Kavita Krishnan argues that in the wake of the recent Uber taxi rape in the capital, blaming the survivor of an act of violence has become another brick in the wall of ‘protective’ boundaries that imprison women rather than open up safe spaces
As it usually happens after a much-publicized rape case, there is a flood of attempts to rationalize ‘victim blaming’ i.e. suggesting that the victim also bears some responsibility for the assault since she took unnecessary risks. I am seeing a lot of this commonsensical rationalization of victim blaming as ‘precautions’ on my twitter timeline.
A Congress leader on TV the other day baldly said that the woman herself should not have been drunk and sleepy in the cab. And this self same logic – garden-variety victim blaming – has been repeated in more sophisticated ways by many, including by some who call themselves feminists.
The list of precautions that can, supposedly, keep us safe from rape, are pretty long, endlessly long, in fact.
We should not be drunk in cabs, or fall asleep in cabs. (This implies, of course, that we women should not party at all, or should not drink at parties – since driving while drunk is a risk we all know can kill us and others).
Feminists are being accused of preaching recklessness to women, thereby rendering them vulnerable in a world which is deeply violent and unsafe. The NCW Chairperson, in a similar vein, said recently, that autonomy or ‘aggression’ on part of women in India could render them unsafe and at risk. Sheila Dixit had called the journalist Soumya Vishwanathan (who was murdered) ‘adventurous’ for being out late at night.
Well, what else? It’s risky to go to school, of course, since teachers might molest you there. It’s risky to enter a lift with your boss, since he might molest you. It’s risky to meet an ex-Supreme Court judge in his hotel room for work, since he might molest you. It’s risky to be drunk at a party at a friend’s or colleague’s place and spend the night there instead of taking a cab home, since one might get raped by the friend or colleague.
It’s risky to be a bar dancer or a sex worker – since your work is inherently ‘risky’ and so you can’t expect or demand safety.
It’s risky simply to be a woman at all, anywhere at all, be it at home or at work or on the streets….
The tragic thing is, ALL women, barring none, take precautions, weigh risks, are ‘careful’. Most rape survivors agonise over what they could have done differently to avoid that horror. What is disturbing, though, is the smug way in which rape victims are being lectured about ‘precautions’. Precautions, no matter how many we take, can never keep us entirely safe. And no matter how many precautions you took, if you’re raped, there will always be people to tell you a long list of things YOU could have done differently so as NOT to have been raped.
Remember, this common-sensical concern for safety is what is voiced when women are told by their parents not to choose who they befriend, sleep with, love and marry. “We’ll make the decision for you since you might make a mistake” is what is said. If one’s ‘love’ marriage breaks down, parents sometimes say, “This would not have happened if you had listened to us and not married this guy in the first place.”
What I say is, you can either live your parents’ mistakes, or your own. And surely, one’s own mistakes are infinitely more productive, teaching us, if nothing else, to take responsibility.
Many of the rationalisers of good old-fashioned victim blaming are saying ‘men take precautions too, we teach our boys safety norms too’ and so on.
However, ‘adventurous’ when used for men, is a positive word, has always been. A man I know is very protective of his wife and won’t let her travel anywhere, even in their own city, without a rigorous set of precautions and limits set by him. The same man takes a yearly holiday, all alone, wandering in wild mountainous terrain. Lone travel is a badge of honour for a man.
Drunken men are objects of affectionate celebration in movies. People I love very much have always been concerned about my safety when I travel, which is a lot. Loved ones often tell me, with fear in their heart, not to take an auto from a railway station at 4 am, not to take a walk up a mountainside in Dharmashala, not to travel in an unreserved compartment, not to react or argue if ogled at or molested, not to rush to the rescue if I see someone being beaten up by a mob on the street. I understand, even sympathise with their fears. I feel such fears myself for those I love. But I cannot – cannot – afford to be ruled by those fears. If I did, mine would be a life devoid of the experiences that make me, me.
A life stripped of risk, rigorously regimented by fear, is hardly a ‘life’ in any sense of the term… Not to mention that much of that fear is not just a fear of physical violence, but a fear of loss of respectability, a loss of ‘character’. The latter is a fear men seldom have to feel – it is women’s preserve, and lurks unsaid behind the ‘safety’ regimentation imposed on us by parents, spouses, boyfriends, aunts…
Think about it. Had my parents done what ‘sensible people’ advised them to, I would not have been sent far from home to college. While at college in Mumbai, I would never have taken the risk of walking on curfew restricted, deserted streets with a woman friend, watching the effects of communal violence first hand. I would never have traveled in unreserved compartments – where I have, on occasion, been pawed by army men and felt great fear, but on countless other occasions, experienced the generosity and humanity of random strangers. I would never have attended political meetings during Lok Sabha elections in the city of Banaras, where ‘sensible’ friends had advised me not to go for fear of violence breaking out. I would never have participated in political protests which resulted in me being arrested and jailed.
So, now, when loved ones advise precautions, I listen, lovingly. But I refuse to be ruled by THEIR perception of risk and their fears and curfews set by them. I gauge risk myself, weigh them, and take calculated risks while taking responsibility for MY OWN actions.
Taking responsibility for the risks we take, does not mean that then the State, the police and so on are let off the hook. It does NOT mean accepting responsibility for being raped. (I say this because there are many who will say that though they’re not justifying the rapist’s actions, the woman, rather than the State, bears a share of responsibility.)
