Mae West’s famous question to a policeman about the gun in his pocket could not have been put to a woman. A man with a gun is part of a very different scenario, in the real world and in fantasy, from a woman with the same weapon. Perhaps one-upmanship is sexier than self-defence — the former rooted in the heroics of aggression in one way or another, while the latter is grounded in everyday vulnerability. Or so the world wishes to think. The patterns that emerge from gun-licences issued in Delhi seem to indicate similar assumptions among the police. Although there is a rise in the number of women applying for licences in the city to protect themselves, there were still only about 12 women who managed to get a licence out of the thousand or so successful applicants in 2011. And this is only among those who have gone about it in a lawful way in a country where 40 million firearms are owned by civilians, according to the most recent estimate.
Most of the female applicants in Delhi are working women who feel that red chilli powder, pepper sprays and rape alarms are not enough protection from the possibilities of violence, sexual and otherwise, in the city’s public spaces. So, the need to feel safe without compromising independence and mobility, together with a profound mistrust of the city’s law-keepers and their attitude to female ‘modesty’, prompts this turning to guns in the women. This is an entirely different impulse from casually shooting down barking street dogs in order to sleep better. As a piece of local legend, such an exploit is the least violent instance of gun-toting bravado among the criminal gangs of Raiganj in Bengal, their counterparts in Bihar or Uttar Pradesh duly immortalized in iconic films. Yet, the impunity with which some female applicants talk about shooting snatchers and pickpockets in shopping malls indicates rather alarming shifts in unthinking notions of justice among ordinary, ‘peace-loving’ city-dwellers. The trigger-happy gangs of Raiganj and the Delhi MP with a revolver in her handbag were on facing pages in yesterday’s Telegraph. There is nothing glamorously Tarantino-esque about women taking to guns in Delhi. Ultimately, the sexiness of the gun-wielding woman is the obverse of the culpable provocativeness of the woman in a short skirt out in the big bad city. Both images are products of a violent gaze that finds helplessness dangerously exciting.