Annus horribilis for women in city

MumbaiA lit-up Shakti Mills after the incident. Police declared 272 places in the city as unsafe and put the onus on owners to ensure these were well-lit.

Smita Nair

On August 22, a photo-journalist's gangrape in a desolate mill in Mahalaxmi early evening dispelled all notions that Mumbai is unlike Delhi, which is often riled as the most unsafe city for women in India.

Mumbai police commissioner Satyapal Singh's immediate response was to declare 272 places in the city as unsafe and put the onus on owners to ensure these spaces were well-lit and guarded enough. Four months on, the police are now wary to let New Year Eve parties continue till late, again citing vulnerabilities of the city's women to hooliganism.

But is it for the police to provide them safety or restrict their movement and access to public spaces to prevent a crime? The larger issue is about making safety of women intrinsic to urban planning and design.

Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter?: Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets, recalls that while researching for their book, they found women had instinctively developed safety strategies. "We found women constantly looking for escape routes to leave a public space, as they feared unwanted attention. At Nariman Point, men would come down for a snack, stand and eat. But women, if alone, parcelled food and left immediately," she says.

Khan says while designing infrastructure, authorities must look at challenges an end-user will face while using it. For example, when planning a skywalk, if there are advertisements on the sides of the skywalk, the street vision is blocked. "So will women feel comfortable walking the skywalks late evening or even in the afternoon at non-peak hour? Will they fear getting harassed?" she says, pointing out that planning always assumes a 'neutral' citizen or a 'generic' user.

Similarly, Bandra-Kurla Complex might be beautiful, but many women do not feel safe to be in that space post-business hours. Or vertical parking spaces in building floors may be a good architectural concept, but it instils fear among lone women travellers.

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