There have been two recent known accounts of sexual harassment on public transport in the last couple of weeks.
First, on June 15th a woman boarded a Mumbai local train to head home around 2 pm and while sitting in the women’s carriage she noticed a man leaning over the railing of the next carriage, shouting insults at her and other women. It escalated to him masturbating in public and when she told him she would call the police he threatened to rape her before abruptly getting off the train. While this is bad enough, when the woman called the helpline and told whoever she was speaking to on the phone about what had happened to her, he proceeded to laugh and then hang up.
After her story went viral, Deputy Commissioner of Police Purushottam Karad said that he would investigate the matter. He is quoted in The Times of India saying “We have to check which helpline the woman commuter made the call to. There are two helpline numbers — one is railway police and the other is Railway Protection Force (RPF). We will talk to the woman.” Conveniently, he puts the blame of the incident on the woman, because she must not have called the correct phone number.
the dcp conveniently put the blame of the incident on the woman – she mustn’t have called the correct phone number.
Then on July 10th, a woman posted a picture on her Facebook account of trousers that appeared to have semen wiped on it. Someone had masturbated onto a woman’s clothes while on the 9 AM commute on the Delhi Metro. While this woman didn’t provide as many details of the event, the photo she posted was shocking enough to reveal the horrors women are subjected to. She later had to make her post private after receiving a barrage of negative comments from trolls saying that she made up the incident for attention.
These instances of public sexual harassment aren’t anything unheard of to the average Indian woman. With women already not having much access to public space either on the street, the train, or their own hostel, crimes against women were up by 34% in 2015 as reported by the National Crime Reports Bureau.
She had to make her post private after receiving a barrage of trolling that said she had made up the incident for attention.
While both of these cases took place on a local train/metro, both of these trains also have women only carriages. While women-only carriages are a tool to help make women feel more comfortable on their commute, they do little to stop the problem of harassment, and even then, that wasn’t able to prevent the harassment in Mumbai. Men will still invade spaces that they don’t have access to – perhaps because most violence against women campaigns don’t ever seem to target them, preferring instead to tackle how women ought to alter their behaviour to be “safe’.
While it’s important to think about the specific steps organisations, agencies, and the government can take to make men more accountable for their actions, it’s almost more necessary to think about overhauling the systemic violence that prevents women from moving around freely in the first place.
The normative mindset in India, currently supported by the party in power, is a positioning of women as mothers, wives, and sisters that need protection, as compared to people that need agency. This is what sets the culture of blame intact, with the police officer questioning the number the woman in Mumbai dialled or the trolls on the Delhi woman’s Facebook. A common rebuttal to this claim of immobility is that technically women in India “can” go anywhere they want, but is freedom of mobility still mobility if you cannot guarantee your safety?
There have been many campaigns by Indian women for Indian women, to combat this violence. After the Bengaluru mob molestation in earlier this year, FII launched a #YesAllWomen campaign where women around India shared stories of harassment, molestation, and sexual violence to hone in the fact that sure not all men sexually assault women, but yes all women are affected by it. There is also a book out called Why Loiter? which takes on the assumption that Mumbai is a safe space for women. As well as the student organization Pinjra Tod which aims to question the unnecessarily strict restrictions women’s hostels have on mobility.
is freedom of mobility still mobility if you cannot guarantee your safety?
Now is the time to invest and support women-centered and led movements that don’t rely on the culture of blame. How is it that two women were subjected to public masturbation in such a short time span? And how many countless other women have faced this without reporting it or posting about it? Why is it that our public spaces allow room for violence, but not women’s agency?