To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men. the social presence of women has developed as a result of their ingenuity in living under such tutelage within such a limited space.

— John Berger, "Ways of Seeing"

One of the most widely held beliefs is that the home is a “haven” for girls and women, that the risks and violence lurk in wait outside the home, that women can be safe as long as they leave home only “when needed”.

In February 2017, former Andhra Pradesh speaker Kodela Shiva Prasad of the Telugu Desam Party addressed a press conference ahead of a ‘national Women’s Parliament’ hosted at Amaravati. He said, helpfully, that women were safe as long as they were parked at home like cars.

“Let’s say you buy a vehicle. When it is parked in the garage at home, accidents can be avoided, right? When it is taken to a bazaar or to the road, accidents are likely to happen...similarly, in older times, when women were housewives, they were safe from all kinds of atrocities, except discrimination. today, they are studying, working, and doing business. they are exposed to the society. When they are exposed to the society, they are more prone to eve-teasing, harassment, atrocities, rape and kidnap. Is it not? If they do not leave home, it doesn’t happen.”

Shiva Prasad’s analogy might be especially ridiculous and crude, however, every woman has probably heard milder, less obviously outrageous versions of the same idea. The facts, of course, belie these notions. A Delhi High Court bench, commenting on the large number of murders of women in their matrimonial homes, with the husband as the prime accused, said, “It appears that the married women in India are safer on the streets than in their matrimonial homes.”

This is true, though you wouldn’t know it for the disproportionate focus on stranger rapes in the media. Nor is this situation unique to India, with its “tradition” of dowry extortion and dowry killings.

In 2012, Jyoti Singh was gang-raped and killed on a Delhi bus, and stranger rape dominated conversations about gender violence in India and the world. The same year, a United Nations study showed that of all women who were the victims of homicide globally, almost half were killed by intimate partners or family members, compared to less than 6 per cent of men killed similarly.

A study in Ireland found that 87 per cent of women who were murdered in Ireland over the last twenty years were killed by a man they knew; and 63 per cent were killed in their own homes. The world over, then, streets are safer than their own homes for women, and homes are the places where women face the most dangerous violence, at the hands of those they know intimately. In India, however, confinement to the home itself is a form of violence that is not even acknowledged.

In his Hindi poem, “Band Khidkiyon se takra Kar” (Crashing against Closed Windows), Gorakh Pandey, a revolutionary poet, strips away the many layers of pompous chants about women’s “greatness” to point out the obvious: the fact that women are imprisoned in the four walls of their homes – and the locked walls and windows make the home a suffocating prison, not a haven, for women.

Is it an exaggeration to speak of women’s homes as prisons, to use the word “custody” to describe them as being in “judicial custody” or “police custody”? Aren’t most homes cherished by women as a place of privacy, safety and comfort?

To answer that question, let us take a look at some of the stark facts about Indian women’s lives in their homes. The latest national Family Health survey 2015-16 (NFHs-4) found that just 41 per cent of Indian women aged between fifteen and forty-nine are allowed to go alone to the market, to the health centre, and outside the community (NFHs-4); 26 per cent of women and 16 per cent of men thought that a man would be justified in beating his wife if she went out of the house without telling him.

Do women from Dalit and Adivasi communities have greater freedom of movement than women of the dominant castes? The NFHs-4 findings don’t support this widely held belief: there is very little variation amongst women of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and “other” castes when it comes to being allowed to go out of the house.

Another study, the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), made a distinction between women being able to go out alone and women having to seek permission to go out, finding that:

[B]etter educated women make more decisions in the household and are able to go to more places on their own; however, there is less evidence that they can go without asking for permission from someone in the household. Similarly, women working for pay or working in a family business can make more household decisions and can go to more places on their own, but again there is no significant relationship with whether they can go out without taking permission to do so.

The IHDS also found that:

[T]here are surprisingly few differences among women in different social groups. Dalit and OBC women do have more freedom to leave the household by themselves, though surprisingly, this freedom of movement does not extend to Adivasi women. there are no measurable differences between Hindu, Muslim and women of other religious minority communities. Also, caste differences are not found in the case of the more private household empowerment measures of decision-making and women having to ask permission to leave the house.

The NFHs-4 found that young and never-married women were subjected to the greatest restrictions on movement: older, married women gained more freedom of movement, but still, just 55 per cent of women between the ages of forty and forty-nine enjoyed such freedom. It’s likely that the restrictions on women loosen as they age, because the burden of their household labour is likely to have shifted in good measure to a younger woman – a daughter or a daughter-in-law, who is also the subject of intense surveillance and control.

If you think education makes for greater freedom for women, you are wrong. Education contributes only marginally to freedom of movement: 42.9 per cent women with no schooling and 45.3 per cent women with twelve years or more of schooling have freedom of movement (NFHs-4).

What do these facts and figures really mean?

They translate to a life lived “crashing against walls”, like a bird caught in a closed room, battered by every attempt to escape and fly free.

There’s really no way to dress up this life and romanticise it as “safe”, as the only life where one’s “honour” is safe.

It means that young girls and women grow up under almost-total surveillance, denied even the mere dream of privacy. It means that newly-wed brides are even more confined when they are married into faraway homes: like migrant labour just arrived in the city, they are isolated, unable to draw on their friends and familiar neighbourhoods.

This does not mean that these violent homes are not “loving” homes: the point is that love, concern and caring do not automatically translate into respect for autonomy and personhood. The love is for the idea of the daughter or sister or daughter-in-law—and that love may turn into violence if the woman and her choices fall foul of the idea of what she is expected to be.

such intense and obsessive confinement of women is not ‘safety’. It’s time we recognized it as violence in its own right. the cautionary tale of the ‘Lakshman rekha’ distracts us with the fear of the evil Ravana lurking in wait if women breach the ‘circle of safety’ at their doorstep. It makes us forget that to be confined within four walls is to be prevented from living life fully, to be condemned to the suffocating existence of a caged bird.

Fearless Freedom

Excerpted with permission from Fearless Freedom, Kavita Krishnan, Penguin Books.