Give women equal access to public spaces

Women need a zero-tolerance policy towards everyday harassment and a focus on enabling infrastructure

Updated - November 17, 2021 06:18 am IST

Published - March 13, 2016 08:15 am IST

In recent years, violence against women in the city has received a great deal of attention in the media, amongst activists, law enforcers and general citizenry. However, much of the outrage has been limited to certain public incidents of physical sexual violence or rape. The focus on public violence conceals data that demonstrates that the largest proportion of violence against women takes place in private spaces, usually in homes. The spotlight on epic events of violence also tends to ignore the everyday pervasive low-grade street violence that women are expected to chin up and tolerate.

This everyday street harassment ranging from verbal taunting, sustained stalking to body-part grabbing, molestation and even discomforting staring has deeper implications on women’s lives than we care to admit. Unfortunately, even our courts don’t seem to understand that – just recently the Bombay High Court punished four men charged with molestation of three women by letting them off as long as they swept an area of Naupada (Thane), every Sunday for six months. Apparently the court hopes sweeping will help clean their minds.

Such incidences of everyday harassment and crime (and we clearly consider them crimes even if the HC did not) are often used by families and communities as excuses to not allow women full access to public space. Under the guise of concern, women are policed and either not permitted to go out at all, or not stay late at work, certainly not allowed to go out at night for purposes of pleasure and told to dress ‘decently’ and behave differently. One frequently comes across cases of young women who cannot afford private transport being forced to drop out of high school, cancel a tuition class, take longer routes to college, let go of a work opportunity – basically make life-altering decisions due to the threat posed by this everyday violence. As a result, their access to public space is severely curtailed.

But even as we acknowledge women’s lack of access to public space, we also need to recognise the increased exclusion of other marginal citizens such as the poor, the working classes, the lower castes, and religious and sexual minorities from the city. As we discuss in our book ‘Why Loiter’, this violence against those seen to not belong takes several shapes – from ousting people from their homes and places of livelihood, such as in the case of hawkers, to brutal acts committed by the state and private agencies against certain groups and communities. Unfortunately, this endemic violence is treated as separate from the violence against women and often elicits much less public outrage.

The brutal exclusions of marginals from public space is often presented in the guise of the righteous desire to protect women (usually understood to be middle-class) from them. The anxiety about women in public is also the anxiety that women will start making choices that their families are uncomfortable with, including in their choice of romantic partner who may well be from the wrong community, caste or class. The focus on safety for women then allows the creation of a logic where one group of marginal citizens (women) are pitted against others (‘undesirable’ men) in a vicious circle where nobody is a winner. Women’s open access to public space then cannot be sought at the cost of the exclusion of anyone else.

Unfortunately, all our public space design is driven by the impulse to exclude rather than include. The desire to enclose public open spaces comes from imagining a perceived threat from undesirable people – the so-called ‘anti-social elements’. Our research has shown that putting up walls and fences around open spaces can actually make them feel less friendly to women and older citizens. The obvious difference between the much protected Oval Maidan and the completely open Shivaji Park cannot be overlooked. The former, with all its security remains an unwelcome place for women for much of the day, while the latter is seen as welcoming and safe until late in the night. Contrary to popular belief, putting up walls and fences and closing parks for much of the day does not make places safer. It only makes the area seem more isolated and hostile. Recently in a welcome move, the municipal corporation decided to extend the timings of parks under its care so that more citizens can get access to them. This seems to be a move in the right direction.

Women’s access can only come in a context where city infrastructure is designed to acknowledge women’s right to its public spaces. For example, at the moment the number and state of toilets for women in our public facilities make it appear as though women are barely present or definitely shouldn’t be present in public spaces. What we then need is enough clean and thoughtfully-designed toilets for women across the city. We also need well-lit streets, parks and railway stations so that every time when women access public space they are not calculating where and when they will need to pee, where and when they will have to be alert and walk faster in a dark patch of the city.

One of the key reasons why Mumbai is a relatively friendlier city for women is the presence of a robust public transport network that not just connects the city extensively, but in the case of local trains also operates into the late hours of the night. We need to not just protect this provision but enhance it by having request stops for buses after 10 pm and by putting in place increased support systems such as by training conductors and bus drivers to take immediate action on complaints of harassment and placing emergency alarms in train compartments.

What we are simply asking for is that we accept all women (and all others as marginalised as them) as equal citizens with as much right to the city and its services as any able-bodied young heterosexual middle-class male. What we then need to fix Mumbai is not over zealous moral policing but a focus on everyday street harassment. Instead of policing the potential victims on the streets “for their own good”, law enforcement should work towards policing the perpetrators. Just like its success in the curbing of drinking-and-driving, a zero-tolerance policy which specifies that in no circumstances is sexual assault, molestation or harassment acceptable, will make the city an eminently liveable place. However, the way to implement this zero-tolerance policy is not by locking up our public spaces but by opening them up to as many citizens as possible for as long as possible.

It is only when the city is accessible to all, can it be safe and friendly to women.

About the authors

Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade are co-authors of the critically acclaimed book 'Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets' .

Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist and is assistant professor at the School of Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based independent journalist and researcher and visiting faculty in journalism at the School of Media & Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Shilpa Ranade is a practising architect and researcher and is founding partner of the design collaborative DCOOP

Points to ponder

• City infrastructure must be designed to acknowledge women’s right to its public spaces

• We need enough clean, thoughtfully-designed toilets for women, well-lit streets, parks and railway stations across the city

• Mumbai needs request stops for buses after 10 pm and support systems such as training for conductors and bus drivers to take immediate action on complaints of harassment

• Trains must have emergency alarms

• A zero-tolerance policy to sexual assault, molestation or harassment is needed

• Public spaces need to be opened up, not locked

For the complete list of stories in the Fixing Mumbai series, > click here
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