As widespread protests unfolded in India over the gang-rape and subsequent death of a student in Delhi, several media commentators — Indian as well as western — resorted to statistics to prove how sexual crimes against women were universal and equally distributed across the world.
Statistics appeared to disprove the popular notion that women were safer in the developed West compared to the rest of the world, despite the fact that India was voted the worst place to be a woman among the G20 nations in a global poll of experts in June.
In India, just over a quarter of the alleged rape perpetrators were convicted in 2010 while in the U.S., which was voted the sixth best place to be a woman in the same poll, only 24 percent of the alleged rapes even resulted in an arrest, let alone a conviction.
Statistics, while being one of the most acceptable and objective tool to put a society’s rape culture into perspective, can also be completely misleading given the vast difference between the actual number of crimes and the ones that get reported.
When it comes to issues such as safety and security in public, you may be forced to overlook the argument that personal experience cannot be a source of objective knowledge. After all, you would rather seek the advice of an acquaintance than pore over the government crime statistics before deciding on shifting to a new city.
Number-Crunching Aside, South India Is The Safest
Growing up in the southern coastal state of Kerala has had an indelible mark on the way I carry myself in public. Being subjected to Malayali men’s misogynistic attitude for 18 years, I learned early on that making eye contact with strange men was never good and that I should keep a constant vigil on buses for those anonymous hands trying to grope everything in their reach.
Malayali men appeared to be under the impression that you’re ready to jump into bed with them If you ventured outdoors once the sun sets. Even if you tend to overlook the prying eyes and the sense of insecurity, lewd comments and sometimes physical harassment on the streets would make sure that you don’t repeat the mistake.
In Kerala, the top most liquor consuming state of India, alcohol consumption by women is treated as a taboo. You couldn’t find a movie or a novel in which a woman character sipped a glass of rum. Possible exceptions, none of which I can recall, could be of a sex worker.
So when I reached Chennai, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the city presented me with a pleasant surprise. Apart from the occasional staring, which now I know is a part of the Indian reality for women, men were by far well-behaved in Chennai when compared with those in Kerala.
After graduating from a college in Chennai, I went on to live in Hyderabad (in the state of Andhra Pradesh), Mumbai (in the state of Maharashtra) and Bangalore (in the state of Karnataka) for studies and for work. Living alone on these metro cities cemented by belief that Chennai was indeed the best and the safest to be a single woman.
Public transport in Hyderabad, of which shared autos form a significant part, posed one of the biggest challenges for women. If you manage to avoid the shared autos, certain areas of ill repute, shopping alone during rush hours and venturing out after 8 p.m., you may manage to go on with your daily lives with dignity.
Bangalore too has treated me well especially with its better infrastructure including public transport, when compared to the other three southern metros, thanks to the IT boom.
According to the data from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, the rate of reported rapes in Tamil Nadu in 2011 stood at 1.9 per 100,000 women.
Kerala had the highest rate of reported rapes (6.5) in southern India, followed by Andhra Pradesh (3.4), Karnataka (2.1) and Tamil Nadu (1.9).
Given that the policing and governance in Tamil Nadu is as lax as it gets in the rest of the nation, what could be the reason for Chennai being a better place for women?
Periyar E.V. Ramasamy, the father of the Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu, has been attributed to championing the liberty of women and their better acceptance in public sphere, a concept that shines through the Tamil Nadu’s Sangam era literature.
“The radical ideas of Periyar on women rights were shocking the people,” writes A. Arulmozhi, a social activist and a practicing lawyer at the Madras High Court in Chennai. “His call to women to remove the uterus, ‘if it is the cause for her suffering’ and to have her womb under her control, were not easily digestible to the society.”
“The series of articles Periyar wrote on the topic “why a woman became a slave?” is a rare collection of feminist principles which contain the ingredients of all schools of Feminism,” she observes.
Delhi And Mumbai
If Chennai set me free, Mumbai, in western India, brought back my insecurity. In the two months of my stay there, a stranger stalked me for three days until I changed my work timings. Teenage children, residing in a slum next to my apartment complex, routinely pelted stones at women, including me, as we waited for the bus. I was warned by my room-mate against boarding a general compartment, instead of a ladies compartment, while traveling by the metro trains. I also avoided shopping in Mumbai’s famous street markets after an instance of physical harassment.
New Delhi, which reported 7.36 rapes per 100,000 women, has been at the center of the discussions surrounding women’s safety in India.
Though I have avoided living in the national capital, there is no limit to the horrifying stories of harassment of women from friends and acquaintances. There were friends who said groping was a daily reality, no matter where you live or what you wear, and that you simply get used to it. Those who don’t, move elsewhere.
India’s North East
The data show that the northeastern state of Manipur recorded a 100 percent conviction rate in rape trials in 2011, the only Indian state to boast of such a laudable statistic. However, June Rose Vaiphei, a member of the Manipur State Commission for Women, says the data misrepresent the atmosphere of sexual crimes against women in Manipur.
“Incidence of rapes in Manipur as well as instances of the perpetrators getting away with it is comparable to the rest of the nation,” Vaiphei told the IB Times.
She attributes the seemingly praiseworthy statistics from the state to off-the-court settlements favored by the police who compel the complainants to withdraw their cases in lieu of monetary compensation offered by the perpetrators.
Despite the data showing that the combined rate of reported crimes in eight northern Indian states (7.4 per 100,000 women) was almost similar to that of five southern Indian states (6.5 per 100,000 women), Vaiphei vouches from her personal experience that the southern India, particularly Tamil Nadu, was considerably safer for women.
“Men show a certain degree of respect towards women in Tamil Nadu. They don’t stare at you the way men in the North, especially Delhi, do,” Vaiphei says.
States with some of the highest rates of reported rapes in India belong to the northeastern region. Mizoram, with 14.29 rapes being reported for every 100,000 women in 2011 had the highest reported rapes, followed by two more northeastern states -- Assam and Tripura, with rates of 11.17 and 11.30, respectively.
However, the high incidence of the reported rapes doesn’t necessarily mean these states are insecure for women.
“Women in Manipur, belonging to the more influential Mithai population, do not show much inhibition in reporting the crime,” Vaiphei says, but insists that the crimes against the tribal population is usually under-reported.
While there is no denial of the fact that experience differs from person–to-person, there appears to be a greater consensus that south India poses less danger to a woman compared to the north.
British historian and documentary filmmaker Michael Wood, whose works include the BBC series “The Story Of India,” had once professed his love for southern India. When asked to name a place he would call his spiritual home, Wood, who authored the book “The Smile of Murugan: A South Indian Journey,” told the Express newspaper: “There are lots of places you leave a little bit of your heart when you make films in them. I love South India very much. I adore the people, the culture and the landscape.”