Breaking the Cage

Breaking the Cage

Galvanized by the brutal rape of a young student in 2012, a rising generation of Indian feminists are today arguing that the answer to the country’s public safety dilemma is not to lock women up at home, but to protect their right to take risks.

A Delhi woman holds up her “Safe City Pledge” as part of national campaign by Blank Noise, April 2013. Photo courtesy of Blank Noise.

On December 16, 2015, the third anniversary of the now infamous Delhi gang rape case that prompted nationwide protests, about fifty Indian women in Delhi took to buses at night. Their actions were replicated across several other Indian cities, where women boarded different buses, sang songs, shouted slogans, held up placards, and asserted, against the wisdom of governments and families alike, that women should not be “caged” for their safety.

The cage is an appropriate metaphor for describing women’s experiences of public spaces in India. Whether in the rural hinterland or in urban centers, Indian women of different castes, classes, and religions negotiate—to different degrees—elaborate societal norms and restrictions on their access to and mobility in the public sphere. Going out in public can involve anything from being stared at to being stalked, raped, or beaten. But most proposed solutions to this problem of public safety for women from both families and governments have relied on restricting their movement rather than addressing the root causes of misogyny and sexism. Encouragement or coercion to stay at home, to remain in tightly regulated places like women’s hostels, to return home early, or to avoid taking public transport, for example, are presented as cautious solutions to safety rather than as further restrictions on women’s freedom.

As elsewhere in the world, women in India are hardly safe at home—not only did reported cases of domestic violence increase by 134 percent between 2003 and 2013, but more than 90 percent of rapes in the country are committed by someone known to the victim, such as family members or neighbors. “Caging” women in the name of safety also reflects cultural anxieties about female sexuality—that women might act in sexually “immodest” ways if they are let loose in the streets, thus bringing shame and disrepute to their families. Keeping women safe, then, has become a way to control the behavior of women according to morally and culturally acceptable ideas of femininity rather than to protect their right to enter public spaces free of harm or fear.

In India’s new economy, women’s growing financial independence, greater consumer power, and changing social roles have elicited a backlash from conservatives. The current environment of Hindu nationalism, fueled by the electoral victory of the BJP and Narendra Modi, has enabled dangerous, if absurd, right-wing campaigns built around conspiracy theories such as the “Love Jihad,” in which Muslim men allegedly seduce Hindu girls to convert them to Islam. The BJP-led government also refuses to criminalize marital rape, arguing that the concept is not applicable to Indian culture.

But the same economic and political forces have also spawned a generation of young, metropolitan women’s movements, who are finding new ways to confront the issue of women’s safety in public spaces in India. Local and national feminist campaigns like Why Loiter, Blank Noise, Take Back the Night Kolkata, and Pinjra Tod have begun to challenge mainstream arguments about women’s safety by asserting that women’s freedom and rights cannot be compromised in the name of protection. Together, they signify a new direction for feminist activism in India.

Globally, India is better known for its mistreatment of women than for women’s resistance to such violence. It is only very recently that stock images of female victimization have been replaced, in the domestic and international media alike, with those of women protesting rape in large numbers in the streets of major Indian metropolises, and even facing police brutality—tear gas and water cannons—for it. Mass protests broke out in Delhi in early 2013 following the gang rape and murder of a young student, Jyoti Singh Pandey, in December 2012. These protests saw thousands of men and women on the march not only in Delhi, but across India and in cities abroad. The sheer scale of the anti-rape protests brought the issue of rape and violence against women into the mainstream (evident, for instance, in the unprecedented round-the-clock coverage of the protests by news channels) such that activists in other countries (like the United States and South Africa) were left questioning when they would have their “Delhi moment.”

