women's safety

Please spare us the safety lectures. Women should claim the Right to Risk in the city

Paternalism is not the answer. Women’s right to be in public space must be unchallenged.

Almost everyone seems preoccupied with the issue of violence against women. That in itself is not a bad thing, considering the steady stream of sexual assaults against women in India. This is counting not just the cases that get reported but also the ones that escape media attention, especially those involving assaults on marginalised women and the violence happening behind the closed doors of a home.

Unfortunately, as it happens, we have yet another round of victim bashing after the December 5 rape case – this one happening just days before the two-year anniversary of the horrific Delhi gang rape and murder that brought thousands of protesters on the street. Every time, soon after the details of the crime are reported and the accused is arrested, the inevitable questions begin.

“Sleep?” people ask shrilly. “You mean she fell asleep?” Presumably, these are people who have never slept on their way home after an exhausting day at work.

Producing safety

Close on the heels of the questions follow the safety instructions: how to behave in a train/bus/autorickshaw/taxi, how to act when a handyman is doing repairs at your home, and even how to open your door to another lower-class man, the istriwala. Here we have it, feminism presented to us as commonsense.

The irony is that if there is one thing women do, it is create safety for themselves. We do this without thinking. During our three years of research for our book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, women enumerated a variety of strategies used to create safety in a context where institutional structures often fail us: women hold on to their mobile phones, sometimes talk or pretend to talk all the way home, carry safety pins, knuckle-dusters, beg escorts, travel in groups. The survivor of the Uber taxi assault also did what she could to produce safety for herself. She used an app-based service that promised safety, which should have been tracked by global positioning system. That should really have been alright.

There is another thing we discovered in our research: safety for women is a false goal. It comes with all kinds of restrictions, conditions and moral policing. The right to risk is a far more realistic and liberatory goal.

Pleasure in the city

In order to understand risk, we need to redefine our understanding of violence in relation to public space – to see not sexual assault but the denial of access to public space as the worst outcome for women. The demand is that women’s right to be in public space be unquestioned whether we are assaulted or not.

Today, violence has become the only language in which one can engage with questions of gender in public space. Every time a woman steps out of her home, it is the spectre of violence that she must confront rather than anticipation of pleasure. The claim to seek pleasure in the city is a deeply political one that has the potential to seriously undermine the public-private boundaries that continue to circumscribe women’s access to and visibility in public space.

The right to risk is not abstract. From the perspective of the city, it must be mirrored in the provision of infrastructure. While the decision to take certain risks must be chosen, risks must not be thrust upon women by inadequate or poor planning. The right to pleasure, by default, must include the right against violence in the shape of infrastructure like transport, street lighting, public toilets, besides policies that enable more sensitive law enforcement recognising people’s fundamental right to access public space.

Fear of violence

By our suggestion that courting risk might be a viable strategy, we are by no means suggesting that women, or indeed any individual, should be forced to take risks. At the same time, this should not curtail the freedom of those who wish to court risk. At no point are we ignoring or even minimising the violence, both sexual and non-sexual, that might potentially take place in public. The fear of violence in public space is real. It contains the possibility of physical and psychological trauma.

Nor is it our intention to romanticise risk itself, for risk is a term that is already value-loaded in terms of good and bad, and desirable and undesirable women. Still, the presence of violence should not preclude the possibilities for women seeking pleasure in the city. The presence of well-lit streets should not mean that women found in dark corners should be deemed unrespectable or blamed if they are attacked.

Choosing to take risks in public space undermines a sexist structure where women’s virtue is prized over their desires or agency. Choosing risks foregrounds pleasure, making what is clearly a feminist claim to the city.

The authors are co-authors of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. This piece draws on the ideas of the book.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.