Atlantic Cities

'I Pledge to Walk Alone': Activists Demand Safer Cities for Women in India

'I Pledge to Walk Alone': Activists Demand Safer Cities for Women in India
Blank Noise

The trial of five men accused in December’s horrific gang rape of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student on a New Delhi bus began Monday. The woman died of massive internal injuries two weeks after she was attacked when coming home from a movie with a male friend, and the case is being heard in a “fast-track” court, one of six instituted by the government in the Indian capital to deal with crimes against women.

The swift action is an attempt to answer critics who say that official response to rape in India has historically been slow, tepid, and ineffective. Some 95,000 rape cases are currently pending in Indian courts, according to the BBC, and in the capital, where sexual assaults are at a record high, only 1 of the 635 rape cases filed last year has resulted in a conviction to date.

Outrage in India over the brutal rape flared quickly in the days after the December 16 assault, and while the fiercest street protests have died down, activists aren’t satisfied with the fast-track solution, saying it fails to address larger systemic problems. Many are continuing to press for a deeper change in Indian attitudes — such as the perception that the victim was "asking for it" by being out at night in the company of a man. That type of opinion that is commonly expressed by both police and government officials.

This past weekend, the group Blank Noise and several other groups joined to lead a campaign on Twitter hashtagged #SafeCityPledge, in which people were encouraged to take pictures of themselves holding up their own resolutions for actions to create a safer city and tweet their pledges. This builds on an earlier collective effort that convened people on January 1 in cities around India, including Pune, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chennai, and Goa, holding placards encouraging citizens to imagine a safer city and how they might play a role in making that a reality.

The pledges some people have made reveal, in their simplicity, just how profound the problem is:

  • I pledge to fight for my space -- to walk freely under the sun and the stars and not be afraid. I pledge to reclaim my space in public places.
  • I pledge to NEVER call a rape survivor a "living corpse": they are LIVING, BREATHING people with a FUTURE!
  • I pledge to walk short distances for my errands and not hop into to the rickshaw or cab.
  • I pledge to use public transport.
  • I pledge to loiter in public spaces and take up outdoor sports like running, jogging, beach volleyball or walking.
  • I pledge to fight for adequate lights on my city’s streets.
  • I pledge to walk alone.

Blank Noise is not a new thing, just like the harassment of women in public places in India — euphemistically dismissed as "eve-teasing" — is not a new problem, despite the surge of attention it has received recently. Jasmeen Patheja, a student in Bangalore at the time, founded the group in 2005, and in the past members have taken actions such as confronting harassers in the street, photographing them, and creating artworks that deal with themes of sexual violence. In one project, they ask women to discard the clothes they were wearing when they were harassed to make the statement, "I Never Ask for It."

"Each garment is a witness and testimonial that refuses to take blame," Patheja writes in an email. "The garments are installed across cities to say there's no excuse for violence. There is something universal about the language of blame. Women across the world seem to remember what they wore at the time they experienced sexual violence."

Despite the intransigence of the problem, Patheja says that she and her volunteer colleagues believe that the events of the past several weeks are the beginning of a real change in the society’s attitudes.

"We've never seen this kind of outrage and reaction from middle-class India," she says. "There is a shift. A jolt. A tipping point. The outrage needs to be channeled. People are moving from indifference to asking for change. Demanding change. I do feel hopeful at this point."

In the end, Patheja says, claiming the public realm as a safe space for women is about much more than sexual violence or gender politics. "Building safe cities has to be seen as urgent," she says. "Change involves both examining personal attitudes and asking for systemic change as a citizen. [It is] part of also learning to be a citizen. This is a start."

All images courtesy Blank Noise.

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Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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