Sex(ual harassment) and the City

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Even as urban sprawls emerge and expand, the freedom of movement for women in urban public spaces shrinks, as exhibited recently by the Bengaluru mass molestations around New Year's Eve. Is there a need to have a relook at Indian city planning?

#IWillGoOut is a movement that sprouted in several cities including Bengaluru, New Delhi and Thrissur, in solidarity with women's right to freedom of movement in public spaces. | AFP

"But for me, this conversation is old, and I'm sure for many of you the conversation is quite old. It’s the cameras that are new. It’s not the violence that’s new."
~ Ta-Nehisi Coates, American journalist and author.

 

Coates was referencing white supremacy and police brutality against blacks when he said what is now a much-shared phrase, thanks to social media. But to paraphrase him, in Bengaluru, the outrage over sexual harassment is nothing new. The conversations around it, are not new either. There have been similar incidents before, just like there have been protests earlier.

Sexual assault is an everyday thing now.

A video posted last October on my social media feed underscores this, in a way, no words will. The roughly three-minute video from a CCTV camera show overlooks the front of an apartment building. There is no security guard. A man is seen walking outside the front gate, he has a phone clasped to his ear, and then you realise, he is actually stroking himself as he walks past the gate. Some seconds later, three young girls walk quickly into the basement of the apartment building. The man reappears, still stroking himself, phone still clasped to his ear. He follows the girls into the basement. Seconds tick by, then suddenly, you see the man running out of the building. The video ends.

 

People of Cooke Town can you help identify this sexual predator. Last night he did this. He then entered the building following the kids. When they alerted me and I ran after him he scooted like the rat he is. Anybody with gear to clean up the video please PM me for the original high res video. Plan to hand over this to the police. So their team can clean it up and locate the pervert. (Not safe for work). This is the kind of behavior we have to put up with living in Bangalore these days. No prize if you guess what kind of sexual pervert this guy is.

Posted by Rohinton Dara Chinoy on Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The footage was posted to social media by Rohinton Dara Chinoy, the father of two of the girls in that video. He also filed a police complaint. The video did get a lot of attention, but it did not go as viral as a later CCTV video of a sexual assault in the Kammanahalli area of Bengaluru (a young woman was manhandled/molested by two bike-borne youth. TH too reported on the incident). Chinoy’s social media feed notes that there was a “media circus outside his house” in the immediate aftermath. But when I contacted him recently for an update on the case, he said the man in the video had not been arrested. “The police did try their best; there was immense pressure on them. But nothing happened,” Chinoy told me.

Nothing changes, really

Another harsh truth this father had to face is that while assailants and assaults seem to grow in boldness and perversity every day, ultimately, the onus of avoiding the assault is still considered to be on the assaulted. Chinoy is a long-time resident of the city. “I grew up in the house I still live in. And the Bangalore of my childhood was different — there was more respect for women, the culture was different. It is not so today,” he observes. In fact, after he filed the complaint, he had to deal with people casting aspersions on his daughters, saying it was the girls’ fault that they had to deal with such a pervert.

So, frankly, attitudes have not changed much, have they? And it is not that Bengaluru is more unsafe now (as the news reports after the New Years’ Eve “mass molestation” on MG Road-Brigade Road seem to suggest).

It’s just that more (CCTV) cameras are watching.

Unsafe, every day

For that matter, it is not just this city. Assaults can and do happen in every city, be it inside houses, crowded public places and spaces, poorly-lit streets and bylanes, or packed public transport vehicles. Anywhere really. And any time. Public protests and, widespread coverage across online and offline media, definitely help in bringing the issue to the forefront. But to put it bluntly, we've seen, heard about, read (and shared) much much worse. Tell me what could have been more brutal or bestial than what happened to Nirbhaya in Delhi? And that was in 2012!

But perhaps such incidents should also force us to re-examine our social, cultural ethos (the mindset that equates dress with behaviour, for instance). Is the rise of religious extremism forcing us to lead even more insular and repressed lives today? Also, is haphazard development and the mushrooming of “frontierlands (villages in the outskirts of a city that become urbanised too soon, too fast)” a factor? Look at the way our cities are growing. Does that influence the manner in which the people in our cities, behave and interact with each other?

Are booming cities, simply put, bad places to be in?

A research paper published four years ago, argues that poor city planning aids and abets violence against women. The paper, by Carrie Mitchell, Sara Ahmed and Suneeta Dhar, is part of research funded by the International Development Research Centre of Canada. The authors talk of how unsafe some simple actions can be:

“For women and girls, public spaces too often equate with dangerous spaces. Everyday tasks such as fetching water can turn violent: fights break out at water tankers and public stand-posts, with women coming to blows; harassment and assault of women and girls is also common, with boys making crude comments and brushing up against them as they queue for water. Many public toilets are sanitary and safety minefields. In addition to overflowing waste-water, days with no water or electricity, broken or non-existent toilet stall doors, and high user fees, women are harassed by men and boys lurking around the facilities. Women would often rather defecate in open fields than face the indignity of being spied on in public bathrooms.”  

But the authors also point out that these issues are not insurmountable. For instance, Jagori, a womens’ NGO in Delhi (Dhar is part of the team at Jagori) conducts “safety audits” as well as neighbourhood walk-abouts, to look at “lighting, the way alleys are built, and the state of public facilities, including communal water sources and public toilets.” The idea, the authors explain, is to inform city officials where there are substandard facilities, where it is unsafe, to show them how “poor infrastructure and urban design can discriminate against women and create unsafe environments.”

So, are our cities growing the right way? What’s more, can citizens do something about it? Or is it simply too late for change?

Chinoy, the father-of-two, on his part, is very clear on what he has to do. He told me that for New Years Eve (NYE) 2018, he plans to carry out a safety audit of his own — to organise a group of volunteers (both men and women), who will assist the cops and ensure that no sexual assaults take place.

Will that actually lead to a safer NYE experience for next year?

And will other similar initiatives make our cities safer, every day?

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