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My shield? My sandal

I grew up in Mumbai, a city that takes pride in being safe for women. Indeed, after seeing eve-teasers being thrashed with sandals in local trains in my formative years, I have never felt insecure or unsafe in Delhi even when travelling home at 2am by public transport.

A friend at the young age of 16 hauled a man who tried to grope her to the nearest policeman and made him publicly apologise. Another berated a lewd gazer in a BEST bus.

Indeed, it was quite common for our generation of girls to shout loudly “Andhe ho kya?” — or its Marathi equivalent, “Dissat nahi kay?” — at men who leaned too close in crowded situations and watch them scamper off shamefacedly.

So while there are offenders in Mumbai as well, one felt empowered enough to deal with them in much the same way as one would with a common thief or pickpocket.

When I moved to Delhi early this year, I came armed with warnings from friends, family and anyone else who was given half a chance — “it will NOT be Bombay”, “don’t go out late at night”, “don’t go out alone”, “don’t travel by bus or Metro”. Basically, don’t go out at all.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Women in Delhi seemed to have a new-found sense of freedom, which they wore as comfortably as their Zara jackets or Fabindia kurtis.

Girls were out at GK1 market in their shortest minis and tank tops, female guards manned the Metro till the last train left, the radio proudly announced a Delhi police helpline for women’s issues. Delhi has evolved, I thought…

So, yes, I have walked on the streets alone at night; I have gone for movies after sunset; I have worn a short skirt and stepped out of the house into public transport here…

But is that all about to change? The unfortunate answer is “yes”. When a 23-year-old contemporary can be brutalised in this most savage and inhuman way, the instant reaction is “this could have been me”. And the realisation hits you that this new-found sense of freedom is, ultimately, only as superfluous as the Zara jackets and Fabindia kurtis.

Underneath lies extreme powerlessness, vulnerability and fear.

Does rape not happen in Mumbai or, indeed, anywhere else in the country? Should one blindly call on all women to settle down in the island city and assume their problems end there?

Of course not. Generalisations, in any sense, are simplistic and do not take into account the many facets of evolving gender roles in Indian society.

However, the present public nausea is because this was not just an act of hideous sexual perversion, it was an extreme act of lawlessness and brute show of strength that comes from being products of a system so corrupt, decayed and ineffectual that perpetrators are seldom brought to justice.

While intellectuals debate the maturity of the protests at Rajpath and argue for vague, systemic changes in Delhi, I will lock the front door more securely at night and pay reluctant heed to the warnings I was given.

Simultaneously, I’ll be travelling armed with my sandal and pepper-spray and hope that self-protection will ultimately be the biggest weapon we can have to combat the demon of sexual violation and abuse.