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Why urban planning will make cities safer for women

The recent gangrape and assault of a 23-year-old woman in the city of New Delhi has turned into a watershed moment of sorts for India. New Delhi has been rocked by massive protests with college students, housewives, working women taking to the streets, braving police lathi-charge, water cannons.

The movement has sought to highlight the violence and sexual harassment that women face on a daily basis. But the biggest question that has perhaps got drowned out in the cacophony of demands for castrations and death penalty  is how can we ensure the safety of women in urban areas. Is it possible to imagine cities in India where women can roam the streets without fear for their safety, free from the risk of being 'eve-teased' ?

Firstpost spoke to Sameera Khan who is one of the co-authors, of the book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets which looks at why women need to claim public spaces and how urban planning can go a long way in ensuring the safety of women in the streets. Excerpts from an email interview.

First what is your reaction to the protests in Delhi and some of the more vitriolic demands being made by the protesters?

The volley of public protests in Delhi have been absolutely marvellous and quite heartening. Even after facing an inconsiderate and inhumane government (and parlimentarians referring to the protesters as “dented and painted women”) and a hostile police force (that dealt with them so harshly), the protesters just did not give up. I suspect that this has probably been one of the largest ever demonstrations seen anywhere in the world against rape and sexual violence.

Women hold placards as they shout slogans from a flag post near the Rashtrapati Bhavan. AP

I agree that some of the demands made by the protesters particularly regarding death penalty and chemical castration have been extreme — and I doubt that will help stop rape (it might I fear, in fact, push rapists to make sure they kill their victims) and I do feel stronger laws, impartial investigation, speedier processes and higher conviction rates is what we need, not the death penalty.

What is needed now is to broaden that protest to include other rape survivors, justice for them as well, and also rape survivors who are not urban or middle class but from tribal, low caste, distant parts of the country. It should also focus on all other types of violence against women (such as domestic violence) and violence against other minorities and marginalised groups. We should also focus on changing the general attitude to women in this country – both within families and communities and also to women in public – an attitude that thinks of women as inferior beings, as property, as bearers of community and family honour and shame.

The protests bring attention to sexual violence and rape that is much needed. We can only hope it provides a momentum to much needed changes in law, justice delivery and attitudes.

In this particular case, the one term we've seen thrown around a lot is Rape Capital as far as Delhi is concerned. Do you feel this is a fair term to use for a city, especially when rape is not just a Delhi problem?

Rape is not just a Delhi problem. It’s a problem all over. By labelling a city as ‘rape capital’ we are using language rather carelessly and loosely and this can have larger implications.

One, that it undermines a deeper examination of the problem (why does this happen here, who are the perpetrators, what can we do about it etc – it all gets diminished to 'rape capital' hain nah, toh aisa hi hoga yahan) And two, it makes it very difficult for all other women to then actively access the city and its public spaces at all times. The term ‘rape capital’ then starts policing the movements of all women and that is the real danger when we reduce such an event to one glib sound-byte label/phrase.

Some argue that Bombay is safe for women. In the course of your research for Why Loiter would you say that you found this perception to be true? Or does Bombay also suffer from similar problems as far as Delhi is concerned?

Bombay city is relatively friendlier to women than Delhi but this doesn’t mean there are no crimes against women in Bombay – in fact that crime graph seems to be only rising. So things are changing. More importantly what Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and I tried to point out in our book Why Loiter: Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets (Penguin Books, 2011) is that even in a city like Bombay, women are at best commuters through public space – moving from point A to point B – they cannot lay claim to the city as citizens. Bombay women too have to actively strategise when they access public space – in where they go, what time they are out, who they are with, what they wear etc – and constantly establish a sense of purpose when accessing public space and always manufacture an image of being respectable women.

As far as urban planning in India is concerned, what do you think are some of the biggest problems when it comes to women's safety? How is it even possible to plan cities that are safe for women?

While doing research over three years for the Gender and Space project – the research which finally led to our book – and as we continue to interact and talk to young women at workshops that we do on gender and public space all over, we ask women what makes them feel unsafe in the city. Sometimes we even ask them to draw maps of areas, streets, neighbourhoods where they feel unsafe and safe.

And what they tell us is really a simple and practical checklist: bad/poor/low lighting in public spaces makes women feel unsafe and vulnerable; so too things that make them feel caged such as tall fencing in a park or fencing on a long stretch of pavement where they have no clear sight lines and cannot escape in case of an attack. Also no public toilets or closed public toilets makes women feel unwanted in public space ("they don’t care enough for our presence or they don’t expect us to be there , so they don’t provide for it")

Women want to be able to see bodies on the street – ideally crowds which are mixed with men and women; empty streets and closed shops are perceived as being scary; they want some activity to take place on the streets constantly such as hawkers selling chai, book sellers on the pavements, vegetable vendors, men, women, children walking on the street, etc. Neighbourhoods that are mixed zoning — residential and commercial with shop activity — where the streets are always alive even till late night with some action are preferred. So politicians and cops who say that if everyone is home and we close down all activities in public by a certain hour and that will make things safe are totally wrong in their understanding.

Does a more sensitive police force help in stopping violence against women?

What we need is a responsive and sensitive police force who takes even complaints of everyday street harassment seriously. If they respond promptly and take the right action on all incidents of violence against women — whether it is a small or a big incident — then they make a larger statement that they do not tolerate this kind of behaviour/ this type of crime and that they will investigate it and get it tried and push for better conviction rates. That can help a great deal – for perpetrators to know they will be dealt with severely and for women to know that when they approach the police, they will help them get justice.

Last in light of this particular rape case, a sense of paranoia has spread for women thanks to the constant media coverage. What would you say women need to do to reclaim public spaces?

Women in this country by law have a right to be in public space. When incidents like this happen and are publicised on a large scale, they unfortunately make victims of all women. All women are then told directly or indirectly that they are in danger and need to be indoors. It is shaming and policing the survivors while the perpetrators roam free. What a terrible message to give both the perpetrators and the survivors.

Women need to be out there. They need to reclaim public spaces with their bodies. We need more women in public space (not less) to make all women feel safer and more comfortable. We must demand and lobby for changes in the city/country that make us feel safer but we must not stop ourselves from being out there.

A city is full of stimulating things and great opportunities and women have every right to enjoy them. At anytime of the day or night. In any sort of clothing. With anyone they want. No questions asked.