Opinion » Lead

Updated: January 9, 2013 13:01 IST

Conquering the fear of the setting sun

Ravinder Kaur
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The struggle for something as basic as equal access to public spaces as men at all hours is an everyday ordeal that women without resources feel more acutely

One of my distinct memories of growing up in Delhi involves the everyday spectre of a setting sun. My mother, worried about my safety when I started at university in the early 1990s, made me promise that I would always return home before dark. The home-before-sunset wasn’t a rule as such but a ‘safety measure’ that was followed by most of my female friends, acquaintances and neighbours. It was neither questioned nor explained. The routine was so deeply ingrained that rushing home before dark seemed like a matter of commonsense. For most of the female residents of the city, the dying glow in the sky marked the temporal limits before which to conclude their share of public activities. An elderly neighbour used to call it ‘Lakshman Rekha’ — the invisible boundary drawn by Rama’s brother Lakshman to protect Sita — which women must obey for their own safety. It was, as if, an informal state of curfew was imposed daily after sunset on one half of the population.


The brutal gang rape and eventual murder of a young woman in Delhi two weeks ago have tragically fore-grounded this state of curfew and question of women’s full right to access public spaces. More importantly, it has disclosed not only the gendered but also the classed nature of denial of this right. The section of female population that is most dependent on public goods such as means of transport is also the more underprivileged and vulnerable one. These women can neither retreat into the increasingly privatised world of the mobile middle class — mobile in every sense of the word — nor can they ‘opt-out’ of public services whenever they choose to. At a moment when public participation and prominence of women are growing in a range of fields, it has become possible to imagine the irrelevance of moral codes of patriarchy, especially in urban contexts. But what is central to this imagination is the access to mobility, including mobility in its most mundane form: physical mobility that allows one to travel from one place to another. A large population of women who are outside the orbit of middle class affluence, experience the lack of safe means of transport as suspension of their public movement after dark. The curfew may or may not always result from imposition of patriarchal values, but it surely emanates from the lack of women’s safe access to public goods such as buses and local trains. Thus, far from being an elite preoccupation, the struggle for something as basic as having equal access to public spaces as men at all hours is an everyday struggle that women without resources feel more acutely than their privileged counterparts.

Class, gender and mobility

These connections between class, gender and mobility in public spaces became apparent in the death of the unnamed young woman. Even as outrage and swift condemnation of this crime became widespread, the social media was astir with a cacophony of voices. The expression of sympathy was mixed with questions as to why she was travelling late at night (even when escorted) while others flagged her ill-judgment at not having taken enough safety precautions in a city termed as the ‘rape capital.’ In some ways, these voices were echoing the logic of the perpetrators — a woman who has transgressed her boundaries and risked venturing into a space that she is not supposed to be in is a fair game. Even while empathising with her, some commentators on various online discussions could not understand why the couple chose to take a bus home at that late hour. The fact that most likely they did not have a choice did not even occur as a possibility. Probably the middle class readers of English language newspapers could not really imagine an evening out predicated on the logistics of unreliable means of public transport.

The moment the news of the gang rape was broken in the media was also the moment of, what we may call, ‘class confusion,’ among commentators, reporters and eventually protesters. The well meaning observers instantly identified them as belonging to the middle class and underscored that this atrocity may “happen to any of us.” In the absence of details, the markers that helped associate the couple with ‘us’ or the privileged sections of middle class probably were, one, the upscale cinema complex they had visited; two, the location of the bus stop in the heart of South Delhi from where they boarded the bus; and three, the very fact that the young couple had been on an ‘evening out’ seeking entertainment and pleasure. The everyday acts of consumption and pleasure-seeking in the city are what define this actual and aspirational class identity to some extent. The unnamed woman and her companion later turned out to belong to the aspiring section of society whose mobility depends on safe public services. The class confusion, however, did help turn personal empathy into public protests — the kind of public outpouring that remains missing in the rapes of tribals, Dalits and poor women.

