Recent events have provoked outrage amongst women across urban India. The shameful mass molestation episode in the heart of Bengaluru followed by a CCTV video showing two men assaulting and molesting a woman in the city's Kammanahalli neighbourhood, which went viral, sparked a serious conversation on social media on the safety of women in public spaces. Messages of solidarity were shared across digital platforms, and that sparked a nationwide march across 30 Indian cities on Saturday evening, where women staked their claim to safe public spaces. Under the banner of the "I Will Go Out" campaign, the organisers described the march as "a nationwide gathering in solidarity against sexual harassment and misogyny, and to reclaim women's right to safe public spaces". Hundreds of women with many men in tow were heard shouting slogans and holding placards emphasising women's rights over their body, the freedom to dress the way they want and to live without any fear. Observers argue that Saturday's march has its roots in the famous Why Loiter campaign in 2014 when women were encouraged to "loiter" in the public spaces in large numbers to make them safer. In an apparent coincidence, hundreds of thousands of women filled the streets of several major U.S. cities on Saturday in an unprecedented wave of mass protests against their new President Donald Trump in response to his campaign rhetoric and behaviour, which many found particularly misogynistic. Although there is a difference in the contexts of these two nationwide protests, the overriding message seems to be similar—a reclaming public space and dignity in the face of sexual violence and misogyny.
Often, the general discourse on sexual violence often entails an explanation of how a woman's presence in a particular space makes her more vulnerable. In Bengaluru, one heard murmurs of "what was she doing there anyway?" considering the significant presence of drunk and unruly men on the night. In other words, the rationale is that staying away from certain spaces makes one safer from sexual violence. This is a patently wrong understanding of the dynamics involved. Incidents of sexual abuse take place at homes, public toilets, outside hostel or even public parks. Should women avoid these spaces to feel safer? In a recent column for an Indian news publication last year, the co-authors of the critically acclaimed book "Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets", explained the dynamics involved when it comes to women and urban public spaces. "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," they argued. A robust law and order machinery is only the nuts and bolts when it comes to tackling incidence of sexual violence. Systems of oppression and control work in different ways across different cultures and societies. For women, however, these systems of control are often centred on their movement and bodies and interwoven with class, caste, religious or physical features, amongst other markers of identity. There are greater socio-economic dynamics at play, and citizens must reflect on working them out and making the city safer for women.
Reports of the mass molestation in Bengaluru had understandably triggered outrage amongst a vast section of the social-media consuming urban populace, but move into the hinterland of this country, and the horrific accounts of sexual violence against women get scant attention. It's no surprise that a recent National Human Rights Commission report alleging that 16 women, nearly all of them tribal, were subjected to rape, sexual and physical assault by security forces in Chhattisgarh in October 2015, did not garner much outrage in social media. First-hand accounts of conflict-ridden areas in this country are often replete with stories detailing the complete breakdown of the rule of law. In these regions, women struggle at the very first hurdle, which is at getting the state even to acknowledge sexual crimes. Incidents of sexual violence against women are not uncommon, going by the testimonies of the people from Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, and the Northeast. In one of the videos posted from the protest marches on Saturday, a woman is heard saying: "Let's remember Manorama, let's remember those 16 victims and let's remember any and everybody who's never had the courage to come out, and talk about sexual harassment." Somewhere in these protests, despite the overwhelming urban inclinations, other voices were also heard. These voices need to be heard and addressed with the same urgency.