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The sound of a tree falling

After the Delhi rapes, a female scientist speaks out

Tarabai 27 January 2013

Shadowed: professional women in India face fears

Someone tries the door and I freeze in silence – hoping, praying that this time it is just one of my colleagues, come back to start his experiments

Today, I stand in a crowd holding a placard – asking for justice, asking for the space to move safely, asking for the freedom to live my life the way I want. Will you hear my story still? Or will my voice be lost as you move on to fresher news – the agony of the previous month forgotten?

Yesterday, I bent over a table filled with instruments, intent on my work. I am a scientist and an engineer and yes, I am a woman. I work in a laboratory where the soft hum of detectors and gas chromatographs forms the background music to my experiments. My work is supposed to be important, here in this country of a billion and more people. The search for fresh water, clean water that all can drink freely is important, people say.

I am one of those who chose to work in this arena, haunted by the sight of children playing on the streets and drinking brown water. Haunted too by the memory of the women with parched lips and soiled sarees who came to my childhood home to ask if they could get a glass of water from the tap in our house during the drought, for they had no other access to water. And yet, working alone in the laboratory at night, as footsteps echo loudly in the corridor I wonder – did I make the right choice? As the girl who rode the bus in Delhi that horrific December night must have wondered – was there really a choice?

For my work needs experiments in the laboratory, not safely conducted at home on a computer – experiments run over many days and nights. I need to stand by the side of my instruments, collecting samples, injecting solutions, analyzing data. I cannot ask my experiments to wait – for I am feeling unsafe tonight. I cannot go home when the sun sets, for I will miss collecting the data that I need to solve the problem. I cannot ask a colleague to do my work for me – for thus are differences introduced into a controlled experiment.

What then can I do? Just what I have been doing this past month – setting up the experiment, sitting in the laboratory with a stopwatch by my side trying to catch a quick nap, and locking the door to the laboratory for whatever little safety it provides. And yet, when I hear the footsteps in the corridor, I look around for weapons that I pray I may never need to use. Acid bottles within arms’ reach, packets of caustic potash by the side of my laboratory notebook, an empty glass beaker that I may need to break…

Someone tries the door and I freeze in silence – hoping, praying that this time it is just one of my colleagues, come back to start his experiments. Hoping that I can still trust my colleagues to behave with respect and kindness towards me, even if I am the only woman in this group of scientists. Hoping that if I have to start screaming, someone will hear and come and not turn away indifferently. For I am one of those women – I do not know my place. I am an engineer, a scientist, a working woman, dependent on no one, deferring to no man. I work in the laboratory and at night, I challenge the opinions of others – for that is the scientific method. I do it out of passion for this wonderful subject, out of love for this good earth and a desire to help those who have little when I have so much.

Would those reasons help if I had to defend myself tonight? If I defended myself successfully and had to stand up in a courtroom and say that it was only self-defense, would the judges believe me? Or would they see another woman, out to ruin the Indian family, out to challenge the way society has always been? Someone who needs to be kept in her place firmly – perhaps even violently? And would those standing by say – it was her fault, after all. She should have been home before the sun set and could she not have arranged things better? Or would they whisper behind closed doors – she stays alone in the laboratory many nights, I wonder what else she does there? And the innuendos would follow, like a snail’s slimy trail, touching, sticking, making my work impossible.

The footsteps hesitate and move away. I breathe a sigh of relief and then look quickly at my stopwatch. Time for another sample to be collected. And holding the pipette in my hand I wonder – is this any way to do science? Spending my time watching a locked door and thinking of weapons and my safety instead of reading the pile of journal articles on my desk? Being told that the only reason I get better results and more recognition in the scientific world is because I am a woman and I work hard – where a man would simply get those results because of his innate brilliance. Where at a job interview I am asked, not questions about my skills or publications – but questions about what I plan to do once I get married, since I am obviously only doing this work to fill the time before my “real” job of being a wife and having babies starts.

For the millionth time since the Delhi rape I think, perhaps it is time for me to move on to a different country where I can work in peace, without the constant fear. Perhaps that is the only way I can help others, for as a woman in this society, I am not valued, I am not encouraged, I am not safe. And then I remember the little girl I was, who told my parents so confidently that I would help fix the environment, that I would make sure that no more Bhopals happened in India, that I loved my country and wanted to help, not run away.

The anguish that filled me when I read the story of Nirbhaya that terrible night wells up again, spilling over like the song of the koel outside the window. I thought I could read the newspaper and forget – I thought I could suppress the anger, the fear and the hatred that rose up inside. And after all, I had experiments to run and science to perform and papers to write. Was I not supposed to be objective and not emotional? I thought that no one would care if I spoke or stood or protested.

But if a tree falls in the forest and no one is a witness, does it still make a sound? So today, I stand with a placard in a crowd, telling my story and my dreams in the only way I know, hoping that my voice reaches the world outside….