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“Working Women Will Be Tracked For ‘Their’ Safety”: When Will Women Have Agency In Public Spaces?

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"Working Women Will Be Tracked For 'Their' Safety": When Will Women Have Agency In Public Spaces?

At the dawn of a new decade, having dealt with lockdown, India woke to the dawn of vaccination, with life getting back to ‘normal’ (new normal). Lockdown had breached the division of public and private spaces. Home became the new space of conflict for gender stereotypes and spatialising patriarchy. For centuries, cities have been divided neatly into gendered divisions of spaces: public space was deemed as masculine and private space as feminine. Stories have been told and epics are sung propagating the dangers which shrink the idea of space for women. It took decades for women to negotiate their rightful existence beyond the domestic realm. They transgressed their Lakshman Rekha only to meet the ogling eyes of men, always walking burdened by the male gaze.

But how does the politics of patriarchy negotiate with the public space when she demands to walk out alone or protest for her rights?

Women and The Public Space

Women have fought for their right to public space by crossing the thresholds of their home and working in male-dominant workspaces. They have negotiated their access to social life, freedom to loiter, and to exist in the public realm. Patriarchy is not a passive spectator to the acts of transgression, it negotiates and drives a hard bargain. Women are harassed, molested, raped, objectified, and misbehaved with. Every step she takes in the public space is designed to make her feel foreign.

The National Commission for Women (NCW) member Chandramukhi Devi’s comment post the horrifying Badaun rape case stirred a public debate. In Badaun, a 50-year-old woman was raped by the temple’s priest she was visiting an evening. While condemning the act of violence, Devi suggested that the woman must not have ventured alone out in the evening.

The public spaces are filled with men of all classes who loiter aimlessly. Women are reduced to mere visitors on these streets. They access the public space only as commuters, with an errand to run or travel between work and home. They do not aimlessly wander or sit alone on the Connaught Place benches. The public space is constructed with dimly lit streets, dark corners, abandoned subways, dingy bus stands, and liquor or paan shops at almost every corner. These places witness a large number of men hanging around and almost negligible women.

In the negotiations of space, women evidently lost (or just forgot) the argument of clothing and body language. Women cross streets with hunched backs, covering their breasts, looking lower, and almost never making too much noise. Men on the other hand, own every inch of public space. They wander, dress in whatever they wish to, scratch their crotch, fart, burp, or just make loud noises to claim their territory. Not every man is a predator, but their inherent actions (like ogling, smirking, and whistling) only shrink public spaces for women. Patriarchy tries to indirectly claim the public space and remind women how they are only guests in male-dominated spaces. Every act of transgression is met with political statements that not only seem bizarre but are blatant examples of patriarchy’s intention.

“Women Must Not Step Outside Unaccompanied”

The National Commission for Women (NCW) member Chandramukhi Devi’s comment post the horrifying Badaun rape case stirred a public debate. In Badaun, a 50-year-old woman was raped by the temple’s priest she was visiting an evening. While condemning the act of violence, Devi suggested that the woman must not have ventured alone out in the evening. She casually remarked that such an incident could have been avoided if only she were accompanied by her children.

This comment is not only misinformed, but it dictates the margins of women’s right to public space. Space here is distinguished based on the time of the day. Evenings (dark) are blamed for the man’s grotesque assertion of his phallus. The comment endorses that a woman must step out at an ‘appropriate’ time of the day or at least be accompanied, preferably by a man (a son, father or husband). The need to ‘guard a woman or else she will be exploited’ is an idea that has been embedded in the psyche of patriarchy for generations now. The public space is thus drawn behind the margins of time and guardianship. It not only makes a woman a visitor in the public space but also teaches her not to roam unguarded (even to a place of worship) or she will be met with such ‘consequences’.

“Working Women Will Be Tracked For Their Safety”

Urban women have claimed a bigger share in public spaces. Their involvement in the workforce necessitates them to use public transport and other spaces dominated by men. Though they interact with this space hesitatingly and most often settle for lower-income for not willing to work overtime or at odd hours, they still barge in the spaces not designed for them.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan in his address at the inauguration ceremony of an awareness program on crimes against women “Samman” suggested that working women needed to be tracked for their safety. He suggested that women must register themselves with police while stepping out to work so they could be tracked. He, in his innocence (and negligence) also suggested a helpline number and panic buttons to ensure that women are safe.

Men have an inherent desire to guard their women. The embedded patriarchy doesn’t allow them to accept that women need to be free and claim their right over the space assumed to be owned by men. The patriarch’s idea of Samman (respect) shrinks the space for a woman as she now needs to travel under the constant gaze of guardianship. This also limits her freedom to exercise the public space and access it for smoking, drinking, or flirting with consent.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Mr. Shivraj Singh Chouhan in his address at the inauguration ceremony of an awareness program on crimes against women “Samman” suggested that working women needed to be tracked for their safety. He suggested that women must register themselves with police while stepping out to work so they could be tracked.

AI Cameras To Track Women In Distress

Under the call for the “Smart City Project”, Lucknow Police announced their idea of tracking women in distress through AI-equipped cameras. The police announced that 200 hotspots would be recognised based on women’s movement, and cameras would be set that will read and identify women’s faces for any signs of distress. They added that any distress would alert the police and actions would be taken even before the victim dials 100 or 112 (UP police helpline).

The idea is not only technologically challenging but also a threat to women’s freedom to access public space. The continuous surveillance would only add the burden of the state’s gaze and limit the movement of women. This act not only limits her right to public space but also exploits her constitutional right to privacy and freedom.

I wonder why can’t such sophisticated technologies keep an eye on sex offenders and criminals instead?

Women Are ‘Kept’ At The Farmers’ Protest

Farmers’ protest has spiraled to be one of the biggest protests that the world has ever witnessed. The protest didn’t only demand their legal and political right but also questioned and threatened gender stereotypes. Women in the protest are not making rotis or are confined to domestic spaces, they are claiming the roads and demand to be heard.

Women at this protest have shown the ‘new normal’ of how protests are conducted and rights demanded. While the world hailed these women, CJI Bobde on the 11th of January expressed his concern over the condition of elders, women, and children. In his remark, he used the word ‘kept’ and opened a can of worms. The attitude of the Supreme Court which believes that the women are ‘kept’ and could be ‘persuaded’ to return to their homes is the finest example of how women threaten patriarchs when they claim the public space as their own.

Also read: Women In Public Spaces: When Gender Is Ignored While Shaping Cities

The remark is an attempt to return the women to tend to her domestic duties. This remark may seem like a political diktat, but it is also an attempt to limit the involvement of women in public space.

Now we need to ponder on whether the protesting women have taught the post-pandemic India that women would not shy away from public spaces.

Or has the problematic policy recommendations perpetuated gendering of public spaces in India?  


Featured Image Source: Medium

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