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India’s Ladycops

Exclusive access to a police station in India run by women for women reveals a unique perspective on a changing society.

Hundreds of women’s police stations have been set up across India to combat domestic abuse and sexual violence, following the Delhi rape case in December 2012. 

Parmila Dalal is second-in-command at the women’s police station in Sonipat, in the northern state of Haryana. Every day she has to deal with the cases the public bring to her. 

Some days she works as a typical police officer, investigating crimes or managing matters of public order. But much of Parmila’s time is spent mediating in family disputes, in which she acts more as a counsellor or social worker. 

She encounters family members at war over such contentious matters as caste, dowry payment and relations with abusive in-laws. India’s Ladycops reveals how women’s lives are changing in India today, and how they often struggle to reconcile the conflicting demands made upon them. 

Parmila Dalal, the second-in-command at the women's police station in Sonipat, spends much of her time mediating in family disputes, attempting to keep peace and cohesion within her community wherever possible [Rumi Hamid and Misha Maltsev]
Parmila Dalal, the second-in-command at the women’s police station in Sonipat, spends much of her time mediating in family disputes, attempting to keep peace and cohesion within her community wherever possible [Rumi Hamid and Misha Maltsev]


By Ruhi Hamid

Like everyone else I was shocked by the 2012 Delhi rape case in which a young woman was beaten, gang-raped and tortured on a bus as she made her way home with a friend after an evening out. She was so badly injured that she died in hospital two days later. In a country that reveres goddesses, and talks about the “mata”, or mother, as in Mother India, I wondered what it’s really like to be a woman in India.

The incident was widely condemned, both in India and abroad. Public protests followed, with shows of anger against the state, government and the police in particular for failing to provide adequate security for women. The government’s response was to set up hundreds of police stations across India, led by female officers. Their aim was to encourage women to report their grievances and crimes against them there. 

This presented an ideal opportunity for me as a filmmaker to get a unique perspective on how India treats its women. I set off on a reconnaissance mission in the states of Rajasthan and Haryana to find a suitable women’s police station.

Young women's hopes and expectations have changed. They want more independence and more freedom

by Ruhi Hamid, Filmmaker

In two weeks I travelled hundreds of miles along dusty roads visiting numerous stations and meeting countless female officers. Finally, at a police station in Sonipat, some 50 miles north of Delhi, I came across Parmila Dalal.

Within five minutes of meeting Parmila I knew I’d found my main character. She was open, straight-talking and feisty, but also kind – and above all a natural on camera. I filmed with her for a few days, returned to London to make a taster tape, and secured a commission. I was all set to go back to India but it took us almost two years to secure filming permissions and visas before I could start filming in September 2016. 

One reason I chose a small town station such as Sonipat was that I wanted to get beyond the sensational headlines of serious crimes against women. I preferred to look at what women face on a day-to-day basis, and I quickly came to see that their main problems were of a domestic nature. Most concerned marital issues: they often involved a young woman struggling to adjust to married life within her new husband’s extended family.

Despite India being a so-called economic superpower, women’s lives outside the big cities are generally conservative and traditional. However, with the continuing push for girls’ education, young women’s hopes and expectations have changed. Educated girls get a taste for freedom and independence while they are in college. They meet boys and often have relationships. They are then often forced into marrying someone of their parents’ choosing so they enter the marriage disappointed. They’re not satisfied with their traditional role of subservient housewife.

On the other hand, economic constraints within the extended family mean that boys are often forced to leave education early to find work. Husbands who are not educated don’t understand their wives’ sense of independence and confidence. They get jealous of their former liaisons and can become antagonistic and controlling. Clashes between husband and wife arise and divorce rates are on the increase.

It was fascinating to see how Parmila handled the stream of cases at her women police station. Many women complained about getting treated badly by their mother-in-law or brother-in-law. There were a few cases about dowry demands, which can happen when the in-laws are not happy with the woman and begin complaining that she is not worth having as she didn’t bring enough dowry.

Parmila’s ethos is to keep peace and cohesion within her community wherever possible, so she was often acting more as a social worker than a police officer. Rather than choosing punitive measures, she would try for reconciliation between people. She’s a strong believer in the joint family system and works hard to keep families together.

After the time I spent with Parmila at her workplace, witnessing the turmoil of people’s lives, it was a relief to see her at home with her own extended family, managing her personal life with such grace and humour.

During the shoot, I came to see the police station as a microcosm of the fault lines in Indian society. Caste discrimination and dowry have been outlawed, yet cultural attitudes have been slower to change; and despite stricter laws against rape, the number of cases has not decreased. But at least women are now more confident about reporting cases of sexual violence, since they know there will be a female officer to listen.

If Parmila and the other female officers continue to build on their success in tackling crimes against women, attitudes in India will change and women’s lives will improve. There’s still a long way to go, but I have no doubt the initiative of setting up women police stations is a progressive idea and other countries could follow this model.