Thinking about cities and violence

Shilpa PhadkeThere’s a deafening cacophony in the air. Shrill calls for the death penalty and castration. Neither of which will make cities more accessible to women. Narratives of danger proliferate. Delhi is once again being labelled the ‘rape capital’ a slur that will only mean that women daring to step out, especially at night will be castigated, for only the crazy or the morally reprehensible would venture out into the ‘rape capital’. More stringent punishment has never meant more conviction nor has it been successful in curbing crime. A few thoughts, by no means conclusive, on how we might think about this crime and what it means for our cities.

One, we need more people out on the streets, not less. We are safer when there are more women (and more men) on the streets. When shops are open, when restaurants are open, when there are hawkers and yes, even sex workers on the street, the street is a safer space for us all. All of these protests taking place are often after dark, and there are many women and men but numbers make it safe. We need to populate our streets. In order to do that we need to make them more inviting and in order to do which, we need the mindset of the city to change from desiring empty streets to wanting people on the streets. We must ensure that this gruesome gang-rape does not go out as a message that “women are in danger and should stay home”.

Two, blaming men for being unable to deal with professional women is not the solution. One line of argument has suggested there’s something wrong with our men and their mindset and they can’t deal with the new achieving woman. Here, I want to strike a note of caution and say that often one set of marginal citizens (lower class men) as seen as the perpetrators of violence against another class of marginal citizens (women, particularly, middle class women) and this logic is used to keep women out of public space and also to sanction surveillance of lower class men. Because a bus driver and his cronies gang-raped this young para medical student, doesn’t suggest that all bus drivers are intent on brutalising women.

It’s not just the ‘public out there’ who are uncomfortable with women demonstrating power, it’s families and communities too who think when women are too educated we get above ourselves and want to choose whom to romance and decide our own futures, among other things. It’s the people in our white collar professional offices who argue that making sexist remarks is just good fun. It’s important not to forget this continuum.

Blaming the man on the street is a dangerous precedent. Three, the conversation on violence and morality makes me nervous. For certainly there are many grave crimes against women taking place but so are there horrible crimes against Muslims, Dalits, hawkers, sex workers to name only a few marginal groups.

Women are not the only category of people unsafe on the streets. Some of this violence is perpetrated by the state. One such perpetrator it is suggested is poised for a landslide electoral victory. When a terrorist was hanged only last month, it was touted as Mumbai’s revenge. A man the Srikrishna Commission held accountable for the Mumbai violence of 1992-93 was made into a national hero in death. There is violence everywhere, much of it is condoned, some of it is rewarded and then we wonder why young men are violent.

When we call for our cities to be safer for women, we must realise that our fight must be against all kinds of violence. Only an inclusive struggle can hope for success.

— Shilpa Phadke is co-author of ‘Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets’ 

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