The young man waved his arm in the air, eager to be heard. In the crowded library on the second floor of Delhi’s American Center, the US embassy was hosting a talk on sexual harassment attended by dozens of Indian college students. It was five days shy of the two-year anniversary of the day on which a 23-year-old woman was gang-raped on a moving bus and left for dead, and less than a week since news had broken of an Uber taxi driver allegedly raping a 27-year-old passenger after she fell asleep in the back of his car.
Delhi’s reputation as the ‘rape capital of the world’ was again at the forefront of everybody’s minds. And many of those gathered had their own ideas about what was behind it, and what needed to be done to counter it.
“Man needs to understand the meaning of ‘no’,” the young man almost shouted into the microphone, before dismissing popular notions that high rape rates were the result of uneducated men migrating to India’s cities and seeking to assert sexual dominance over women they perceived as otherwise more powerful than them. “The problem is the patriarchy of the society,” he concluded, to applause from the audience.
Others also spoke up. One man sought to explain the prevalence of such attacks in the capital, attributing it to the existence of “late-night partying in Delhi which doesn’t happen in small towns.” A woman offered a deeper analysis. “The fault lies in the upbringing,” she said, close to tears. “We are always taught that girls are inferior to boys.”
When one of those present called out that she even felt uncomfortable with the stares and comments from young men at the Center, others clapped in acknowledgement. But the discussion quickly became an argument, and when the moderator intervened, the meeting came to an amicable, if inconclusive, close.
After the talk, I asked a few of the students what measures they took to protect themselves. Some contemplated taking a self-defence class, but none had actually done so. When questioned as to whether they would carry a gun – perhaps the revolver specifically created for women and named after the moniker Nirbhaya, or fearless one, given to the 2012 gang rape victim – the response was a combination of interest and bemusement. Most of them had never heard of the Nirbheek revolver, despite the fact that it made international headlines when it was first launched last year.
‘Any gun is treated as a masculine object’
The 525-gram, 0.32 calibre titanium black revolver comes encased in the type of plush velvet box more commonly associated with fine jewellery. Marketed as appropriate for women because of its light weight – the revolver it’s modelled on weighs 750 grams –, it came onto the market at a time when rape and sexual abuse, coupled with underlying problems of gender discrimination and patriarchy, have become part of the country’s national conversation.
But it was widely derided for what many perceived as the preposterous idea of guns promoting safety. And its cost – 122,365 rupees, or upwards of $2,000 – was ridiculed as unaffordable for its apparent target market: working women who use public transportation. The fact that the price has since risen – a result of an increase in the cost of the materials needed to make it – has further compounded this argument.
After the initial fervour surrounding its announcement, however, little has been mentioned of the gun. A year on, what are we to make of the Nirbheek revolver? What has it meant for Indian women?
That is how I found myself at the Field Gun Factory in Kanpur, a city in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh that is a roughly seven-hour drive from Delhi. It is where the revolver is manufactured and sold – and where a team of six male managers told me that the revolver was never intended to be linked with Nirbhaya. The research into the product began before her case grabbed the nation’s attention, they said, and it was the media that made the connection, just as they first coined the name Nirbhaya.
Although Indian media had reported that Delhi police received 1,200 calls from women inquiring about how they could obtain a gun license, and more than 200 applications from females for such in just the two weeks following the Nirbhaya case, the Nirbheek’s sales figures pale in comparison. As of February 25, 2015, exactly 11 months after the first Nirbheek was sold, only 345 more Nirbheek revolvers have found homes. And just 24 of them, or seven percent, were issued in women’s names.
It’s estimated there are about 40 million privately-owned firearms in India, held both legally and illegally, making it the second highest number in the world after the U.S. The large number is in part due to India’s enormous population; there are about three guns for every 100 people.
Seated in a conference room within the estate that houses the Field Gun Factory, the managers explained that they were aware that only a select class of people would be able to purchase the Nirbheek revolver. Its sales figures, therefore, do not come as a surprise to them.
“Still, any sort of gun is treated as a masculine object,” explained Dinesh Singh, one of the managers. And what was intended to make the revolver attractive to women – its light weight and ornamental box – also appeals to the main purchasers of guns in India, he said: men.
Another manager described the difficulties in obtaining a gun license, which can often be a drawn out process and, like so many bureaucratic procedures in India, prone to corruption. The result, suggested Vijay Mittal, one of the managers, is that some men prefer to apply in the name of their wife — because they believe this is more likely to be successful.
‘It’s the consensual relationships people worry about’
In the aftermath of the Uber case in December, Rukmini Shrinivasan, a journalist and data reporter with India’s daily newspaper The Hindu, wrote an op-ed comparing the reality versus the rhetoric of rape in India. Gathering statistics collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on the number of reported rapes around the world in 2012, she found that India ranked 85 out of 121 countries. Analyzing data gathered by UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, she found that ten percent of women in India reported sexual violence perpetrated by their husbands, a figure that ranked India 43 out of 86 countries.
