Friday, September 8, 2017

Step Out

Recently, First Post published a piece titled “Women in Chennai are reclaiming public spaces.” The author appears to have made certain sweeping statements and assertions. Our team doesn’t agree. Here’s why.

Understanding the complexity of gendered access to public spaces
by Vandita Morarka
A recent reading of this article made me realise the immense need for a more nuanced understanding of the how, when, why of women accessing public spaces.
This article oversimplifies an otherwise complex subject and draws vague and unrelated conclusions. It relates the ability of a woman to assert her space in a public area to the size of her body; it makes random unfounded comments on the clothing attire of the women with surprise, as though to link a women’s desire to access spaces with her choice in clothing and it otherwise also links images of women occupying public spaces to automatically mean that they feel safe in such spaces.
I have seen women of all sizes shirk because the public space is open yet obtrusive for them, the same way I’ve seen women of all sizes fight back, both responses equally justified – underlining my point on the unnecessary oversimplification of this issue.
Women have a right to public spaces, as do all genders. They have a right to wander, to explore and to just be in public spaces. But their presence in these spaces cannot be seen as a sign of their intrinsic feelings of safety, it is more often a reflection of necessity or want and a fight against these very fears of not being safe that sees women out in such spaces.
1 in 3 women faces sexual violence in her lifetime with rising reported numbers each day. No. Women do not feel safe in most public spaces. We go out for work, for education, for pleasure, for rebellion – but please do not trivialise the battle we fight to access these spaces. We go out with fear of our personal safety and that of every women in that space. We live with this fear daily, our acts through the day are geared at protecting us from the realisation of such fears. It’s the car key I hold in my hand when I’m going alone to my car in a dark parking lot that you don’t see. It’s the constant updating each other of our whereabouts when work keeps us back at office till late that you laugh off as gossip. It’s the silent glance each woman gives another, it’s the falling in step besides a female stranger on a deserted road, it’s the constant watch for what can happen next. Do not tell me that women feel safe in Chennai or any corner of the world, ask us how we feel - our presence and our smiles do not signify inner feelings of safety. Unfortunately, they signify the learning to live with that feeling of being unsafe, the feeling of never knowing what can happen, the constant preparedness for ways to protect ourselves. They signify learning to exercise our right to reclaim (or not) reclaim public spaces while feeling unsafe, our visibility does not imply safety.

Dear Sanjukta
by Nanditha Ravindar
I read your piece on women reclaiming public spaces in Chennai and it left me quite unnerved and unsettled. Here are a few reasons why.
I lived in Hyderabad for a year and a half, but I am not the right person to comment on women’s safety there since I hardly ever took the public transport and had access to luxurious commute most of the time. But Chennai, I can comment on.
You spoke about feeling safe in buses. While I do take pride in the fact that Chennai is one of the safer cities in India, I do not think it is safe on an absolute scale. Men leering at you or sizing you up and making you feel uncomfortable also count as feeling unsafe and I’ve felt that a lot of times myself. Trust me when I say that you have not actually experienced proper public transport unless you’ve taken a crowded 29 C in peak hours.
You have mentioned statistics and numbers in your piece and while I appreciate that as a research scholar myself, I also know how subjective and sensitive an issue like women’s safety is. You cannot get an understanding of it just by spending one day or even a few days in some of the most prominent public places in Chennai.
I am not quite sure how you claim that most women chose “traditional Indian clothe” and that very few wore “jeans or western wear”. Are you sure this is an accurate description? Because I beg to differ (not quite sure what you were trying to convey through that accompanying photo either. That doesn’t look “safe” to me at all).
And finally, merely seeing a large number of women vendors and shopkeepers doesn’t mean they have reclaimed public places. Did you actually talk to them and ask them if they feel safe out on the streets, while doing business?
I am in no way trying to paint Chennai as a villain. In fact, it’s the city I love the most but that doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to its flaws. A local who has lived here for a while and spent a lot more time in public spaces might understand all this better than someone who has spent just a few days here.