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)