The week after Mumbai has been stunned by the gangrape of a young woman media professional out on a work assignment in the heart of the city, one asks oneself, how do we move on? Not that rape is unknown in this city, neither is verbal and physical harassment or sexual molestation.
Women in this city -- working full-time or not; in white collar, blue collar and increasingly informal jobs; educated or unschooled; young (including babies and toddlers) or older; lower caste or not; migrant or not; foreign or not; heterosexual or not; minority or not; differently-abled or not -- all contend with violence every day. Yes violence, in this the most ‘women friendly’ of all Indian cities. We negotiate, we strategize, we keep our cell phones pressed, we simply get going.
Courage against the odds
But all of us might not always show the amazing courage and presence of mind that the 22-year gangrape survivor exhibited. When her rapists threatened her about not telling her male colleague tied outside that they had raped her so that they both could leave the Shakti mills premises (where the rape took place), she held her tongue to keep them both alive. When away from them, she told her colleague about the rape. She called her immediate boss. She caught a cab. She went to a nearby hospital’s casualty section, and she got herself admitted. She filed a police case and has assisted with the investigation in every way with her determined male colleague. And since then, she has boldly spoken out about continuing her fight for justice even as she heals physically and psychologically. She has expressed the desire to get back to work, to complete her assignment. She even told the National Commission of Women chairperson that rape is not the end of life for her.
This is the way we go ahead -- we take her lead. We demand justice and the right to be on the streets, to roam our city, for work and pleasure. We demand a safer city with more receptive and proactive law enforcement and better infrastructure. But what we certainly don’t want is increased surveillance of where women go, what they do, how they dress, or what time they are out. Or as the State Home Minister suggests a policeperson trailing after every woman journalist and photographer. His stance is impractical, paternalistic and in keeping with the heightened moral policing he has gifted this city.
The simple thing is you do not police those who are likely to be assaulted, you use your law enforcement resources on policing and convicting those who commit crimes. The perpetrators have to be focussed on, not their potential targets.
Freedom for us
For too long and too hard have women in this city fought for the freedom to be educated, to work at all sorts of jobs in all kinds of situations, to stay alone, to be out at night, to walk the streets. This incident should not lead to increased policing of women’s movements in public. And in any case, it is not as if the private (the home) is a safe haven free from violence.
As institutions, we need to do our jobs well. As women, we need to overcome our fears and anxieties. And as those who love and care for women, we need to look out for them but also understand their desire to make their own choices and to be out there, and we need to protect those freedoms fiercely.
Sameera Khan is a journalist, researcher and co-author of Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets.