On 71st R-Day, the question to ask is - do women in India really have the right to public spaces, says Harini Calamur

After 71 years of our having been a republic, the question we must ask is: Do women in India really have the right to public spaces?

How many women would be comfortable drinking chai at a stall by themselves? Or just hanging around, like men their age do? Or walking into a restaurant and being able to order a meal, by themselves. Do you see women in groups in street corners, laughing and generally chilling out, being boisterous? You would rarely find this, even in cities like Mumbai. It is just not done. Women are expected to have purpose when they step out of the house. To go somewhere specific – work, or education, or meeting friends from x time to y time. They are not expected to have either the time, or the inclination to loiter.

In the book “Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets”, authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade discuss the phenomenon of how women are not seen as equal stakeholders in public spaces, and that is seen in how our use of public spaces is restricted in a multitude of subtle and not so subtle ways. They write: “When society wants to keep a woman safe, it never chooses to make public spaces safe for her”. They try all other things.

What men in power think

Over the last few weeks, there have been several utterances by important men in power, that made the book “Why Loiter” even more relevant. The first was a comment by the Chief Justice of India on the farmer protests. In a statement, the CJI said “We want to place on record our appreciation for this stand (about elders, women and children not participating in protests in future).”

While we can argue that elders and young children are most susceptible to cold and should not risk the bitter winter of the north, or risk their lives – women are a whole different category. Women are also farmers. They are not at the protest as farmer’s wives or daughters – though they may also be that – they are there as farmers, asking for the right to be heard as equals. And they have the right to be out there, in the public space, demanding their rights, not as women, but as farmers.

The second powerful man making a statement about women and the need to protect them was the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan. While at a press conference on the need to raise the age of marriage to 21 for girls, he said the state was concerned about the safety of women. And, his solution was that women who were moving out for work ought to register themselves at the nearest police station so that they could be tracked for their own safety. There was uproar at this from all sides – at increasing surveillance on women.

It is likely that most people, especially those with daughters – did not see anything wrong with the CM’s statement. In fact, many probably thought it was a great idea. While the MP government later clarified that they would keep tabs on both young men and women, the fact remains that we are looking at surveillance of the innocent to keep them safe, rather than seeing how to make public spaces safe for all.

AI to track women

And, then there is the UP Government, led by CM Adityanath – yet another state with an abysmal record of women’s equality. Where a woman outside the house, is considered by many to be an ‘invitation to rape’. The state is reportedly looking at AI to bring down crime against women in the state, starting with the city of Lucknow. They are proposing a facial recognition system that would track women and look for signs of distress on their face and alert the nearest police station. It is expected that this system would be rolled out in hotspots, where women face harassment, and ‘eve-teasing’. While the intention may be to make spaces safer for women, the tracking of women to prevent men from making them uncomfortable seems like a rather roundabout process.

As the book 'Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets' points out, men are considered the natural inheritors of the public space, and women are seen as intruders. The laws and rules, laid down by those in power – be they justices of the court, or chief ministers of states, or even police commissioners – see the problem as the need to keep the woman safe in public space and get her back to private space as soon as possible. The problem is not seen holistically – from the perspective of the woman and her right to space without her rights being invaded, either by molesters or the state.

Equal rights on paper

Seventy-one years ago, when the Republic of India came into existence, the Constitution guaranteed women equal rights, equal citizenship, and an equal space under the sun. Indian laws imposed by successive governments have sought to extend women’s rights – and we have some of the most equal laws on paper. The problem is with the deep-rooted patriarchy that has seeped into our collective psyche. A patriarchy that tells us that the way women can be safe, is either by restricting our access and presence in public spaces; or by increasing surveillance on us.

The thought of making public spaces safer by bringing up boys better, or by ensuring that there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment or ‘eve-teasing’ remain lip service. And this view arises from not seeing us as equal claimants to public spaces. It is time we changed that. Women have equal rights on the country, on its destiny, in its property, and on its public spaces. And we need to remember this – and push back against those who try and curtail these rights – be they family, the CJI, the CM or the cops.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.

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