New Delhi: The schoolgirls ran into the auditorium, shouting, “Let’s go, let’s go,” in Hindi as they ushered one another into single-file lines. Some adjusted the big, red bows that held their braids together, part of their school uniform. Then they crouched into defensive postures, fists ready.
“Oss!” they yelled — a karate greeting combining the Japanese words for push and persevere.
They bowed slightly to their mentors before unleashing a series of punches, karate chops and kicks, interspersed with occasional giggles, whispers and sheepish smiles.
“Do not laugh!” Police Constable Renu, who like many Indians goes by one name, called from the stage above them, her white T-shirt emblazoned with “Respect Women” on the back.
“Do you think they will laugh when they attack you?” she asked. “You must strike back with anger.”
The girls stifled their smiles, their fists pummeling the air faster, with more determination. This was their seventh self-defense class, and they were feeling confident enough, many of them said, to do the unthinkable: stand up for themselves.
Constable Renu has been teaching this free, 10-day course hosted by the New Delhi police — a combination of karate, taekwondo and judo moves — for the past eight years in the city’s public schools and universities.
The initiative, with classes taught by several female officers, also includes summer and winter camps for women, and a course called “gender sensitization for boys,” a lawyer-led course that teaches men how to help women in trouble and how to be more respectful to them in public spaces. It’s about making them “feel responsible towards girls and women,” Constable Renu said.
Booked solid for the next six months, Constable Renu said she has never been busier, as anxiety among women and girls grows with a stream of news headlines describing brutal assaults across the country, including recent national outrage after an 8-year-old girl was kidnapped, gang raped and murdered.
Since a 23-year-old woman, Jyoti Pandey Singh, was beaten, gang raped and fatally injured while riding a bus in the capital in 2012, women here have been on edge. That attack prompted intense soul-searching and a fierce public debate about an issue that, though long pervasive, was seldom addressed. It also gave many women the courage to come forward and demand justice in such assaults, rather than suffer in silence, too ashamed to speak up.
On a recent Tuesday morning, at the Navjeevan Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya school, widely known as NSKV, Constable Renu led about 180 girls, aged 11 to 17, through possible scenarios of men grabbing them from behind as they walked down the street, striking a blow to their heads or lunging for their necks. In each case, the girls responded with the moves they had been taught to deflect such attacks — grunting, kicking and punching in unison.
“The first move we teach them in the class is how to make a full-throated cry for help when they are attacked,” Constable Renu said, explaining that the girls tend to be reserved, making it hard for them to make the ruckus needed to alert others that they are in distress.
“To be able to make such a sound is empowering in itself,” she said.
A newcomer to New Delhi, I have been struck by the caution I’ve been advised to exercise, and the grim warnings issued. A few weeks ago, I took my young son to a public park, watching as he gravitated to a young boy who was being tended to by his grandparents, visiting from Kolkata. They spoke about their frequent trips to the capital to visit their daughter and her children.
“Thank god we have grandsons — Delhi is no place for a young girl,” the grandfather said, his wife nodding in agreement. The sentiment struck me not as sexist, but as one of genuine fear, as they listed their concerns and nightmare scenarios.
Back in the classroom, Mona Shamsher, a 16-year-old student, showed me her favorite move as she crouched into a sumo-squat, a two-fisted punch to the gut.
“I like it because it’s good for my height,” she said.
“For an uppercut punch, I’d have to jump like this,” she chuckled, as her small frame, no more than 5 feet tall, leapt into the air to strike an imaginary attacker.
Since her older sister was assaulted while walking alone in their neighborhood last year, Mona said, she had not felt safe on the streets until this month, when her school offered the self-defense course.
“At this time, girls aren’t safe,” she said. “Men treat us like we aren’t human.”
But she added, a clenched fist grinding into the palm of her open hand, “this gives me confidence.”
(Source: New York Times)