A liberated woman, but never free of fear

I was starting to fade in a South Delhi apartment. Just after midnight on Saturday, the party was still going on but a German girl and I wanted some sleep. Our male friend, an American, offered to walk the 10 minutes home with us.

Delhi isn’t the best place at night for women, we knew. To judge by our daytime treatment —between the three Western women I live with, we’ve been groped, followed for blocks, and surrounded by gaggles of teen boys giggling, “How much?” -- we didn’t think we’d fare well at night.

Having a gentleman see us home seemed like a good enough way to stay safe. We got up to leave, but our Indian friends quickly sat us back down. We needed another Indian, they all said, an Indian man to accompany us. “If you’re out this late, men will assume you’re prostitutes, and they consider it their right to do what they want with you,” one said. “And if you get offended, they’ll get offended.”

Wasn’t one male bodyguard enough? My friend and I glanced at each other, unsure if our hosts were messing with us. Earlier I’d been told that Indian farmers had unlocked the secret to breeding cows with horses (a Google search revealed that no, they have not, and yes, I am that gullible). This time, they assured us, they were serious.

So my tired friend and I waited an extra half hour until another woman could drive us back. On the short drive home, GK-I’s streets were dark and mostly empty, save a few men, stray dogs, and not one woman.

If the women of Delhi supposedly morph into painted ladies at the stroke of midnight, what is it that comes over men come nightfall? Who do they turn into that the streets become so unsafe for the rest of the population?

Earlier that week, I’d attended a very different sort of party, an event celebrating the 10th anniversary of India Today’s annual sex survey, revealing the secret sex habits of Indian men and women. For me, the party was as close to a Hindi music video as I’ve managed to get here. Leggy foreign models stalked the floors of The Blue Frog. On stage, our hostess, clad in a bum-hugging, rhinestone-striped gown, perched on a bed with a famous female sex writer. They talked boldly about sex, eliciting raucous cheers from the audience.

The next panel of speakers attested to the schizophrenic sexuality described in this year’s survey. A tantric sex guru sat straight-backed next to a swaying-drunk Bollywood star, next to a sociologist, next to a young woman who has risen to fame with book titles like Losing My Virginity and Other Dumb Ideas . Though men still formed the majority in the room, the conversation always returned to the increasing sexual freedom of women here. And the mood in the club seemed to bear this out.

And yet, as free as it all seemed then, at the end of the night: How would the ‘liberated’ ladies get home? Of course, glitzy cars waited to whisk the glitzy party-goers away. But leaving the club, could any of us there, whether alone or in a group of women — our risqué hostess, the more conservatively dressed women in shawls and saris, me in my winter coat — have enjoyed the simple freedom of a walk home unmolested?

(A graduate of Columbia University's journalism programme, Victoria Rossi is an intern with ‘The Hindu’. She has written about politics in Texas, education in California, and, most recently, organised crime in Latin America.)