The gang rape ultimately opened an almost alien world for the upwardly mobile middle class — a world where it is not possible to simply secede from public goods and services. The city is lived and experienced very differently by men and women, the privileged and the unprivileged. Yet the dominant narrative is woven around the middle class which is said to be the prime motor of growth in a post-reform nation that increasingly sees itself as a global player. The gains of economic liberalisation can be witnessed in new consumption patterns as well as in concrete forms of massive infrastructure building in urban centres. The cityscape itself has altered with new public spaces — shopping malls, multiplex cinemas, coffee shops — that primarily attract youth population. Even as the range and form of public spaces expand, the city itself has become more segregated than ever before. Increasingly, the affluent either inhabit ‘privatised’ realms of new gated colonies or enclose existing residential localities with security and entry restrictions. And all those who can afford tend to use private means of transport rather than public. The introduction of metro rail in Delhi has by no means diminished the status attached to the ownership of a private car.


It is in this new classed realm of public/private discrepancies that we need to address the old questions of gendered ‘curfews’ and the safety of women. In re-formed India, it is not female mobility which is under curfew as such, rather that of underprivileged women whose safe mobility remains at stake. Despite the initial middle class enthusiasm for the shiny metro, the primary users of public transport are largely those who lack resources to enter the private zones of mobility. The near absence of women in buses and metro becomes acutely visible at night time. The curfew — a voluntary imposition — comes into force in these public spaces where few remaining women passengers are either looked at with sympathy (encouraged to ‘hurry home’) or with intimidation. The city turns into an alienating, intimidating place particularly for those outside the comfort zone of private mobility.

Patriarchal values are reinforced by the state which often advises women to refrain from “risky behaviour” — of travelling after dark — for their own good. This ‘advice’ was most recently offered by a high ranking police officer who also suggested that women should not travel at night, and if they do, they arm themselves with chilli powder to combat potential criminals. The Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, is also known for believing that women should not be so ‘adventurous’ so as to stay outside past midnight. In short, the government perpetuates the idea that the ‘outside’ is not a legitimate space for women to occupy.

The solution for women is obviously to not retreat but occupy the ‘outside’ if the fear of the setting sun is ever to be conquered. This involves as much demanding adequate lights, security in public spaces as challenging patriarchal values. And this also demands class solidarity from those women who have seceded into a privatised world of new India.

(Ravinder Kaur is Director, Centre of Global South Asian Studies, University of Copenhagen)

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An interesting piece. Highlights the vulnerability of women in
general, and poor women in particular, very well. However, I don't
agree that "Probably the middle class readers of English language
newspapers could not really imagine an evening out predicated on the
logistics of unreliable means of public transport." there are plenty
of people in the middle class, even amongst its more privileged
sections, who do rely on public transport in the evening. This is
especially true for students and young professionals working on low
salaries in the development sector.If anything, I think it lead to
such an outrage precisely because the middle class readers of English
language newspapers CAN really imagine an evening out predicated on
the logistics of unreliable means of public transport, especially from
Munirka - which is a major bus depot. Plenty of young people returning
from pleasure seeking activities in the late evening would rely on
public transport in the night.

from:  Kandala
Posted on: Jan 5, 2013 at 13:13 IST

It was 26th of January, our Republic Day and all the world and their grandmother comes out onto India Gate to the Martyar's column to celebrate this day of India's entry to a democratic future - where all citizens are equal. In that crowd was a group of us girls who actually made a mistake of arriving about 30 minutes earlier than the boys who were supposed to meet us there. We did not manage to stand there for 5 minutes without some group of guys hitting on us - again and again and again. When we asked the police to help, they asked:"are you alone?" - no - we are 7 adults. We had to leave the place and get back to our hostels before the boys arrived, because no one would leave us in peace. On the day our nation celebrated its democratic independence, we a group of 7 girls had no right to be in one of the most public spaces of our national capital, when everyone else could be, JUST because we were 'unaccompanied' women.

from:  Monolita
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 16:03 IST

I completely accept with the article, that women without resources
feel more acute pressure of various social ills that today prevail
in the society.When a person who knows all legal course of actions
that needs to be taken in case of any harm caused to oneself by
others, surrounded by a very organised society is facing problems in
his daily chores ,think of people living in tribal localities(Tandas)
and other secluded or isolated far off places where they even don't
know the legal mechanism that is present in the outside ,so called
"socialized" society.
Either it may be illegal hysterectomies
,rapes,frauds in paying them true wages they are eligible for , making
them dislocate from the places where there very lives are tied up for
daily livelihood ,no proper roads,communication and transport it is
they who are the worst sufferers among us.

Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 15:57 IST

In a democratic country women have equal rights as the men which are enshrined in our constitution. So no need to women to ask anyone what should she do and when should she come out of home ? It is the matter of shame for the government that they are unable to implement the fundamental rights enshrined in constitution.

from:  sumit gupta
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 13:32 IST

A very well written piece. But it is not just in public places like buses and trains that women are forbidden at night it is also in laboratories of creamy layered educational institutions like the IIT's where girl students are often disallowed at night. So, what we need to is to question the male psychology. Is it the body only that matters? Can't they treat women as fellow beings. No law,no punishment can regulate actions which are performed in bedrooms, in the streets or in pubs. What we need is a change of attitude towards females in India. And also it is not only for the men to change it is also for the women. Because it is the mother who can teach her son values.

from:  sukanya
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 12:14 IST

It is heartening to know that The Hindu is trying to challenge the
rhetoric around the issues of safety of women and violence against
women with articles like this one and the one that was featured
yesterday. In the present article, the author with her focus on
temporal and spatial limits for a woman in her everyday struggle has
raised crucial points for understanding the issues of women's safety,
violence against them and their rights in every sphere of their lives.

As is rightly pointed out, the sub-narratives are often silenced by
the Grand narratives resulting in the trivialisation of many
significant factors - in this case the cutting across of issues of
gender, class and mobility (both spatial and temporal).

The ongoing debates have therefore not only challenged the dominant
discourses but have also made us realise that it is time to move
beyond simple reductionism and look at various orthogenetic and
heterogenetic factors in understanding issues of gender inequality.

from:  Rashi
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 11:11 IST

Nice article. It's possible only if the society allows them to do so in all means.

from:  Tukuna patro
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 10:26 IST

Excellent, hard hitting analysis there.I would like to add that in this unnamed girl's case ,the public response was so vocal because of 2 reasons.
1. That she was assumed to be 1 of us by the middle educated people, as the article says.
2. The media coverage. No doubt the crime was horrendous, but so are many others happening in rural areas, which are simply reported in 3 lines. In this case the exceptional quantity and quality of media coverage broke through peoples walls of apathy. The mass protests followed, resulting in further media coverage.

from:  Halak B
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 09:26 IST

Well written.Women's access to public spaces has largely been
shrouded in ideas of regulation and this has been so in most
parts of India.Male passengers who use the public transport at
late hours deem it their right to taunt a female passenger.The
overt and covert compliance of our society with such unsaid rules
which curb mobility for half the population is a dismal picture
of equality in opportunity in access of public spaces.Right to
city is still elusive to women and we desperately need a change
of attitude to embark on a society where women can claim their
rights to city without fear or prejudice.

from:  Elsa
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 07:36 IST

Very perceptive. Agreed, a vast majority of the mobile middle class women would seldom
allow themselves to be in situations that the unfortunate victim ended up in. And in this case
they boarded an enticingly empty bus which had only fully depraved lumpen elements in the
bus. The question is how do we ensure such spaces? What makes Mumbai or Bangalore or
chennai predominantly work but not Delhi. Is it more about changing the idea of masculinity
while ensuring the quality of physical infrastructure improves.

from:  Anand
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 06:43 IST

I think the writer failed to take notice that even men folk are insecure
in such trying conditions these days. Though such reports have not
acquired national attention, there are a good number of incidents which
have proven that even men folk need to ensure that when they are out in
the night, they also face an equal and daunting task of ensuring their
safety. But the measures suggested like better street lighting etc are

from:  Harpreet Chugh
Posted on: Jan 4, 2013 at 05:38 IST
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