Where are the Safe Spaces?

Protest Against Rape Photo

I have lived in three Indian cities until now. Guwahati; my hometown, New Delhi; for higher studies, and Mumbai; as a research scholar. The question that lingers in my mind, no matter where I am is, “where is my safe space?” or “where can I go without feeling scared/observed?” This is absolutely a menacing fact. The girls or women facing sexual abuse at home, the women in intimate-partner violence, those facing abuses in the workplace and those regularly facing objectification on the streets have one thing in common. They are all searching for their “safe spaces”. Women realise it every day all year round. We do not require a horrific incident like the recent Hyderabad case to remind us of that. So those speaking up now are only reiterating what they think and feel every moment in their lives.

When I say space, I particularly mean social spaces where people live together and create relationships with other people, societies and their surroundings. Spaces, therefore, have to be understood as distinct from a geographical place. It is through spaces that we can understand social actions. It is now widely recognised that relationships of power are embedded into spaces. This is reflected in its differential usage by people belonging to different genders, castes, classes, religions, ethnicities, etc. For instance, an urban, young, middle-class, able-bodied, Hindu, upper-caste and heterosexual man will have access to many more safe spaces in a city than those who do not fall into even one of these categories. Thus, one can say that the ‘social structures’ are always evidently or in subtle ways visible through the ‘spatial structures’.

Consequently, one must understand that gender and space are also intricately connected. In other words, it is important for us to recognise that many of these social spaces are gendered. Women, men, trans-genders, and every other queer individual have discrepant rights, recognition, and respect within these spaces. Hence, how, where, and when people move is evidently gendered. This, in turn, continues to sustain the power hierarchies already embedded in society. Here I am reminded of Shilpa Phadke who defined gendered spaces as ‘socially constructed geographical and architectural arrangements around space which regulate and restrict women’s access, those spaces which are connected to the production of power and privilege in any given context’. The fear of being followed is, therefore, very much real. It is not a feeble state of our minds but a very real product of patriarchy that reflects in the streets. There may be several causes that have led to such a scenario. For one, women are socialised into learning that the outside world isn’t safe for them. Men, on the other hand, are not taught the importance of making the spaces around them safer for women. A study on masculinity, son preference, and intimate partner violence (IPV) in India by the Public Health Foundation of India, Health Policy Project, MEASURE Evaluation, and International Center for Research on Women in 2014 showed that two out of every five men were rigidly masculine having inequitable gender attitudes and high levels of controlling behavior. It also said that these men were three times more likely to perpetrate acts of physical violence against their partners. Hence, it is all the more important to engage men and boys to challenge the deeply rooted harmful gender norms and think through patriarchy. Therefore, until and unless we keep blaming the women for any untoward incidents that happen to them, we cannot change this deplorable situation our country has fallen into!

Today innumerable panels and talks are happening on “smart cities”. If we look at the Government of India website on “Smart Cities” http://smartcities.gov.in/content/#modern-ticker, the inadequacies will become clear. Nowhere has gender been mentioned in the “Smart City Features” tab that is highlighted on their web page. Although the ‘core infrastructure elements’ of Smart City do include an element of “safety” especially for women and children, it seems provisional and notional at best. When one doesn’t have the concept of “gendered spaces” included in its very premise, we cannot expect any major solutions to be brought about. In fact, none of the “Smart Solutions” that are mentioned, talk about Violence against Women and infrastructural solutions that will lead to a sharp decline in sexual crimes against women. The reported crimes against women have shown a staggering 26% increase since 2016 (according to a report by National Crime Records Bureau) in spite of the “100 Smart Cities Mission” inaugurated by the government in 2015. Thus, one needs to ask if our cities will be “smart” if they aren’t “safe”. It is high time we have more conversations over “safe cities” than “smart cities” on an everyday basis. “Safe Cities” should become a new normal in this current socio-political scenario.

Apart from such initiatives, a mindset shift has become particularly essential in today’s times. The dangerous mindset is reflected everywhere. Right from the films we make to the kitchen of our homes, patriarchy seeps in everywhere. Until we stop making films that valorises abusers or attempts to generate laughter on their stalking and forceful behaviour, until we stop circulating sexist jokes on social media, until we learn to value women and their labour (it can be any form of labour; be it within homes or outside), until we do not think of men as our saviours, I don’t see the situation getting any better. This mindset shift will only come with substantive alterations we make in our lives as responsible citizens of the society.

We always hear people making arguments like “we all have mothers and sisters. So, we must respect women”. Clearly, that is not enough. The abusers and rapists also have mothers and sisters and they still go out there and do what they do. Respect shouldn’t stem from the presence of other women in men’s lives. We deserve respect because we are humans.

Simona Sarma is currently pursuing PhD in the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has completed her Masters in Sociology from Delhi School of Economics. Currently her research area centers on popular culture, gendered identities, feminism and ethnomusicology. She has published a few papers to her credit.  Email Address: [email protected]




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