Julia Molony : Indian women lead independent lives – until darkness descends
The new generation is educated, cultured and savvy – but sinister risks still abound
Over Christmas, while at a wedding in southern India, I sat at a table with the bride and her friends, a group of young women in their 20s. Some, like the 23-year-old student who died last Sunday as a result of her assault on a Delhi bus, lived in Delhi and had travelled to Kerala for the wedding. Some lived in Kerala itself.
Like you and me, they were horrified by the details of the horrific rape case that had been the main subject of the rolling 24-hour news there, and indeed, all over the world. But the issue was particularly pressing to them, because of what it meant about the risks they live with as young, modern Indians. Risks that curtail their freedoms and define how they must go about their lives.
In two short weeks in India, I glimpsed just a snapshot of what life is like for young, unmarried women there. Their lives seemed, in many ways, just like mine. One or two were about my age, but most, to be honest, were a few years younger. As one 20-something Indian IT working playboy who was a guest at the wedding explained to me, they don't let the girls get to my age around here without getting them married.
The day of my arrival, just before the rape story broke, this same man had explained the difference in atmosphere down south to that in Delhi. "It's more chilled out here. If you went out on your own after dark in Delhi," he said to me bluntly, "you'd probably get raped." At that point, I had assumed he was just speaking roughly for effect.
The young women I met at the wedding were middle-class, highly educated, very ambitious. Many of them had completed MBAs or marketing degrees in the UK. Now they worked for big multinationals based in India, where they were high-ranking consultants and managers. In terms of accomplishment, they put me and my humble arts degree to shame.
It was a wedding, we were all there to have fun. They played as hard as Irish girls their age. The celebrations spanned five days, and talk was mostly centred on the various flirtations going on amongst the singles, and (though the wedding itself was dry) war stories from the night-time parties that followed each day of ritual and ceremony, usually until dawn.
A house had been rented especially for visiting guests by our hosts and every night, bottles of Smirnoff and Jack Daniels would be assembled while the younger guests drank, danced and partied all night.
It was supposed to be a joyous occasion, so while the news seemed to speak of nothing else but rape, we did our best not to let the subject dominate. But the shadow was on everyone's minds and it inevitably came into the conversation.
When the discussions started, the 23-year-old victim was still clinging tenuously to life. One of the women I was with put the question to a table, what will the authorities do? The consensus was jaundiced and pessimistic. "What do they ever do?" was the response.
One can understand their cynicism. There were more than 635 rape cases reported in Delhi last year, and only one conviction. Almost every Indian I spoke with while I was there decried feeble legislation against rape, and inadequate sentencing for sexual crimes. "We are very afraid for our daughters," one man told me.
By the time I left, I wasn't surprised any more to learn that the educated, cultured, savvy ladies in whose county I had passed the last two weeks, who seemingly enjoyed many of the same freedoms I knew, never went out alone after dark. When I arranged to have coffee with one of my new friends there, she fled like Cinderella for her bus at the first hint of dusk, so that she could be sure to be safely inside the family home before 7.30pm. The measure of her parents' relatively relaxed attitude, she explained as she said her goodbyes, was that it was already past six and they hadn't called yet to see where she was. Other single women, when discussing the case in New Delhi, admitted, with retrospective alarm, the risks that they had taken recently in daring to drive alone after nightfall, and resolved that they'd think twice next time.
One evening my male Indian host and his friend drove my boyfriend and I out to pick up some food. He insisted that I, as the only female, wait in the car with my boyfriend, so as to avoid provoking trouble.
A new generation of Indian women have been raised by their families to be independent, career-orientated leaders in the community and in business. They have grown up to be all these things and more. But how independent can they really be so long as they still don't dare to walk their own streets alone?