When Jyoti Singh was brutally gang raped on a bus in South Delhi, the world reeled in shock. Almost overnight, India's capital city became a byword for rape.
That was December 2012. Today, violence towards women on public transport is in the news again, but this time it's Uber making the headlines and the city is London.
But what about Delhi—has the so-called rape capital of the world's fastest-growing economy gotten any safer? To get an idea, I thought I'd ask the actual women living and travelling through the city. As the temperature climbs to 114 degrees, that means forgoing the usual rickshaws (in summertime, essentially fan-assisted ovens) and car pooling with services like Uber.
I meet 27-year-old Megha Mishra on Monday evening while pooling a cab up to Connaught Place—the commercial hub of New Delhi and also home to the beloved cooperative shop, Khadi Gramodyog Bhavan. Mishra works in the development sector and is off to a late meeting. I'm looking to buy soap.
"I don't think calling Delhi the rape capital is a justified title," she says as soon as I ask her my question. "I'm pretty outgoing. I don't think there's a day when I come home before 10 PM. I don't have a car so I always travel by public transport. I've taken rickshaws at 1 AM and dozed off, I've always come home safe."
I ask her if she's ever experienced anything dangerous. "I was molested on a bus once," she tells me, her voice lowering slightly. "I was coming back from college at around seven o'clock at night and a drunk man, 40 or 50 years old, sat next to me, put his hand on my thigh, and started rubbing it. I was 18 and trembling down to my toes. I lifted up his arm and told him, 'Keep it to yourself.'"
It didn't end there, unfortunately. Mishra's assailant followed her off the bus to another bus stop, and it was only after she told a stranger what happened that he went away. Despite this incident, she is adamant the city is safe. "When I think of how many years I've lived here, and that I'm out every evening, I think this incident is miniscule."
With her smart crystal earrings and prestigious job in communications, 29-year-old Shruti Arora is every inch the young, modern Delhi-ite. Our lives collide on Tuesday morning as we make our daily commute; she picks me up on her way to Saket, an upmarket district in South Delhi where she works.
"I think it's very hard to accept, but post 10 to 10.30 at night I don't feel safe," she tells me without hesitating. "But there was once a time when I did—because I grew up here. When I was in college six or seven years back, I could be driving on my own at 11.30 PM, or getting home alone, and it would be OK. But there's no denying that things have drastically changed."
I ask her why. "I'm sorry to be quoting that, but there are a lot of people coming from nearby states like Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, a lot of people coming for work. They have more conservative values, and in their cities sex is a taboo. For them, having a woman dressed in short clothes is a thrill."
Despite Arora's trepidation, she's never experienced anything dangerous herself, and considers other major cities like Mumbai and Bengaluru much safer. "It's a pleasure to stay in Bombay [Mumbai], even at 4 AM you can move around so freely."
Like me, Laura Quinn is a 30-something British woman living in South Delhi. Unlike me, she's been here for seven years (I'm on my seventh month), speaks some Hindi (I'm working on it) and runs her own consultancy, Do One Thing.
Nestled in the back seat of a dusty Maruti Suzuki—the car of choice here—I ask her about safety as we share a cab home from Shahpur Jat, a colorful urban village in Delhi's medieval Siri Fort district.
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"I'd say there are a lot of challenges of living in Delhi, but being a woman is definitely not top of my list! Yes, you do get stared at, and it can be uncomfortable sometimes, even intimidating occasionally, but I wouldn't say that it feels more dangerous than parts of New York and London. The same rules apply around safety."
But Quinn also describes herself as one of the "lucky ones"—she owns a car, takes cabs, and doesn't walk alone at night. "I wouldn't undermine how dangerous it is for the vast majority of women who do have to take buses, are out at night, and are even vulnerable in their own homes," she says. "But there have been enough incidents where I've been vulnerable and people have helped me out. There are such kind people in Delhi."
It's another sweltering Wednesday when I climb into Ruhi Batra's cab heading towards Mehrauli; an ancient sprawling district that's home to a 200-acre park and the 12th century Qutub Minar—the tallest brick minaret in the world.
As we sit in the pink glow of the evening rush hour basking in the AC, above the din of a million car horns, I ask the 34-year-old PR executive about life in the city.
"It's always at the back of your mind if you're walking down a back street at night. You're always looking over your shoulder and always alert—you're maybe a bit paranoid at times," she says.
"But it hasn't really impacted my lifestyle in any way. Except, perhaps, if I'm drinking quite a bit and having a late night out, I won't take a cab. Not because it's an invitation to the driver, but because I need to give him directions."
Batra also avoids buses, at all costs. "I wouldn't take a bus if my life depended on it. When I was younger and travelling to college on the bus every day, I'd be constantly dealing with wayward hands and groping. But now I take cabs so I don't let [fear] consume me. It's a conscious decision not to look at every man like he's going to rape me."
As Batra gets out the cab to go enjoy her evening, I spot a crowded bus in the lane next to me. I won't be taking the bus anytime soon, I decide, nor will I be walking home alone at 1 AM like I once did in Paris and London. But I do feel more secure somehow, and more confident. Like Laura Quinn said, the same rules apply here.