A law student sits by the roadside with a friend; a vet is on the way back home on her scooter after work; a young woman watches a film and climbs a bus on a December night long ago — some of many humdrum, unexceptionable acts that make up an ordinary day in an ordinary life. But simply going about life can prove hazardous to life and safety, if you are an Indian woman — as two recent incidents show. The gang rape of the law student in Ranchi and the grisly murder and assault of a 27-year-old vet in Hyderabad illustrate how streets and highways turn toxic against women even in a city: How inexplicably often men inflict sexual violence on women as punishment. Both incidents recall the horror of December 16, 2012, when a gang of men brutalised a paramedic on one such ordinary day.
While a raft of legislation followed the upheaval in December — from expanding the definition of rape to lowering the age at which juveniles could stand trial to increasing endorsement of the death penalty as punishment — it is important to remember the rage which forced thousands of women to turn up in protest in Delhi then. They did so to demand an acknowledgment of their near-universal experience of sexual abuse; and to reclaim the public space that is denied to them by the ruse of safety and self-protection. No doubt, similar tactics will come into play for the women of Ranchi and Hyderabad. Worried parents will stop them from going out at night; they will be told to shrink their lives into narrower and narrower circles to pre-empt the actions of possible assaulters.
But as more and more women turn out to work, study and simply occupy public and private spaces with assertion, both governments and the larger society must be forced to a reboot. For law enforcement agencies, that means the culprits must be brought to book, that the process of justice should not doubly punish the Ranchi survivor. For the state governments, it implies that the push to make cities and towns safe for women’s mobility, their entertainment, their freedom to simply be becomes the priority. For the larger society, the violence is a reminder to continue the difficult conversation about power and patriarchy, to not just train girls in self-defence but to teach boys empathy. Most important of all is the work that remains unfinished — of re-imagining women’s freedoms beyond curfews, dress codes and propriety.