LUCKNOW, India — On the rooftop of a working-class apartment building, 15 young women kicked, punched and tossed each other onto a mattress one recent day, as they role-played being victims of sexual assault.
The self-defense class signaled a remarkable change in a country where women long relied on male relatives accompanying them for safety.
In the wake of a gruesome gang rape that stunned the country, Indian women are now equipping themselves for self-protection. Sales of pepper spray have jumped. Many women are downloading smartphone apps enabling them to seek help if they are stalked. A weapons factory is producing a gun especially for female users. And the self-defense group here scheduled a mega-class to teach hundreds of women how to target assailants’ groins.
On Valentine’s Day.
“We teach women how to use their hands, where to hit the men and how to hit them so that they are in pain for at least three months,” Usha Vishwakarma said forcefully. She is the 27-year-old chief of the self-defense group, called the Red Brigade, in this northern city. “The attacks on our bodies are rising every day. We have to be ready for this war.”
On Friday, the group trained about 700 young women, mostly students from Lucknow’s schools and colleges, on an open lot for four hours even as it drizzled, said Vishwakarma.
“It was truly exhilarating to train so many women in a single session. They responded so enthusiastically to our lessons,” she said.
The Valentine’s Day training date was chosen to coincide with protests planned by the global “One Billion Rising” campaign, which fights violence against women.
The deadly rape of a 23-year-old New Delhi student in December 2012 caused an unprecedented national outcry. India passed a law last year that set harsher punishment for rapes and for the first time recognized stalking and sexual harassment as crimes. But sexual assaults remain common. A rape occurs every 22 minutes in India, according to the government’s crime records.
Indian movies for years have featured heroes fighting villains with their bare fists to protect women from being raped. But younger women are now giving up on the idea of waiting for their knights. And with an increasing number of women studying at universities and working in offices, it is no longer practical for them to travel accompanied by a father, husband or brother.
“I tell people we don’t want to wait for society to reform, for male attitudes to change, for the police to arrive and act, and for our fathers, brothers and husbands to protect us,” said Vishwakarma. “Instead we must focus our efforts on making ourselves physically and mentally strong to hit back.”
While there are no data on how many women are enrolling in self-defense classes, the training is being conducted more frequently by police departments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In New Delhi, the police provided classes to 16,493 women in schools, colleges and offices last year, more than twice as many as in 2012.
“Now, all the NGOs working with women say this is a necessary part of the services they want to provide to the community, and they come to us to set up the training sessions,” said Shivani, a police inspector who oversees the program. She goes by one name.
The Red Brigade formed three years ago as an after-school program for young women, and it began offering self-defense training last year, after the New Delhi gang rape. When the members started walking around the neighborhood in their red-and-black tunics and pants, pledging to protect women, men would mock them, saying, “Look, here comes the danger alarm” and “Here comes the red brigade.” The name stuck.
The group says it has trained 3,000 women free of charge in the past year.
Not everyone sees the self-defense boom as a positive sign.
“On one level, it may sound as if women are empowering themselves, but it is also a disturbing development,” said Ranjana Kumari, director of the New Delhi-based Center for Social Research. “Does the responsibility for women’s protection lie with the women themselves or with the state?”
Women, she said, must continue to demand that authorities “reform their systems and responses to the problem of rising rapes.”
In a sign of the new focus on women’s defense, the government-run Indian Ordinance Factory last month launched a .32 caliber lightweight “women’s revolver” with a wooden grip called “Nirbheek.” The gun was named for the 2012 gang-rape victim, who earned the popular moniker “Nirbhaya,” which means fearless.
“The gun is an important contribution to women’s safety; it fits snugly in a lady’s purse, and just having it in their possession will bring them a lot of confidence,” said Abdul Hamid, general manager of the factory. He said his office receives dozens of calls and e-mails every day asking about the weapon.
“The gun will come in a case lined with velvet like a jewelry box,” he said. “We want women to treat this gun like it is their jewelry, like it is their most prized possession.”
Critics call the launch of the $2,000 gun a gimmick because the overwhelming majority of Indians cannot afford it. Guns cannot be bought over the counter in India, and getting a government license to own a firearm is often a Himalayan task, with applicants having to produce proof of threats against them and information on savings and property, in addition to undergoing interviews. A license allows Indians to carry a gun, but not in schools, bars, cinemas, military bases, stadiums or a number of other places.
According to GunPolicy.org, a global firearm injury monitoring group based at the University of Sydney in Australia, the total number of guns owned by private India citizens is about 40 million. Of these weapons, the group estimates, 33 million are illegal.
“You have to prove grave, imminent and verifiable threat to your life to get a gun license, and it is almost impossible for most Indians,” said Abhijeet Singh, who heads a group called Indians for Guns and is part of a nascent gun-rights lobby in India.
In New Delhi, the number of female applicants for gun licenses has grown from 31 in 2010 to 62 last year.
Shruti Sachdev, a single mother of a teenage daughter, already carries a red Swiss Army knife in her purse and a baseball bat in her car. She said she plans to apply for a gun license next month.
“If the officer asks me to prove that I am under threat, I will just say, ‘I am a mother of a teenage daughter and I live in Delhi,’ ” said Sachdev, 46, who was one of thousands of Indians who participated in demonstrations following the 2012 gang rape. “I accompany my daughter for her late evening hip-hop and French classes. I want to be equipped to protect her.”
In Lucknow, the Red Brigade members are gaining in both notoriety and self-confidence. They have even beaten up a couple of men for harassing women in recent months.
“Some neighbors say all this fighting, kicking and wrestling is men’s work, not becoming of a woman,” said Afreen Khan, a 17-year-old high-school student who belongs to the group.
She said she used to walk with her head down, eyes lowered, ignoring comments by men in the street.
But after the self-defense training, my walking style, body language and the look on my face has changed,” she said. “Now the men in my neighborhood look away. They sense that I can now give it back to them.”