While it is considered safer for women than other cities, it has seen a disturbing rise in sexual crimes over the years

Swetha S, 28, works in the film industry and is used to commuting late at night. But over the years she started feeling more vulnerable. “I bought a car last year so I don’t have to rely on public transport. After the latest incident, I don’t know what is safe anymore. It happened at 6 p.m. I never thought I would have to start asking people where I can buy pepper sprays,” she says.

Thursday’s gang rape has sent a chill down Mumbai’s spine. It’s a disquieting reminder that there are limits to the safety it offers to its large pool of working women.

Those who never thought twice before stepping out late, now feel insecure. “I came from Delhi to be in Mumbai. I liked the city’s freedom. I used to work in a production house but finished very late. The company car dropped me home at 3 a.m., but I didn’t feel safe. I ended up quitting,” said 30-year-old Aarti Ghanekar (name changed).

For many who travel late by train, the ladies compartment is rarely an option. “Although I have a pass for the first class compartment, I travel second class in the general compartment after 10 p.m. That way, I am not alone in the compartment,” says Borivli resident Hiral Jain, who works for a law firm in Churchgate.

The case has triggered outrage not just among women but also mediapersons. More than a hundred journalists and media students held a silent march at Hutatma Chowk to demand action. “There is need for sensitisation and a change in attitudes. Popular media perpetuate the objectification of women,” said Jerro Mulla, former head of the Social Communications Media Course at Sophia Polytechnic.

Flavia Agnes, a women’s rights advocate and co-founder of Majlis, says lack of action on such crimes encourages perpetrators. “It is no longer a one-off case. With the lack of a deterrent, people sexually assault women without feeling threatened.”

While Mumbai is considered safer for women than other cities, it has seen a disturbing rise in sexual crimes over the years. In 2012, young lawyer Pallavi Purkayastha was murdered by her building watchman after he tried to rape her. The same year, a Spanish national was raped in her home by a man who climbed into her flat. In 2011, two young men, Keenan Santos and Reuben Fernandes, were murdered while trying to protect their friends from eve-teasers.

In 2009, six students were accused of gang-raping a U.S. national studying at TISS. They were later acquitted for lack of evidence.

A year before a mob molested two women on New Year’s Eve outside the Marriott Hotel in Juhu. In 2005, a student was raped by a constable inside a police chowky on Marine Drive. In 2002, a girl was raped inside a moving train in front of five bystanders, including a journalist. None of them intervened to save her.

Yet some activists warn that the lesson to draw from such cases is not to restrict women’s movement. Rather, the lesson is to push for safer public spaces.

“Women are accessing the city everyday and have developed a relationship with the city. It is especially under these circumstances that women need to assert their right to loiter in public spaces,” says Shilpa Phadke, co-author of Why Loiter? Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets.

If a woman cop doesn’t feel safe, how can I?

(The following is The Times of India photojournalist Uma Kadam’s reaction to the Mumbai rape incident. Ms. Kadam has worked with various publications of the Times Group for the past 13 years.)

I started my career as a photojournalist in 2001. At the time, I was among the few woman photographers in the city.

For the first two or three years, I was timid and scared in this male bastion. But circumstances changed me. I have made myself strong so that I can put up a fight. But now I wonder what I would do if attacked by five men.

When we are out in desolate or sensitive areas on assignments, we face problems. Being a woman in such areas draws attention, in any case. With a camera, it becomes worse. When the mills were shutting, I did a lot of shoots there.

There are other areas in the city which are desolate, such as the Sion Fort and the Mazgaon Dock. I remember being followed by men at Sion Fort a few years ago. It was scary, but I managed to get out quickly.

Another problem is dealing with the advances of male photographers. Often, we have to be in places where all the photographers are huddled close together to get a photo from the right vantage point.

Although some photographers have tried to take advantage of my physical proximity to them, there are others who have taken care that I was standing at a safe distance. It was equally frustrating to be treated like I wasn’t good enough because I was a woman.

My job takes me to all kinds of places at odd hours. I have gone back home at 2am alone. But now it has become scary.

My mother was so worried after the rape case that she asked me not to venture out the way I do. But how can I stop doing the work I enjoy? Recently, I met a woman cop on the train who told me she didn’t feel safe in this city anymore. If a cop doesn’t feel safe, how can I?