On December 26th, TC, a friend who is new to Bangalore, asked me if it was safe for her to travel from the airport to the city alone in a rental cab at 11:30 PM. Without even pondering the question for more than 30 seconds, I told her emphatically— “Bangalore is a safe city; you should have no problem”. And in the same breath, I added — “Keep the cab window open, and pretend like you’re talking to someone over the phone for the entire duration of the ride, just to be on the safe side”.. And that was that.

So imagine my utter shock, when I awoke on Jan 2nd to find “breaking news” about mass molestations in the city splashed across all media. The report was shocking — multiple incidents in one of the busiest parts of town in spite of hundreds of policemen present, completely blasphemous reactions from the Home Minister, cringeworthy video recordings.. Of course, all of social media was buzzing with trending hashtags, and comparisons to Nirbhaya — had Bangalore become another Delhi?! What are the men of the country doing? How are the parents today raising their kids? Are women asking for it — in a skirt? in a saree?

As Indians, we’ve read these articles before — and if I may dare say, we’ve grown a little too accustomed to the same reactions over and over again. It angered me more because this was a city I had lived in for over two years. This was supposed to be a safe city! And then, I remembered the conversation with TC just a week ago and my instinctive reaction… Had we really become this conditioned to the situation, that coping mechanisms like an open window and a pretend conversation on the phone, were almost normal? Something we didn’t even question anymore?

Three months ago, I was at the Good Society Readings retreat as a part of Acumen’s Global Fellows program, where Jacqueline initiated a discussion on the challenging aspects of being a woman. She looked at me and asked — “and as a woman in India, how does that make you feel?” I had no specific answer — as an industrial engineer, I was used to being one among very few women in a room. So, what I felt about something “as a woman”, had really become a muted part of my thought process…

Now don’t get me wrong — I have been among the lucky few, to have experienced nothing but respect in almost all the years I have stayed in India. There have been stray incidents, but I have very rarely feared for my safety. And I am grateful for that. But I am also increasingly aware of situations where I am on red alert. Even today, if I am walking alone in the dark, on a street with no lights, I instinctively call a family member or pretend like I am on the phone. And this is where I sense a problem. When the status quo becomes such an ingrained part of your psyche, that you stop questioning it anymore — that is when change is the hardest! If I really pay attention, I see it manifest in the smallest of things around me.

When I first decided to join the Global Fellows program, which entailed that I stay away from my family for a year, one of the first questions I’d get asked by well-meaning relatives and friends was — “how is V (my husband) okay with this?”. We’d laugh it off then, but internally wonder — was he supposed to allow me to do this? Of course, the reverse wasn’t true when V decided to take a year’s break to work on his start-up! In fact, we took extra efforts to never mention it publicly, because…oh the horrors of a man not providing for his family..!

One incident that has remained etched in my memory is my father-in-law’s reaction when I told him I had joined FreshMenu in 2014. His description of the startup in front of relatives used to be — “two women have started a little kitchen together, and are cooking food and delivering it to 20 people nearby”. Two years later, that “little kitchen” had scaled to 3 cities and 6000 orders, and my FIL nearly cried when I told him I had quit the company. It was an odd moment of glory and pride for me! Now, I don’t hold a grudge against him — he is a product of his generation and upbringing, and it would be wrong to hold that against him. But at the same time, it is these small ways in which we enforce and internalize the idea of women being less capable, less strong, less ambitious, less anything than men, even in the most educated and modern parts of India.

The safety of women in India is a real concern, I don’t mean to trivialize the issue here. There are severe steps the Government needs to take to drive positive action. There need to be quicker and more serious ramifications for anyone daring to commit such a heinous crime. But fear of the law aside, real sustainable long-term change can only come if the cultural intricacies that propagate this behavior are also challenged. Conversations need to change - at home, at the workplace, in social circles. Instead of avoidance, we, as women, need to be more aware of our own defense mechanisms and question them for ourselves. We need to question these walls we have built around us — are they really protecting? Rather than pitting the sexes against each other, the stronger approach is that of inclusion. But for true inclusion, there needs to be empathy and awareness of the real struggles being faced every day. And this goes both ways. Ask any man walking on the streets of Delhi, and he is probably assumed to be a rapist unless proven otherwise! Imagine what that feels like!

In the months I have spent in Bhopal, I see so many instances of women having accepted their destiny as ideal daughters, to daughters-in-law, to wives to mother’s. A statement by one of my colleagues still makes me shudder. On asking her what her future career plans were, she said, very matter-of-factly, “I’d to do a Banking course, but if I get married this year, I’ll have to ask my future husband if he’d be willing to fund my education because obviously my parents won’t.”

I may not be able to move mountains, but I can learn to be more sensitive to the behaviours around me that we have learned to take for granted, and question and challenge them more often. I can choose to not accept the status quo, atleast in my own sphere of influence. That way, I really know what it feels like to “be a woman”..