Living life as a woman means being constantly aware of your own vulnerability
“Do you ever think about the fact that women live in fear for most of their lives?” That was the question I posed to some of my male friends last week as we discussed just how much freedom they could – or should – accord to their teenage daughters.
They all looked rather startled when I asked them this, so it was clear that this was not something they had ever given much thought to. But after ruminating for a minute or two, one of them asked tentatively: “Do all women live in fear? Even someone like you?”
Once I had stopped bristling, I realized that question had some merit. By any standards, I live a rather privileged life. I live in an area that is relatively safe and well-policed. My apartment is in a building that has private security. I have my own car. And those are just some markers of my privilege.
So, I should – by any reckoning – be able to go through life without feeling scared or threatened in any way. And yet, not a day goes by when I am not aware of my own vulnerability as I go about my everyday life.
Every man who has got this far will be unable to relate (just like my aforementioned male friends) or even understand how this feels. But every woman who is reading this will instantly identify with my feelings of fear and dread.
Every woman, no matter how privileged, will always have that one moment in her day or week or month in which her heart leaps into her mouth with the fear that things could go completely wrong. She could be in the wrong cab, in the wrong city, in the wrong area. She could make one bad choice and find her life altered in a moment.
Just thinking back over the last week, I can think of three different instances in which I felt that creeping fear as I went about living my life.
It was a cold and cloudy day in Delhi and I was late for my daily walk through Lodi Gardens. The darkness fell as I was halfway through. But there were enough people around for me to feel reasonably safe. Or so I thought. But as I turned around to make my way back to my car, I decided to take a short cut. This meant crossing an empty stretch. As I slowed down to catch my breath, I heard some loud voices over the song playing in my ear.
There was a group of high-spirited young men behind me, jostling and pushing one another. They probably didn’t even notice me, but for a few seconds, my heartbeat accelerated as I wondered if I had the right decision by getting off the jogging path. Memories of all those stories I had heard of women getting molested or attacked in public parks came gushing back as I fell back to allow them to overtake me. They walked past me, completely oblivious to my momentary panic. But it was a while before my heartbeat returned to normal.
Then came the afternoon when I was alone at home. The doorbell rang. There were two burly men outside flashing their ID cards. They had come to take the meter reading for the gas connection. They were totally legit and completely harmless. And yet, I hesitated for a moment before I let them in, my mind going to dark places as I speculated how easy it would be for the pair of them to overpower me.
Of course, I told myself not to be so silly. I invited them in, they did their work and were out in a few minutes. But the moment of doubt and fear reminded me yet again of my vulnerability. And how I relied on the goodness of others to move unscathed through life.
But never did I feel more at risk than when I was driving back home after a late night. I am fortunate enough to have a driver so I was not alone. But as the car came to a halt at a red light and was surrounded by many insistent young men asking for alms by banging on the glass window, I experienced that flash of panic yet again. We were only stationary for about 30 seconds but it seemed like a lifetime to me as I tried to ignore the sharp raps on the car window and struggled not to focus on how easy it would be to break into the car and do me harm.
I could go on, listing instances like these. But while each incident is different in its details, the feelings it provokes are the same. There is the same jolt of panic, that same flash of fear, that same sense of vulnerability. And every woman reading this will have experienced these feelings as they move through the world.
But however much we may explain this to the men folk in our life, they will never really get this on an intuitive level. They may claim to understand how we feel, but they will never really know what it means to walk in fear through life.
To understand how that feels, you have to live as a woman for a day.