Delhi is the city I grew up in in the 1980s; the city I never left in the decade-and-a-half that I spent away from it; the city I have returned to live in now that time has come. For all its obvious and terrible flaws, it is a place in which I can find my way without thinking twice, where I feel most at home in spite of enormous odds.
But in Delhi, like most of its 20 million residents, I experience various forms of insecurity. Foremost, as a woman, I must negotiate daily the threats to my physical safety: when alone at home, driving after dark, walking on the street, entering crowded public spaces, getting on the Metro, crossing solitary patches, opening my front door to answer the doorbell. My family must continuously monitor my movements — not to interfere with what I do, but to assure themselves that I am safe. I must account frequently for my whereabouts, if only for my own good. There are things I can simply never do, clothes I can never wear, conversations I can never have. I don’t consciously experience these deprivations and anxieties on a minute-to-minute basis, but when I leave Delhi I am suddenly flooded with a relief that reminds me how circumscribed my everyday life is by the constant danger to my bodily integrity.
A recent blog post on a CNN site by an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, a young woman by the name of Michaela Cross, under the pseudonym “Rose Chasm”, described her psychosis after returning to America from a study abroad programme in India. She claimed that the relentless sexual harassment she experienced as a white woman travelling in India caused a mental breakdown and forced her to withdraw from the university. She attributed her condition to post-traumatic stress. The piece went viral and sparked countless counter-testimonies, from other Indian, foreign, white and black women, as well as apologetic comments from Indian men, an overwhelming majority of whom said they were shame-faced about the sexist, xenophobic, misogynistic and violent behaviour of their male compatriots. Some readers protested that Cross’s account reinforced hackneyed images of the leering and lustful Oriental male.
Cross belongs to the very department and university where I spent eight years getting a PhD. I remembered the ordeal of fieldwork in southern India (much of it as alien to me as a foreign country), and the difficult re-entry into the university after years in the field, which caused, for me as for so many students I have known over the years, men as well as women, an episode of near-total emotional collapse and mental incapacity. I tried to figure out how much of this could be attributed to ‘India’ and to its misogyny and patriarchy, and how much was simply a part of getting a vaunted, but physically and psychologically exacting education, especially in so-called area studies or anthropology, at the University of Chicago. If Cross seemed harsh on India, India too — and her university, with its severe intellectual demands and little in the way of human comfort — had been harsh on her.
A new book by Nida Kirmani, Questioning the ‘Muslim Woman’: Space, Identity and Insecurity in an Urban Locality, raises the question of insecurity in urban life and for minority women in interesting ways. Kirmani is an American, with a British PhD, Muslim parents of Indian origin, and currently, a teaching position in Lahore, Pakistan. Her book is based on extensive interviews conducted in the Muslim mohalla of Zakir Nagar, abutting the campus of Jamia Millia Islamia University in the south-western part of Delhi. She found that the fact of being ‘Muslim’ was just one of many factors affecting and shaping the identity of the women who lived in Zakir Nagar and negotiated homes, families, careers and lives in the city. Their being ‘Muslim women’ had to be correlated to their class status and economic standing, their levels of education, and their regional origins (since people migrate to Delhi from different parts of India), as well as more idiosyncratic factors that make up an individual’s biography.
This complexity of human experience is as it should be; what surprises the young ethnographer is that the very idea of the ‘Muslim woman’ — one of the most robust of contemporary stereotypes — breaks down in the face of empirical analysis. For our purposes, one finding is particularly significant: many of Kirmani's informants are willing to accept the discomforts, inconveniences and tight constraints of living in an all-Muslim locality thanks to the perceived safety, especially for women, of being among one’s own kind. The flip side of the claustrophobia of communal living is the security of knowing that one’s neighbours have one’s back. Not that harassment, domestic abuse and rape are miraculously absent from any community or neighbourhood, but the type of frightening otherness that the traveller Cross describes, compounding her experience of outright sexual violence — this is curtailed in a relatively homogeneous place like Zakir Nagar.
