Mumbai Sunday Anchor

Lurking dangers in the megalapolis

Neha Gandhi, 32, scheduled the service of the air-conditioner in her home for a Saturday. Two men landed at the door of her one BHK apartment at Andheri.

“But suddenly, I felt nervous about having two unknown men in my house when I was alone. I quickly took their photos on my phone, making it very conspicuous. I also feigned phone calls to people giving the impression that I would have visitors any moment,” Ms. Gandhi said.

She resonates the fears of countless women in Mumbai, which has over the past few years shed its reputation of being a safe city. Most point to August 22 last year as the moment which exposed the dangers faced by women in the city. Five men gang-raped a young photojournalist in broad daylight in the Shakti Mills Compound in south Mumbai, where she had gone on assignment with a male colleague.

Following a resounding clamour for urgent reforms and justice for the victim, a 600-page charge sheet was filed within a month. The trial was completed in a record eight months, and three of the five accused were awarded the death penalty on April 4 for repeat offence.

But insecurity had set in in what was considered a “safe” haven much earlier. In 2012, 87 per cent of women admitted to feeling unsafe in some public spaces in a study curated by the urban think tank BMW Guggenheim Lab and conducted by Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action and Research. Harassment, social perceptions and presence of men were reasons given for steering clear from certain spaces.

In their book Why Loiter?, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade highlight the importance for women to have access to public spaces in the city: “Loitering is significant because it blurs these boundaries — the supposedly dangerous look less threatening, the ostensibly vulnerable don’t look helpless enough.”

And while public transport may seem like a convenient option of commute in this megapolis, the Government Railway Police recorded one rape and 12 molestation cases at railways stations and on trains. Sixty-two cases of molestation and six of rape were recorded in the two preceding years.

Prerna Lalwani, 25, now a student at the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, said her last visit to her home city was dreadful. “Men seem to have become more openly lecherous. I avoid trains or even walking. I prefer cabs for late-night commutes and ensure I am in constant contact with someone,” she said.

Many say that the nature of crime has taken on a perverse shade of brutality. The attempted rape and shocking murder of young lawyer Pallavi Purkayastha by the watchman of her apartment building in 2012 in the eastern suburb of Wadala sent shockwaves across the city, making fear a palpable companion of women. Media professional Mitali Sanath narrated an incident in which she was returning to her home in Borivli past midnight with her husband and a fight with the rickshaw driver over money turned bitter. “He got into the building, entered our lift and reached our doorstep. My husband gave him the money and he left. But I was petrified and couldn't sleep that night,” she said.

In 2013, 391 rape cases were recorded in Mumbai, of which 14 were by parents and close family members, 19 by relatives, 43 by neighbours and 313 by other known people.

Filmmaker Deepika Sharma, who has grown up in Delhi and Chandigarh and spent a considerable amount of time travelling in Bangalore and Jaipur, feels “naturally” at ease in Mumbai. “My sense of safety hinges on the fact that I often compare it to other cities. I can walk here alone without the need of being in a group,” Ms. Sharma said.

Almost a year after the Shakti Mills gang rape, the words “gender” and “safety” have crept into drawing room discussions. But deep-seated patriarchy is at the root of violence against women, experts say.

The case trial itself, for instance, was replete with patriarchal notions. Public prosecutor Ujjwal Nikam, while arguing for the death penalty said that rape, was not only an attack on a woman's body but also an attack on her “mind, chastity, prestige and self-honour, which cannot be healed unless the victim dies.”

Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, said it was ironic that Mr. Nikam claimed to be defending women’s rights but used patriarchal words.

An article published in the Economic and Political Weekly by Flavia Agnes, Audrey D’Mello and Persis Sidhva, part of the survivor support project of the Majlis Legal Centre, shows glaring levels of insensitivity during investigation and trial. “A sensitive and caring approach to a rape survivor was what was missing,” it said.

And this attitude transcends all aspects of life. Filmmaker Paromita Vohra, who made a documentary, Q2P, on public toilets in Mumbai, found that women had fewer toilets than men. In her film, she shoots a sequence of young women who have gathered at an event called “Reclaim the Night” at the Gateway of India and Azad Maidan to spread awareness of violence against women. As the night progresses, the women realise they have not taken into account the absence of public toilets. “While fighting for women's rights, it hadn’t occurred to anyone that this was a different kind of discrimination meted out to them,” Ms. Vohra said. Of the 4,500 toilets in the city, roughly 30-35 per cent are for women.

For activist Susieben Shah, who started the Priyadarshini cab service with women drivers, the solution lies in getting women out in the streets. “If there are more women on the road, the city will be safer for women,” she said.

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2020 12:24:42 PM |

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