Why women’s safety can’t be left to pepper sprays and knives

Radhika Menon, who teaches in a Delhi University college,  faced a savage attack last week on a petrol pump while the bystanders kept watching. She writes why weapons for women’s self-defense is a flawed idea.

Having been at the punching end of a random brute at a petrol pump, I did respond in the most primitive way people try to save themselves from extreme danger. That is by giving a few back. But these were terribly disproportionate. All my attempts were mild compared to what I had received. The whole week ever since, friends and concerned people suggested to me (and themselves), carrying handy pepper sprays, baseball bats, hockey stick and knuckle busters. For a few fantasy moments of their narration, I could see in their stories, a concern and affection for me which proposed a counter visual to the pitiable one, which by now has flashed all over the country. Did they really believe it or is it just a candy for the hurt one?
Children dream of taking on bullies like a super hero or heroine, putting to right a terribly wrong world, with a punch here and one there. Good wins over evil and then you go take off the costume and get back to living a routine life. Well, if only. I did once in a while fantasise about it too, as a child and sometimes even as an adult. But in the last week it has not even crossed my mind even once. A realization has dawned that when caught like that, I can at the best do only what was done, nothing more.

What happens, when state or its functionaries begin to talk of ensuring your own security in your own hand, while in a public place? Already the notion of private security has become institutionalized making it the exclusive preserve of the few. But now will individual security at a public place also go in the same direction? A two-month old announcement that Delhi Metro now will allow women to carry 4 inch knives with themselves, has also reached me. It has been presented as empowering in several quarters, but I can’t help finding it amusing. How does one get hold of a knife, if the bag gets snatched? How does one use it on another person unless one is a professional at knifing people? Also, what if before I get to use it, the brute gets hold of it. Not very pleasing thoughts. Besides, does it mean a woman has to be on high alert all the time, and ensure not to be caught off-guard? I am already feeling tired at the thought of it.

Like self-defense classes, pepper spray can offer some confidence but no assurance of security.

I am not quite thrilled with the idea of having to fall back upon one’s own self for safety and security of women. If stepping out of the house is associated with being responsible for one’s own safety, it is only going to frighten people and prevent them from going out. Public places have to become secure without people being compelled to carry chilly powder, pepper sprays or knuckle busters. Our cities have to be safe for everyone, not just for people who can use them.


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