It was in the midst of a cosy winter in 2012 that the news of a brutal rape began spreading across Delhi. Details of the crime were largely hearsay in the beginning. However, two aspects of the case resonated with most Delhiites, first; the ‘horrendous nature’ of the crime and second, the victim was a member of a middle class Hindu family.
“When the tragedy of Nirbhaya took place, I was in school and everyone was in shock. No one expected that such a terrible thing could happen in Delhi,” says Shreya Singh, 20, a student of Maharaja Agrasen College in the suburbs of Delhi. “I was planning further studies back then and Delhi was one of the first places I was considering. But my parents were afraid and they refused to consider the city as a place where I could live alone. They also argued with me saying that the high rate of crime in the city made the place very unsafe.”
“My parents refused to consider the city as a safe place where I could live alone” – Shreya Singh | Student
The incident, which came to be known as ‘the Nirbhaya’ case, contributed to the first of the many defeats that the Congress faced in the coming years. When hundreds and thousands of men and women, cutting across classes, streamed into the city centre demanding justice for the victim, the Congress government was left stumbling for answers. “I was shocked when I saw the CM indulge in victim blaming,” says Soumya Mathur, 25, an event management professional. “She was more concerned with her (Nirbhaya) being out on the streets late in the night than taking action against the rapists.”
Needless to say, the Congress government fell and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), mounted on the image of a frustrated common man, made inroads into the imagination of Delhi. Soon, the party was elected into power in 2013 and then again in 2014, with a thumping majority.
“The whole country was agitated at the time of that heinous crime,” says Payal Sharma, 25, a teacher of Glorious Public School. “Having said that, this was the only incident that was given so much limelight despite the fact that such crimes are happening in the country everyday.”
“This was the only incident that was given so much limelight despite the fact that such crimes are happening in the country everyday” – Payal Sharma | Teacher
Hailing from a small town in Punjab, Savita, a Dalit sanitary worker in a college in Delhi, starts for her workplace as early as six in the morning. Carrying a child, she walks the 30-minute distance to the college. “I am used to the city and I am also terrified of it,” she says. “Nirbhaya was a huge event but I wasn’t there at the protest. I had to work.” Ask Savita about the safety of the city, she smiles, “I have not had time to think of my safety as I have to think of ways to keep my family going. I have been harassed several times but I don’t think the police would listen to what I say.”
“I have not had time to think of my safety as I have to think of ways to keep my family going” – Savita | Sanitary Worker
One of the immediate consequences of the Nirbhaya movement had been the demand to ensure that the city was safe for its women. That the city would allow its women to travel, occupy public spaces and ride public transport without the fear of being sexually assaulted, was a unanimous demand of the 16 December movement which followed the Nirbhaya rape.
Thus, in a bid to make women feel ‘safe’ within the city, political parties like the BJP, the Congress and the AAP came up with various agendas in their election manifestoes during the 2014 Delhi Assembly elections. In the BJP’s ‘Vision Document’, the party promised special women’s police stations and a special call centre. AAP, on the other hand, stated that it would fully implement the 2013 Justice Verma Committee recommendations along with the provision of ‘better infrastructure and surveillance’ facilities. Aiming at addressing the ‘future needs of Delhi’, the Congress election manifesto called for a ‘special train’ for ladies. “How can segregation and surveillance be an answer to sexual violence?” asks Rohini Sengupta, a BPO professional based in Gurgaon.
A call to restrict women from venturing out at night was also made post-Nirbhaya, as a result of which college and university hostels across the country upheld curfews imposed on women students. Stating that the city was unsafe after six, many colleges and universities continued to reinforce the need to keep timings for women. For instance, IP College for Women in Delhi, post-Nibhaya, changed late night timings to 9:30 from 10:30 pm. “When we tried to protest, the authorities maintained that this was the best method to keep us safe,” says a student.
Protesting against such curfew timings, women students across Delhi have now come out strongly against college authorities through a campaign called the Pinjra Tod (Break the locks) movement. “I think the campaign is a step towards spreading awareness on how hostel rules are often against women,” says Sanjuktha Sharma, 37, a housewife. “I think women have to start reclaiming their space that have been handed over to male authoritarian figures. But I must say that there has been a change since 2012. Now, I see the presence of women in the Sunday Raahgiri [car-free citizen’s initiative].”
“How can segregation and surveillance be an answer to sexual violence?” – Rohini Sengupta | BPO Professional
In their book, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade write, “We need to redefine our understanding of violence in relation to public space — to see not sexual assault, but the denial of access to public space as the worst possible outcome for women. What we might demand then is that women’s right to be in public space be unquestioned. Choosing to take risks, even of possible sexual violence in public spaces, undermines a sexist structure where women’s virtue is prized over their desires or agency.”
An underlying vision of the 2012 December 16 protests was breaking existing structures of patriarchy that hindered women’s access to public spaces. Carrying this forward, several movements including the Pinjra Tod campaign took place in Delhi.
While the Kiss of Love protest, Delhi chapter, held in November 2014 questioned moral policing, the ‘Valentine’s Day protest’ held in February, targeted the Hindu Mahasabha for its warning of marrying off couples seen in public on Valentine’s Day.
In a similar vein, campaigns questioning existing stigma around menstruation, nudity and other social taboos were held in Delhi. While the movements have been encouraging, the quick-fix response from the State has only become a hindrance to women’s voices who are looking forward to take back their rights and nights.
With inputs from Usri Basistha