Women domestic workers who travel to the city of Kolkata to work everyday describe different kinds of violence they face on the suburban trains that they take to and from the city. Many travel in the early hours of the morning from villages in the adjoining districts of Kolkata and start their journeys home in the afternoon. All through the day, at different times, working class women travel from the villages to Kolkata to earn their livings as domestic workers, vegetable vendors, workers on construction sites, sex workers and so on.
Domestic workers (and other women) face harassment by men on the streets as they make their way to and from the station. Male travellers grope, pinch, and push women on the trains. Suburban trains have one or two cars earmarked “ladies’ compartments,” which are meant for the exclusive use of women commuters. However, that does not automatically foster female camaraderie and solidarity. We need to remember that most public transport facilities in India are stretched beyond capacity and, most often, these women are travelling in very crowded trains. Therefore, sometimes, skirmishes break out among working-class women. Additionally, domestic workers report that most middle-class women commuters view them as interlopers and are condescending at best, if not downright offensive.
The police and railway personnel also tend to view women domestic workers as ‘illegitimate’ commuters, travelling without tickets. They often demand bribes or subject them to abuse, both verbal and physical, and to arbitrary checks of their belongings and persons. Body checks are often conducted by male personnel. Fearing reprisals, the women rarely object.
The gang rape and subsequent death of a young woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012 has focused a great deal of attention on the issue of rape in India, in the national and international media, and also among people outside of feminist and women’s groups. An immense public outrage across the country and sustained mass protests in Delhi rattled the government enough that it appointed the Justice Verma Committee to recommend changes to the existing anti-rape law.
The issue of violence against women, both at home and outside, has been the preoccupation of women’s movements in India. Activists have repeatedly questioned the deeply ingrained patriarchal values and attitudes that are widely held across India – by the state system, educational institutions, families, communities and individuals.
Despite the widespread outcry against the Delhi gang rape and murder, very few substantive steps have been taken either by the Government of India or various state governments to ensure that crimes against women are prevented and women can move around safely. I live in Kolkata, which is the capital city of the state of West Bengal. On 7 June, 2013, a 20-year-old college student, one of the first people in her family to access higher education, was gang raped and murdered in Kamduni, which is less than 30 km away from Kolkata. This incident has created a furore in West Bengal, though it did not evoke the nationwide rage that followed the Delhi gang rape and murder. Various rights groups have organised several protests in West Bengal. In an instance of great personal courage, Suzette Jordan, who had been raped on Park Street in Kolkata in February, 2012, decided to ‘out’ herself in the wake of the Kamduni protests.
People expressed anger and outrage again last month when a trainee journalist was gang raped in Mumbai. That same month, the media reported the rape and murder of a young Dalit student who came to Jind in the state of Haryana to take an exam. The police and state administration tried to cover this up by claiming that the woman had committed suicide. However, activists have kept up pressure for a proper investigation.
Whether those attacked are domestic workers on their way to and from work, college students, school girls, professionals or full-time homemakers, women and girls in India have to confront various forms of violence and harassment when they are out in the streets. These forms of violence range from stares, leers, comments, catcalls, groping, touching, shoving, pushing, hitting and, of course, rape. As a result, are there no women on the streets in India? Of course there are! Women and girls of all classes and age groups are out on the streets, parks, buses, trains, rickshaws, markets, schools, colleges, and offices. They are visible in big cities, small towns and villages. However, many codes and strictures govern the lives of women and girls both at home and outside.
One of the major reasons why girls drop out of school in early adolescence is that they are harassed by men on the streets. Families feel that it is better that girls stay at home so that no harm comes to them and the reputation of the girls and their families are not ‘ruined.’ The ‘harm’ that the families envisage is molestation and/or rape. Unfortunately, families take the girls out of school and deprive them of education in their attempt to combat this potential threat.
Street harassment is a terrifying reality in India. Everyone knows that it exists. The usual responses to street harassment are:
- Trivialising it with the name ‘eve teasing’: Over the years, feminists have pointed out that street harassment is violence against women and not fun and games or good-natured teasing.
- Putting the onus on women and girls: Girls and women are expected to guard their ‘dignity,’ ‘modesty,’ or ‘virtue.’ So, they are expected to dress ‘decently,’ not be out after dark, and travel in groups, if possible.
