A version of this article is published in India Today (March 4th edition)
The Delhi gang-rape case sparked unprecedented anger from citizens, media, and political classes alike. Our society has been forced to review issues concerning women’s safety across the country, including the question of capital punishment for crimes against women. Gaps in Indian socio-economic fabric came out in the open, and the number of cases reported in the media shot-up meteorically during and after those fateful days of December unrest. There were candlelight marches, slogans, hunger strikes, throughout a nation that was screaming for a safe haven for women. However, we all know that Delhi is not an isolated case. Just that it opens the Pandora’s Box of our concerns for women’s safety across different cities in India.
Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar have been leading the surveys as the safest places for women to work and live. When I walk-out into the streets of Ahmedabad late at night, I do observe women casually dressed in jeans and tees or nightwear, strolling around, and enjoying the breeze. In any other city, with the exception of perhaps Mumbai, this is a rare sight to behold. The number of two-wheelers being driven around by women is also high as compared to many Indian cities. During festivals like Kite-flying or Navratra, old Ahmedabad is studded with brightly dressed girls with multicolored manjaas or garba-sticks going out late in the night.
Gandhinagar is also a highly-planned locality. The landscape of the city is such that the maximum density of government offices, high-profile residents, public sector buildings, and wide-roads, provide better scope as a secure zone. Thus, Gandhinagar is high on police patrolling and has an active women’s cell. Being the epicenter of political and governmental activities ensures that these zones remain on the high-security radar. Compared to the national indices, Gujarat is undoubtedly low on crime rates against women.
However, stating that women can stroll around late in the night, or that the number of vehicles being driven by women are higher, would be a gross simplification and an injustice towards those women who have been victims of some or the other form of physical or mental violence. While there are many cases that are reported in cities, there is double the number which might go unreported. A survey conducted by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry states that nearly 82% of 2,500 women in cities across India are scared to be working in office after dark (Courtesy: Wall Street Journal http://blogs.wsj.com/indiarealtime/2013/01/04/after-rape-women-employees-scared-to-work-late/?mod=e2tw).
Offensive remarks or comments on social networking sites, stalking, sexually explicit content in forwarded messages over phone, an over-imposing neighbour or colleague, are as much security concerns as are eve-teasing or other threats. These instances are the subtle indicators towards “what might happen”. However, the position and respect that women have in a largely patriarchal ‘Indian’ society is such, that it gets difficult to define ‘what is acceptable’ until someone is raped or killed. Centuries of oppression of women have also curtailed not only their freedom of expression, but also their own consciousness that a particular act or word is unacceptable or ‘improper’. Just not being raped should not become the definition or watermark of safety of our cities.
Safety is contingent as much on prevention as on post-facto action. Constant observation of the symptoms of human behavior would be helpful in avoiding some of these unfortunate incidents rather than waiting for the sensation generated by their occurrence. Active research on the nature of socio-cultural and economic changes coming-in alongside neo-urbanization of cultures could help analyze the status of Indian women in cities. Until then, the issue of women’s safety remains unsafe in the fluid, volatile urbanscapes. How ‘safe’ is safety in our country still remains a matter of concern.