‘Danish women gang raped in Delhi at Connaught Place’ read the front page of my news paper. All the places in the article (Paharganj , Connaught Place and State entry road), seemed familiar as I had been there just a few days ago. As the TV and newspapers captured the highlights of this gang rape, the ritual seemed both banal and disturbing. Banal because ‘women ganraped’ as a headline is something that Delhi is used to and horrific because women, as individuals, were soon becoming merely a point of entry; a machine for appeasing animalistic desires of men, not even an individual but for a collective. This is unnerving for any women in India and more so because it was not catching up as a crime but as a trend across the country. Genocides, riots, caste based violence in rural areas and everyday life in urban spaces reeked of this new normalcy and tended to celebrate gang rapes.
“It could have been me” I warned myself. Why was I afraid? A girl child playing in a park, a young woman going to the office, an elderly tourist asking for directions, an adolescent travelling with her friends, the so called normal activities of everyday life has started to sound like frightening adventures in this city. The help lines launched by Delhi police, the renewed public sensibilities and a new anti-rape law, nothing offered me any assurance to deal with a situation like this. They all seemed futile to comprehend the challenge a woman faces in Delhi – her shrinking access to space, mobility, security and liberty. Cell phones ring desperately tracking the paths of returning daughters. One does not see many women outside after dark. The women here also become a reflection of the freedom, autonomy, choices and empowerment that a city, its economy and planning promote. Lack of essential services including walkable pavements, well lit streets, subways and other open spaces have repeatedly been cited as factors which make Delhi a risk factor for women. The studies conducted by the NGO Jagori have revealed that the urban infrastructure and public transport system, including government and private buses, auto-rickshaws, local trains, gramin seva and Rapid Transport Vehicle are extremely unsafe for women. While commuting or waiting, they have been victims of sexual harassment and violence. Over half of the women respondents in the Jagori’s survey concluded in 2009, reported public transport as being the most unsafe place for women. Over 40% said that waiting for public transport was equally risky. Similar responses were also obtained from men and common witnesses. Around 51.4% women reported that they faced harassment using public transport while 49% men and 41% common witnesses reported that they have witnessed women being harassed.
Our concerns often begin and end with the technicality and legality of the rapes and other sort of sexual violence against women. The types of explanation offer a window to explore the anatomy of normalcy that rapes have attained in Delhi. The victim is imagined as a cause and has to account for her presence, personality and behaviours while culprits become an invisible collective. Rapes appear as a predetermined template, a grid thrown across event instructing what to see and what to ignore. One hears the usual claims of invitation for violence such as ‘she was provocatively dressed’, ‘oh she was inebriated’, ‘she is just a little too modern and independent’ or ‘out of place in the city after eight o’clock’. This homemade social forecasting which often legitimises and sanitises sexual violence is exercised not only at household level but at police stations, government circles and policy level analysis. In doing so, a modern woman is translated as an untamed figure responsible for her predicament and men become the supposedly natural beings lusting at her. Sadly, it is her that we paint as a trouble threatening the moral ecology of a region. As a woman, I often wonder why when it comes to independent women, the Indian society, even the most educated lot, supplies freedom and respectability in a calibrated dropper.
Sociologist Shiv Visvanathan recently pointed out that an act of rape or a gang rape is an organised animality. The act and the public discourse around sexual violence inevitably command unwritten rules and prohibitions against woman. He argues that “woman as a victim is vandalised thrice- through rape, folk rationalization and administrative response”. One needs to break this pathology of locating the cause in women and smearing invisibility and inescapability to the real gender politics. One needs to challenge the urban planning of Delhi where rape and insecurity is becoming a daily event of city life.
Jayanthi A Pushkaran is a policy analyst at the organisation Delhi Greens, currently heading an initiative called ‘Women First’ focussing on gender and transport related issues in Delhi. She is also a researcher at the Centre for Studies in Science Policy. Follow her on twitter at https://twitter.com/apjayanthi