How a woman can feel safe and own her city
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A white dress with a lace overlay. It was one of my favourites. I wore it when I felt good about myself. I wore it for brunches, to meet friends and occasionally because I wanted to look nice. My beautiful white dress now stained a big fat scarlet letter…a memory of how for a brief period of time I was the lightning rod for slut shamers across the country.” Aishwarya’s account is part of Blank Noise’s ongoing I Never Ask For It campaign. You can contribute by submitting an audio account of the sexual assault you faced along with the garment you were wearing when it happened.
The idea is to co-create a public installation made up of 10,000 garments and their stories by 2020. The venue should be a place of public significance such as India Gate, founder Jasmeen Patheja believes.
“How deep-rooted is victim-blaming? How are spaces of violence connected? What does it mean for you to revisit something you’ve experienced and end blame? This is about anyone who is made to feel vulnerable and is made to feel shame,” says Patheja, who juggles many such complex yet fundamental ideas at Blank Noise, a network that seeks to transform attitudes towards private and public sexual violence.
“We are in the process of co-creating a safe place together, a space that is not judging you,” adds Patheja, who started Blank Noise in 2003 as her final thesis project at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru.
If you want to be inspired by the ideas surrounding women’s safety and our responses to everyday sexual violence, you need to look beyond the protective surveillance industry of CCTVs and mobile apps that invade your privacy rather than offer you any real assistance and, of course, court-sanctioned anti-Romeo vigilante squads who hunt down couples in public spaces allegedly to keep street harassment in check.
Patheja’s response is my favourite but three state initiatives are also worth tracking. The Hyderabad police has been operating gender-sensitized SHE Teams comprising around four personnel (with at least one woman officer) for more than two years now. They roam the city incognito and speedily book perpetuators of street violence once a complaint is registered.
In Pune, the municipal corporation recently converted old public transport buses into public loos. The buses are now equipped with five toilets, a shower area and a machine that dispenses sanitary napkins, The Indian Express reported. “Initially, women would hesitate to enter the bus, but once they check the cleanliness and safety, they use the facility and give good feedback about the service,” one attendant told the newspaper.
In Mysuru, the police commissioner plans to equip the city’s 25,000 autorickshaws with an optically readable QR code by June. Anyone who downloads an app and registers can scan the prominently displayed code when they hail an auto. The app tracks the journey and offers more than one way to trigger an alarm that registers in the police control room if anything goes wrong. The app also offers you the option of recording the fact that the auto driver refused your ride. “In an ideal situation, all auto drivers would register and all commuters would have smartphones,” says police commissioner A. Subrahmanyeswara Rao, who knows this idea will have to evolve as it gets under way.
Often ideas work best when it’s a partnership. Safetipin, an app that collects data about our streets in an attempt to make the city safer, has worked with the New Delhi Municipal Council to do a last-mile connectivity audit of the city’s Metro stations; the tourism department to evaluate the safety of 10 big city monuments; and with the public works department to identify 7,483 dark spots in the city.
Safetipin does this by collecting data on factors that can improve our streets: the number of working streetlights, the presence of organized vendors, the state of pavements. “Public space improvement is a low-hanging fruit, much easier than mindset change,” says co-founder Kalpana Viswanath.
One unusual cross-border partnership is between Why Loiter?, a campaign (born from a book by the same name) about the need for women to reclaim public spaces, and Girls At Dhabas, a similar initiative in Pakistan where roadside dhabas (eateries) are a male preserve. Why Loiter? inspired the Pakistani initiative and the two groups have been in touch on social media since 2015. Last year, they partnered for Why Loiter’s annual year-end campaign encouraging women in India and Pakistan to loiter, then post about it on social media and tag it #WhyLoiter.
“We are friends and comrades and support each other in the common goal of: Let’s have more women out there loitering in public spaces. One day we hope to actually hang out and loiter together,” says Sameera Khan, co-author of the book.
Then there are those citizens who don’t wait around for a non-governmental organization or a government agency to help them fix the problem. At their main campus in small-town Rajasthan, engineering college students of BITS Pilani recently united to remove a 40-year-old girls’ hostel curfew.
Student union members went from door to door polling female students: “Should the girls’ hostel in-time restriction be removed?” Has the in-time restriction hampered your productivity and performance?” Parents were co-opted to support the move by signing a letter to the university.
“The important thing about this letter is that it was phrased not to be a ‘No-Objection Letter’ but as a ‘Letter of Faith’ reaffirming the parent’s faith in their daughter’s decision making and in the institute’s decision to remove the curfew. An objection is a negative statement, but faith is a positive one,” says student Sibesh Kar in a blog outlining how they did it. The university didn’t respond formally, but the curfew was lifted. Sometimes, faith is all you need.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.