Incidents of sexual harassment are never just about the cities women live in. Cities do not repel women. It’s the people who let them down.

Written by Shilpa Phadke |

Girls in Bangalore, where an incident of mass molestation happened on December 31. (Source: AP)Girls in Bangalore, where an incident of mass molestation happened on December 31. (Source: AP)Cities don’t attack women. People do. So, when people respond to attacks on women in cities by blaming cities — “Delhi is the rape capital”, “Bangalore is ashamed”, “Mumbai is becoming Delhi” — I cringe.

Far from being the site of unrelenting violence, which is what one might believe if one has been reading newspaper reports on violence against women in cities in the last few years, the city is actually a space where women find some measure of freedom. The larger the city, the greater the possibility of liberation. The more anonymous the city, greater the opportunity of slipping into the interstices of the public, of escaping the surveillance of our families, communities and neighbourhoods, and actually forming a meaningful relationship with one’s city.

Cities do not repel women. They welcome us. They entice us. They invite us to be more ourselves. They seduce us into thinking that our fantasies are a possibility. Perhaps, partly because we have such restricted access to streets, they are the site of forbidden delights, all the sweeter when we access them.

Women can and do access the public in the day and at night too. The women who were out on the well-lit, celebratory MG Road and Brigade Road in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve were not doing something extraordinary. Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not extraordinary either. Most women across the world have a story to tell. The possibility of sexual harassment on the street is one we live with. We don’t think about it all the time, but we know it is always a possibility.

And yet, it is the other possibilities that draw us in. The sheer joy of walking the streets late in the night and feeling like you own the city. The possibility of eating baida roti at a street corner, laughing loudly with friends. The possibility of riding the last train home, running madly to catch it before it leaves. The pleasure of wandering and seeing how different places look at night.

Yes, the city can also be hostile. It is often peopled with unfriendly bodies who remind us that we don’t belong, especially at night. The women celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of another on the streets of Bangalore were reminded of it particularly sharply. One policeman, displaying his ignorance, asked one of the women who was molested if she was certain that it wasn’t an accidental brush. In typical victim-blaming mode, G Parmeshwara, Karnataka home minister, commented on the “Western” way women dressed and suggested that sexual harassment is the logical outcome. He is not the first home minister expressing anxiety about women making choices. Remember Maharashtra’s RR Patil who protested about morality and was instrumental in shutting down dancing at the bars in Mumbai? The move destroyed the livelihood of thousands of women.

While Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade and I were researching women’s access to the public in the early 2000s, the bars were still functioning. We’d meet some of the bar dancers on the last train at night. They were not worried about commuting so late — this was routine. The policeman in the women’s compartment complained to us that they wouldn’t sit quietly inside. “How can I protect them if they insist on standing at the door”. Now, how to explain to the policeman the sheer pleasure of standing at the door and feeling the wind in your hair?

Young girls taking selfies in Pune’s MG Road. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)Young girls taking selfies in Pune’s MG Road. (Express photo by Pavan Khengre)There is some concern about the ineffectuality of the police who were at the scene of attack in Bangalore but could do very little to intervene. However, there also seems to be some misunderstanding about the role of the police on the streets. Their job is to take care of the harassers, those who break the law, not to be concerned with what law-abiding citizens are doing. Do we worry about the people about to be pick-pocketed or the pick-pocketers?

We have to hold the police accountable to do their “job” but the police often share the ideology of the molesters who think women ought not to be “roaming or loitering” in this fashion. We don’t actually care what the police think, so long as they don’t try to police us. We do not need the police to “protect” women but rather to ensure that all citizens have equal access to the streets when they want. Policing the streets to ensure that people do not violate the rights of others is not an act of benevolence to women, it is just simply their job.

Despite our constant awareness that the streets are hostile and that should we be attacked, we will get little by way of justice, many of us still want to access the public. We want to explore the possibilities of pleasure in the city even at the risk of possible harm. Women across class want to access the city for pleasure: middle-class women living in highrise buildings and lower-class women living in slums, both expressed similar desires to be in public spaces for leisure, recreation and fun.

In our book, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, my co-authors and I have argued that what women need in order to gain unconditional access to public space is not protection or the guarantee of safety, but rather, the right to take risks. This would mean, not that women are never attacked in public space but that when we are, our right to be in that space is unquestioned. In a world where many kinds of risks are recognised, even celebrated, we must also recognise women’s right to take risks of their choosing in cities. This means understanding that there is also a risk in not accessing the streets for pleasure — the risk of not ever engaging with one’s city in a meaningful way.

Cities are often unfriendly spaces, not just for women but many marginal citizens too. Men are attacked on the streets more than women are. Yet, they are never told that this is a reason for them to stay away from the streets altogether. Similarly, homes are not always safe spaces. In fact, data across the world show that the greatest proportion of violence against women takes place in the home. Yet, nobody ever tells women not to be at home because it’s not safe. When there are attacks in public spaces, young women say they are afraid, not so much that they will be attacked, but that the reports of these attacks will lead their parents to impose greater restrictions on their mobility. Women do not want to be sexually harassed but, often, the fear that our mobility will be curbed is greater than our fear of possible attack.

The last thing women want is for the Bangalore incident to be used to restrict our movements further. What we want, instead, is to claim our cities as citizens who have every right to be there. In our sneakers, our chappals, and our high heels, in dresses, in jeans and saris, together and alone.

Shilpa Phadke teaches at the school of media and cultural studies, TISS, Mumbai.