I stepped into the Delhi metro car—the sole woman among 200 men—my mind abuzz with front page news stories:
Each stare, each hand brushing against my khurta etched those words into my skin.
These nightmarish headlines were the very reason for my presence in the Delhi metro. I was representing the Equal Community Foundation (ECF), on my way to consult with the head of Uber (the international cab service) India after their government-mandated shutdown in Delhi. It seems that safety and gender inclusivity have something in common for both Uber, and myself: they are essential for our survival.
Little did I know that amidst my business proposals, offers of consultation and corporate training, answers were waiting for me in the place I least expected. His name is Vijay, he was my Uber driver, and here is what he taught me about transforming rape culture.
With my curiousty piqued by the weekend’s meetings, I struck up a conversation with Vijay during our hour ride to the Delhi airport. A few congenial questions prompted a discussion that transformed my understanding of rape culture and the working class men so often demonized within it.
Vijay is on-call almost 20 hours a day to pay the way for his two daughters to go to school. He is a father, just like mine, struggling to promote his childrens’ education. And like my own father, he holds some of the most gender equitable views I have ever heard uttered by a man. For fear I won’t do him justice, I will let his words speak for themselves:
“It’s important to teach all children but it’s especially important to teach girls. There are many hard things in life, but education will make them stronger… My older daughter wants to be a teacher. But she’s also very good at science, so she could be a scientist. She will be good at whatever she chooses to do.”
“We also need to teach boys about sex. Many think that the man is only powerful in sex. We must make everyone know that women are powerful too. Many people are narrow-minded. And when you see a beautiful girl on the street, don’t think about her the wrong way, but see her as if she was part of your house. Think if that girl was your sister in the same place.”
I returned to Delhi once again last week, this time to conduct corporate gender and diversity training for Uber’s senior corporate staff. For the past few months, I have developed, tested, and revised ECF’s new “Leaders for Equality” gender sensitization curriculum to deploy to multinational companies across India. And because of my efforts, I have gotten to travel to Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, and now Hyderabad, running these programs with Uber’s young leaders.
Every time I stepped into the conference room I lit up, excited to utilize my facilitation skills in raising awareness and empowering action to end gender-based violence. And once I set into my introduction, I saw the faces of the Uber staff light up as well. Each presentation began with Vijay’s story, as I shared the hope he inspired in me. That men—that all of us—can and should be leaders in transforming rape culture.
You see, there is a three-step framework for addressing social issues that I discuss in our corporate training programmes: reinforcement, accommodation, and transformation.
It is easy to reinforce, the status quo – to create boogeymen. It is easy to fall into the conceptual trap that “men will be men” and “they can’t help themselves.” It is easy to think that rape is only problem amongst poor, rural, uneducated men. It is them, not us.
It is also easy to accommodate norms, viewing drivers as high-risk individuals that need regulations to mitigate their threat. But background checks and jailings will only do so much. Because, in the end, it is not enough to teach women not to get raped. We have to begin teaching and expecting men not to rape. We have to hold our own humanity to a higher standard.
Vijay is a living, breathing example of this higher standard, and of how men can play a role in transforming rape culture; He is a leader for gender equality, unafraid to speak his mind about even the most taboo of subjects (talking about sex/rape with a gora girl, for example); He is a demonstration that in the most female-unfriendly city in India, he can empower his daughters; And even if he is one Uber driver in Delhi, he is proof that there can be more.
Thinking back, the reason Vijay gives me so much hope is that his words conjure possibility. I remember leaving his car with my spirits buoyed, imagining a day when I am no longer afraid riding a rickshaw, or a bus, or an Uber, or a subway.
Perhaps more than anything, Vijay reminded me the power of a few people standing up for what is right. As Audre Lorde once said, “when I dare to be powerful – to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” And perhaps I am still scared, but encouraged by the fact that I am not daring alone. Allies and leaders can be found in the most unlikely places, if I am just ready and willing to see them.
I am convinced that when I stand up for my rights and the rights of other women, Vijay is standing with me.