Why India must stop tolerating stalking with a “boys will be boys”

Not safe.
Not safe.
Image: Reuters/Mansi Thapliyal
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Even as she writhed in pain, the one name she kept repeating was of the person who had allegedly set her ablaze—a neighbourhood youth who had been harassing her for a while.

With 95% burns, the 15-year-old girl, who lived with her parents in the Delhi suburb of Noida, had for long tried to stave him off. Doctors said she was so badly burnt that even though her medical papers noted a history of sexual assault, they could not confirm it because of the severity of the injuries.

Last year, the fear of that 20-year-old neighbour led her parents to pull her out of school and enrol her for private tutorials. But even that last window of freedom was soon slammed shut, when the man continued tormenting her.

Even though she was forced into a virtual house arrest by her parents, it did not deter him. In the early hours of March 7, while her parents were asleep, she was raped, doused in kerosene, and set afire on her terrace—allegedly by the same neighbourhood goon.

A stalker had snuffed out a life. And it was not the first time, neither will it be the last.

Stalking may not always culminate in such gruesome tragedies, but the victims are always scarred. In February, a 24-year-old woman employee at the e-commerce company, Snapdeal, was kidnapped after being followed for weeks. She was released later, but only after much mental harassment.

In India, stalking is punishable by a term of up to three years under Section 354D of the Indian Penal Code. But that has been of little help.

Often in such cases, the norm is the all-too-familiar blame game, where women are punished for being out in public spaces alone or too late in the day. But, as the Noida case demonstrated, the woman is not even safe at home.

Quartz spoke to Shilpa Ranade, a co-author of Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (along with Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan), a book based on a three-year research on women and public spaces in Mumbai. The book inspired a street campaign, not only in India but also in Pakistan, to encourage women to assert their right to public spaces and examine the risks.

Ranade talks about stalking and the change the Indian society desperately needs. She is an architect, who works as the founding partner at the design firm, DCOOP, and was involved with the seminal, Gender and Space Project, at Mumbai-based NGO PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research).

Do you think stalking is not taken seriously as a crime in India?

Yes, there is a cavalier attitude towards stalking. It needs to be taken seriously not only because stalking can lead to more serious crimes like in the Noida case, but also because it affects women’s everyday access in a fundamental way. Women have had to make life-changing decisions regarding education and work choices because of fear of harassment. In fact, cases of everyday street harassment to stalking to sexual assault—all fall on a spectrum and need to be seen as a continuum. The perception of danger often does more to curtail women’s access on an everyday basis than actual cases of sexual assault. Serious incidents go on to buttress the fears society already has about women in public, further limiting their access to public space.

What were the key findings of your research?

Our study demonstrated that while women have a degree of access to the city for work or education, their access is limited to using public space as a transit between one private space to another. In effect, they cannot hang out in public space the way men can. It was to address this issue and to expand women’s claim to public space that the book makes a case for loitering. The book draws on only part of our research, wherein we demonstrate that women can have equal rights only when they can access public space for both work and pleasure.

But what should women do to claim the public space?

We do not believe that the onus of manufacturing safety, or for that matter of staking a larger claim to public space, should only fall on individual women. The problem of discrimination is a structural problem, and it is important we (women and men) come together to address it as a society. Therefore, I would definitely not suggest that a woman who is being stalked should overcome her personal fears to access public space and make a point while ignoring the dangers involved. It then becomes the responsibility of the larger society and specifically her family, friends and the police to ensure that, one, her complaints are taken seriously, and two, her unconditional claim to public space is acknowledged. This means not just bringing the perpetrators to justice, but also providing the necessary support structure, so that she can exercise her right to freely access public space.

Why is loitering for women so significant?

Despite the fact that political and economic visibility has brought increased access to public space, women still have to demonstrate purpose and respectability in order to legitimise their presence in public space. Loitering by its very nature is purposeless, and by its connotations, it is not considered very respectable, especially for “good” women. So when women choose to loiter in public space, they disrupt the assumptions of respectable femininity through which an oppressive gender-space is maintained. The transgressiveness of loitering then allows us to imagine a radically different city. Also, loitering is significant because it expands the discussion of women and public spaces beyond the struggle against violence to stake an equal and unconditional right to public space which includes the right to pleasure. The quest for pleasure actually strengthens our struggle against violence because by default it includes the right against violence.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.