A year has passed since the horrific gang rape of a 23 year old in Delhi. Have things improved for women, have things changed, have perceptions and attitudes changed? Read about some women in police uniform and what they told the Wall Street Journal… Women police officers now account for just 91 of the more than 1,200 inspectors in the Delhi police force…
SANGEETA, 26 (Rajinder Nagar police ,station, Central district)
When sub-inspector Sangeeta changes out of her police uniform, she fears she may be harassed, perhaps even sexually assaulted, on her way home. When she is wearing civilian clothes, said the detective, who goes by a single name, “no one knows I’m in the police. I don’t feel so safe.” So Ms. Sangeeta rarely sets off alone on her commute. Sometimes, she asks male colleagues to accompany her on the bus for the hour-long ride from the police station to the lower-middle class neighborhood where she lives with her family.
At first, it wasn’t easy for her make those requests. Even now, Ms. Sangeeta says, “I feel uncomfortable talking to a guy,” especially if he’s someone who is much older than her. When the young cop travels by subway, she calls on her older brother to pick her up from the station. And on days when work runs past 10 p.m., Ms. Sangeeta prefers to stay overnight at the police station. “No woman—even if she’s a cop—can be safe here in Delhi,” the policewoman says. Her parents worry too. After a horrific gang rape in the capital in December, she says, her mother texts her “every two hours” to ask if she’s okay.
Stationed in a fairly affluent part of the city, Ms. Sangeeta mostly deals with thefts or squabbles, unlike her police academy classmates who work in more crime-prone areas.
Sometimes she needs to use crowd control. On a recent October day, Ms. Sangeeta joined two dozen male constables on a dusty street in old Delhi to prevent a stampede as people celebrated the birthday of an Indian saint. “It’s an adventurous job,” the young cop says. “But, for women, it’s risky and unsafe too.”
NEETU INSAN, 28 (Khanjawla police station, Outer district)
Neetu Insan says she has mixed feelings about the fact that sex crimes and domestic-abuse cases are almost always shunted to female officers. “If a call comes, people’s mindset is that ‘this is for madam,’” said Ms. Insan, a sub-inspector in a police precinct on the outskirts of the capital. “Everyone should do the same kind of work. We have to make everyone sensitive, not just women.” For one thing, she said, she worries that this division will make it hard for women police officers—who now account for just 91 of the more than 1,200 inspectors in the Delhi police force—to move up in the ranks.
“Tomorrow if one of us becomes a station house officer, we’ll have done only two kinds of crime: rape and dowry,” Ms. Insan said. “How will we handle it?”
India’s sex-segregated approach to justice carries other risks, too, she said. In March, Ms. Insan took a young girl, the victim of an alleged rape attempt, to court. It was a weekend and the male magistrate on duty told Ms. Insan that he couldn’t take the child’s statement — only a woman could do that. “‘It can’t be done today,” the magistrate said, according to Ms. Insan. Ms. Insan said she responded, ‘Sir, she’s five years old. Today, she’s happy, she’s playing she’s telling us two details less than she told us yesterday. By tomorrow she’ll forget everything. Then what statement will she give?”
Eventually, a female magistrate was pulled in from the traffic court to take the statement. Still, she said, she understands that given the cultural sensitivities that prevail, women officers may be the only ones in whom other women will confide.
Earlier this year, Ms. Insan met with a young mother whose toddler had been molested by a middle-aged man. Initially, the woman was reluctant to press formal charges, Ms. Insan said.
“It’s only a little touching and the man apologised,” Ms. Insan says the mother, barely out of her teens, told her. Ms. Insan had a two-hour conversation with the woman, and listened to her talk about her life. She also suggested reasons why it might be a good idea to register a complaint. “We told her, ‘Tomorrow he could do something worse.’” Eventually, the mother agreed. “That’s when I understood the need for a lady sub-inspector,” said Ms. Insan.
PRATIMA, 30 (Kotla Mubarakpur police station, South district)
Pratima is used to being the object of questions and curiosity in Rasulpur, her village of 3,000 in the eastern Indian State of Bihar. In Rasulpur, it’s common for women to marry immediately after finishing high school. Pratima chose a radically different course. When she used to arrive home on weekends from college in the city ofPatna, where she was studying English Literature, she sometimes wore jeans instead of the more traditional salwar-kameez.
