The irony is blatant. Women across India who have organised themselves to stake their claim to equal right to public spaces at all times of day and night have had to restrict themselves to gathering in police-approved protest venues.

The “I Will Go Out” march scheduled for 5 pm on Saturday, January 21 across more than 30 cities in India has been planned by a collective of individuals and organisations for women’s rights and is one of many events that have been held this month. The trigger was reports of molestation of several women on Bengaluru’s MG Road during New Year eve celebrations. Since then, Bengaluru has seen several forms of protests – online campaigns, human chains, gatherings in the park.

“I Will Go Out” describes itself as a nationwide gathering in solidarity against sexual harassment and misogyny, and to reclaim women’s right to safe public spaces. Growing from a few viral messages on social media, “I Will Go Out” has coordinated marches across 32 cities on January 21.

It was with some frustration then that organisers of the Delhi chapter of the march discovered late on Friday evening that the Delhi Police revoked permission for their march from Barakhamba Road to Jantar Mantar. The police cited security for Republic Day on January 26 as reason for the decision.

Speaking to just before the police revoked permission, Bhani Rachel, organiser of the Delhi chapter of “I Will Go Out”, said that the group sought permission from the police because they did not want to disrupt public movement or traffic and also to ensure the safety of participants in the march.

“Across the country, with the kind of political climate, with Republic Day approaching, the police need to be informed if there is a gathering of more than 300 people,” she said. “Notifying the police is important to ensure that nobody is harmed but had we not got permission we would have just gone, because we need to make a point at the end of the day.”

In other cities, “I Will Go Out” organisers have sought police approvals for the march and the movement of protestors will most likely take place under police watch.

It is not just this movement for women’s rights or just the Delhi authorities. Most protests across India have to be confined to areas and spaces sanctioned by authorities. Among the few exceptions have been the spontaneous protests in Delhi after the December 2012 gang rape and the ongoing jallikattu protests on Chennai’s Marina Beach.

The paradox

Ten days ago, a citizen’s group called “Night in My Shining Armour” planned a protest event at MG Road – the site of the New Year’s celebration that went wrong – and they expected about 1,000 people to attend. The Bengaluru police only allowed them to gather on the steps of Town Hall, the go-to site for registering protest in the city.

“Of course it is ironic that we had to get permissions for holding a protest about going out, which we should have as a right to reclaim public spaces for leisure or work,” said Nandita Krishna of “Night in My Shining Armour”. “But reasonable restrictions can be there when you expect some 1,000 people to show up and is justified so as to not inconvenience anybody and so that the message remains positive.”

Being restricted to what is seen as a legitimate protest space also allows people to dismiss the action as “just another protest”, said Tara Krishnaswamy, coordinator of the voluntary civic movement called Citizens for Bengaluru, who was at the Town Hall event. “You are trying to prove a point that women are being constrained in public spaces and this doesn’t help that situation,” she said. “But it is impossible to get the authorities to understand that.”

The protest at Bengaluru's Town Hall on January 11 by Night In My Shining Armour.

However, the relatively new “I Will Go Out” collective and the many citizens’ and women’s groups working with them have not only been organising big, eye-catching protest marches. The “Why Loiter” campaign, for instance, has been encouraging women to just spend time outside in public spaces for no reason other than because they should be able to.

“There are candlelight vigils, walk alones, why loiters – there are so many forms,” said Jasmeen Patheja, founder and facilitator at Blank Noise that works to end sexual and gender-based violence. Blank Noise recently invited women in Bengaluru to take naps in a park to reclaim that space, for which they did not need – and did not seek –police permission.

Engaging with the police

Patheja points out that campaigns often engage with police as an institution and police as people, with different results. “At some event, some women police officers even stepped in and held candles at a vigil,” she said.

She recounted a protest where Blank Noise invited police to take part in a campaign on MG Road. The group has asked women to bring a garment in which they had experienced sexual violence and share their testimonies. “There are two kinds of police officers,” said Patheja. “The first kind came and said ‘thank you for doing this’. The protest was peaceful, it was not about accusing the police, it was about collective responsibility. He got that tone and he thanked us for it.” But after about 20 minutes, another police officer approached the group and asked them if they had permissions for what they were doing. Soon a police car showed up and the group had to shift location.

Patheja observes that there is a sense of threat, dismissal and denial by the police. Women would like, she said, for police to recognise that they are sometimes mistrusted and to work on that.

“And yes, there is something ironic to have to seek permission after permission and that you are allotted a space like Freedom Park,” she said. “This is problematic because again they are saying ‘we have done our bit to let you speak out’ rather than everybody has a right to speak out.”

The first step

So why have a big march across 32 cities on a single day?

“There is solidarity,” said Patheja. “The potential that something big has in reaching a critical mass and shifting the conversation, something that becomes big, that becomes part of public memory and that becomes more accessible.”

“The first step is to get women to come out,” said Krishnaswamy. “Any which way you look at it, this is the starting point and not the ending point.”

The I Will Go Out Collective is working on a national manifesto with pan-India demands and region-specific demands for gender equality and an end to violence against women. One of the things, the manifesto pushes for is making gender sensitisation part of school curriculum. “That is a long-term goal,” said Rachel. “With this issue we cannot expect instant results. You cannot say ‘we will make sure infrastructure is brilliant, we will put more street lights’ because no matter how many street lights or CCTVs you put, if mindsets don’t change and you do not teach your children about patriarchy and different sexualities, this is not going to help you at all.”