Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sometimes chai and samosa with a stranger is all takes to make a street safer

Taking back the city

The Mumbai mill rape has only hammered home the need for making public spaces safer for women. But instead of waiting for the government or civic authorities to do something, a few determined citizens are making it happen --Sruthy Susan Ullas | TNN

There used to be a vegetable cart at 4pm and an ice cream vendor by 5pm. The only other movement on the road was when cars stopped and men got out to empty their bladders. The empty buses, used by a factory to drop female employees after dark, were stationed by the pavement, adding to the eeriness. The lane in Yelehanka New Town, a Bangalore suburb, soon won a tag — rapists’ lane. No one is sure if women were actually attacked on this road but the very thought of walking down the lane made women nervous. This, despite the fact that the road adjoined the boundary walls of the reputed Srishti School of Design and Technology.

But suddenly, one fine day in December last year, things changed. As the sun set early and a cool breeze began to blow, a few tables began to appear along the kerb. To be precise, five tables — round as well as square — with a pair of chairs on each side, and with chai and samosa sitting invitingly on it. Volunteers sat at the tables and called out to complete strangers for a chat. When the chat ended, sometimes after an hour, the volunteer would offer a flower to her partner. The only rule was that there would be no talk of sexual harassment. Around 17 volunteers took part, each of them taking turns at the table, from 3pm to 8pm.

The initiative to reclaim public space was taken by Bangalore based NGO Blank Noise soon after the Nirbhaya gang rape case. There was no agenda. The subjects varied — from life, love, and friends to hobby and career. Inhibitions, language barriers, class differences, gender biases, all faded as the conversation warmed up. And the Yelehanka Action Heroes, as they were called, will vouch that they had made a friend on a road that city women dreaded. The rapists’ lane was to be renamed the safest lane. “Talking to a stranger was something that I had never done. The exercise made me more confident. The guy I spoke to happened to mention that he used to stalk girls in this lane, follow them on bikes and even drink there. I was glad he was honest with me. But he said he had no intentions of intimidating or harassing anyone. He was dying for a girl friend. I made him realize that his way of approaching women would not work. He expressed a genuine interest in changing and it made me feel good about myself. I also realize that all such people are not harmful,” says Anamika Dev, a volunteer.

The students of Shrishti School of Design and Technology even put up huge paintings of women sitting relaxed on the walls along the road. They mapped corners that were perceived as safe and perceived as unsafe. Jasmeen Patheja, founder, Blank Noise, says the exercise helped participants overcome their fears. “There’s unsafe and there’s a perception of unsafe. Often the unknown is feared, thus makes it unsafe. In this case strangers who were further distanced by socio-economic factors were brought together over a cup of tea. Being defensive, hyper alert to ‘making safe’ doesn’t lead to actually ‘feeling safe’. We tend to make ourselves feel safe by building up a defence. We need to make ourselves safe by ‘making familiar’ instead. It requires a purposeful unclenching of the fist. Fear creates fear. Defence creates defence. We need to build safe cities with empathy,” says Patheja. After the overwhelming response, Blank Noise plans to replicate the exercise in other cities.

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