NEW DELHI: Preeti Singh worries each time her 20-year-old daughter has a late night at the hospital where she's a medical student. If her daughter has to stay late, Singh tells her to wait for daylight to come home.
“I was brought up with the fear that once it's dark you should be at home,” says Singh, a 43-year-old kindergarten teacher in Bangalore, India's technology hub. “I can't shake that fear.”
Across India, women tell similar stories. Now there is hope for change.
For decades, women have had little choice but to walk away when groped in a crowded bus or train or to simply cringe as someone tosses an obscene comment their way. Even if they haven't experienced explicit sexual abuse themselves, they live with the fear that it could happen to them or a loved one.
The gang rape and beating of a 23-year-old university student on a moving bus in India's capital has taken sexual violence – a subject long hidden in the shadows of Indian society – and thrust it into the light.
Following the Dec 16 attack in New Delhi, which resulted in the woman's death, hundreds of thousands of Indians – both men and women – poured onto the streets of cities across the country, holding candlelight vigils and rallies demanding that authorities take tougher action to create a safe environment for women.
“At least now people are talking,” says Rashmi Gogia, a 35-year-old receptionist in a New Delhi law office.
Associated Press journalists interviewed women across India, from the northern cities of Lucknow and Allahabad, to Bangalore in the south, and from the eastern cities of Patna and Gauhati to Ahmedabad in the west.
The outrage sparked by the heinous attack has given women at least a measure of hope that the country of 1.2 billion people will see meaningful improvement in how women are treated, though most realise any change is likely to come slowly.
“These protests have at least given women the confidence to talk about sexual violence,” says Singh, the kindergarten teacher in Bangalore. “For too long, women have been made to feel guilty for these things.”
Like every woman in India, Singh has her own rules for her daughter's safety. “We make sure she messages us when she reaches (the hospital) and when she leaves for home,” she says.
Women who were willing to talk about an unwelcome touch or a crude remark they'd experienced said they had learned to ignore it. Most said they convinced themselves to shrug off these routine assaults and humiliations to avoid angering their attackers, or for fear of bringing shame upon themselves and their families.
“What can you do? You have to work, you have to commute,” says Yasmin Talat, a 20-year-old graduate student and career counselor in Allahabad whose parents do not allow her to go out alone after 7 pm.
“Sometimes I do get angry and say something,” she says, “but I'm also scared. You never know what could anger these men.”
Aparna Dasa, a 35-year-old saleswoman at a Gauhati department store, said whenever she gets into a crowded bus men try to hold her hand as she grasps the overhead support bar. “They try and touch at every opportunity.”
“When I'm on a crowded bus and someone says something bad to me, in my heart I want to give him a tight slap, but I've learned to ignore it,” says Gogia, the New Delhi receptionist. “What's the use? All the blame always comes back to the woman.”
“We stay silent from a sense of shame,” she adds, “or are made to stay silent.”
The harassment and violence faced daily by millions of Indian women is a deeply entrenched part of a culture that values men over women.
The mistreatment starts early – with sex-selective abortions and even female infanticides that have wildly skewed India's gender ratio. India's 2011 census showed that the country had 914 girls under age 6 for every 1,000 boys.
Indian movies and television shows routinely trivialise women. In the often suggestive songs and dances of Bollywood films, it's not unusual for the leading man and a gang of his buddies to chase a coyly reluctant actress, touching, pulling and throwing themselves on top of her.
On television, the most popular soap operas show the ideal Indian woman as meek, submissive and accepting of her traditional role inside the home.
Any discussion of sexual violence has so far been taboo. In the past, politicians have said that women should dress modestly and not stay out late to avoid rape and molestations.
But following the New Delhi gang rape, the usually lethargic government machinery has responded more quickly, and with more empathy than before.
Perhaps sensing the intensity of public anger – some activists and protesters have demanded that all rapists be chemically castrated, given the death penalty or even lynched in public – the government has vowed to enlist more women police officers and toughen sexual assault laws.
The public outpouring of anger and support has made many women across India feel like their fears and concerns are finally being heard.
Ranjana Kumari, director of the Center for Social Research and a longtime women's rights activist, said the fact that boys and men had joined the protests “gives us hope.”
“Then it becomes everyone's issue, and not just a women's issue,” she said.
But no one imagines that change will be quick.
“The process is gradual,” Kumari said. “Extremely patriarchal societies don't change in short bursts. But this movement will certainly not go to waste.”