The roads belong to the women too!

I will go out

The roads belong to the women too!

Even as India gradually works towards creating faster trains, better-equipped cab services and hi-tech buses to facilitate greater mobility for its citizens, a carefree walk on the road continues to remain a distant dream, especially for women and girls.

The fear of being robbed, molested, teased or leered at is a feeling that haunts most their whole life, adversely impacting the way they approach education or work or even the fun times, for that matter.

However, fortunately, that looming sense of anxiety they usually experience every time they enter public spaces has never really stopped them from either stepping out or stepping up. Recently, when a collective of women’s rights groups in the capital decided to challenge the status quo by motivating ordinary citizens to walk the streets, several women  came out in defiance, in solidarity – to say, ‘I will go out!’

The march in Delhi came on the heels of a similar intervention in Bengaluru where several women had been molested in different parts of the city on New Year’s Eve. On January 21, in response to this horrific violence and intimidation, people across 23 cities in the country, including Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Chennai, decided to stand up to claim their right to freely access public spaces, particularly after sundown.

Always in danger of attack

Adishi, one of the organisers of the #IWillGoOut march in Delhi, speaks passionately about upholding what should be considered every person’s civic right. She says, “Every girl I know walks through street full of leering men every day. Even when you travel to college in a rickshaw, the lewd remarks invariably find a way to your ears and the eyes following you never leave your sight.”

Adds Suhasini, who was on her way to meet her friends in central Delhi but instead spontaneously decided to join in the walk, “We learn to live with the scrutiny and violence so much so that it becomes second nature for us girls to go out in groups, to avoid places that are not too crowded or well lit, to not travel by public transport after hours. Those of us that are working also like to move out of office in good time so that we don’t end up calling a male relative to pick us up either at the metro station or at the bus stop. I think its high time men realise that women are not objects, that they can’t be pushed around and subjugated in the name to ‘propriety’, ‘honour’ or ‘traditions’.”

Interestingly, this fear that women experience is not confined to overtly conservative cultures or societies only. “It’s a universal phenomenon,” insists Jane Smith (name changed), a 31-year- old social scientist from New York, USA, who was in the city and wanted to be part of an empowering initiative. She elaborates, “Each day, when I walk down a street in New York, I subconsciously hold my keys tightly in my hand, ready to be used as a weapon, in case I am attacked.”

A few years back, Smith had found herself being ambushed by a man who had offered to share a cab ride with her at night. “Initially, he was okay but then later on, as we got to the car that I thought was a taxi, his tone changed. He became aggressive and threatened to rape me if I didn’t get in quietly. Fortunately, there was a woman passing by and I broke out of his clutches and ran to her. I can never forget that night; it’s made be really wary of unknown men.”

Pushing men to change

If men are the primary perpetrators of crimes against women, then sensitising them becomes essential to the process of securing rights as well as healing. Of course, for all those men who think it is okay to violate women – be it in their own homes or at work or elsewhere – there are those like Bhanu Pratap Pangtey, who are ready to rise to the occasion and speak up. The tribal rights activist, who enthusiastically took to the streets with others, admits, “I won’t shy away from saying that it’s men who make women uncomfortable with their intensions and actions. And so it’s only right that it is men who transform. They have to change their attitude. Women only want to be treated as equals, what’s so objectionable about that.”

Pradeep Narayan, 43, another proud marcher, shares, “I hope that people who have watched us walk the streets would learn from us. At the same time, I think we need to build sustained pressure on our leadership and law enforcement to ensure that things change for the better sooner than later.”

Whereas it’s heartening to hear men like Pantgey and Narayan, one has to wonder whether simply talking, raising awareness and sloganeering is going to be enough. What happens after that? How does this contribute to making a real difference?

Make streets busier

Kalpana Vishwanath, well-known activist who has been associated with the women’s movement in India over the last three decades, explains, “Activities and interventions involving the larger public bring everyone together and lends considerable energy. For instance, even if street marches take place on a regular basis they can make public spaces safe and accessible for everyone. Streets need to be made more active. In the desire to build cities for cars, streets are left deserted nowadays.”

Talking about adopting a more institutional approach to the issue of women’s safety she says, “We have been suggesting to the government ways in which investigations involving gender crimes can be expedited. This is critical to ensuring speedy justice. Another aspect that needs to be addressed urgently is the fact that although there is a noticeable rise in the number of gender crimes being reported from various parts of the country, the rate of conviction continues to be abysmal. This brings down the morale of the citizens. Efforts to work towards this, coupled with better policing will give a boost to their sense of security.”

As she affectionately holds on to her daughter, Maya, Durga Nandini, who was marching alongside her husband, hopes her little girl will see better times. “I have grown up in the shadow of fear. I have had men deliberately invade my personal space, gawk at me, and pass sexual remarks. But I want my daughter be able to step out with confidence and enjoy equal opportunities. Today, if I avow ‘I will go out’, her generation wouldn’t have to ponder: ‘can I’?”

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