Priya Mahindroo, 25, zips through New Delhi traffic on the back of a motorbike every day to get to work. While the law mandates a helmet for her male driver, as a woman she can legally go without.
Campaigners are becoming increasingly vocal about the consequences of this anomaly which results in dozens of lives needlessly lost each year as well as thousands of serious injuries that wreck families and burden hospitals.
Others see it as a sad reflection on patriarchal Indian values: that women are men’s inferiors, their lives simply worth less in a country with a culture of celebrating sons over daughters.
For women such as Mahindroo, however, the considerations are mostly aesthetic and unless she is forced to wear a helmet by law, she’ll continue to ride some of the world’s most dangerous streets with her head unprotected.
“It ruins my hair,” she told AFP in New Delhi as she arrived for work at her newspaper’s office in the busy central area of the city.
“I don’t wear a helmet because I feel really hot and suffocated inside so I don’t really think about the safety.”
India’s federal Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 stated that every person driving or riding a two-wheeler had to wear a helmet, but this sparked uproar from the Sikh community which raised religious objections.
Sikh men were later exempted, largely because of the religious demand for them to wear turbans.
The local New Delhi government decided it was impossible to tell a Sikh woman from a non-Sikh and so made helmets optional for all female motorcycle riders.
About 133,938 people or 366 a day died on India’s roads in 2010, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than any other country.
On the streets of New Delhi - where rash and drunk driving is commonplace, as is the sight of a family of four or five squeezed onto a bike - 64 women were killed in accidents involving two-wheelers in 2010 and 50 last year.
‘Women are programmed to neglect themselves’
Many of these victims end up at the capital’s busiest trauma centre, the public-funded AIIMS hospital, where doctor Sanjeev Bhoi is in no doubt about the cost of New Delhi’s law.
“Each day there is a new story where you have severe dramatic brain injuries especially in women and even in children.
“It’s very stressful to see a young girl with a severe brain injury, someone who is a mother or a daughter of someone,” he added.
“The ladies must wear a helmet not just for themselves but also for their families.”
For writer Antara Dev Sen, the law reeks of discrimination and is another proof that women are seen as second-class citizens.
“In India, women are programmed to neglect themselves,” she told AFP. “To be a good woman you need to ignore yourself.
“It is also not quite done to talk about your own safety. It comes from the patriarchal values by which we are programmed to live.”
She along with others is involved in the campaign to change the status quo, which has been helped by a challenge in the Delhi High Court and complaints from police and medical figures.
Last month, the Delhi government introduced harsher penalties for road safety violations, including a bigger fine for male motorcyclists wearing sub-standard helmets.
It had seemed an opportunity to change the law, but one that was ultimately not taken, partly out of fear of antagonizing Sikh women or other female voters ahead of local polls, some observers said.
Paramjit Singh Sarna, president of a prominent Sikh organization in Delhi, said the community would adamantly oppose any regulatory change.
“We consider a helmet to be like a cap or a hat -- the wearing of which is technically banned by our religion,” Sarna said.
Acknowledging the safety benefits of helmets, Sarna said there would be “no objection” if an individual Sikh woman chose to wear one, but stressed that ordering the community to do so would prompt a passionate backlash.
“Sikhs are a minority community and a sensitive one. A mandatory order would inflame sentiments, lead to protests and make the whole thing into a major issue,” he warned.
The New Delhi police have made numerous appeals for the helmet exemption for women to be rescinded, arguing that safety concerns should trump all other considerations.
“It may be a bit inconvenient but everybody has to make a call on what is more important: the safety, or the convenience,” said Satyendra Garg, joint commissioner of the city’s traffic police.
Delhi Transport Commissioner R. Chandra Mohan said the police demands were “under examination” but suggested that public awareness campaigns might be more fruitful than legislation that could hurt “religious sentiments of some groups.”
“Those who value the safety provided by a helmet are wearing it on the roads out of personal choice,” Mohan told AFP.
“With a greater awareness build up, the need for a mandatory law will become less and less urgent.”