New Delhi, (WFS) - Every so often, the media focuses our attention on rape in a city. The report of a single violent and outrageous rape is followed by a string of reports of rapes all over the city. A sudden spurt of fear is generated, followed by news coverage and opinions about which city is the worst in terms of crimes against women. Statistical charts of gender-based crime surface on television screens.
Graphs show that there is a rate of rapes that occur throughout the year, in all kinds of spaces and to all categories of women. Statistics may hide each individual fact of rape, but are revelatory in demonstrating the prevailing rates of gender violence.
The other aspect that is evident is the sharp division between the statements of women activists and policemen. Women point out that the culture of silence which surrounds rape is only broken when a rape happens in a middle-class sanctuary space like the site of a film festival or at a "safe" time - in broad daylight at a busy city centre. Others are not addressed either by the media or by those whose business it is to prevent rape - the police. To this list one might add urban planners, municipal councillors and politicians whose business it is to ensure safety in streets, parks and public spaces.
The men (particularly the policemen) whose opinions are solicited are full of good advice for women: Don't go out at night, never go alone, carry a cell phone, roll up car windows... What is appalling about this form of advice is that it puts the responsibility of ensuring safety against rape on the individual woman. She must make sure she is back home; she must make sure that she is able to be in touch with the "right" people at all times; she must be accompanied and so on. The assumption that underlies this advice is that the woman is responsible for her own rape and for her own safety. Both rapist and policemen share a common cultural view of women in the city, especially if they are unaccompanied and out at night.
The fact that the onus of rape rests with the individual woman has invidious consequences. City women internalise the culture of rape and adopt a series of measures to deliberately mute their bodies. They don't look up and meet anyone's eyes. They don't talk to strangers. People asking for directions are first "checked out" with a set of risk-acute antennae to evaluate potential threat. To traverse perilous zones of the city, women try to temporarily make themselves invisible through their body language.
But statistics tell us that women live in a world of fiction because there are no women-friendly safe zones; they demonstrate that safety in the city is not part of any master plan. Most civic agencies are derelict in provisioning safety as a common urban good. Absenting themselves from certain spaces at particular times of the day is not really helpful because there are actually no such spaces and no such times.
In fact, women have learnt not to expect any form of help from any authority. Ask a woman if she will approach a policeman on the street if she is being harassed and her likely response will be a resounding "No". Far from demanding safety as a right, women feel themselves solely responsible for their own security. So whom can a woman approach if she is in trouble? Basically other women, if they are there, if they are not "safely" tucked away, if they can help without fear of attack. That's it.
My question is - what about men? What role can men play in the prevention of rape? Should we assume that every man in the city shares the rapist's view of the woman as a target or the policeman's view that the issue of safety is a woman's responsibility and does not concern men? Do all male passersby or male urban citizens share a single homogenous attitude toward rape - it's not their problem and she deserved it. If women respond to the chronic rate of rape by muting and negating themselves as visible persons, then do men - assuming that they are not all rapists - also have a routine set of strategies for "responding" to rape? Is silence, never speaking of rape, the only strategy men adopt? Is this another form of social muteness that we collectively suffer?
Bar charts don't help us decipher if there is any other pattern and response to rape in the city. Perhaps the bar charts aren't there because social deafness and blindness is the only response to gender violence and rape. It's in the nature of urban anonymity that the worst forms of human indignity can exist in cities. But we cannot just leave it at this and say, 'Too bad rape happens, the statistics are there to prove it, so look out and come home safe if you can'.
It's important to restate something that women have known all along. Rape thrives on silence. Rape has the power to create divisions and produces people as victims, perpetrators, witnesses, allies, defenders and spectators. It also divides those who rape and those who can help prevent rape.
Men who think of themselves as allies and supporters of women need to break the culture of silence that surrounds rape because it is a culture that positions all men as the same. It's not just a question of "where was I?" The real question men need to ask is "where do I want to be?"