Although the 2012 anti-rape protests were unprecedented in terms of scale and impact, they need to be contextualized within a longer history of women’s activism—especially around rape and other forms of sexual violence—in post-independence India. Indeed, it was the rape of a fourteen-year-old adivasi, or tribal, girl, Mathura, at the hands of two policemen while in custody that galvanized the mainstream Indian women’s movement in the late 1970s. Women’s groups appealed the decision of the Indian Supreme Court after it initially acquitted the policemen on the grounds that Mathura was lying and “habituated” to sexual intercourse. The Mathura rape case eventually led to the amending of Indian rape law, so that the burden of proof shifted from the accuser to the accused and custodial rape was made a punishable offense. It marked the beginning of a slew of legal reforms that would address domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape including, following the Pandey case, the 2013 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which recognizes a greater range of sexual offenses than before.

These two critical moments in the history of Indian feminism—the Mathura case in the late 1970s and the Delhi rape in 2012—therefore bookend a long history of feminist interventions into the realm of the law and the state. Yet critics argue that the strategy of legal reform has been limited. On a practical level, better laws have not improved the conviction rate for rape, which is still only 17 percent in Delhi, largely due to the deeply ingrained misogyny in the legal system and wider state apparatus. A new book titled Public Secrets of Law: Rape Trials in India by one of India’s foremost feminist scholars, Pratiksha Baxi, provides ample evidence of the routine ways in which rape victims are retraumatized by law enforcement officials and the medical community due to their gender, as well as their class and caste background.

Generally speaking, the Indian state has never been an ally of feminism and so the focus of the women’s movement on state policy and law has produced mixed results. Feminist legal scholar Ratna Kapur argues that the focus on legal strategies has “invariably strengthened a law and order, criminal justice framework as well as the security apparatus of the state. . . . It furthers a protectionist and paternalistic approach that has little to do with respecting women’s rights to bodily integrity and sexual autonomy.” Additionally, legal reform has arguably done little to change wider societal perceptions of the causes of violence against women, or challenge the pervasive culture of victim-blaming that informs police and politicians alike.

It is in this context that new feminist initiatives, moving away from the strictly legal strategy of the Indian women’s movement, have emerged. While some of these campaigns began after the 2013 anti-rape protests, others emerged over the preceding decade. Throughout the 2000s, India witnessed a number of public protests and vigils led by middle-class youth in response to high-profile cases of violence against women. One such case was the murder of Jessica Lall, a Delhi-based model who was shot dead by Manu Sharma, the son of a politician, for refusing to serve him a drink at a private party. The trial court first acquitted Sharma, but later convicted him following an appeal backed by huge popular pressure. During this period, there were also more explicitly feminist campaigns, like an Indian version of the international Slut Walk marches against victim-blaming, and the Pink Chaddi (or Pink Panty) campaign, which encouraged Indian women to mail underwear to members of a right-wing group that had attacked women drinking in a bar in Mangalore for being “un-Indian.”

Unlike these spontaneous and largely reactive moments of protest, today’s feminist campaigns—like Why Loiter, Blank Noise, Take Back the Night Kolkata, and Pinjra Tod—are organizing in a more developed and sustained manner around similar issues. And unlike older feminist campaigns around violence against women—whose approach Ratna Kapur has described as “protectionist and paternalistic”—these initiatives emphasize women’s unconditional freedom in the public domain, including the freedom to access and occupy public spaces without fear, and even to indulge in “risky” behavior like purposeless “loitering.” This is the thesis of an important book called Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011), co-authored by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade. They write:

Turning the safety argument on its head, we now propose that what women need in order to maximize their access to public space as citizens is not greater surveillance or protectionism (however well meaning), but the right to take risks. For we believe that it is only by claiming the right to risk, that women can truly claim citizenship. To do this 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.

As the book argues, the radical nature of the right to take risks—to loiter—cannot be underestimated. Not only is women’s safety not assured by placing greater restrictions on their mobility, it also cannot be achieved by policing the behavior of the other working-class, migrant, or Muslim men who are typically cast as the perpetrators of violence. Instead, the authors insist that the “right to loiter has the potential to change the terms of negotiation in city public spaces and creat[e] the possibility of a radically altered city, not just for women, but for everyone.” Reclaiming public space in this way does not, however, let the state off the hook—the authors simultaneously emphasize the need for structural changes like better public transport and more developed city infrastructure.

