Almost every woman in the world knows this feeling: standing in a crowd — it doesn’t matter where -- metro, market, bus— and something (someone?!) brushes up against you. The feeling that you’re being followed as you walk down a lonely street. The split-second of fear when you need to get home after a late meeting. The desire to make yourself smaller to fit in, to avoid being noticed. From manspreading to machismo, from misogyny to molestation — women are subjected to all manner of threats to personal space. And yet, we deal with it. Because the only thing worse than going where we need to, is not being able to go where we need.
When discussing India’s declining female labour force participation rates, the lack of safety in public spaces is often highlighted as an impediment to women accessing jobs. But this is not news. The threat of gendered violence — ranging from lewd comments to physical assaults — in public spaces is appallingly commonplace across the country. And women navigate this threat constantly. Some even do it as they cover up both physical and emotional bruises received at home. For still others, the power to choose where they go, and how they reach there is taken out of their control in a hundred small ways. To make decisions, and exercise their choices is a daily fight.
Thus, while safety in public spaces is a major concern for women accessing jobs, there are a couple of things that should be considered simultaneously. The first, is that while ‘public’ spaces are often deemed unsafe, can we really assume that the home is somehow safer? The second, perhaps more crucial, issue is that discussions around ‘safety’ ignore what we really need to be talking about — women’s agency and autonomy.
The public-private debate
The global COVID-19 crisis has seen an increase in reports of escalations in domestic violence. Even prior to this, WHO estimates suggested that around 1 in 3 women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime. Lockdowns and restrictions on people’s movement have thus confirmed what activists working in the domestic violence space had been saying for a while — that the home is not, in fact, safer than the outside world. Once restrictions begin to open up, conversations around public safety going forward must be cognisant of the fact that violence outside the home (or in the ‘public’ sphere) is often a reproduction — or even an extension — of violence inside it.
The very conception of “outside” violence also tends to neglect the dangers that lie inside homes. Parents across the world warn their children about ‘stranger danger’ or the threat posed by outsiders. Sociologist Dr. Shilpa Phadke highlights that this is a concept that is echoed in approaches that aim to ‘protect’ and ‘safeguard’ women so that they are safe from the outside world — that equally, there is a lot of discourse around ‘outside’ men and “stranger violence” against women. Infantilisation of women aside, this also neglects a very important truth. According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau, in India, an overwhelming majority (93%) of all reported rape cases are at the hands of perpetrators that are known to their victims. This percentage does not account for unreported cases, or for cases of marital rape, given that India is still one of 36 countries where marital rape is not recognised as a crime under the law. These statistics point to an inherent dichotomy in the way Indian women are institutionally perceived — even as ‘protection’ from the outside is a key concern, inside the home, their agency is rendered irrelevant.
Being outside the home — whether for leisure, or to ‘loiter’, or to access work — is therefore an expression of agency and autonomy in an environment that would seek to curb women. Dr. Phadke rightly points out that the home is often an unsafe place, and yet society urges women to stay there. Similarly, while public spaces present hostilities for women, there are those who wish to (or need to) access them despite these hostilities.
Agency, risks, possibilities
Public space represents possibility, and access to possibility is central to understanding why women continue to negotiate risk, adjusting to circumstances for as long as they can to access work. Often, they are forced to give up on certain opportunities for relative safety in public spaces — a job that pays more, a cheaper mode of transport, or overtime pay. A 2017 study by Girija Borker found that college-going women were willing to spend 16 times more than men in terms of travel costs, and add 40 minutes to their commute for an additional unit of safety. They also often miss out on better opportunities in favour of institutions that are closer to home — just to be safer.
Meanwhile, there are also those who may not be able to diminish risk through their choices. Their ‘adjustment’ is to an altogether different set of circumstances. Every day, these women cook, clean, and then set off to do more work. Across the country, in the absence of effective last mile connectivity for public transport, they take shared autorickshaws, which are notorious for their lack of safety. They get into crowded buses, jostle in local trains, adjust in tightly packed metros, and walk miles to get to where they need to go— negotiating risk in an altogether different way.
Adjusting expectations, accessing opportunities
The connection between safety and access to jobs is one that requires all stakeholders to consider who occupies space, and how. This is partly because the number of women we end up seeing in public spaces do it after adjusting to certain expectations and conditions. There’s the inevitable “How far away do you live?” when being interviewed for a prospective job; or a call from home when working late as a reminder that “it’s getting dark”; or a gaze lowered to avoid attention from the only other occupant on the last metro home.
Decision-making — both inside and outside the home — is thus key to this conversation. While more CCTV cameras and women’s compartments in public transport might encourage them to occupy public spaces and access opportunities, we cannot assume that India’s women will automatically stop dropping out of the workforce when such measures are implemented. Because this is not only about safety in public spaces. The real question is, can the women in India truly reclaim the right to occupy any space? Or is reclamation just intended for land in Bombay?
(Sonakshi Chaudhry is Research & Editorial Lead at the Women In Labour Podcast. Views expressed are personal.)
This is Part-3 of a five-part series on Women In The Workforce