Naturally, she noted that rates of unreported sexual assault are likely to be high in a country where the stigma surrounding rape is great and marital rape isn’t even considered a crime. But her conclusions pointed toward a different story.
“Both sets of statistics together place India towards the middle to lower end of the global scale of sexual violence. Yet, for the last two years, the rhetoric around rape in India has not reflected this,” Shrinivasan wrote. “However, this statistically faulty focus on rape has led to both a misdiagnosis and a worsening of India’s real problem when it comes to women: autonomy.”
Sameera Khan, the co-author of the book Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, expanded upon these sentiments. In a conversation outside her office at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, where she teaches journalism and media studies, she explained that the concern about women’s safety in India is intricately intertwined with the unspoken worry about their independent decision-making.
“It’s not just a concern for our girls being sexually assaulted by a stranger in a non-consensual way,” she said. “It’s also the consensual relationships that a woman will form when she accesses public spaces and gets access to the world outside her home. The worry is that a woman going out for higher education, or for work, or just to hang out will make the wrong kind of choices and perhaps form consensual relationships with a man of the wrong type – of the wrong caste, class or religious background.”
Rahul Srivastava, the deputy superintendent of police and security in Lucknow, the capital of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, agreed that policing women is part of the Indian psyche, and said he isn’t surprised that more women aren’t buying the gun.
“Things are changing in metro cities, no doubt,” he said. “But most Indian women have never been taught to take decisions on their own, or defend themselves. A gun involves a very precise, calculated decision.”
Usha Vishwakarma, the founder of the Lucknow-based women’s self-defence group Red Brigade, echoed that view. She argued that the most important thing about any kind of self-defence is that it originates not just in the body, but also in the mind.
“In my opinion, any person who owns that revolver and doesn’t have a clarity of mind or confidence…,” she said, pausing to point her left index finger to her eye to indicate the kind of self-assurance she was referring to, “that revolver will become like a bomb”.
‘Everyone knows I have a gun’
In her 2013 book Girls With Guns – Firearms, Feminism, and Militarism, France Winddance Twine, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, argues that guns are “polysemic”. “They have multiple and competing meanings depending upon the context in which they are used,” she writes.
Although sociological research in the US does not support the claim that guns make women safer, she explained that different audiences view guns differently depending on their own histories.
“There is a group of women who purchase guns because they view it as right,” she told me. “It’s not so much that they want to defend themselves, but that it’s almost a badge of citizenship.”
But that an object men are socialised to embrace might be placed into female hands to use in self-defence makes little sense to some observers, including Binalakshmi Nepram, the founder of the Manipur Women’s Gun Survivors Network, named after the small state in east India.
“It’s not to provide women’s safety and security. It’s a means of using the emotions of women to use weapons,” she said.
Yet it seems the narrative on Nirbheek is in the eye of the beholder. Seema Kharbanda, the 52-year-old housewife who was the first person to buy one, has no qualms about owning the revolver. In fact, it’s her second gun.
She lives in a middle class neighbourhood in east Delhi with her husband Om, their two sons, a daughter-in-law and their baby granddaughter. When I mentioned their family name to a man on the street in the hope that he could help me locate their home, the neighbour repeated the name back to me along with Om’s phone number, which he had memorised. The family is known in this neighbourhood.
Their white, three-story home has a surveillance camera out front and stylish decor inside. Family photos occupy tables and bookshelves. Om showed me newspaper cuttings of reports about Seema and her gun, and boasted of how she fired it for hours on end at a shooting range. “She was wet with perspiration,” he said, smiling.
Like his wife, Om is a gun enthusiast. He’s had his license for 25 years, and got it in part because he feels his profile as a businessman involved in local Delhi politics makes him a potential target. “Everyone knows me,” he said.
Om continued talking after Seema entered the room, though her presence occupied more space than his words. Dressed in a silk salwar kameez and wearing diamonds on her wrist, nose and earlobes, she joked: “I am wearing so much jewellery; of course I have to carry a gun.”
She told me that she became interested in the Nirbheek revolver when she discovered how lightweight it is in comparison to the revolver she already owned, which she originally purchased to match up with her pistol and rifle-owning husband. She doesn’t always carry a weapon when she goes out, but doing so seemed easier with Nirbheek.
“I can just put it in my bag like this,” she said, demonstrating with her large, metallic purse. “When I have it in my bag, then my mind switches on. ‘I have it’.”
But the real benefit for her stems more from the reputation it builds. “Everyone knows I have a gun,” she said. Its function is more to deter an attack than to defend in the instance of one.
“I don’t even need it for criminals; just for myself,” she elaborated.
As we talked, her daughter-in-law brought in the newest member of the family, and the grandmother set about cooing and cradling the baby to sleep. Pondering whether the gun had increased her sense of confidence or her safety, she concluded with a smile: “Both.”
This piece originally published in March 2015 on the Al Jazeera English Magazine app’s womens’ issue, “What Women Want.”