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.
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")