When Pune Police Commissioner Rashmi Shukla gave a few impromptu tips on keeping themselves safe in unexpected situations, to a roomful of women at a CII India Women Network event in Pune last week, I never thought I would have to use a couple of those tips just a week down the line, to prevent what threatened to be a very, very unsafe situation for me.
Travelling from the Mani Nagar to the Sardar Vallabhai Patel airport in Ahmedabad late last evening proved to be one of the most traumatic experiences of travelling alone in my entire adult life. I have read about and empathised with the horror stories of women who are assaulted/molested or intimidated by a man who is aware of the fact that the woman is alone and at his mercy but never thought I would have to deal with a raging, angry bull of a man myself.
It was all wrong from the moment the Ola driver arrived late for my pick up and snapped rudely at my 83-year-old host who told him that said that he would not have got lost if he had simply followed the directions we had given to local pickup point. For an entire 3 minutes the driver, a young man, possibly in his late twenties, unshaven and unkept, ranted at my shell-shocked host before I intervened saying I had to get to the airport on time. Big Mistake. I should have followed my instinct and simply got myself another cab but it was already getting late for my 10pm flight and I could not afford to miss it.
For almost an hour that it took me to get to the airport , I faced the simmering rage of a man who did not like to take instructions. From anyone, leave alone a woman. It started just as soon as I got into the car and he kept glaring angrily at me through the rear view mirror. Maybe it was a mistake to tell him that I had to get to airport on time because that exposed my vulnerability to him: he had the power to make me late. For almost 40 minutes after that, I sweated and stressed as he drove at snail’s pace, dawdling at signals and letting dozens of vehicles driver past us, leaving us trailing and stuck in traffic.
By this time I was panicking and checking the route on GPS and seeing that we seemed to be making little progress- I was not even sure he was taking the shortest route to the airport- I called my husband in Pune, telling him in a loud, clear voice that I had sent him the details and link to the Ola cab I was in. Please check if we are taking the right route and track my ride, I told him.
This was point number one that Rashmi Shukla had emphasised during her talk.
Call someone as soon as you take a cab and give them the cab number and your expected time of arrival so that the cabbie knows that he is being watched, the commissioner had said. Thank God I followed her advice.
Only, I did not imagine the effect of that telephone on the errant Ola driver. Five minutes later we were driving on what was a poorly lit stretch of road and he was showing no signs of getting me to the airport on time. I decided it was time to speak up. “Bhaiyya app please jara jaldi gaadi chalaaiye. Mera flight nikal jayega,” I said.
I was completely unprepared for what happened then. Snarling, he looked back, eyes blazing with fury and spewed his fury at me, as I shrunk back into my seat, shocked. The sum total of his anger and misogyny was this: How dare you to tell somebody to track this car’s route? Do you think I am scared of you? Do you think I am a faaltu? How dare you tell me how to do my job? People like you are always telling us what to do… etc…
Then I remembered the commissioner’s second tip: It is all about body language. Never let the aggressor know you are scared or intimidated or timid. Walk tall and display a confident body language. And use your voice assertively. Not many aggressors will be confident enough to take on an equally aggressive opponent.
I sat up then and shouted, as loudly as I could, that he had to stop ranting and just get me to the airport on time. He was on duty, I reminded him, telling him that he had no business being rude and intimidating a customer. I told him I had the right to tell anyone I chose to track the car. I was travelling alone and I needed to feel safe, I said. The driver from hell, however, continued his tirade and said, to my complete horror that if I was scared, I should stop travelling alone, especially in the night. Travel with a man, he said! I responded by saying that I reserved the right to travel as and when I wanted and it was his job at that stage to just get me to the airport on time. He shouted back at me then, saying I could get another cab and started veering to the side of the road, telling me to get down. I refused and said I was not going anywhere but to the airport.
For a moment, shamelessly, I used the age-old trick women use when they have to deal with an eve-teaser or potentially harmful male. “I am the same age as your mother. Are you not ashamed to talk like this to a woman who could be your mother?
By then I could see the airport lights in the vicinity. I had been in the car, alone, for over 50 minutes, exposed to the aggression and hostility of a man who has been employed by a company that promises to deliver safe travelling solutions to consumers in India. Does the company even screen the people they employ as drivers, considering that a lot of people travel late night, trusting that they are in safe hands? Should Ola, Uber and other companies not be more aware of their employee force? Is there a case here for psychological profiling of the cab drivers who are over- worked, under paid and possibly dealing with rage and hostility issues from the constant pressure of deadlines and targets that they have to deal with? The man who drove me last night was very clearly dealing with rage issues and was probably sleep deprived, drunk or both.
I am lucky that I got away unscathed and safe, except for the trauma of having faced a man who had trained his raw, uncontrolled, rage on me. Last night I realised how crucial it is for women to learn the art of self-defence tactics, be it Karate or Taekwondo. Someday it might just save our life.
There are other safety tips for women that I got at the CII IWN event. A woman with her hair left loose is a potentially easy target because the assaulter can grab her by her hair and throw her to the ground. Ditto for the dupatta that can possibly be used by her attacker to throttle her or tie her up.
It is important to keep away the cell phone and focus on your surroundings when you are outside. Far too many women pay a heavy price for being lost in telephone conversations and not noticing that potential attacker who has been stalking them and watching their movements.
When out at a party, it is important to make sure that you are not alone with a group of men, especially if you are drinking. Make sure there are a couple of other women with you, at least one of them who is not drinking. When you head back home in a car after the party, make sure you are not the only woman in the car, even if all the men in the car are friends. Let someone in the family know who you are heading home with and what time you will arrive.
Do you have your own set of tips and strategies on how women can be safe? Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org I would love to hear from you about this subject that concerns every woman.
You can reach her on email@example.com or her twitter handle@sudhamenon2006
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