Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Safety in the Urban Outdoors: Women Negotiating Fear of Crime in the City of Kolkata

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Safety in the Urban Outdoors: Women Negotiating Fear of Crime in the City of Kolkata

Article excerpt

Introduction

In India, in urban contexts the effects of globalization has rendered women visible as workers in public spaces but it has not done away with the patriarchal notion that the ' proper' place of women is in the private while streets are a masculine domain. This kind of labeling of spaces creates a sense of insecurity within women in terms of their experience of city life. Privatized spaces have emerged within urban landscapes like shopping malls, baristas, night clubs, lounges opening up before women spaces where they can engage in purposeless pleasure denied to them by the open streets. There has been an increasing participation of urban women from upper and middle income groups in these spaces but here too women are constantly negotiating their safety. Women are aware that their bodies are sexualized and being so are open to use and abuse in public spaces. This creates an anxiety in women, a constant monitoring, a constant need to avoid intrusive attempts onto their bodies and to remain safe. Hence the perception of risk, the feeling of fear is not related to the actual experience of violence but to its possibility. A significant part of women's identity is forged by the awareness of sexual violence which assign them a priori victim status as to be aware of the potentiality of victimization is to accept oneself as weak and passive. Women know that their greatest responsibility is to protect their modesty which means to engage in 'proper code of conduct' as held by masculinist culture. If criminally victimized women are more likely to be blamed for not adhering to safety guidelines and for being at the 'wrong place' at the 'wrong time'. Women are monitored not only by others but women themselves engage in self regulation and self policing, to escape potential criminal victimization in public. The strategies used to avoid risks are class based. The threat of crime produces a certain kind of femininity; social identities that are oriented towards safekeeping as women voluntarily constrain a myriad of choices about work, recreation and transportation.

This article addresses the issue of women's response to threat of crime in public spaces in Kolkata (2),the capital of West Bengal, India. It attempts to understand how women produce safety for themselves as they negotiate public spaces. A focus on public in this study is not to deny women's danger within private in intimate relations but to understand women's management/coping with risks in public spaces to which heterosexual men have a more natural claim than women. Public space in this article includes sites like: streets, various modes of public transport (buses, trains, taxis), bus-stops, railway stations, market places, recreational spaces (parks, cinema halls, restaurants, coffee shops) and privatized public spaces like night clubs and malls. I have examined negotiation of risks by women who are employed and access the public on a daily basis with the purpose of earning an income. These women were situated differently in terms of age and socioeconomic background.

Scholarship on women's fear of crime and risk has singularly and exclusively focused on the public revealing women fear sexual assault from strangers, away from home, at night that restricts women's use of public spaces. A pioneering work in this area is by Gordon and Riger (1989). In their "constriction of activities" hypothesis the authors demonstrated how fear of crime "shrink the scope of women's choices about their lives by restricting their movement through time and space" (122) like keeping women off the streets at night and at home. In India, academic work on women's safety and risk has been conducted primarily from a spatial perspective investigating the connections between women's fear of violence, urban space and social exclusions (Phadke 2005, 2007; Phadke, Khan and Ranade 2011; Ranade 2007). Literature in this area highlight that women cannot lay claim to public space due to women's perceptions of risk of sexual assault from male strangers that is sometimes heightened by the urban design features (ibid). …

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