Middle class women take matters in their own hands after losing faith in the authorities to protect them
An increasing number of Indian women are turning to firearms to protect themselves from crime. Popular with the educated and well-off middle class, guns purchases are part of the growing trend of the popularization of firearms in a country renowned for its culture of non-violent conflict resolution. With an estimated 40 million small arms in the hands of civilians, India has the second highest number of firearms after the U.S which has 270 million of the world’s 875 million known firearms (Small Arms Survey 2007).
Despite its rapid economic development and modernisation, life in India remains difficult for many women. Gulshun Rehman, a health programme development adviser at Save the Children UK who recently participated in a G20 poll assessing the quality of life for women, says that “In India, women and girls continue to be sold as chattels, married off as young as 10, burned alive as a result of dowry-related disputes and young girls exploited and abused as domestic slave labour.”
Like China and some other Asian countries, the Indian preference for sons has resulted in the decline in numbers of women in many areas in the country, resulting in the rise of sexual assault, human trafficking and even the practice of “wife-sharing” amongst brothers. Although the rights of women are ostensibly protected under the law, Indian authorities struggle to contain the increase in crimes against women. Issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, gang-rape and abduction are common occurrences; most harrowing are accounts of women being snatched from the street in Delhi to be gang-raped in moving vehicles.
Because of the patriarchal and conservative leanings that are common amongst police, magistrates and politicians as well as the general public, violence against women has an in-grained level of social acceptability in India. In particular, law-makers are reluctant to take action to stop the surge in crime against women for fear of losing the support of conservative voters. With wide spread misogyny and indifference to gender-based crime in the police force and government, women have plenty of reason to feel an increased level of threat.
Sushma Kapoor, South Asia deputy director for U.N. Women Gender experts highlights the considerable challenges women in India face given the its vast population of 1.2 billion and the immensity of its geographical spread. She says, “There are two India’s: one where we can see more equality and prosperity for women, but another where the vast majority of women are living with no choice, voice or rights.” For former group, guns are the solution that enables them to take responsibility for their own protection in light of the government’s lack of resolve in taking measures to defend them.
Dr Harveen Kaur Sidhu, a dentist from the north-western city of Chandigarh won’t travel without her newly purchased .22 revolver. “I don’t have faith in the police to protect me. There are so many attacks on women these days. It’s everybody’s right to defend themselves. I think all women who are vulnerable should be carrying guns.”
Anecdotal evidence indicates middle-class interest in firearms is quickly rising. Licences are hard to procure and the most common weapons are actually illegal, manufactured in backstreet workshops. Founded in 2009, the National Association for Gun Rights India, lobbies the government to reduce restrictions on firearms. “We are not trigger-happy people. We are looking at [using firearms] as a last resort. We see [guns] as a force equaliser,” said Rakshit Sharma, the group’s secretary general. He says that there are “many inquiries from women who want to know how to obtain a gun and stay within the law”.
For Navdeep, a housewife in Ludhiana, firearms give her added security. She keeps a shotgun at home and recently bought a lighter pistol for use when she is out of the house. “A lot of lower-class men, they harass women, so a gun is very good way of telling them to back off. If I am coming home late at night on my own, it is very necessary. Even if the police come, it is too late,” she said.
Similarly Anita Dhiman Dass who is also a resident of Ludhiana, is the owner of three weapons. “It’s so light. I put it in my bag when I go shopping, to the mall, to the market or wherever,” she says of her favourite pistol, a .22 Ruger, “It is very necessary. There is so much robbery these days. They just snatch chains and bangles.”
Government data revealed that roughly 31,300 licences have been issued to women in the Punjab region as of this year, with 31,026 of them going on to purchase firearms. Firearms sales are highest in wealth provinces with a history of armed conflict such as Punjab. Satish Kumar, a gun seller in Chandigarh, the Punjab state capital says “Business is very, very good better than it’s ever been. People buy weapons, 10% for security and 90% for status. People will happily spend 80,000 rupees (£9,600) on a foreign-made handgun.” Kumar says that although only one in 50 purchases were made by women, the number is steadily rising.
For Indian women, especially single working women who may come home late at night, travelling in public has never left them more exposed. “There are so many incidents, especially in Delhi. Women who are working or who are travelling should definitely have a gun,” said Sidhu. “Why should I be dependent on someone else, even my husband or the police, for my own safety? I should be independent.”
Arms Survey director Keith Krause points out, “Weapons ownership may be correlated with rising levels of wealth, and that means we need to think about future demand in parts of the world where economic growth is giving people larger disposable income.” Despite the failure of the authorities to protect them, firearms have provided middle-class Indian women with an avenue towards independence. “Imagine all the problems and mishaps which could be avoided if women could defend themselves properly,” said Sidhu. She remains defiant in her beliefs: “The females have to be self-armed and protected and should send out a strong message that we are not taking this anymore.”
Original story: Jason Burke, The Guardian May 21 2012 Indian Women Turn to Firearms against Threat of Violence
India.com Health, June 13 2012 Why India is the Worst Place For Women
Mahr, Krista, Time, December 21 2010 Is India’s Gun Violence Spiralling Out of Control?
Baldwin, Katherine, Reuters, June 13 2012 Canada Best G20 Country to be a Woman, India Worst
MacInnis, Laura, Reuters, August 28 2007 U.S Most Armed Country with 90 Guns per 100 People
Smallarmssurvey.org, September 2011 Estimating Civilian Owned Firearms Research Note No. 9
- Overdorf, Jason, Si Teng, Poh December 20 2010 India: Illegal Guns Plague Cities Available: http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/india/101214/india-illegal-guns-gun-control-crime?page=full