In recent months, a spate of worrying policing measures have been announced in the name of “women’s safety” in several parts of the country. From Madhya Pradesh requiring working women to register to have the police track their whereabouts to Lucknow Police using surveillance and AI to determine if a woman is in distress, such measures only serve to invade women’s rights to privacy and movement which them feel more unsafe.
In the caste system women are given the burden to maintain caste purity. Caste purity is purity of blood of the next generation of the caste. To maintain this, women must not marry or develop relationship with person from other caste. So for caste system safety of women is safety of caste. This ‘tradition’ of Brahminical patriarchy of coding women’s safety in the surveillance of their bodies is detailed in the Manusmriti.
This is therefore favoured today by proponents of the Hindu Rashtra—has historically been used as means to target members of certain castes and religious communities. Indeed, coupled with the new Anti-Conversion (or anti “love jihad”) laws, these policing methods in Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh serve to do exactly that. Moreover, a mix of colonial attitudes regarding criminality and Brahminical attitudes about worth mean that women from Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi, and lower-class backgrounds are further vulnerable not only to gendered crime but also to police brutalities. The events surrounding the Hathras rape case prove that these two concepts are likely to overlap.
Thus, given how often such initiatives—ostensibly for ‘women’s safety’—are merely veils underneath which more sinister agendas are advanced, it is unsurprising that they rarely ever take the actual safety and comfort of women—let alone their agency—into account.
It is important to remember that a lack of safety is experienced not only in terms of threats of bodily violence, but also in the lack of ease with which people can navigate public and private spaces in their daily lives. Both the social environment—or the value systems within which we operate—and the built environment—or the physical features of the spaces we live and work in—play an important role in making the members of any society feel more secure.
Whereas better and increased policing is long seen as a means for making women feel safer, it does not rectify or properly address problems in either the social or the built environment—in fact, it often reinforces them: it is not uncommon for police personnel in India to blame and shame women for their choices. When women approach regarding issues like harassment and advising them to take ‘precautions’ like dressing a certain way or not frequenting certain places at certain hours.
In other words, one of the reasons why policing is ineffective in helping women feel safe in public spaces is that it often places the onus on the women themselves. This also means that women, consciously or otherwise, limit the terms on which they move in public places, which naturally limits them from availing certain opportunities—both in terms of work and leisure—that privileged caste men may not have to think twice about.
Thus, any attempts to make women feel at ease in public spaces requires, first and foremost, that the needs of women in public places—across the lines of caste, class, religion, age, and ability—be paid attention to.
According to feminist geographer Leslie Kern, the lack of safety women feel in public spaces are not just due to flawed and sexist social conditioning. Rather, it is an integral part of urban design in a society that treats women as social inferiors. Kern, in her book Feminist City, notes that there is “a material geography of exclusion” that allows the patriarchal assertion of separate spheres—where women belong strictly in the private sphere—to be enforced. Following her argument, one could argue that more gender-sensitive perspectives in urban planning—which is currently largely the domain of upper-caste cis men—can acknowledge many of the aspects in both our social and built environment that render women unsafe and uncomfortable in public.
Take, for instance, the various acts of gender-based violence that women and non-binary people face in public spaces, especially at night. A co-relation between the lack of adequate street lighting and incidents of crime, especially gender-based violence, has been widely noted. In Delhi, 50% of its inhabitants consider unsafe for women, nearly 2800 ‘dark spots’—places with no street lights—were identified by the NGO Safetipin in 2019 (the number for 2016 was nearly 7500).
Periodic news reports of sexual crime in dimly lit areas from all over the country in the last few years (including Bangalore, Chennai, and Bhopal, to name a few) contribute to growing awareness towards the recognition of inadequate street lighting a safety issue, especially the safety of women and non-binary people. Thus, increasing the streetlight cover in public places is a feminist issue that would lower the incidence of crime in general while also making certain avenues, literally and figuratively, accessible for a larger mass of women, especially since 45% of them travel to work on foot according to data from the latest census (2011).
What the above also points at is the need to strengthen the systems of public transportation within the country. According to a study conducted by Jagori, nearly 51% of the participating women have faced harassment while using public transport. This is one of the many reasons why only 14% of all people who make use of these modes of transport are women.
