It could do with better policing and a change in male attitudes, but women can still go about their lives more confidently than elsewhere
Every time a woman gets sexually assaulted in Mumbai, a hysterical outburst goes up that the safest city for women is no longer so. But what makes a city unsafe for women? Do women in Mumbai dread stepping out of their homes every day?
The answer has to be no. The factors that ensured women have felt safe in this city all these decades have not changed.
Once our most industrialised city, Mumbai has had a long tradition of women working. This has meant that they are not considered “forward” when they are out on the streets. In Mumbai, a woman outside her home isn’t a rare sight; at any time of the day or night, you can see many of them, on the streets, or out on the sea front.
Belonging in the public space
The way they walk — briskly, purposefully, and without being self-conscious — speaks of their confidence. Women don’t stand out, they merge into the crowds that spill out every morning at Churchgate and Victoria Terminus, the main local train stations in the business district of South Mumbai. And you don’t see them only during rush hour. They flow with the city’s tide of working people — as late as 8 p.m., you can see women, just as you can see men, making their way to railway stations or waiting at bus stops to start their return journeys home.
Mumbai’s public transport is the other reason women can move around safely even after midnight. Be it the last train or the last bus, you will find women on it. The conductor on the last bus will give you a ticket without a second glance. He won't consider you fair game because you are out so late. And men will risk their lives running to the general compartment of the last local train rather than hop on to the nearer “ladies’ compartment”. That space is reserved for women, and the men know it. Why women are safe in Mumbai is that they belong in its public spaces; they know this, so does the city.
Strategies for coping
This is not to be in denial about the entire gamut of unwanted sexual contact that women face in Mumbai, from staring to groping. Mumbai’s crowds ensure safety both for women and their predators. Every woman has had to learn to cope. Shielding your body with your elbows and your handbag as best as you can; turning around swiftly to confront the groper behind you; avoiding deserted roads late at night as well as roads full of drunken men (on New Year’s Eve or Holi); never travelling in the general compartment of a local train except when — and this is crucial — the ladies’ compartment is empty; and learning to ignore stares and comments, are some of the ground rules one breaks at one’s own risk. There’s no getting away from these rules if you want to feel confident enough to be on the move any time in Mumbai.
It would help enormously if constables were posted in ladies’ compartments every night; and 24/7 during the week preceding Holi, when female commuters are specially targeted with balloons full of dirty water. But liberation from these rules will not come only with more effective policing. The police themselves, like most Indian men, look at women as sex objects. “Bhog ki cheez [a sex object]”, is how a male MP described women during a discussion in Parliament in the 1980s. Not much has changed in three decades. Last week, Sena MLA Anil Kadam, angry with female attendants at a toll booth, threatened to have them stripped.
Such attitudes won’t change till we start dinning into our sons’ heads from childhood that girls are their equals; their bodies are their own, not public property; that being a “hero” means respecting women. Far from doing that, our enlightened State has banned sex education in schools, which is the first step towards inculcating a healthy attitude towards girls’ bodies among boys. In Mumbai, we have the additional factor of class resentment, where men, mostly poor, coming to work here from States where women are not so visible, have to deal with confident women all around them.
Could what happened last week in Mumbai have been prevented? How could the intern and her male colleague — or even their editor — have known that the deserted mill was a haven for petty criminals? The only precaution they could have taken was to have gone there in broad daylight, but would even that have helped? Picture a young woman and man on an assignment in a vast, abandoned structure, whose layout they are completely unfamiliar with, encountering a bunch of petty criminals, society’s drop-outs, who frequent police lock-ups and are hence unafraid of the law. A pack of wolves had unexpectedly found some prey.
Can we judge how safe a city is on the basis of such a situation? It’s revealing that the intern herself has said she wants to get back to work as soon as possible. Obviously, her faith in Mumbai hasn’t been shaken.
(The writer is a leading columnist. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)