GURGAON - Shoes are not allowed on the foam mat. We are surrounded by the noise of fists hitting the leather of the punching bags, the high-paced breathing of two fighters training one-on-one.
We are in Gurgao, in the suburbs southwest of New Delhi, a snapshot of the fast-developing India with its shiny new buildings. But meanwhile, Pallevi Sarda and Shruti Sharma, both 20, are feeling a bit awkward in this self-defense club.
“I’m just giving it a shot, to see how it goes,” Sarda says, grinning. You can tell how new the young women are to this activity by the fact that they still have all their clothes on: jeans, coat and scarf. The instructor stands next to them, demonstrating a few moves: dodging and disarming an assailant.
Sarda and Sharma are emblematic of the social movement that flared up in New Delhi late December, and that still is going strong. They represent, in their own way, just how strong was the impact of the December 16 rape – and subsequent death – of an Indian student, was on the young women of this country.
“This tragedy convinced us to quickly act for our self-protection,” admits Sarda. “It’s becoming a necessity,” adds Sharma.
The two women have the typical profile of the young Indian women stepping into the professional world – they are analysts in a counseling company, and they are at an age where they face insecurity on a daily basis. Working in Gurgaon, a business district far from the city center, means a long daily commute. And after they get off work rather late, they take public transportation. “We have to take the subway or the bus,” explains Pallevi Sarda. “If we leave work at 8 p.m., we get home around 9:30 or 10. The streets can be dangerous then.”
They have both been sexually harassed on their commute. “I don’t know a single Indian woman who hasn't faced this problem,” continues Sarda. "It’s part of our daily lives.”
Sharma notes that she and her friends rarely react: “We don’t want to make a scene.”
Just like Pallevi Sarda and Shruti Sharma, more and more young women have decided it was time to take care of this themselves. The club’s chief instructor in Gurgaon, Anuj Sharma, a muscular man with a ponytail is a primary witness to this phenomenon. “More and more women are joining,” he says. “The awareness is growing on a large scale.”
Within a year, the number of female members in his club - Invictus Survival Sciences - went from 20 to 50 approximately. “The women represent now around 20% of our customer base. We didn’t have any in 2005,” he says.
Sarda and Sharma giggle during the opening exercise, but they appear determined. They believe that the New Delhi demonstrations, people in the streets, the news coverage and the politicians making promises are not sufficient to make the women feel safe. “I don’t think Indian men will change their attitude toward women after all this," says Sarda. "We are still hearing about new incidents. Men don’t change so women have to change. That’s why we’re here.”
It’s going to be a long struggle to make that change. “The Indian society is still dominated by men,” Sarda says. “We’re going to have to get at the roots of the problem – family values. We need to teach boys how to respect a woman from an young age.”