Making Cities Safe

Image: Blank Noise “Step by Step Guide to Unapologetic Walking,” October 13, 2008

“I pledge to break the silence surrounding my sexuality in social settings. The experiences of verbal and physical harassment of queer lives in public are not disconnected from their everyday silencing in private. Let us talk to cultivate empathy and love across social spaces. Let us talk to make our cities more inclusive and safe.”
– My Safe City Pledge

The “Safe City Pledge” is a campaign designed and initiated by Blank Noise [1] to combat sexual harassment of women in Indian cities. The operation calls for people to identify their role in making public spaces safe and to pledge personal support towards actionable change. In the words of its founder, Jasmeen Patheja, “Change will be seen when rape and molestation stops. But it will begin when we change the way we live, play, love, and talk – when girls play cricket and football in public maidaans; when women take late night strolls; when we begin to challenge sexual intimidation and abuse instead of justifying it” [2]. The safe city slogan emphasizes the value of collective promise for any desired transformation of society and space. In this regard, the campaign’s slogan is consistent with the group’s core message that people should view themselves as political agents of change – capable of devising local strategies for addressing persistent harassment.

I have followed the campaign since its inception in 2012, and I am consistently struck by the messages and promises of citizens, young and old. In a short span of time, the project has garnered widespread support from individuals of diverse backgrounds and professional affiliations, both local and international. People from different walks of life have voiced their commitment to reconfigure the social arena by standing up to prejudice and misogyny. However, the questions I ask are: Is street harassment only a women’s issue? Is public molestation only about sexism?

In her recent article in the Huffington Post, queer activist Jae Cameron argues otherwise. “Street harassment,” she says, “is about intimidation and control. It can be sexist, racist, homophobic, abilist, and/or classist: it is an expression of the interlocking and overlapping oppressions we face, and it functions as a means to silence our voices and maintain the status quo” (emphases mine) [3]. Sexism and homophobia, for example, may be seen as particular forms of oppression, but both respond to shared forces. Self-identifying groups across the gender and sexuality spectrum may navigate public spaces in unique ways, but they face hostility and threats alike on a daily basis. The vocabulary of violence may be tailored to each personality, but their pervasive use reasserts prejudice experienced across wider intersecting identities.

Several initiatives in India and abroad have gathered stories of public abuse. This tangible interlocking and overlapping reality, however, seems to be absent from the safe city campaign. On the one hand, the project identifies the role and value of collective agency for sustained social and spatial change. On the other hand, however, it falls short in making visible the expectations of other marginalized groups. Specifically, by restricting the understanding of sexual harassment to “eve-teasing,” [4] the campaign separates the concern for women’s safety from the more expansive politics of prejudice involving other minorities. How might LGBTQI individuals help to make a city safe? In what ways might dalits use their experiences to inform new strategies for a safer city? How might individuals with a disability or elderly people engage their harassers? Without involving different minority groups, the ideals of collective agency and safety remain only partially realized.

This post is an appeal for action at three interrelated levels: Firstly, the question of safety for women cannot be divorced from the larger and more interconnected processes of prejudice against other minorities. This argument follows the findings of Gender and Space project at PUKAR, Mumbai and responds to the emerging literature on the subject [5]. At the tactical level, therefore, the safe city pledge campaign could broaden the definition of street harassment–without diluting particular concerns–and include within it all such forms of abuse that result from non-normative behaviors involving  gender, sexuality, ability, and caste-specific ideals. Secondly, collectives such as Blank Noise are motivated by questions of social justice – they work with other groups to make cities inclusive for one and all. Continued participation and action involving both individuals and policy makers is therefore necessary. This would ensure that the urgency in their message is sustained and not reduced to a sporadic event. Finally, participation in the movement is about informing the campaign with our daily life practices and lived experiences of space use. So, if you have a story, share it; if you have a strategy, pledge it. The actual transformation of space cannot take place without an exchange of memories and social actions.

Belated Happy Birthday, Blank Noise! I pledge my support. In solidarity.

[1] Blank Noise started as a Bangalore-based collective in 2003 and evolved into an India-wide volunteer-run collaborative in 2012. Since then, the group has designed several projects to address wide-ranging concerns of safety and security of women in Indian cities.
[2] Annie Zaidi, “Jan 1. Pledge #SafeCityPledge,” The Blank Noise Blog, December 30, 2012.
[3] Jae Cameron, “Street Harassment is an LGBTQIA Issue,” The Huffington Post Blog, May 8, 2013.
[4] Eve-teasing is an Indian term for street sexual harassment of women by men. “The term refers to everything from sexual innuendo, obscene gestures, offensive remarks, winking, whistling, staring, touching, pinching, and rubbing, to molestation, and rape. The semantics of the phrase reflect popular attitudes towards sexual harassment. Women are cast as “Eve,” a temptress, and the very presence of women in public spaces is seen as titillating. The flippant word “teasing” is used to minimize a serious and prevalent problem.” – Jasmeen Patheja, Ashoka Fellow, 2007.
[5] Gender and Space was a three-year long research undertaking at PUKAR (Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action, and Research), Mumbai. The project examined the spatial and social ordering of Mumbai through the lens of gender, and raised questions about safety and risk, control and access to public space. Also see: Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. New Delhi: Penguin India, 2011.


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