We need mechanisms that guarantee women safety in private and public spaces. Curbing their right to mobility, as Gurgaon's Deputy Commissioner recently tried to do, is not the answer.

Women in Tamil Nadu and “of a certain age” like me will remember that girls then were told that they had to be home before the evening lamps were lit (vilakku vaikkum munnaal). That is, our safety depended on our remaining at home. The attitude was one of protection and one of restriction, not of prevention and enablement.

A few years ago, I was at the law college to speak to the students. It was very heartening to see that the students were open and felt they could start off by asking questions instead of sitting mumchance listening to my pontifications. The male students (may I refer to boys and girls instead without intending any disrespect?) asked me why I should think the girls' right to equality was affected, look at them!  I asked them “Have any of you been teased in the bus on the way to college, and even if you had been and you had told your parents about it, will you be stopped from attending college?” The boys laughed and acknowledged the truth in what I said. Suppose a boy was teased in the bus and told his parents, the response would be “You are a man (nee ambillai) give it back to them (thiruppi kodu.)” But if a girl complained of being teased, the same parents will say “nee pen” (you are a girl) Naalaikke innoru veettirku poganum (you will go to another home). So why don't you go to some college where there is no such problem?”

So, the fact that she is a girl is itself the problem. The public transport systems and public places are not safe, there is no mechanism put in place by which such harassment is prevented. And if it is night time it is worse. But women can no longer return home before the “lamps are lit”. Times have changed and women want to take part in every aspect of life and living, and they are indeed entitled to do so.

The real problem

Sadly though, women are made responsible for their own safety and if something happens to them, they alone are made responsible. This restricts women's freedom and autonomy, it affects their mobility and their ability to work and participate in social activities. Such an attitude erodes women's self-confidence and increases their dependence on others. Therefore, they become only more vulnerable and less capable of realising their full capacity. The Constitution guarantees to every citizen the right to move freely throughout India. Neither the State nor the society appears to acknowledge that the woman's right to “move freely” is her fundamental right. The right to move freely means the right to move safely too. But it looks as if the girl cannot move freely even within her own city.

Any discourse on gender politics must needs acknowledge that the social structures and arrangements are so built that they give automatic advantages to the man or result in undeserved disadvantages to the woman, and must address the removal of the systemic discrimination which attends on the woman. It follows that the woman's right to exercise her options can be guaranteed only by a violence-free atmosphere. At the same time, the answer is not to tell her that if she remained at home it will be violence-free (In fact the child sexual abuse cases and domestic abuse cases tell us that the home is not really safe, but that is another story.) The guarantee of her fundamental right must not be disguised as a curfew on her movements. In the Anuj Garg case which was about the women's right to be employed in bars, the Supreme Court held, “Instead of putting curbs on women's freedom, empowerment would be a more tenable and socially wise approach. This empowerment should reflect in the law enforcement strategies of the state as well as law modelling done in this behalf.

Also with the advent of modern state, new models of security must be developed. There can be a setting where the cost of security in the establishment can be distributed between the state and the employer.”

Alarming indifference

You remember the young woman who was verbally and physically assaulted by a gang of young men at a theatre complex some years ago? She was physically attacked, even as a crowd watched and we were told that the policeman who tried to intervene was overpowered by the goons. Cities are becoming places where individuals live in sound-proof and opaque compartments. Don't cry “Help!” It may be of no use.

We now need an ongoing partnership of the stakeholders i.e. women, NGOs, vigilant and sensitised community, accessible police and law enforcement agencies which acknowledge the woman's dignity, and responsive elected representatives. This should lead to better lit public spaces, efficient and dependable public transport, well lit public toilets, the presence of police especially a people-friendly police, inculcating a tradition of friendly and concerned neighbours who do not shut their doors if a woman is in trouble and above all respect for Women. Is it too much to ask?