IHT Column: Taking back the streets

My second column for the International Herald Tribune’s Female Factor series is up. This one’s on women fighting back against street harassment and other kinds of violence against women.

“Something familiar emerges in the stories the women share, regardless of their ages or class backgrounds. All have experienced fear on the streets, fear when traveling alone. Few use the term “eve teasing” when discussing their own experiences; nothing about sexual harassment has ever felt like “teasing” to them.”

It doesn’t show in the story (and it probably shouldn’t), but writing this piece was a surprisingly personal exercise. I spoke to many women, aside from the women quoted in this story, and every conversation turned into something like an analytical catharsis. Gauri Gill and I spoke about how the quality of one’s anger changes; the militant, fierce anger of our twenties has given way to a more practical and dispassionate emotion as we approach forty.

There were debates: has the situation improved over the last 15 years (yes), is it anywhere near ideal (hell, no), how much of a role did class play in street harassment, how much difference could better urban architectural planning make in cutting down violence against women in public spaces. There were confessions and sharings; every one of the women (and many of the men) I spoke to had their own scars, stories of assaults weathered and not reported (one of my personal demons), of terrifying train or bus journeys, of anger at being blamed (for one’s “carelessness”, for one’s “looseness”, for one’s appearance), of helplessness, especially among the men I spoke to, at not being able to change the ground-level situation. The story couldn’t capture the complexity of the debate; as more women enter the workforce, public spaces have had to accommodate their presence, but the underlying causes of the violence against women haven’t changed or been addressed.

If you’re interested in further reading/ action on this subject, here are some links:

The Blank Noise Project blog: Consistently creative in its approach, the BNP has run successful campaigns, from the We Didn’t Ask For It campaign to their more recent Action Hero campaign. Many of the debates mentioned are covered in detail by Jasmeen Patheja and other contributors.

The Gulabi Gang: Run by Sampath Pal Devi, the Gulabi Gang now also runs centres for vocational training for young women, and could use your support.

Jagori: In addition to its Safe Delhi campaign and its mapping of safe/ unsafe spaces in the city, Jagori researches many other areas of feminist concern, from the rights of domestic workers to other forms of violence against women.

And please consider sending in an entry–a photograph, a story–for Transportraits, an exhibition curated by Gauri Gill, on your experience of safety in your city. Contributions from women and men welcome, and details here.

4 comments

  1. Very well-written article (as always). But you say the situation has "improved" in the last 15 years: are you referring to Delhi? And are you factoring in the fact that you are now 15 years older, perhaps more mature and better able to handle things, perhaps travel less often in DTC buses, and very likely give off a stronger "don't mess with me" vibe than someone in her early 20s might?I am of course aware that (a) some college kids — including you, as I remember — are extremely self-confident and can take care of themselves; and (b) that any amount of self-confidence or maturity can still prove inadequate in dangerous situations. And Delhi is a dangerous place, even compared to other Indian metros. It's a long time since I lived there, and my gender spares me of the worst aspects of the city, but still, I'm surprised that you say things have improved, and I'd be interested to know in what respect. In Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore, from what people tell me, things have become worse.

  2. It's a very comparative improvement. Think of it as the call-centre effect: because you had more women joining the work force in the last 10-15 years, public spaces had to become more open to women. The improvement is tiny; only at the level of, say, being able to step out at 8 pm with some degree of safety in Delhi instead of feeling barricaded at home after 7 pm. There is a little more safety for women in public spaces because of the larger numbers of women in public spaces–but while that helps, there's no shift in other factors. There's a tiny improvement in terms of awareness as well, and an uptick in small but significant shifts in cities–better street lighting, for instance.(Why do you think Chennai, Mumbai and Bangalore have become worse? What factors are at play here? I've heard everything from blaming it on migrants from northern Indian states to male resentment at growing female independence. What's your take?)As I've said a few lines further on, public spaces may have had to accommodate the presence of women, but it's a grudging accommodation. The police stats are not helpful, since street harassment, assault and even rape are significantly under-reported crimes. My personal experience is very different. I was pretty combative in college–and remember the hostility on the streets as being far stronger in Delhi at the time–but have mellowed over the years. This isn't necessarily a good thing: I walk around Delhi a lot and am so used to sending out the "don't-mess-with-me" signs (or being too old to be harassed!) that I'm very badly prepared to handle assault when it does happen. In an experience last year, I handled the actual incident well, but didn't report it to the police–despite the fact that I consider myself very empowered. It was only when a friend pointed out the contradiction in my behaviour that I realised how deep the instinct to "deal with" assault by burying it and forgetting about it goes. As Gauri–and others–said, breaking the silence is absolutely necessary, but even for those of us who're feminist, surprisingly hard. Barkha Dutt, in a different context, spoke once of how women are so brutalised (on the streets, in public spaces, in their homes) that we've learned to internalise what happens; I don't see real improvement happening until we say, this is just not acceptable. (And that goes for me more than most.)

  3. Well, what I know of Mumbai is second-hand — I've never lived there and rarely visited, but friends say it used to be extremely safe for women and isn't any more.Bangalore: I lived there in the 1990s and visit often. From what I understand, some areas are safe, and others are not. Moreover, while the MG Road area may be safe, travelling back alone from there by public transport may not be safe. It is possible that the unsafety is the result of more women on the streets at night, in parts of the town where the locals weren't used to it. I also think the Hindu right-wing brigade has something to do with it. In Chennai, I'm not sure of the reason. But it seems public transport (buses in particular) are much more crowded than before, with a consequent rise in aggression levels. So my wife, for example, seems to encounter rude comments (in rude Tamil) much more often than earlier. But it's mostly verbal. I'm not sure whether sexual violence has actually increased: even if it has, it's probably much better than other cities. (A former student from my institute also notes that safety for women is not great but harassment doesn't go beyond dirty looks (perhaps she didn't know enough Tamil to understand the "dirty talk").Both in Chennai and in Bangalore I think north Indians are blameless in this respect. They certainly cause some resentment — for being loud, rude/crude, and talking in Hindi — but I don't think they are criminal (immigrants usually aren't). And the perpetrators of the verbal stuff I mentioned above are most definitely Tamil: and, specifically, from Chennai. I suppose Delhi started from a lower baseline: no other city used to shut doors by 7pm, even in the 1980s. Shopping areas in Chennai are busy till quite late, and I see women (and families) on the beaches well past 10 pm (this probably wasn't true some years ago). Bangalore too looks busier at night than it did in the 1990s. So I can see that there are comparative improvements everywhere. I wonder how many of those improvements are related to hanging out in the evening, and how much are related to everyday working lives.

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