For Avantika Shukla, daily life in the Indian capital is peppered with difficult decisions about where to go, what to wear and how to act. Safety is the crux of every choice the 20-year-old political science undergraduate student makes, from the moment she steps out of her home.
On a windy winter morning, Shukla walks for 25 minutes on a meandering path to meet a classmate who gives her a daily ride to college on a scooter. There is a 10-minute route through narrow byways, but Shukla avoids it because it is unsafe. A man often lurks behind the trees there and exposes himself when he sees young women.
But the longer route isn’t entirely safe, either.
As she steps through the gate of her apartment block, wearing light-blue jeans and a red fleece jacket, two vegetable vendors leer at her, crack a joke and laugh. Shukla ignores them. A few yards ahead, a young boy turns on a lewd song from a new Bollywood movie on his cellphone. She walks on as if she doesn’t hear it.
As she walks through the neighborhood market, a group of men sipping tea crane their necks to stare at her. She looks down and passes by. When she walks along the busy main road, a motorcyclist slows down and deliberately brushes past her. She ignores him and continues on.
Shukla wasn’t this quiet 21/2 weeks ago.
She was screaming her lungs out at a demonstration on the city’s central boulevard, where thousands of young men and women braved police water cannons and tear gas shells to protest the Dec. 16 gang rape of a young woman in a moving bus. After the woman died Dec. 29, Shukla and her two sisters lighted candles and distributed handbills.
Her favorite slogan from the protest, she recalled, was “No silence about violence.”
“It was as if my built-up anger and frustration at suffering sexual harassment silently over the years just boiled over,” Shukla said. “But after all the outpouring of anger in Delhi, the men have not improved, even now.”
As she reaches her women-only college, she points to a police jeep.
“Some of these policemen stare at the students all day,” she said. “It made us uncomfortable. So the college principal had to request the police to park farther away from the gate.”
Shukla, who lives in middle-class, government-owned housing with her family, wants to be a corporate lawyer and has begun taking a short course on corporate compliance after college hours. But that means she has to take a bus and the Metro to another part of the city each day to attend evening classes.
Last week, the class discussed the inappropriate remarks made by some Indian political leaders in the aftermath of the gang rape.
“It is always a woman’s fault somehow,” Shukla said. “The woman should have been more careful, she shouldn’t have worn that, she shouldn’t have gone out at that time, she shouldn’t have drawn attention to herself. When will all this change?”
Shukla and her sisters rein themselves in all the time. Their mother tells them not to confront or shout back at the men on the street for fear of reprisals. They don’t go out for a post-dinner walk or ice cream in their neighborhood, they don’t wear sleeveless shirts or short skirts, they don’t go to evening movies, and they don’t go out for dinner with friends.
Since the gang rape, her freedom has shrunk further. She now texts and calls her sister or father when she leaves college, when she boards the Metro, when she has boarded the bus and when she has managed to find a seat on the bus.
Her father waits for her every night at the bus stop so she doesn’t have to walk home alone.
“Earlier, I would plug my headphones in and listen to music when I was in a public place or transport,” she said. “Not anymore. Now I try to stay extra alert to the people around me. Music can wait until I reach home.”
Riding the Metro is safest, she said, because of surveillance cameras and women-only coaches. But the Metro does not serve every neighborhood.
She dreads public buses most of all.
“If the bus is crowded, it is as if my body becomes public property, men take advantage of the crowd to touch, push or grope,” she said, waiting for the bus in the evening. “Letting the crowded bus go means I get late. Then there is a problem of empty buses, too. I now check if enough women are sitting in a bus before boarding.”
A crowded bus crawls in. Shukla looks at the time. It is late. She decides to board. She pushes to find standing room among the passengers, who are packed like sardines.
“What are you doing?” she shouts at a man who begins to run his hand over her arms. Nobody around her registers her protest. The man melts away in the crush.
Shukla’s phone rings. Her father wants to know how far she is from her destination.
“The day isn’t complete in Delhi for a woman without hearing a cheap comment, or getting leered at or groped,” Shukla said, getting off the bus. “Just like our families teach children that they should touch elders’ feet and lower their head in a temple, why can’t they teach their sons to respect women, too?”