The Delhi police have given a new twist to the old tale of women’s safety in cities. In their desire to “protect” women especially from northeast India, they have issued a strange booklet. Titled “Security tips for Northeast students/visitors in Delhi”, the booklet sets out tips that are supposed to help women from northeast India feel safe on the streets of India’s capital.

For the uninformed, this might sound an unusual step for the capital’s police force to take. But Delhi is the place where several students from northeast India have been raped in recent years. The booklet suggests indirectly that this could be because of the way the women dress. So once again, the onus for remaining safe has fallen on the women.

The booklet, with an introduction by Deputy Commissioner of Police, Robin Hibu, who is an IPS officer from the Northeast, is remarkable for its language and its contents. On a dress code it suggests: “When in rooms do as Roman does” (whatever that means). Under security tips: “Revealing dress to be avoided.” “Avoid lonely road/ bylane when dressed scantily”. And “dress according to sensitivity of the local population.” The fact that for the male half of the local population, your being a woman is enough provocation to tease, fondle or attack irrespective of how you are dressed does not seem to count.

Inappropriate and offensive

I have only read excerpts from the booklet. For all its good intentions, it is clearly inappropriate and offensive to the sensibilities of women from Northeast India. Not only does it give gratuitous and useless advice to women but it also proceeds to tell everyone from northeast India how they should behave in Delhi. How else can one explain a sentence that reads: “Bamboo shoot, Akhuni and other smelly dishes should be prepared without creating ruckus in neighbourhood”. Smelly dishes creating a “ruckus”? This would be amusing if it were not culturally offensive.

If cities are safe for women, they will be safe for everyone. Gender audits done in cities like Mumbai have thrown up ideas that, if implemented, would make all cities more liveable.

 •  Rape in the urban environment
 •  Can women ever be safe?
 •  Testimonies of harassment
 •  Why women tolerate

Not surprisingly, many northeastern students in Delhi are incensed by this insensitive and pointless effort on the part of the police. Sensitivity training needs to be given to the police, not to the targets of attacks in Delhi. A woman journalist from Manipur narrated in an email discussion how she was almost dragged into an auto-rickshaw at 9.30 at night on a well-lit road with plenty of people around. When she called and complained to the police, she heard them say, “She’s from the northeast. Must have got into the rickshaw herself”. And this after she had identified herself as a journalist.

The booklet also raises yet again the importance of looking at our cities through a gender lens. If cities are safe for women, they will be safe for everyone. Gender audits done in cities like Mumbai have thrown up ideas that, if implemented, would make all cities more liveable.

For instance, mixed-use localities that are well lit are perceived as safer by women because they are rarely deserted and there are people around at all hours. Similarly, cities with a good public transport system are thought of as being women friendly. They are in fact people friendly.

Of course, not all public transport is necessarily safe and cultural factors do come into play. Delhi, for instance, has public transport but to use the buses, women have to wear armour. Even the separate “ladies” seats make little difference because getting to and from those seats is enough to drive you mad. And you are only “safe” for a short time, if you get the window seat. If you get the aisle seat even on a “ladies” seat, you have to be prepared to be leaned upon, groped, fondled, stared at, the works. Anyone who has used buses in Delhi will tell you that separate seats make little difference. Only separate buses would work, but that too when there are enough women to fill them. I personally know of instances where a lone woman in a Delhi bus in the middle of the day has been the subject of harassment from the conductor and the driver.

What do we tell them?

None of this is to say that women must not be on their guard. We know what life is like on the streets. So be prepared. Don’t be foolhardy. This is what we would tell our daughters. But we will also tell them to be confident, to be proud that they are women and not to get cowed down just because the world outside does not give them the respect they deserve as human beings. We will tell them to fight for their rights, whatever the circumstances. But for girls from Northeast India, there is the double burden of being different in terms of how they look and being women. To “protect” them, the police and the Delhi authorities need to launch a mass education and sensitisation programme for the police and the general public.

But to come back to the issue of women and safety, a poster by filmmaker K.P. Sasi, titled Rules for girls, circulated on an email discussion, gives a telling take on this subject:

Don't go out alone at night
That encourages men

Don't go out alone at any time
Any situation encourages some men

Don't stay at home
Intruders and relatives can both rape

Don't go without clothes
That encourages men

Don't go with clothes
Any clothes encourage some men

Avoid childhood
Some rapists are turned on by little girls

Avoid old age
Some rapists prefer aged women

Don't have a father, grandfather, uncle or brother
These are the relatives that often rape young women

Don't have neighbours
They often rape

Don't marry
Rape is legal within marriage

To be quite sure - DON'T EXIST!