Women's tales from brutal Delhi

Women from India"s North Eastern states hold placards during a peaceful protest against the rape of a girl from Mizoram, in New Delhi on November 29, 2010. Image copyright AFP
Image caption Delhi is India's 'rape capital'

A 23-year-old woman is savagely attacked and raped by a group of men inside a moving bus and her male friend is beaten up senselessly. Battered and bleeding profusely, they are dumped near an expressway in Delhi, where they are found by a passer-by.

Another day, another rape, another round of outrage. Yet, more than 630 rapes later this year so far, nothing much will really change.

Doctors treating the woman, a paramedic student, who is on life support at a crowded city hospital are aghast. They say this is the "most grievous" case of rape they have handled.

"This was much more than rape… They were extensive injuries… It appears that a blunt object had been used repeatedly [by the attackers]," says one.

Sunday night's incident in India's "rape capital" was gut-wrenchingly brutal even for a city which has become numb to crimes against women.

The mistreatment and abuse of women is a particular problem in Delhi and northern India. A stiflingly patriarchal social mindset, a brazen culture of political power, a general disdain for law, a largely insensitive police force and a rising population of rootless, lawless migrants are only some of the reasons. There must be many others.

So if you are a woman - unless you are very rich and privileged - you are more likely to face indignity and humiliation here.

In this part of the world where I live and work, people blame rapes on pornography, the influence of foreign cultures and women themselves - for wearing Western dresses and going out with male friends. When another incident happens, the indignant headlines, excited TV talk shows, candlelight vigils, promises by authorities and platitudes by politicians return with familiar gusto.

But nothing really changes for Delhi's women. "It is as if there is a silent conspiracy in this city," a woman friend says, "to keep the women scared." They say they are not safe anywhere, at home, on the streets, on a bus, on the new metro system, nowhere really.

A friend, who works in the media, tells me about life as a Delhi woman. It is infinitely worse for those who are less privileged than her.

When she was living as a paying guest in an upscale south Delhi neighbourhood a few years ago, a drunk male cook barged into her room at night, yanked at her bed sheet and tried to attack her. The man fled after she screamed.

"My landlord, a perfectly respectable person on the outside, came up and said I must have been dreaming, that there could not have been an attack. His mother had heard my screams so she believed me. I left the place, and they said they had sacked the cook. When I checked later, I found that the cook had returned and was working," she remembers.

After she joined salsa classes a few years later, her friends arrived to pick her up for a competition.

They were waiting for a taxi when a policeman walked up and challenged the boys. "You are hanging out with a loose woman," the policeman grunted. "Give me your parents' numbers, we will tell them."

When her friends protested, the policeman went up to the landlady and extracted a bribe. "They told her they would file cases against her saying she had rented her place to a suspicious woman without a proper rent agreement."

One evening, a few years ago, she was walking home from work when a young man sidled up to her and said something very obscene. She asked him to shut up and walked on.

The man ran after her, stopped her in her tracks, and told her bluntly: "I will pour acid on your face next time you say that." Then he vanished.

"I came home and began crying. I was scared of going out for the next few days," she says.

It doesn't help much if a woman is accompanied by a male friend or spouse.

Another woman friend travelling with a male friend in an auto-rickshaw was waylaid by a group of young boys in a posh neighbourhood a few years ago. They blocked the auto-rickshaw at a crossing, pointed a gun at her friend and shouted abuse at him.

"They wanted to instigate him, they said he was going out with a prostitute. My friend kept quiet and apologised. They let us go after robbing us," she remembers.

When my journalist friend travels alone in an auto-rickshaw on the city's mean streets, she keeps having real and imaginary conversations on the phone with friends and relatives. She doesn't take an auto-rickshaw if she finds the driver overfriendly. If she takes a taxi, she texts the registration number to a friend. She keeps phone numbers for a handful of "reliable" drivers whom she can count on to take her home.

Delhi's disdain for its women possibly mirrors the city itself, says a cynical friend and long-time resident.

A city largely, he says, made up of a deracinated generation of migrants, rich and poor, living in their own worlds in gated neighbourhoods and grimy slums which all make genuine collective action difficult. An ineffective police and a broken justice system make matters worse.