Originally Published 2013-03-20 00:00:00 Published on Mar 20, 2013
In the urban-rural stereotyping, the phrase 'city girls' epitomises the impact of urban excesses on the apparent modesty and traditional aspect of femininity. City girls are assumed to be loud, to say the least, and of 'morally inappropriate character' on the extreme. Even within cities, this dilemma of how girls in cities ought to behave persists.
When 'safety' becomes a ghetto for women
Mumbai often enjoys the privilege of being called a city that is relatively safer for women. Women are able to stay out during night, take benefit of a good public transport system and have relative autonomy to dress the way they desire. While some of the above may be true in practice, it is definitely a myth to characterise the city as being 'safe for women' as a blanket reality for all women living in the city.

Women's access to public spaces forms the key indicator of their relative sense of safety in a particular city. In this con- text, for many women in the city, their safety is a question of juggling a con- stant negotiation between fear and risk. Especially those without access to private transport or privatised modes of leisure, the access to trains, open parks, cinema halls and other public spaces becomes

a question of judging the inclusiveness and friendliness of these spaces before accessing them.

Over the last few months, safety of women is coming to be characterised by not just statistics of offences reported, but by a larger sense of risk and caution that women have to work around on a daily basis. This idea then takes into consideration even the fear of potential violence, and not just violence that has already occurred, in an effort to understand safety more holistically. Further, this helps eliminate relativity in understanding safety - the notion that one woman being molested is some- how better than three.

In this larger conception of safety, Mumbai need not necessarily be safer than other Indian cities just by the virtue of lower number of sexual violence cases reported. The difference of access for its different women to the urban spaces is put into question. Take the instance of the sex-segregated spaces of the city's local trains. A distinc- tion between the general and the wom- en's coaches implies that the majority of women prefer travelling in the exclusive 'women's compartment'. In practice, the 'general compartment' then becomes a men's-only space. The analogy can be used to understand spaces in the city - public parks, open spaces and even street corners. Though these are all open to all in theory, they have come to be men's- only hangouts in practice due largely to minimal use by women.

Women's access to public spaces like these parks, railways stations and streets are sometimes restricted simply due to bad planning. Mumbai's most recent obsession with skywalks is a potent ex- ample here. Long-winding skywalks with a few exit points create a fear psychosis among most women. In case of being fol- lowed or harassed, the closed nature of the space within a skywalk would make women even more vulnerable, as op- posed to, say, an open street.

That is the simple reason why most women do not use skywalks.

Just as bad planning of urban space threatens women's safety, some good planning may also help create healthier atmosphere and heighten their sense of security. This is not solely an issue of eliminating dark, dingy and lonely streets where women almost always get attacked in the stereotypical depiction.

The creation of inclusive space for women equally includes addressing their insecurities in big crowds - say at railways stations, places of religious significance and public protests. 'More people' is not always a sign of safety for women. The public molestation of a young woman on the night of December 31, 2007, near Gateway of India is an ex- ample against this conception.

The recognition of difference is the key here. While potential users of a particu- lar space are bound to have some com- mon needs, that women as a group are different needs to be factored in to the planning process. The same applies to other minority groups struggling to gain better access to urban spaces. To take an example, the height of the local buses is more often than not decided according to the average height of a user, making it very difficult for the old, children and the differently abled to access.

Differences in expectation from friend- liness of urban spaces and amenities cannot be addressed by averaging out common needs. At the very least, public spaces, including all transport infrastruc- ture, leisure venues and government of- fices, are places where urban citizenship is formed and strengthened. Creating inclusive spaces for women thus requires acknowledging difference - this does not imply physical difference alone, but more on the lines of a psychological acceptance of women as equal citizens.

This expands the benchmark for safe cities - as not just violence-free cities but spaces where women are able to wield considerable autonomy in the ar- ticulation of their everyday choices and participate more actively in the debates of urban citizenship. The accessibility of police stations, government offices, ward offices along with the ability to partici- pate in public debate, all become im- portant criterion for cities that are truly inclusive of women. Further, a dominant perspective of city-dwellers reflects a self-adopted city as morally exceeding and materialistic. Often, cities reject the practice of patriarchy as a feature of traditionality. However, as debates over the last few months have sufficiently proven, cities witness the practice of patriarchy even amid their modernity.

In this urban-rural stereotyping, the phrase 'city girls' epitomises the impact of urban excesses on the apparent modesty and traditional aspect of femininity. City girls are assumed to be loud, to say the least, and of 'morally inappropriate character' on the extreme. Even within cities, this dilemma of how girls in cities ought to behave persists. Why a victim was out should be adopted into city life.

To be urban does not by default make any city more inclusive of women's rights to the city. Zoning women into exclusive zones of their homes and wom- en-only train compartments will always be an option to reduce the immediate violence.

These ideas, however, can do little to achieve sustainably inclusive societies, without an engagement of what we understand by the category of urban women. Are these women just relatively safer and more modern from their rural counterparts? Or do they share a sub- stantial stakeholdership to their cities?

(The writer is a fellow at Observer Research Foundation and specialises in the study of urban spaces.)

Courtesy : Governance Now

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