Streetwise Society

Women, let’s seize the night!

On the need for women to reclaim public spaces in our cities

Even before the sun dawns on the first day of the new year, many women across the country have already confronted some ugly form of public violence. It’s a horrific cycle that repeats itself every New Year’s eve — women out for the evening with family and friends by the seafront, central city avenues and public promenades (Gateway of India, Park Street, Brigade Road) are mobbed, groped, molested, and in one instance have even had their clothes ripped off (near Juhu beach, 2008) and what was meant to be a fun evening turns into a frightful spectacle.

This year, even organisers of Berlin’s annual New Year’s Eve party, at Brandenburg Gate, set up for the first time a ‘safe zone’ for women. The new security measure was planned amid concerns about sexual assaults, especially keeping in mind the assaults and robberies that targeted women in Cologne two years ago. This is not an ideal situation — women don’t want to be pushed into designated areas marked ‘safe’; more importantly, that sends out the message that women are not safe or cannot expect to be safe from an assault outside of marked areas. Though it might be better than asking women to stay at home and not access public spaces at all on occasions like New Year’s eve, or to not access them at night.

On a daily basis, women are always forced to confront violence in public, whether it is ogling, stalking, verbal slurs, groping, molestation or more. Street celebrations of New Year’s eve, or festivals, merely up the scale, with molesters taking refuge in the anonymity provided by enormous crowds. This is what took place on Brigade road in Bengaluru last year.

What’s worse is how we afterwards preach to women survivors, rather than confront the attitudes and privileges of male perpetrators. That Indian women are no longer willing to put up with that stance was made abundantly clear last January, when several women across the country came together for the #IWillGoOut campaign.

When women access public spaces, especially at night, they strategise in detailed ways. This is after they have overcome not just the anxieties of families, but also fears that have taken root in their own minds — of the dark, of men, of strangers, of being out of home; fears that society has fed them to keep them out of public spaces.

It all came home to me last year, when I participated in Blank Noise’s ‘Walk Alone’ initiative, wherein I explored the city by walking alone through it at night. While in the day I have loitered around the city alone, in the night, it’s usually with friends and co-loiterers (Why Loiter movement) in familiar areas. So, to access the city at night, all alone, was to challenge my fears.

I walked in central Mumbai (10 pm to midnight) in an area with middle-class and slum housing, several dark spots and regular tempo-truck-motorbike traffic. Most visible people on the street were men. Initially, I walked fast, feeling more at ease in well-lit areas, or where I met a mixed crowd of men-women. When I was the lone woman on the street, and there were several men around, I was watchful but calm; when there were just one or two other men, I was quite anxious. But many experiences were positive, such as the one I had when crossing a busy road — an older man next to me quietly advised me on where exactly to cross and how. Then he quickly disappeared, not following me as I’d feared. A little ahead, near a well-lit open maidan, several people were walking, lounging, and eating at the street corner. But the sight that really lifted my spirits was observing a largish family of men, women, and children dominate a section of the maidan, playing several rounds of badminton.

Afterwards, I considered, how different my night walk and public space could be, if only more women and families loitered similarly. Truly, it’s time we seized the night.

 

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Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets
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Printable version | Jun 2, 2020 1:04:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/women-lets-seize-the-night/article22403782.ece

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