The State has a responsibility to imagining and putting in place infrastructure and systems that minimize risks and expand women’s freedoms. Safe, accountable public transport systems are crucial among these. And in case an assault does happen, prompt and accountable police response is as crucial. The State cannot hold women – or in fact any citizens – responsible for ‘their own safety’. It’s simple – it’s the Government’s job to ensure that women should have access to roads, metros, buses, taxis, rickshaws, and toilets – all services that should be safe and accountable.
Of course women could be raped at home too. But that does not mean that we fail to hold a taxi company or a school responsible for ignoring prior complaints against someone and failing to vet their drivers or teachers! And above all, we cannot fail to hold the Govt responsible for failing to regulate taxi services and schools to ensure basic safety norms!
The question we have to be asking Governments is: “What are your plans to ensure that every woman has access to safe, affordable transport with last mile connectivity, 24/7?” Asking women ‘Why were you drunk/asleep/out late at night/dressed skimpily etc etc” is simply a very effective way to avoid making the State accountable.
I am uneasy with women-driven taxis or karate classes and so on being propagated as a solution. Sure, we need women, lots of women, to invade every masculine fortress, and this includes transport of all kinds. I rejoice in women driving cabs’ and buses and tractors. But I do not want the State and various smug busybodies telling women who are raped in a cab, “Why didn’t you take a woman-driven cab? You were careless and so you got raped.”
I know from personal experience that learning martial arts well enough to use it the way you see in films, is not possible for most people! I don’t want women who get molested being told, ‘”It’s your fault, why were you so wimpy that you didn’t learn martial arts?”
I’ll end with a long quote from Why Loiter that puts it all better than I ever could:
“We would like the right to choose to be able to go out at anytime of the day or night or to choose to stay in. In some ways benevolent paternal protection is simple—it lays down the boundaries and all one has to do is skilfully negotiate them. Losing this protection, however conditional, will mean that one is compelled to take decisions and make choices whose outcomes we might have little control over. However, freedom from protection will also mean freedom, not from the male gaze or the threat of physical assault, but from having to consistently manufacture respectability in order to be worthy of protection. The right to risk is unconditional. The right to risk knows no temporality, no codes of conduct and needs no symbolic markers to define ones worthiness. The right to risk chooses freedom over restrictions and seeks freedom from restrictions.
We acknowledge explicitly that with freedom comes responsibility. The demand for the unconditional right to take risks in lieu of protection places the responsibility squarely on women. Our desire then is to replace the un-chosen risk to reputation and the unwanted risk of loss of respectability with a chosen risk of engaging city spaces on our own terms. Yes, there is street harassment, and yes, there is violence against both women and men. The fear of violence in public space is legitimate and cannot be merely wished away. At no point are we ignoring or even minimizing the violence, both sexual and non-sexual, that might potentially take place in the public and lead to physical as well as psychological trauma. Even as we ask for women’s right to engage risk in public space, we do not disregard the responsibility of the state and its mechanisms of law and order in dealing with public violence. Instead, we suggest that they deal very firmly with the aggressors of that violence and not tie up the victims of violence in endless blame games, inane dress codes, and relentless moral policing. The woman who seeks the simple pleasure of a walk by the seaside at night is in no way responsible for an attack against her.
In another world, this would not be a risk, but given that it is a risk in Mumbai, and in several other Indian cities, the least one can expect is unequivocal justice if one is assaulted. The least one can expect is that the assailant be punished without collateral emotional damage to the victim. The least one can expect is to not be held responsible for that violence. The least one can expect is an acknowledgement of one’s right to walk on the beach, stroll on the waterfront, laze in the park without question.
At the same time, however, we also need to recognize another kind of risk: that of loss of opportunity to engage city spaces and the loss of the experience of public spaces should women choose not to access public space more than minimally. By choosing not to access public space without purpose, women not only accept the gendered boundaries of public space, but actually reinforce them. This renders women forever outsiders to public space; always commuters, never possessors of public space.
The right to risk is not merely abstract. From the perspective of the city, it must be mirrored in the provision of infrastructure. While the decision to take certain risks must be chosen, risks must not be thrust upon women by inadequate or miserly planning.
Infrastructure is central to access. The state and the city’s role in the provision of infrastructure like public transport, public toilets and good lighting are integral to the success of the larger claim to public space. Public space, then, does not mean empty space devoid of infrastructure and facilities, but a space that is thoughtfully designed with the intention of maximizing access. Not just functional spaces like train compartments, bus stops and toilets, but also spaces of pleasure like parks and seaside promenades are significant to creating accessible cities. For it is in these spaces that the joy of being in and belonging to the city is shared and communicated.
While we must lobby for an infrastructure that will make it possible for us take risks as citizens, at the same time, the demand for infrastructure that reduces risks should not provide the grounds to indict those who choose to take other kinds of risks not dependent on infrastructure. The presence of well-lit streets in the city should not mean that women found in dark corners should be deemed unrespectable or blamed if they are attacked.
Choosing to take risks in public space undermines a sexist structure where women’s virtue is prized over their desires or agency. Choosing risks foregrounds pleasure, making what is clearly a feminist claim to the city.”
Extract from Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, New Delhi: Penguin, 2011
Kavita Krishnan is the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA)