Harassment restricts women’s access to public spaces

Women's Protest


Mayank Chawla and Pramiti Lonkar

Earlier this year, seven-year-old Zainab Ansari from Kasur district in Pakistan was abducted on her way to a religious tuition centre. She was later found raped and strangled to death. The incident led to nationwide outrage. Similar to the Nirbhaya gangrape case in New Delhi in 2012, the case touched a chord with the society and brought changes to the legislation. While the rape law in India was revised, Pakistan outlawed child pornography after the Zainab’s case.

However, the two countries remain among the most unsafe for women. As per a study by Georgetown Institute’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Index, India ranks 131 among 153 countries. The index measures inclusion, justice and security for women. India ranks way below Saudi Arabia (99) and Nepal(85).

Although the struggle for an equal space for women has been ongoing, liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s fastened the pace of the struggle for inclusion. Women were now an integral part of the workforce and now had access to public spaces albeit with a purpose. Take any public space today and you’ll still find most of them dominated by the presence of men, with or without a purpose. Park benches, pan shops, buses or the corner of a street, they have been predominantly viewed as a man’s space and continue to remain that as such.

Anika Verma, 31, is a biker and she faces harassment almost every time she pulls out her bike for a ride. “The men feel threatened. They’ll chase you down the street because they feel you’ve invaded their space,” says Anika.

Stalking remains a large issue, with New Delhi accounting for one-third of stalking cases among the metropolitan cities in India with 541 cases registered (as per National Crime Records Bureau- NCRB) as of 2017. This is seven times above the national average. In the aftermath of the horrific December 16 Delhi gangrape, stalking was added to the list of offences under the Indian Penal Code. However, it hardly acts as a deterrent. As per NCRB data, more than 80 percent offenders are given bail even before the chargesheet is filed. *quote of stalking victim to be added here*

When attention is not given to the case of harassment and stalking, it may further progress to molestation or rape. According to NCRB, the number of rape cases reported in Delhi rose threefold from 706 cases in 2012 to 2155 cases in 2016. Reports suggest that the rise may be due to an increase in reporting of cases and the widened definition of rape under the new rape law. However, the conviction rate has gone down from 49.3% in 2012 to 29.7% in 2015.

Many of the cases stem from the lack of proper infrastructure. Street lighting, clean public toilets and lack of round-the-clock public transport are a few issues that restrict women’s access to safe spaces. Meghana, an HR employee travels from Delhi to Noida everyday for work. She has a designated auto driver who drops her home. ‘The walk from my office to the main road is dimly lit, I pay the auto driver an extra amount just to avoid that small stretch’, says Meghana.

According to a PIL filed in the Delhi High Court in 2016, ‘out of the existing public toilets across Delhi, only about 5 percent were meant for women’.

Apart from the quantifiable reports and incidents, there exists a larger problem of sexism which prevents a woman’s access to public space. “The problem with paying so much attention to sexual harassment is that we ignore the everyday. That is the culmination in the form of an incident, of course, it needs to be addressed. However, it is about the sexism one faces everyday. Look at any meeting, a woman needs to be a fly on the wall – a mere observer,” says Prof. Ghosh.


Laiba Zainab and Rabia Bugti

Standing alone at the bus stop, waiting for her university bus, 22-years-old Dur Bibi is nervous every time a stranger passes by. She has to reach NEPA Chowrangi where she waits for a connecting ride that takes her to Liyari.

Dur Bibi is a student of philosophy and is in her final semester. She has been travelling from Liyari to her house in an open rickshaw since past three and a half years but still faces harassment regularly during her long commutes.

“I hate it when all I am doing is waiting on roadside waiting for rickshaw or bus and men pass while cat-calling or throwing papers with their phone numbers and sometimes even try to touch or grope,” she said with a quiver in her voice.

The experience of public transport has tormented Dur Bibi. “There is no transit system in Karachi. Privately owned buses do not have enough space for women.”

From the bus conductor to passengers we are afraid of everyone.”  she said.

According to a report published by Institute of Business Administration Karachi (IBA) in collaboration with Kings College London in 2017 titled “Gender and Violence in Urban Pakistan”, only 18 percent respondents had access to good transport while 44 percent had poor or no access to transport.

Dur bibi feels her access to public spaces is restricted to the prevalent attitude of men in the city. “I love places like sea view, a place where I can sit and feel the breeze, listen to the sound of waves. But I can’t visit such places due to fear of harassment,” she said.

Hiring a permanent “Rikshawala” for travelling around the city doesn’t solve the issue of harassment at public spaces, claimed Kulsoom Balouch. The 25-year-old Botany student is required to visit to a number of public spaces in search of plants.

According to experts, low-income women are vulnerable to harassment and threats of violence in public spaces. Taking public transportation is also considered as an undertaking fraught with dangers of harassment. Furthermore, women who are part of the workforce face harassment and intimidation at work.

Sarah Zaman, an advocate for gender rights claims to have faced harassment almost every day on her morning commute to the University. “Harassment haunts every woman you meet.” At one time or the other they have faced some sort of harassment in their life, she added.

Aurélie Salvaire, a Barcelona based French entrepreneur and founder of Shiftbalance, a think and action tank sparking conversations on the need for a more balanced society, argues that patriarchy is the cause of these issues and it is deep rooted in the world. She further argues that conversation, debate and constant struggle is important if we want to change the state of women in public spaces.


While public spaces are being constantly encroached by men, movements like Girls at Dhabas encourage women to re-imagine a world where all genders have equal and unquestionable access to public spaces. Girls at Dhabbas has emerged as an open community of women and non-binary folks who wish to occupy public spaces on their own terms.

This movement started with Sadia Khatri’s Instagram post hashtag which was then taken up by Natasha and Attiya, pioneer members of movement. Their journey started in 2015 on social media has not ended and the hashtag is still used by many. According to Attiya it is all about reclaiming public spaces and empowering women. “Just look around when you move in this city and you can easily count on your fingers the number of women at places like dhabbas. It was a refreshing experience when we first started it and now it is so common.

“Spaces like dhabbas function as sites where one can take a breather, relax, catch up with an old friend, or do nothing…. and these pauses are integral to a person’s sanity in the city,” Attiya said.

Questioning patriarchy, misogyny and chauvinism in the society she said: “Where do women get these pauses? We don’t even allow ourselves to consider the possibility of going out alone, let alone sitting at a dhabba alone.”

“A woman by herself on the street is an unusual sight, and Girls at Dhabas is saying that it doesn’t have to be like that — whether in dhabbas or other public space”, the activist said.



One thought on “Harassment restricts women’s access to public spaces”

  1. Statistics truly point out to the fact that lot needs to be done to make public places safe for women. The will to make roads, homes, markets etc safer lies not only with the government but also collectively by the people. Article is well researched and written. The anecdotes provided are well organized.


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