Supposedly most residents of this locality share codes of honour, shame, respect, kindness, familiarity, loyalty, kinship and other cultural mores that bind people into largely protective and nurturing collectivities. Feminists are right to question such mores that limit individual choice and liberty. But at a practical level, for most women without many options, values like these act as checks — howsoever tenuous — on the ever-present possibility of blind violence.
If I cannot travel alone after dark, this undermines my freedom, aspirations and capabilities. But it’s also how I circumvent the risk of courting physical danger and perhaps lengthen, just one day at a time, my unharmed survival as a woman living in Delhi. For women in Delhi who are Muslim, life among fellow-Muslims in Zakir Nagar, for better or for worse, constitutes a relatively safe haven, the theatre of their urban experience.
The second finding in Kirmani’s book that I could best relate to was the feeling of insecurity experienced by minorities in Delhi. My first intimations of such insecurity came from the stories my maternal grandparents told of leaving Lahore and its environs for Delhi and Indian Punjab during Partition. But their mythical accounts became a burning reality in November 1984, when Sikhs like the ones who made up half my family were massacred in the thousands in our city. I was a child, yet that dark time changed and marked me forever. Twenty years later when I met the man I am now married to — a Muslim from south Kashmir — once again I was reminded of Delhi’s relentless propensity to segregate and marginalize minorities.
This summer I came across a wealthy, educated, and expatriate Hindu landlord, a senior manager at an international bank in Singapore, an IIT and IIM graduate, who was not willing to rent his house in a so-called ‘nice’ and ‘secular’ neighbourhood in central Delhi to me and my husband, because he was uncomfortable renting to Muslims. My husband shrugged: it’s what he has always known about Delhi; I was appalled: it’s what I don’t want to believe of my city, the world’s second-largest urban agglomeration and surely one of the most diverse places on earth.
Kirmani’s informants routinely cited to her four episodes of communal violence that in their understanding gave rise to a locality like Zakir Nagar: Partition 1947, the Sikh pogrom 1984, Babri Masjid 1992, and Gujarat 2002. (Note how only one, 1984, is proper to Delhi per se). We may call these “Partition’s post-memories” because most Muslims living in Zakir Nagar today did not in fact personally live through any of these events. Nevertheless a memory of them, after the fact, and through the experience of others, deeply affects the community’s desire to close in on itself and keep out a hostile world, comprising mostly a Hindu majority that is perceived as politically empowered and, in the worst case, aggressively militant in its stance towards all minorities, whether Muslim, Sikh or other.
But self-selection is only half the story. The other half is housing discrimination in many parts of Delhi, especially those built and settled by Punjabi Hindu refugees following Partition. My husband and I, as a mixed couple a statistical zero and demographic outliers by any reckoning, live in what is perhaps the only neighbourhood left in Delhi proper that has a mixed character in terms of both class and community. Most of our middle-class Muslim friends live around Jamia, in Sukhdev Vihar and parts of Okhla, or in Old Delhi, or abutting JNU. This is not because they want to live among other Muslims or Muslims only, but because they cannot find accommodation to rent or buy elsewhere.
Kirmani analyses the general “insecurity” that results in what looks sometimes like an “enclave” (where people choose to go) and other times like a “ghetto” (where people are forced to go), into gendered, class-based, and migration-based insecurity, as well as that triggered by housing segregation. Further, she correlates these distinct vectors with historical post-memories of the four “critical events” (1947, 1984, 1992, and 2002) that radically colour the self-perception of the Muslim minority. People like Kirmani, with complicated and layered identities, and scholarship like hers, the product of numerous border-crossings, help make life in Delhi, often so challenging as to be almost impossible, yet viable, livable and decipherable. Her next book, about mohajirs in Karachi, promises more insights into difficult democracies like India and Pakistan that give to their people both the gift of citizenship and the curse of insecurity.