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Delhi Women: The Night Is Ours And We Will Claim It

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Even after living in Delhi for years Nandita Chatterjee’s heart skips a beat every time a car slows down while she is walking on the street. “One hears of so many incidents of violence occurring here that I am skeptical even if the occupants of a car are only asking for directions,” remarks Chatterjee, 27, who works for an international bank in central Delhi.

The issue of women’s safety in the Capital has hit the headlines, time and again, ever since the December gang rape case in 2012 firmly brought it to public consciousness. That brutal incident, which had resulted in the death of a 23-year-old woman, not only catalysed a slew of initiatives on the ground, it led to the enactment of the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, which provides for amendment of the Indian Penal Code, the Indian Evidence Act, and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973, on laws related to sexual offences. Yet, despite efforts like a random increase in policing, better street lighting and the setting up of helplines, for women negotiating public spaces after working hours is fraught with fear.

“I normally don’t step out of the house at night; the streets are deserted and often not well-lit. I stay with my parents and I don’t wish to put them under any stress. I always hang out in a large group and my parents have the numbers of the few of my friends that I am out with,” says Akangshita Dutta, who works for a business firm in Delhi. Of course, there are times when Dutta has to work late into the night but then she insists that “an office car follow me home” when she drives back.

 

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Safe transportation has a tremendous impact on the quality of life of ordinary citizens. For women it expedites the movement out of the home to gain an education or pursue a career; it allows them to go to the farthest corners of the city, for work or play, without inhibition or apprehension. Shreya Ila Anusuya, campaign coordinator with Avaaz, a global online activist network, has moved to Delhi from Kolkata, West Bengal. She states, “Having one’s own vehicle makes a difference. I end up spending a lot of money on taxis. I wonder what women who can’t afford cabs do.” At the same time, she feels that Delhi is still safer than her home town, “In terms of women’s safety I think Kolkata is worse. The only difference is that Delhi streets tend to become isolated and lonely at night, which makes things difficult.”

For US-based Reva Datar, who has been interning in Delhi with an international organisation, living in Delhi has meant a drastic change her in lifestyle – and wardrobe – in an effort to “blend in”. She says, “I have had to change the way I dress so that I don’t attract any unwanted male attention. I never wear clothes that show off my body.” Apart from that Datar makes sure that she only goes to places that are generally crowded. “I do attend concerts and go to malls at night but I never go to a place that may get deserted later,” she says. Where getting around is concerned Datar, like Anusuya, relies on either a reputed cab service or carpooling. “I generally don’t go out at night unless I know exactly how I am going to get back home. Either I go back with a friend who has a car or I go in a group or with at least one other person with whom I can share a taxi or an autorickshaw,” she adds.

Initially when Datar had landed in Delhi she was rather concerned about speaking loudly in public places as well because she felt her accent made her vulnerable, “I’d try to hide my accent. I didn’t talk too loud when I was walking at night. I constantly feared that someone would realise that I was an outsider and take advantage. But it’s not such a big deal anymore.”

And in case Datar is taking a taxi alone at night, she makes it a point to call someone and explain to them her location. “When I get the vehicle, I call someone and tell them an approximate time that I think I’ll be home and the taxi number. I make sure that the taxi driver can hear me giving all those details,” she says.

Clearly, women have taken to self policing to survive. But amidst these various attempts to get by, social organsations and activists have actively tried to encourage them to assert their right to free movement in the night by organising events like ‘Take Back the Night’ and ‘Reclaim the Night’.

Activist Nandini Rao, who is associated with Citizens’ Collective against Sexual Assault (CCSA), a collective of women’s groups, progressive groups and individuals working together to raise questions around issues of gender-based violence and strategise on ways to prevent it, has been part of a few ‘Take Back the Night’ events in the city. One such programme was organised in Green Park, an upscale south Delhi residential colony on New Year’s Eve 2014 between 10 pm and 1 am. The crowd, comprising locals from all age groups as well as members of the LGBT community, marched from the market square to Hauz Khas village, around a kilometre away. Recalls Rao, “Though people were supportive and open about sharing their thoughts on safety in public, we did face resistance from the police. After a couple of hours, as we were walking we were being followed by black cat commandos. They told us we did not have permission to congregate, despite the fact that members of the Resident Welfare Association were with us.”  In a bid to spread their messages, the CCSA has been regularly organising flash mobs in different parts of Delhi to draw attention to the cause of women’s right to safe movement.

The group meets once every three months to plan skits, dance programmes and flash mobs. “Such events are a reiteration of our determination to reclaim our spaces, rights and struggles. They are a good way to get people together,” she adds.

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Avaaz campaigner, Shreya Ila Anasuya, has also been trying to highlight the right of women to safety in public spaces through the ‘Reclaim the Night’ events, which brings together people, especially women, once a month to walk around at evening and chat about various issues. “‘Reclaim the Night’ has been inspired from the idea of ‘Take Back the Night’ and it aims at asserting the right of girls and women to walk safely at night,” says Anasuya, who started this in her hometown of Kolkata. Her first meeting in the Capital was held on February 15, 2014 in the vicinity of a cinema hall in south Delhi and attracted a motley group of 15-odd young women and men, who, under the curious eyes of passerbys and the police, openly discussed incidents and situations when they felt insecure in Delhi. Anasuya now plans to organise ‘Reclaim the Night’ – that starts at 8 pm and goes on till midnight – in parts of the city that have a reputation for being unsafe. She wants to walk around old Delhi and some other far flung colonies to showcase the idea of women walking freely.

The question to be asked now is whether such events have brought a greater focus and better understanding of the issue of safety of women. Rao concludes rather optimistically, “There has certainly been an increase in awareness, but the system is not ready to take on the changing attitudes. What is heartening is that men have certainly become more conscious and are willing to stop the nature of crimes that seem to get more cruel with time.”

Elsa Mathews

Elsa Mathews is a Senior Editor with Women’s Feature Service.
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