Why Loiter is now a growing movement of the same name that was started by a young Mumbai-based professional named Neha Singh in May 2014. Singh meets with other women on a weekly basis, during the day and at night, to “loiter” in the streets of Mumbai, through activities like cycling and taking public transport. Singh says they started out with two participants at the first session, and today, over 250 women attend Why Loiter sessions.

The movement has (less active) strands in smaller Indian cities like Jaipur and Aligarh, and has also inspired a similar Pakistani campaign to reclaim public spaces called Girls at Dhabas. When asked about the impact of the Why Loiter movement, Singh said “For me and for most others in the group, the most striking change that has occurred is the gradual doing away of any self-blaming. . . . In Indian girls this feeling is so internalized that we mostly never even challenge the notion.”

Before Why Loiter, there was Blank Noise, perhaps the first feminist initiative to confront such ideas of victim-blaming in India by undertaking consciousness-raising activities. Started by Jasmeen Patheja when she was an art student in 2003, it has since grown into a larger campaign that encourages mainly middle-class women and university students to challenge street sexual harassment and reclaim urban spaces using art and performance. Blank Noise encourages these women to share personal stories and experiences of street sexual harassment online. The campaign has also, among other initiatives, invited women to submit photos of the clothing they wore when they were harassed, as part of a “participatory fact-building” project to reject narratives of victim-blaming.

Another project organized by Blank Noise, Meet to Sleep, called on women in various Indian cities like Bangalore, Jaipur, Delhi, Mumbai, and Pune to “nap” in public parks, an activity that transgresses both gender and class norms since “respectable” middle-class Indian women don’t usually sleep in the open, especially not in places like public parks, which are usually occupied by working-class men. Blank Noise has also developed an international network of volunteers or “action heroes,” who attempt to tackle street harassment and change public attitudes towards sexual violence through various online and offline activities.

Similar groups have also grown at the local level. Take Back the Night Kolkata, for example, organizes groups of women in Kolkata to occupy a public space or take public transport at an “unsafe” hour, generally late at night. Started by journalist Shreya Ila Anasuya and currently run by a student, Upasana Agarwal, and transgender activist, Raina Roy, TBTNK tries to address violence not only against women but also against other marginalized groups, especially sexual minorities. Its “core” participants include individuals who identify as queer, trans, or gender-variant.

Pinjra Tod is a more recent campaign and one that has gotten the most public attention so far. Started by female college students living in hostels in Delhi, it soon spread to other Indian cities like Thiruvananthapuram, Chennai, and Mumbai. Pinjra Tod was set up to demand greater freedom for women living in hostels, which typically impose sexist rules, curfews, dress codes, and and other restrictions on female tenants in the name of “safety.” Through campaigns, investigations, and use of campus graffiti, Pinjra Tod has pressured the Delhi Commission of Women into challenging discriminatory practices against women at the city’s twenty-three registered universities. It has also drafted guidelines and recommendations for how to address sexual harassment and violence on university campuses. Getting a government authority to recognize sexism, and in turn hold universities accountable, is a significant achievement of the campaign, which began only last year.

In significant ways, the primarily middle-class, metropolitan character of these movements has influenced both the kinds of issues they are taking up as well as how they are choosing to do so. While activists in the Indian women’s movement have also always been middle-class, the anticolonial and socialist roots of the movement meant that class was privileged over all other social variables. This meant that issues such as sexuality or street sexual harassment—captured by the misnomer “eve-teasing”—were not taken up in a sustained manner or were dismissed as primarily middle-class, and therefore less significant, concerns. In her book Queer Activism in India (2012) anthropologist Naisargi Dave documents how leftist women’s groups like the All-India Democratic Women’s Association refused to march with groups like the Campaign for Lesbian Rights (CALERI) on International Women’s Day in 2000. By contrast, today’s new feminist movements are unapologetically mobilizing around issues that have particular relevance to them, but they also argue that addressing these issues can have wider implications across class. Their activism—which adopts a more intersectional approach to gender, class, and sexuality—emerges out of and responds to the deficiencies of the movements that came before them.

So what is “new” about these recent feminist campaigns?

First, it is the way in which they have politicized the issue of women’s public safety. Rather than wait for state authorities to make Indian cities safer for women, campaigns like Why Loiter and Blank Noise encourage women to claim spaces by and for themselves, to assert their right to be in the city without shame, fear, or the threat of violence. For critics like former participant Hemangini Gupta, Blank Noise represents the ways in which “contemporary feminists emphasize their own rights and desires as entry points to their activism,” as opposed to the older strategy of feminists, which focused on law and policy changes and therefore held the state responsible for addressing violence against women. But arguably, these newer campaigns are actually forcing the Indian state to be more—not less—accountable to women. Currently, the failure of the state to ensure women’s safety has effectively already shifted the burden of protection onto individual women—since they are invariably blamed for venturing into “unsafe” spaces at “unsafe” times when they face violence or harassment. By intentionally entering these very spaces—as in the case of Why Loiter and Take Back the Night Kolkata—women are challenging, as Agarwal of TBTNK said, “the accountability that has been placed on us.”

Second, the new campaigns are taking pains to show the wider implications of the fight for women’s public safety. In response to the claim that street sexual harassment is an elitist issue, primarily affecting urban middle-class women, campaigners stress that public spaces in cities are full of people who are vulnerable to violence not only because of their gender but also for other reasons, such as their religion, class, caste, or sexuality.

Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association and, since 2012, a major feminist figure in India, explained the class politics of the Why Loiter, Pinjra Tod, and Blank Noise campaigns:

To call them “elitist” would be to suggest that working-class women are unconcerned with autonomy and access to public spaces. Nothing could be further from the truth. The concerns that Pinjra Tod raises are as applicable in college hostels as they are in hostels for women workers. Why Loiter makes a break from defining working-class men as the primary threat to women’s safety; instead it calls for the right of women of every class, as well as working-class men, to loiter without having to show “respectable” cause.

Blank Noise similarly addresses how both class and caste shape women’s fears of sexual violence, especially the tendency of middle-class women to only cast working-class men as potential predators. In one project titled “Talk to Me,” Blank Noise staged a meeting between a woman and a passer-by on a Bangalore street referred to as “Rapist Lane” in order to bring together people not just divided by gender but also by class, caste, and even language, in order to challenge their perceptions of safety and fear. “Blank Noise is exploring fear through the lens of fear politics itself; who ‘we’ are taught to fear, how fear is transferred, inherited, and its relationship with caste-class. Meet to Sleep and Talk to Me, both are situated in wanting to trust rather than be defensive,” Patheja explained.

Although these exercises aim to confront the roots of fear, some participants have also expressed concerns about the risky nature of the activism itself. Unlike student activism that primarily takes place on university campuses, these campaigns are organized by individuals or small groups, usually through social media, and take place in public spaces, often deserted or late at night. In the case of TBTNK activities, participants don’t share a sense of institutional security that being part of an organization or political party might afford. With the government-supported attacks on students at Jawaharlal Nehru University and the University of Hyderabad in early 2016, there is also a real fear of state reprisals on any type of youth activism.

Third, while the reach of these fledgling campaigns may at present be limited, they are attempting to be more inclusive. TBTNK’s alliances with transfeminist activists and organizations symbolize a new openness of Indian feminists to issues of sexuality. As transgender issues have never been a priority of the mainstream Indian feminist movement, and transgender people in India are often also poor and Dalit, TBTNK adopts an intersectional approach to questions of public safety. Both Anasuya and Agarwal emphasize the transformative potential of such alliances especially given that transfeminist activists have raised questions of sexuality and identity as well as class and caste.

Fourth, and finally, these new feminist initiatives aim to challenge and change a pervasive culture of victim-blaming. As in so many cases in other countries (most recently, the Stanford rape case in the United States), women in India—across the rural-urban divide—are routinely blamed for sexual crimes committed against them. In India this tendency was most starkly on display when one of the accused in the Pandey rape case, Mukesh Singh, told a British filmmaker: “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” More shockingly, one of Singh’s defense lawyers told the filmmaker that he would set his own sister or daughter alight if she “disgraced” herself by engaging in acts like pre-marital sex. Politicians too routinely blame women for the violence they face—pointing to how they dress, rather than factors like caste-based discrimination, which plays a crucial role in Indian society. Lower-caste and Dalit women are regularly subject to sexual violence in an effort to keep them at the bottom of the social ladder. State authorities are deeply complicit in perpetuating these hierarchies when they dismiss such crimes and blame victims because of their caste. In one case of gang rape, a judge declared that a high-caste man would not “defile” himself by raping a Dalit woman. In the Mathura rape case, which also involved the rape of a lower-caste woman by upper-caste men, the judge famously called Mathura “a shocking liar.”