While features such as panic buttons and gender-segregated coaches and buses have gained popularity, it is also important that the routes and frequencies of public transportation services pay attention to the user patterns of women. Making safe and affordable commute available is crucial, since it is known to affect the degree and even quality of education, work, healthcare, and other facilities—such as those to do with child-rearing—that are accessible to women (particularly those who come from economically and socially disadvantaged backgrounds).
Another factor that affects the mobility and ease with which women occupy spaces in public is the lack of proper sanitation facilities for women. Given that urban planning is designed with the able-bodied male in mind, it is unsurprising that we severely lack public facilities for women. It is estimated that only around 7-8% of public toilets in the national capital have facilities for women. Since women take longer to relieve themselves and require restroom usage more frequently, this shortage can be an acute inconvenience, especially for working class and homeless women, who do not have the alternative of paying for services and using the facilities at private establishments like cafes and hotels that middle-class women often resort to.
According to Deepa Pawar, a core member of the Right to Pee movement, lack of access to public toilets directly affects the physical safety and mental wellbeing of women and girls. “For women from vulnerable communities without toilet facilities in their homes, public toilets are the only option,” she says. “The lack of safe, freely accessible and clean washrooms means that these women need to hold urine in for long periods on a daily basis. Which can lead to severe health complications. In fact, the gravity of the problem is such that it is the second greatest reason for school dropout rates being high among girls in the country.”
Deepa also points at how inconvenient locations and lack of proper lighting in and around existing public toilets discourage women from using them—a fact that is corroborated by the National Sample Survey (2011), which notes that the highest incidents of sexual harassment take place in or near toilet facilities. “While a lot of schemes—Pink trains with WiFi and mirrors installed, for instance—are currently being prioritised, they do nothing to acknowledge the basic bodily dignity of women,” she adds. Thus, it is important for planners to take women’s needs into account and accordingly increase the numbers and quality of public toilets for their use.
According to the American feminist critic of urban planning Jane Jacobs, an oft ignored means of securing safe public spaces requires “eyes on the street,” or increasing community use of space, an act which builds networks of trust and free movement amongst people who frequent it. This method can effectively replace the threatening eyes of the police and state which is often hostile to marginalised communities. In the Indian context, an effective way to bring this about is to provide proper space to street vendors and other members of the informal sector to carry out their trade. It is important to note that an overwhelming majority of women in India’s labour force work in this sector, most of whom hail from marginalised caste and class backgrounds.
While a 2014 Act aimed at safeguarding the rights and livelihoods of street vendors does exist, several loopholes and the lack of proper implementation leaves them vulnerable at present. According to Vinita, a member of the National Hawkers Federation, this takes on several threatening aspects for women vendors. “It is routine for drunk youngsters to hound and harass us; sometimes they also seize our wares and try to extort money. It is of no use to report these incidents to the police because some policemen act as their accomplices. Despite the Act, we have no dignity in their eyes,” she complains.
Given these circumstances, legitimising street vendors’ usage of public spaces in a dignified manner is required to protect them from being harassed by the police, to create porosity in public spaces, and to enable the formation of a natural network of protection between women who frequent these areas.
An addendum: often, when thinking about women’s safety, we are given to thinking specifically of the safety of young, able-bodied women from sexual crime. However, it is equally important to pay attention to the needs of elderly women and women with disabilities, and to create an environment that secures them from feeling doubly disadvantaged by these factors in addition to their gender. Similarly, the safety of pregnant women in public spaces is often overlooked.
Features such as handrails, more spacious restrooms, wider foot paths and the installation of public benches alongside them are but a few measures that have been suggested in these regards. Additionally, a city plan aimed at gender-mainstreaming, such as the revised plan recently unveiled by the BMC in Mumbai, would take into account facilities like childcare centers, better play areas, community centers, and rental housing for working women.
When talking about safeguarding women from sexual crime, we must remember the need to debunk one of the greatest myths surrounding the idea—that it is only violent strangers on the streets and in public who pose danger to them. In fact, the contrary is well established: far more crimes against women are committed by people known to them; intimate partner violence is severely underreported as marital rape remains legal.
It is true that gender-inclusive planning alone cannot ensure the safety of women—its impact on the social environment is not nearly as high as that would require. Much of the dangers women face are results of sexist socialisation into fear, which seeks to exclude them from certain spaces and control their movements in others. However, even as these proposed safety measures cannot take down the patriarchy, it will be a lot easier to do so in cities that are designed to protect women from harassment, objectification, exclusion, and violence.
Featured Image Source: TFIPOST