes me anxious these days - it’s the fear of not knowing what a casual walk in the park, a deliveryman ringing my doorbell, a shoot in a remote location, driving on a lonely road or a quick trip to the grocery store after dark, can lead to. I’ve never been this terrified and it’s not making me feel good. I was a fearless crime reporter early in my career - safe in the knowledge that I was a journalist, I would be protected by the law and that the city/country that I lived in was safe enough for me. But things have changed over the years. Despite getting older, gaining more experience at work and being aware of my rights as a woman, I am now more fearful. Every instance of harassment and intimidation I face or hear about is only adding to that panic. So, what’s really making me so petrified? It’s not so much the incidents anymore. It’s my helplessness and hopelessness at the injustice of it all. It’s the wrongdoers’ blatant ignorance and disregard of the law, the boldness to commit such acts and the audacity to defy us women to file complaints with the police, go to the press or even get them arrested. They fear nothing, no one. True, often it is lack of education, the unequal status of women in a society like ours and poor implementation of laws that give perpetrators of crime a free run in my country. But if there is no respect for the law of the land or fear of punishment, then there is no end to this savagery for me, or for any woman in India. There have been several times in my adult life that I have been harassed and intimidated for no reason whatsoever. More often than not, I have stood up for myself and given right back. On the outside I come across as confident, brave and even plucky. But only I know the panic that sets in these days the minute something is not quite right. It hasn’t happened overnight! Not so long ago, a film project took me out of Bangalore. I was travelling alone. The taxi driver kept adjusting his rear-view mirror, passing disparaging remarks about modern working women and making inappropriate queries about my family life. I’m always polite but firm when it comes to dealing with cab drivers so I told him that I would not discuss my personal life. He was in his early to mid-20s, semi-literate and from out of the city. Soon, things got more uncomfortable - I found him driving on deserted roads with the excuse of reaching sooner, singing suggestive songs and even turning around while driving to look me up and down several times. He would drive rashly and suddenly apply brakes so that I fell forward. He asked if I had a boyfriend. I curtly told him that I was married (the truth) and that my husband was in law-enforcement (a necessary lie). I made him get back on the main road, stopped the car near a bus stop and told him that I wanted to speak to his supervisor. He refused to pass on his employer’s number and only when I threatened to call the cab company, he complied. The supervisor offered to send me another driver and apologized on his behalf, he asked me what happened with this driver and I told him in detail. As I was speaking to his boss, the cab driver approached me aggressively and told me to stop the call. I refused and told him that I would call the police; he sneered and dared me to file a complaint. He even made a few attempts to grab my phone and when some onlookers from the bus stop intervened, he became abusive and threatened to make me pay. The barrage of abuses went on for a while. I was just being friendly, he said, you are cheap. If you are married, why aren’t you wearing a mangalsutra (a sacred necklace that married Indian women wear). Why are you travelling alone? Come, lets to the police station! Now I know where you live. So what if you are a journalist, go ahead, print my photo. You modern women have loose morals… I waited an hour for a replacement cab and thought that it was all over. The cab company later informed me that he was sacked. A few days later, the calls started. Night after night calls came from strange numbers. I was told that I would be made to suffer as I had made their friend lose his job. Abuses, threats, jibes and taunts. Cab drivers are given a pick-up address and phone numbers of customers – he took mine and shared it with dozens of his taxi driver friends. One of them told me that as punishment, my number was written on the wall of a public building. When I threatened to file police complaints, the voices at the other end of the phone dared me to. Do what you want, nothing can happen to us, I was told. I sought help from the police. I ensured they knew that I was from the media and that I was aware of my rights. I was unable to file a police complaint as the driver had changed his phone number and the address he had given to the cab company was fake. I made numerous calls to the police begging for assistance. I sent e-mails, filed online grievances, made reminder phone calls and even sent couriers to their office to ensure they got my letters. I was assured that they would look into the matter. Disgust turned to anger and then outrage. I decided to record each call, save the phone numbers and send a detailed list of all numbers to the police once again. It took them a while to follow things up, but gradually the calls stopped. The police told me that they were not able to find the cabbie, but had warned his friends that action would be taken against them if the harassment continued. I’m thankful to the police, greatly so. But in retrospect I wonder what would have happened if I was just a common citizen and not from the media. I still shudder at the thought. As an Indian woman I know that from time to time I will find myself in seemingly safe settings which can turn dangerous in a split second. The fear of abuse or bodily harm is real, its crippling and there's not much I can do about it when I'm in that situation. Regular reports of brutal rapes, acid attacks and violence against women across India are just feeding that fear. What’s horrifying is that cities which were once considered safe are now reporting cases with frightening regularity. Just yesterday, a young photojournalist was gang-raped by five men in front of her colleague when she and the colleague went to shoot a dilapidated building in a part of south Mumbai called Lower Parel. In the aftermath of the Delhi Gang rape in December 2012, numerous rapes have occurred. Each has been more vicious than the previous one. If anything, I now know that ‘’Safe Mumbai’’ has now been added to my long list of unsafe Indian cities. You are in the media, you can change things – you are empowered and aware, I’m often told. Honestly, I’m not so sure anymore….
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