Needed: harassment-free public spaces for women

By Neha Mahal (CDHR)

(From our Bulletin Archives: originally published in June, 2014)

Street Harassment: The Story So Far

In every sphere, whether private or work, gender inequality is being intensely questioned. In the realm of the public space, however, it remains deeply ingrained and reproduced everyday through street harassment. Groping, lewd comments, stalking and staring at women on streets, market places, overcrowded public transport etc constitutes everyday harassment in public spaces which is often not openly discussed.

Delhi Metro

Research conducted by the NGO Jagori found that almost two out of every three women reported facing incidents of sexual harassment between 2-5 times in the past year.

Despite the pervasiveness of street harassment of women in Indian cities, for a long time, it was not considered a serious social problem that should be dealt with urgently. Since feminists in India have had a long list of structural issues of patriarchy to be confronted together such as dowry, female infanticide, right to education and work opportunities, domestic violence and rape, which cause substantial harm to women’s lives, street harassment was considered harmless in comparison. Women were often told to ignore taunts, walk away, with very much an attitude of “boys will be boys.”

Over the last decade, however, street harassment and the multiple effects it has on women’s quality of lives has become a bigger issue. There is more recognition of the fact that the fear or experience of street harassment excludes women from public spaces, discourages them to work, study, and, more generally, negatively impacts many of their rights.

According to a study conducted by Centre for Equity and Inclusion in Delhi, 95 per cent of women said there mobility is restricted by male harassment in public spaces. Some have said that street harassment takes the form of daily “sexual terrorism” because of the heightened level of anxiety women must experience while negotiating public spaces. Furthermore, some have said that street harassment accomplishes an informal ghettoization of women – a ghettoization to the private sphere of hearth and home.

New Initiatives

Various online anti-street harassment initiatives such as Blank Noise, Must Bol, S.T.O.P and Safe City have come up in recent times.

Such campaigns have strived to open a discussion around street harassment as a social issue by blogging, conducting workshops, sharing academic work and making documentaries on street harassment. They challenge the stereotypical male centred narrative, which normalizes street harassment, and offers a counter-narrative, which problematizes this issue by highlighting the indignation and humiliation experienced by such incidents.

More importantly, such initiatives and campaigns have led many women to come out openly to share their experience which creates a wider awareness and acknowledgment of this problem.They have helped bring the problem of street harassment out of the individual’s domain, where a woman is expected to tackle it herself, into the public domain, where it is identified as a community problem – indeed, everyone’s problem.

Anti-street harassment campaigns have thus provided an effective platform to discuss this menace and enhance the understanding of its reality as faced by women. However, the ideal next step to increase their effectiveness would be to push for awareness regarding legal provisions for street harassment.

In reality less than 1 per cent of women prefer to file FIR. Even if they do, such cases hardly reach their end. A problem which is so rooted in street dynamics can be best tackled within that structure.

Taking a cue from one line of initiatives, wherein geographical mapping of the location of harassment is done by sharing of incidents by victims. It can be very effectively used to bear pressure upon the executive and police to enhance patrolling through PCR, deploying women police officers in civil clothes to catch harassers in such vulnerable public zones. Hence, reversing the male gaze by pushing for increased surveillance of them would ensure women’s safe access to public space.

There may arise one criticism that such pragmatic strategies do not strike at the root cause of the problem which is the patriarchal attitude of society. However, it should be noted that changing attitudes is not a linear project with a set course. Pragmatic strategies like these could simultaneously contribute to weakening of old male centred norms by everyday counteraction against its normalization.


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