How not to talk about “women’s safety” in public spaces
Recently, Hyderabad Police issued a advisory to women, listing the preventive measures they should take when travelling. The advisory was issued in light of the reported rape and murder of a 26-year-old vet in the outskirts of Hyderabad on November 27. In this advisory to keep women safe in public spaces, women themselves were told to keep friends and family safe. informed of their travel details, including location, where possible. Women were also asked to share contact details for the mode of transport, as well as license plate and driver information. In addition, women were advised to know the route before moving and to always place themselves in âcrowdedâ and âlightedâ areas. Finally, there is a reminder to dial 100, the police emergency hotline, whenever needed and download the Hyderabad Police number. Hawk Eye application. And in case all else fails, there’s one final ominous tip.
“If you are in a helpless situation, please shout and run to a crowded area.”
Rage falls short in the face of something so absurd. Criticism against this thoughtless and ill-advised âadviceâ has been swift and adamant, both in online and offline spaces. But its language and intent are neither new nor unique. They replay familiar and interconnected tropes of protection, women’s safety, and the construction of public spaces as sites of risk and danger.
And so, at the cost of repeating what feminist activists have repeatedly pointed out, here is a reminder of why the existing language of âwomenâs safetyâ in India is problematic, and the ways we can reframe it.
1. Don’t put the blame on women
The 14 points of this opinion go in the same direction: they place the responsibility for safety squarely on women. Women should keep their bodies away from possible danger zones, namely dimly lit or low-traffic spaces. Women should never lower their guard, always walk around in a state of hyper-vigilance, perpetually ready to sound the alarm.
As if we weren’t already calling our friends or family and keeping them on the phone whenever we travel late at night. As if we weren’t already avoiding the dark, deserted alleys. As if every second of every day wasn’t spent meticulously planning what to wear, where to go, how long to stay out, all with the goal of not being raped.
The 14 points of this opinion go in the same direction: they place the responsibility for safety squarely on women. Women should keep their bodies away from possible danger zones, namely dimly lit or low-traffic spaces.
The only thing this language achieves (and perhaps this is also the point), is to create enough panic for the women themselves to monitor and restrict their own mobility and movement, and stay away public spaces whenever possible.
2. Secure public spaces (not women)
In most South Asian cities, women do not have unconditional access to public space. In ‘Why Stroll: Women and Risk in the Streets of Mumbai‘, authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade point out that even in Mumbai, supposedly India’s ‘safest’ city, women “feel obliged to demonstrate at all times that they have legitimate reasons to be where they are.“that they must”develop strategies, consciously or unconsciously, to negotiate public space.And so, the authors suggest making public spaces safe and accessible rather than keeping women safe, the latter always being a metaphor for control.
It could be through a combination of better public transport, street lights, hotlines that actually work, law enforcement that actually shows up and isn’t obsessed with why someone came out late and what she was wearing. It was also one of the keys recommendations of the Judge Verma’s Committee Report in 2013 â carried out a year after the Delhi gang rape and murder â which proposed street lighting on all roads, 24-hour public transport, an increase in the number of police booths and kiosks and gender-sensitive policing . However, six years later, we are back to asking women to avoid dimly lit and sparsely populated areas.
3. Lose the language of âprotectionâ
There is a difference between keeping women safe and talking about âprotectionâ. This protective language is not limited to paternalistic âBeti Bachaoâ plans, opinions and recommendations, but permeates our daily vocabulary. This is the language used by families to justify the surveillance of women, to urge daughters, wives and sisters to return home at a “reasonable” time from the “dangerous outside”. He expresses himself through a worried vocabulary but his sexism and misogyny are barely concealed.
It becomes an easy excuse to examine everything from a woman’s clothes to her sexual choices. It strengthens the women’s body as a marker of family honor. He stereotypes women as eternal victims whose bodies and movements are then caught in a vicious circle of protection, surveillance and control.
There is a difference between providing security and talking about âprotectionâ. This protective language is not limited to paternalistic âBeti Bachaoâ plans, opinions and recommendations, but permeates our daily vocabulary.
4. Think intersectionality
Conversations about women in public spaces assume a neutral woman regardless of how gender intersects with class, caste, sexuality, age, (dis)ability to produce exclusions or compulsions particular. The ability to call a friend, hail a cab, escape helplessness, get away from dimly lit or less crowded areas is not available to everyone, even though our policies claim otherwise. Implicitly, the subject of public safety is upper/middle class, upper caste, able-bodied, cisgender, heterosexual, Hindu woman.
To some extent, the Delhi government’s decision to make public transport free for women who cannot afford to pay is the start of an intersectional policy that makes public space more accessible. In contrast, the recently adopted Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill 2019â which sentences from six months to two years of imprisonment for sexual offenses against trans people against up to seven years in the case of cisgender women â recalls that, even within the legal system, security has a hierarchy in which some groups are given priority over others.
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5. Don’t Assert Security Through “Respectability”
The allusion to dimly lit and deserted areas is also a veiled reminder that there is a good woman-bad woman dichotomy in conversations about public safety. Security can only be claimed by “good”, “respectable” women, who do not deliberately hang around such spaces, but just pass by.
The authors of ‘Why Loiter‘ make an interesting observation about this dichotomy. In their discussion of Maharashtra’s 2005 ban on dance bars, they show how public space, security and protection are articulated differently for ‘women in bars’ and ‘women in bars’. Barwomen made public space unsafe and therefore had to be banned in the interests of “barwomen” passing by, whose privilege (or respectability) permitted legitimate claims to safety.
6. Do not justify mobocratic violence
During discussions of the rape and murder of the vet in the Rajya Sabha, MP Jaya Bachchan unreservedly defended lynching as a form of justice in âextremeâ cases of sexual violence. Previously the hashtag #NoMercyForRapists picked up on India Twitter with posts outlining in painstaking and violent detail how the defendant in the case should be treated. At the time of this writing, the four defendants were would have killed in a clash with the police.
There is not enough room here to enter into a discussion of the errors of retributive justice, but suffice it to say that the myth of violent punishment as deterrence to violent crime has long been demystified. And yet, it always comes back. It is easy to argue that by subjecting perpetrators to violent forms of state-sponsored punitive justice, we will have somehow ended a deeply rooted sexist culture. It’s harder to recognize that the routinized, normalized, ‘boys will be boys‘All-out sexism is the starting point of sexual violence. There is no doubt that those who rape and murder must be punished, but advocating the death penalty and lynching is a mockery masked by righteous anger. He buries the discussion before it has even started.
Read also : Jaya Bachchan and her sensational outrage are not helpful
Sexual violence and assault is much more than a matter of women’s safety in public spaces. These are just a series of overlapping structural problems that we must tackle simultaneously. But even that one conversation won’t make sense unless we move past a vocabulary that first normalizes everyday sexism, then asks women to protect themselves, then selects who deserves to be safe, and when the veneer of women’s safety is predictably broken, advocates death punishment and lynching as a solution.
Featured image source: The Indian Express