“I used to be very bold and bindass. It never mattered what time I got out. But now I think twice. Do I really need to get out at 9 at night?” says one of the women interviewed in Dream Girls, a short documentary directed by Deepika Sharma and Afra Shafiq and produced by Grist Media. Filmed in 2013 in the aftermath of the Delhi gang-rape case, the fear amongst women about being alone after dark in the city is palpable.
“Anything could happen” is how most of the women feel. They give you snippets of how anxiety about being assaulted shapes their lives in minute ways – from wearing a stole to not being allowed to ride a bicycle in the neighbourhood to carrying pepper spray at all times (one woman laughs as she tells you how she always carries a revolver in her purse) – but the women in the film also reveal their dreams. Wanting to be invisible, being allowed to just be, feeling comfortable in public spaces at any hour and in any clothing, is what they want.
The mass molestation of women in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve was a painful reminder that all this is still wishful thinking. “It happens” was the ridiculous (although apparently misquoted) response of the Karnataka home minister G Parameshwara, who also blamed western culture and its influence on women. Even more despicable were Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi’s crude analogies equating the correlation between short dresses and assault to petrol sparking a fire, or sugar attracting ants. And a growing trend amongst the middle class is to pass the blame on to migrant labourers from other states, an incredibly convenient (and classist) deflection.
While we witness the same old tired narrative involving victim-blaming, rather than a discussion that emphasises how men need to get a grip, it’s worth revisiting the film Dream Girls, to remind ourselves of the resilience it takes for a woman to navigate public spaces, where their fear of assault is not baseless paranoia, but a tangible possibility. And their hopes for a safer world for women on the street point to the direction in which we need to head.