- Underplaying the prevalence of street harassment: Law enforcers and politicians do not recognise how widely prevalent the problem is and take no steps to either prevent or punish such harassment.
- Ignoring harassment or keeping silent about it: Most women, especially girls and young women, report that they are met with harassment practically as soon as they step out of their houses. So, they learn the fine art of ignoring such harassment, unless it really gets too much to bear. Many keep silent about it and are wary of discussing it with their parents or others in the family because they fear that talking about harassment will further compromise the restricted degree of freedom of mobility that they have.
Women are well aware that keeping quiet about harassment aids the process of normalising such violence. However, they see their silence as a strategic choice. It allows them to get on with their lives.
Confronting the harasser: This is not widespread but it is gradually becoming popular. If someone is staring, leering or passing comments, girls and women say that they outstare that person until he is forced to lower his eyes and walk away.
The aftermath of the Delhi gang rape and murder has led to many protests and discussions. Immediately after the incident, there were loud cries for death for the rapists both from different Indian politicians and the general public. Although the Justice Verma Committee Report categorically ruled out the death penalty for rapists, the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013 says that the death penalty may be awarded if the rapist “inflicts an injury which causes the death of the person or causes the person to be in a persistent vegetative state.” In September 2013, four men accused of the Delhi gang rape and murder of December 16, 2012 were convicted of their crimes and sentenced to death. (This sentence was awarded according to legislation that existed when the crime occurred. The new law is applicable only to crimes that occur after the law has come into force.)
It is worth noting that the Government of India announced in February 2013 that the conviction rates of rape cases show a declining trend. However, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) records, the number of rape cases being reported in the period of 2009-2011 have increased. The conviction rates for rape were 44.3 percent in 1973, 37.7 percent in 1983, 26.9 percent in 2009, 26.6 percent in 2010 and 26.4 percent in 2011.
In conversations across the country, it is evident that since the Delhi incident families have become even more protective about their daughters. Speaking at a panel discussion entitled, “Pushing Boundaries: Girls and the Right to Mobility” organised by Parichiti – A Society for Empowerment of Women in May 2013 in Kolkata, the principal of an elite girls’ school in the city said that parents were now wary of letting their daughters go to college in other Indian cities.
The incidents in Kamduni and Gede in West Bengal, however, clearly show that rapists and murderers also attack women and girls who go to school and college close to home. Rights groups are all demanding that the law enforcement machinery stop being so callous about women’s lives.
Horrified as they are by the spate of rape and murders that keep occurring, feminists are concerned that families and communities are getting more protectionist and girls and women, too, are wary of being out on the streets. Many women’s groups are working to make the point that if streets have to become safe for women and girls, they have to be out in public. They have to go to school or college, play in parks, chat in tea stalls (as opposed to globalised coffee shops), ride buses and trains on their way to work, and go shopping, or to the cinema.
Maitree, a women’s rights network in Kolkata, organises public meetings at street corners every six to eight weeks to discuss the issue of sexual violence against women outside the home and within. Since December 2012, two young women in Kolkata have begun organising monthly ‘Take Back the Night’ gatherings in different places in the city. The organisers have made special efforts to invite transpersons to Take Back the Night events. Organisers of Take Back the Night say that they must fight transphobia in their struggle against patriarchy and gender-based violence. Both Maitree and Take Back the Night also make it quite clear that they are opposed to the death penalty. In recent months, feminists have made statements and written articles explaining their position opposing sexual violence and the death penalty.
The Delhi gang rape and murder case has shaken us. We can keep asking why the Delhi rape moved us so deeply while others did not or do not but those questions are unlikely to lead us to the correct answers. The challenge for women’s groups and women’s movements in India is to initiate public debates and discussions about women’s access to the streets and their right to mobility, and to ensure that the criminal justice system responds promptly whenever women are harassed or attacked in the streets. Police, administrators, professionals, communities, families and individuals need to understand that women and girls have a right to the streets. It is not a privilege to be out in the streets but a right. There has to be a political will to create an atmosphere in the country where streets and other public spaces are not seen as hostile to women but welcoming and empowering.