“Everyone pointed it out,” said the 30-year-old. “At that time it was a very unique thing.” Still, she didn’t wear jeans very often: “My father was not very happy with that kind of attire.” It also made things awkward for her two older sisters, whose in-laws would also remark upon the fact that their sister was unmarried, going to college and wearing jeans. Later, when she decided to leave her job as a schoolteacher and apply to join the Delhi Police, people asked her father, “Why are you permitting her go for that job?” she recalls.
Being a teacher was considered more suitable for a woman, Pratima says, with its fixed hours that would allow plenty of time to take care of a home and children. Once she made it into the force, and began living with another girl her age in Delhi, people in the village asked her father, “Why are you letting your daughter stay alone inDelhi?” People in the community were concerned that with so much freedom, she might go astray.
The police officer said prying and passing judgment are not traits unique to a village. She says she sees the same conservative views towards women even in Delhi, a city of 17 million. “If I’m coming home at 11 p.m., my landlord understands that I’m in the police,” she said. “But my roommate works in banking. If she comes back at 11 p.m. he’ll ask, ‘Why are you coming so late?’”
PINKI RANA, 24 ( Shakarpur police station, East district)
Sub-Inspector Pinki Rana stumbled on a new law-enforcement tool after she did a very simple thing: change her WhatsApp profile photo. Ms. Rana used to have a photograph of herself in police uniform displayed on the smartphone messaging app. When she switched to one dressed in plain-clothes, she started getting a stream of flirtatious messages from men she didn’t know. Now, she said, when she is trying to track down suspects in the sexual assault cases she handles, she just enters their phone number among the contacts on one of her messaging apps and waits.
“All I have to do is add them…and the texts come in,” Ms. Rana says. “As soon as they see a woman’s photo on my profile, they start flirting.” When a suspect suggests a rendezvous, she assembles a police team and arrests him when he arrives looking for a romantic encounter. In the beginning, she said, she wasn’t sure how to flirt via text. Her own teenage years were spent studying. It was station-house chief, a veteran male officer in his forties, who taught her how to draft flirtatious responses.
Recently, Ms. Rana arrested a man who allegedly used threats of suicide to seduce women—and then blackmailed them for extra pocket money. “It gives me great pleasure to handcuff such men,” said Ms. Rana says. “This is what you get in return for misbehaving with women.” Ms. Rana said she has no plans to date now, either. She says her parents will find a husband for her when the time is right. “I’ll hear about the wedding when they tell me to show up for it,” she said with a smile.
VANDANA NIMOLA, 25 (Bhajanpura police station, Northeast district)
One day in late September last year, Vandana Nimola, a Delhi Police sub-inspector, was sifting through a pile of garbage, looking for clues in the case of a two-and-a-half year old girl who had been gang raped and tossed in a trash bin. The traumatised toddler was unable to identify the men who brutalised her. But Ms. Nimola eventually managed to track the three alleged culprits down after getting leads from a worker at the dump site. The men are now on trial. “I do get very angry,” said Ms. Nimola, who has now been on the force for two years. “Brutal cases just won’t stop coming in… But crying over it won’t achieve anything.”
On the desk in her small office at the station house, files are piled up. During a recent visit by a reporter, Ms. Nimola was handling six rape cases, four harassment complaints related to dowry gifts as well as a handful of domestic-violence and sex-abuse investigations. Being a police officer was Ms. Nimola’s childhood dream. She wanted to follow in the footsteps of her father, a Delhi constable. “As a child, I was in awe of my father’s police uniform,” she says. The people of the neighborhood respected him because of his job. “I wanted that for myself,” she said.
Her father, however, opposed the idea. Ms. Nimola said he told her: “A 12-hour shift is very tough. You will not be able to manage.” The hours, though long, aren’t a problemBut being a cop—particularly a female cop—hasn’t been easy, said Ms. Nimola. Sometimes she has to call in male colleagues to help her interrogate suspects. “Some men are completely unresponsive when being questioned by a female cop,” she said. “In their eyes, we are women, not cops. They don’t fear us.”
To cope with that, Ms. Nimola has learned to adopt a tough approach with suspects, raising her voice at the slightest hint that they’re not taking the situation—or her—seriously. At a February meeting with a mobile shop owner as part of efforts to track down a cellphone stalker, Ms. Nimola inquired politely about irregularities in his paperwork that were making it difficult to identify the caller. The shop owner initially denied there was anything amiss with the paperwork. She quickly changed tack.
“Are you illiterate?” said Ms. Nimola loudly. “Go and run a tea stall if you don’t know how or when to file paperwork…don’t play the innocent with me.”