Every day, lakhs of women in India unlock the doors to their homes or offices, get off a bus, a train or a taxi, fish into their purses, schoolbags or pockets in order to text someone those three special words — “I have reached”.
A recent study by the National Sample Survey Organisation indicated that at least 225 million Indian women own mobile phones. Presumably, more and more are using them to tell someone that they’ve reached. It’s innocuous enough, and rarely merits much thought. What it really means is, “I’ve reached safe and unharmed.” Sometimes typing out that brief message even elicits a smile; there’s always a concerned person at the other end, and it’s a good feeling to be cared for.
So then, downloading Sentinel, iHollaback, Fightback or the hundreds of other mobile apps available for female smartphone users should only make one feel safer. As should the fact that a lot of these apps, which previously charged for their services, turned free after the 16 December gangrape. Instead of tediously typing out messages of safety to a particular recipient, the push of a single button can now alert multiple concerned parties about one’s exact location ‘in case of emergency’ (there’s even a Mumbai Police app called that). There’s Eyewatch that turns your phone camera on, and begins discreetly sending video files of what’s going on around you to a list of friends. I AM SAFE consistently tracks your movements through a journey using GPS, and keeps your partner informed of your whereabouts. 8 onWatch tells your group if you do not reach somewhere within the app-determined time span, and my personal favourite, Scream Alarm, emits a long shrill scream in a woman’s voice for those who suspect they are being followed but are “too timid or soft-voiced” to call for help. “We admit this is not necessarily the best security measure,” the app makers confide at the moment of download, “but who knows? It could buy you precious seconds when you need it most.”
Apart from the bare obvious problems — these apps are huge battery drains and mostly work on 3G-enabled phones like BlackBerry, iPhone and other android-based phones; hence, they’re accessible only to a tiny minority of the rapidly growing cellphone users in India — is the fact that absurdly few of them work in tandem with law enforcement agencies. They alert a group of contacts already on your list instead of a centralised number like the Police Control Room.
It is not unusual for women to constantly plan escape routes and imagine ways out of potentially terrifying situations. But even if you needed a phone to scream for you, there is always the fear of not being able to locate a tiny device and select an app at the moment of ambush. And then there is the problem of the device itself: who can forget the annoying email chain or post on Facebook, from well-meaning friends that warns us about “what rapists look for in potential victims” — long hair, clothes that can easily be cut off , and someone who is “distracted, usually by their phones”.
To be fair, there are also apps — like HarassMap Mumbai and SafeCity — that encourage women to report sexual crimes by sharing their stories and mapping areas where they have felt unsafe in a city. More importantly, they force us to think about what a sexual violation really means. For instance, apart from reporting ‘Visual Abuse’, ‘Physical Abuse’ and ‘Stalking’ by checking a box, HarassMap also lets users customise reports. The website is also full of messages in real time from women with varying age groups and tolerance levels — “Colaba: He whispered something obscene, but I didn’t let it ruin my day”; and “Mankhurd: Full of drunk perverts who stare at everyone”; and then “Santa Cruz: Jobless men.” More insidious than the situations we are being asked to “prepare against” are the messages these apps are sending us: that the only way to keep women safe in these times is to monitor their location through satellite. If a world in which we are cared for is one where spontaneous travel plans and impulsive conversations with strangers can only lead to rape, excuse me while I push my Scream Alarm.