Reclaiming The Public Sphere: What This Night Run Could Mean For Women’s Safety

Posted by Akshara FREA in Sexism And Patriarchy, Society
January 12, 2018

#SheRiseWeRise

Join us to reclaim the night on January 13, 2018, Mumbai.

The Night Run-Urban Feet, a joint collaboration with Uactive and AksharaCentre is happening once again on January 13, 2018 for the second year. This run is open-to-all! Women participants who register are encouraged to bring a male counterpart (eg: your father, brother, uncle, friend, boyfriend, etc) to participate for free, alongside them. This will help to bring in more men into the conversation about women’s right to safe public spaces. Join us for a great run and to help girls run toward their dreams.

The verb ‘to run’ in the English language has many meanings. First the literal one, which is to move in the fastest way possible. But running connotes many other activities: management (running a company), campaigning (running for President), happening (running a fever), among others. Many believe that currently, women are running the world. While that is wishful at best, it is true that women today are running, managing, campaigning, and generally occupying public spaces more than we did earlier.

But women and girls are also being forced to ‘run away’; running for our lives in the face of violence or running to safety. As girls growing into women, we are subtly taught the art of running away: to walk away from suspicious-looking men, to skirt around unsafe areas, to turn away career and education opportunities in the name of safety. Young women survivors of sexual assault are blamed, among other things, for not running away. But which place should we run away to? And at what cost?

First, let’s understand why we are taught to run. The reasons behind women and girls feeling threatened and being on their guard every time they step out of home is because they are not viewed as the ‘natural inhabitants’ of public space. Patriarchal gender roles have relegated women and girls into the private, domestic sphere while men are deemed to be public beings, the rightful occupants of the public sphere.

Since women and girls are not seen as the default dwellers of public space, such spaces are accessible to them in limited and functionary ways only. Further, there are conditions of time – do not venture out after dark, rules such as “saat chya aat gharat (home before 7 pm)”, and other norms that dictate where, how, with whom, and for how long women and girls are allowed entry into the public eye. Adding to this, there is the very real threat of violence that is unleashed on women and girls who dare stay outside past the welcome. Violence can take many forms, from name calling and whistling to fatal gang-rapes such as the Nirbhaya case in 2012.

Secondly, is there really a safe place we can run away to? An interesting contrast to the insistence on women running away from violence in public spaces is that this insistence is not applicable for dealing with violence in the private sphere. Girls running away from oppressive and violent conditions at home are mobbed, persecuted, and sometimes even killed in the name of honour. Women leaving their marital homes due to domestic violence are seen as home-breakers. Women and girls are taught to stay at home and not venture out, especially at night.

As girls grow up, many physical activities and sports also become restricted, such as outdoor sports and athletics. Girls are taught to regulate their bodies, to not ‘run around’ like boys but instead be demure, follow the norms of propriety. This caging of girls and young women within the home and within their bodies affects their physical health. Many girls, especially in urban areas, lose their muscle strength and stamina. Coupled with poor nutrition, the lack of outdoor exercise and play makes for a sustained negative impact on young women’s physical and mental well-being.

Thirdly, what is the cost of running away? Apart from health, women and girls miss out on opportunities for further education, career growth, and personal empowerment. Protectionism in the name of safety also puts the onus on women to ‘keep safe’, and blames women and girls for inciting violence upon themselves by transgressing the laxman rekha (moral line) of safety and respectability: being out too late, wearing the ‘wrong’ clothes, being out with the ‘wrong’ company, all of which is seen as ‘risky’ behaviour that surely warrants violence. Safety becomes muddled with restrictions which, beginning from home, limit the mobility of girls and women and damage their productivity in educational spaces and livelihoods.

The fear of violence itself becomes a major obstructive force for women and girls stepping into the public sphere. Despite this, those who do step out of their homes – for survival or in pursuit of their dreams – have to face some form of violence and harassment, sometimes routinely, in a public sphere that is becoming increasingly hostile and violent towards women and girls. In such a scenario, running becomes a form of survival and self-preservation instead of a leisure activity.

How do we then redefine women and girls’ relationship with running, and link it to reclaiming their right to public space?

The solution is to not focus only on safety from violence, but emphasize women and girls’ access to public space as a citizenship right. It is to make state bodies accountable to ensure this right by providing infrastructure and services which will enable girls and women to move about freely in public at all times – the establishment of regular public transport, clean public toilets, decent street lighting, among others. Further, it is to engage and empower men to challenge the public-private divide and play a welcoming and facilitative role in making both public and private spaces safe and enabling for every woman and girl.

Finally, most work is needed to build the confidence of girls and women so that they can break the cage of fear and step out confidently and boldly to reclaim their right to move around, run, jog, enjoy a leisurely stroll, or even sleep anywhere in the city.

Individual women and women’s groups are already coming up with creative solutions and campaigns to take this forward. Groups like “Why Loiter?” and “Parcham” emphasise on girls’ and women’s right to the public sphere, and encourage them to reclaim public spaces by ‘loitering’ or playing outdoor sports in public maidans or playgrounds. Women’s organisations are also coming up with innovative initiatives to bring more women and girls into the public. Blank Noise has initiated ‘Meet to Sleep’ events which mobilise women and girls to go to a public park and take a nap there, individually or collectively. By napping in public, women and girls are encouraged to assert their right to live defenceless and free from fear. Such ‘Meets to Sleep’ have been organised in more than 25 cities, towns, and villages, with over 300 women participating.

But we have miles to go before we sleep! Akshara, a women’s rights organisation that advocates for safe and gender-inclusive urban spaces, has been promoting the rights of women and girls to access the city safely at all times of the day and night. In January 2017, Akshara and UACTIV collaborated to organise India’s first ‘Night Marathon’ to reclaim women and girls’ right to run and have fun! The message to the authorities was clear – the city is as much a girl’s as a boy’s or a man’s, even (and especially so) at night.

The aim of the Urban Feet – Night Run was not only to make girls comfortable being outside at night, but also making the public comfortable with seeing girls on the streets at night, and making the government realise that it needs to do much more work to make the city accessible and safe for women and girls. Over 300 people participated in the 7km run around the Bandra Kurla Complex, which kicked off at 11 pm. Celebrities such as Rahul Bose and Shabana Azmi participated in the run, along with more than 100 girls who were part of Akshara’s youth empowerment initiative. Fitness trainer Cindy Jourdain and singer Monica Dogra both said they were very excited to be involved in an initiative that furthers gender equality.

The Akshara girls enjoyed the run as well as the night out. For many girls, it was the first time they were spending the night away from home. After the run, not a single girl showed any sign of exhaustion as they boarded the double-decker bus which would take them around the city. Stopping at Marine Drive at 2 am, the girls made their presence felt by singing songs, shouting slogans, holding banners, and dancing. They also asserted their ‘Right to Pee’ by barging upon a closed public toilet and demanding to be given entry.

After being out almost the entire night, the group of 100 or more girls along with the Akshara staff gathered for a closing session where they spoke about how beautiful the city looked at night, and how they had never experienced this beauty and freedom because they were held back by fear. Many girls shared that the Night Run was an unforgettable experience which taught them the importance of not letting fear come in the way of their dreams.

The purpose of the Night Run is to spread awareness about women and girls’ right to safe public spaces, so that no girl has to run away. Rather, we must engage more people, more men, and more state resources to enable girls to run towards their dreams.

Register here or via the UACTIV app

For more information visit the website.