I recently moved to Washington DC for a year on a nonprofit Fellowship. Having lived in Delhi for almost decade, I thought moving to DC would be much like moving to Brighton and the last thing on my mind would be safety. However, I was horribly wrong.
Delhi, as we all know, is notorious for its crime against women. It’s propensity towards being intolerant to unaccompanied (and sometimes accompanied) women out on the street. One usually hears the spiel about “cover yourself”, “don’t go out after dark on your own” and “stay away from that area” all the time. Over the last few years, the situation has become truly scary. Cases of rape and molestation are not only rampant but there seems to be wave of anger against women who dare step out of their houses.
As a woman, I have learned not to get shattered by these occurrences. I have learned to take taxis, dress appropriately and have male friends pick me up from home and drop me off if it gets too late. I have been in an auto not too late in the evening and chased by two men in a car shouting obscenities all the way from Defence Colony to Nizamuddin. I have gone home in tears after having been grabbed in the metro or when a car has slowed down suggestively at the point I was waiting to cross a street. Across the many localities of Delhi, posh and not so sophisticated, being an unaccompanied woman is difficult.
In DC, I feel almost equally unsafe. Unsafe, not because I am a woman, but because I am a person who does not always stay at home. Known as the ‘murder capital’ till not very long ago, Washington is a city where pincodes have become indicators of everything. There are safe pincodes, unsafe pincodes and pincodes that mark out an area in transition. These transitional neighbourhoods have, over the last few years, witnessed a rapid process of gentrification with wide roads and planned infrastructure being put in place to make these areas livable. They are not exactly ‘cheap’ but they are possibly dangerous.
As a ‘Fellow’ I was assigned a ‘Fellow House’. There a quite a few of these are in transitional neighbourhoods mainly because they are cheaper. My house is in one of the safest, swankiest areas. A few blocks from the metro and Fort McNair, it is difficult to classify this area as ‘possibly dangerous’. Yet, during my first 72 hours in the city and in the course of orientation, we had a police sergeant come and talk to us about staying safe in the city. About not walking alone, not wearing too much jewellery, carrying mace and not too much cash. I felt a little bewildered and quite concerned. Had I moved to a developing country, a conservative country, an unsafe country or had I moved to the capital of the first world?
Most Washingtonians phoo phooed my concerns and said that there was no such place as safe. New York, they said was notorious for crimes and mugging. Chicago could be dangerous. The only way to stay safe was to work and live within certain areas and never step outside. I am in agreement with this statement. That is what I had practiced for years in Delhi. I knew how to choose houses by their locations and not their rent. I could do that here too…right? But then again, I am a Fellow on a tight budget. How could I justify spending almost double of what was allotted to me to stay safe? In the absence of the infrastructural and emotional support I have in Delhi, I will have to move. If nothing else, to acquire a sense of being safe and somewhat protected.
So there it is my friend, the grand conclusion. In Washington as it is in Delhi, one must spend a lot of money to buy safety. The government can’t or won’t ensure it for you. In Delhi, it is worse for a woman, in DC, it is bad for the ‘not-so-wealthy’. Going back to the question of governance and governments…are we doing enough to keep our citizens safe? Is it time to work towards ensuring this basic right…the right to move freely and without the possibility of assault? As I spend of the rest of my 12 months in DC, I can only hope that nothing untoward happens, just as millions of women across India hope and pray for the same thing as they step out of their houses everyday. I have moved from the developing to the developed world; from one flawed government to another.