Needless to say, victim-blaming by police, judges, and politicians directly influences the lack of legal redress for female victims of violence. Years of feminist activism aimed at legal reform has not changed the wider culture of blaming the victim or addressed the widespread tolerance for violence against women in India. This might explain why campaigns like Blank Noise and Why Loiter are now focusing on this issue in particular.

While the approach of many of the campaigns might seem to favor individual acts of resistance, cases where victims of rape have directly challenged victim-blaming in public suggest that such acts can have broader consequences. Two very different women, Bhanwari Devi and Suzette Jordon, broke new ground by publicly coming forward to report sexual crimes. As a poor Dalit woman working for the state government, Devi was raped by five upper-caste men for trying to stop child marriage in a North Indian village in 1992. Her willingness to speak out about the crime informed the first Indian laws around sexual harassment in the workplace (since Devi was raped while she was doing her job). Jordan, who in 2013 refused to hide behind the anonymous label of the “Park Street rape victim” (victims of rape cannot be publicly named according to Indian law), directly responded to those who tried to defame her. Jordan was gang-raped in February 2012 and was labeled a liar and a prostitute by various politicians including the state’s chief minister. She reportedly retorted: “How dare they call me a prostitute? Even if I were one, should I get raped? A prostitute earns for her family. She is not standing there for you to rape her.” These two women—one rural and Dalit, the other urban and middle-class—are now considered icons of the Indian women’s movement because their singular acts of courage not only resulted in actual legal change but effectively challenged broader cultural perceptions of rape and its victims.

Surely, the burden of changing India’s rape culture should not fall on individual survivors; it is, after all, the state’s responsibility to guarantee women’s protection. Yet in India and other countries alike, state institutions both perpetrate and perpetuate violence against women—from the ways in which police and courts routinely dismiss charges of rape, to the systematic use of sexual violence in counterinsurgency campaigns, as seen in Kashmir and the northeastern states of India. Seeking the protection of the state, therefore, cannot be the only solution for women.

The recent feminist mobilizations in India today cannot entirely be celebrated for their newness—they build on the gains and respond to the weaknesses of a long and vibrant history of women’s rights activism in the country. Nor can they be dismissed as elitist—although their concerns and tactics undoubtedly reflect their middle-class character, they are trying to show how their seemingly narrower concerns can have broader implications.

For instance, Why Loiter activists are trying to take the campaign outside its urban, middle-class context to attract more diverse voices. Neha Singh of Why Loiter has collaborated with a Delhi-based NGO to examine what “loitering” in rural spaces might mean for tribal women. Pinjra Tod mobilized on behalf of ten (mostly Dalit, female) sanitation workers in Delhi who were illegally dismissed by authorities because of their caste. Although what such campaigns will ultimately achieve remains to be seen—many are still in their infancy—these modest efforts represent conscious attempts to reach beyond the immediate demographic of the current movements.

The Indian women’s movement historically set up a hierarchy of feminist concerns that persists today. Poor, working-class women are almost exclusively associated with material concerns of survival, whilst middle-class women are assumed to have purely “cultural” concerns, such as harassment, moral policing, or sexuality. But erecting such hierarchies has left little room to consider how class, caste, sexuality, and gender together shape all women’s lives, and that to address these issues effectively, social change will have to accompany legal reform. The promise of India’s new feminist movements lies in the growing recognition that while movements must hold the state accountable, our political visions and strategies must go much further.


Srila Roy is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, where she teaches postcolonial and transnational gender issues and women’s movements in the global South.


Seven Coffee Roasters [Advertisement]