Responding to the gang rape of a 22-year-old woman in her Chandigarh constituency last month, the Bharatiya Janata Party MP Kirron Kher advised young women that “when you see there are already three men sitting in an auto, you should not be getting inside it”. Apparently, Kher has not accessed public space in a long time, if ever.
She is clearly clueless about the economy of shared rickshaws and taxis. For her edification and that of any other politician who may not have stepped out into the streets of their constituencies, here’s how it works: You stand in a queue and wait. You quickly get into whichever taxi or rickshaw pulls up when it’s your turn. Usually there’s no time to look inside. People are waiting behind you. They want to get home or to work. Shared transport has rules of etiquette and there is simply no time to pick and choose your vehicle.
Moreover, women prefer to use public transport where it is safe and accessible. Where transport is poor, shared rickshaws and taxis thrive, offering the next best option, not least because hiring them to oneself is seen as riskier, and is often unaffordable. Women who study, work and play – yes, play – in the city often have few choices in the matter of public transport. As one commenter pointed out on Twitter, “Not all women have the luxury of AC cars waiting hand and foot on them.”
Kher has since said she was merely urging girls to be cautious. For someone who has spent years talking to women about access to cities, this comment would be hilarious if it weren’t so ill-informed. Because if there is one thing that women are on the streets of any city, it is cautious. It’s a caution born of warnings from mothers, aunts, cousins and friends. It’s a caution learnt from one’s own experiences of being subjected to catcalls, suggestive film songs, pinches, pushes and gropes from even before one begins to grow breasts. It’s a caution drilled into one from reading report after news report of sexual assault. Kher’s comment merely reminds us that privilege and right-wing conservatism are a lethal combination, producing smug, self-satisfied ignorance.
To access public space, women strategise in a number of ways. We often call or message people with details of our ride, sometimes stay on the phone or pretend to be on it throughout our commute, and generally just hang on to the phone with maybe an emergency contact pulled up. When boarding trains after dark, if the ladies compartment is full, women look inside general compartments carefully to see if there are other women there, which is always a source of reassurance. If there are no other women there, we look at how many men are inside and whether they are seated together or separately. Several men seated separately are perceived to be safer because it is unlikely they are all sexual harassers. Few men, even seated separately, is not as good a situation. A fairly large group of men seated together is a distinct signal to move on to the next compartment, to be assessed in the same way. Yes Ms Kher, we think about these things very carefully indeed.
Further, women wear clothes with far too much thought to which places in the city we will be accessing that day, often second guessing ourselves and planning for contingencies. We spend a great deal of energy on this. We never assume it’s fine to wear anything anywhere. But men comprise over half this country’s population, are we to hide form them all? As Kalpana Viswanath of Safetipin pointed out on Twitter, “If we start thinking every man is dangerous, it would be a sad world we live in. Women can’t avoid all spaces where men are.”
From the perspective of women accessing public space, it would serve us far better if our representatives in Parliament spent their time ensuring better public infrastructure – transport, toilets, street lighting and maps – in their constituencies rather than in victim-blaming. It’s the job of city administrations to ensure cities are safe and accessible for all citizens. The “smart cities that this government is so gung-ho about should certainly have world class transport, shouldn’t they? Or perhaps our netas can’t think beyond the bullet train that’s going to land the country in debt?
Women never take urban safety for granted. We are acutely aware that it has to be produced and reproduced every single day though our own emotional and intellectual labour. While the young woman who was gang raped in Chandigarh was far from doing anything risky, it’s also important to assert that risk is a matter of choice. Women have every right to access the city, as citizens, any time of the day and night, and to not be blamed for our choices. What we want is for our elected representatives to try to facilitate our choices.
Shilpa Phadke teaches at the School of Media and Cultural Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.