Is Mumbai safe for a nightly stroll

Feminist Action in India: Women Conquering the City

In India, the streets traditionally belong to the men. Many women do not want to accept this and stroll around in protest.

Women in Mumbai still want to conquer that night Photo: imago images / Zuma Press

MUMBAItaz | Neha Singh leaves the brightly lit streets at a brisk pace and turns into a small alley that leads towards the coast. Between the houses and shacks of the fishing settlement, the slim woman makes her way through the dark until she finally stops in the black of the new moon night in front of a river that smells of fish and sewage. It's just before midnight. Except for Neha Singh there are now only men on the street. Many men.

She looks at the other bank, a few outlines can be seen in the glow of street lamps. Madh Island is the name of the headland that protrudes into the far northwest of Mumbai into the Arabian Sea. You only hear the soft gurgling of the water, the barking of some dogs, nothing else. In the city of 20 million people, where the noise otherwise lies like a heavy blanket over everyday life, silence does not bode well. Where it is quiet you are alone. And alone you are defenseless.

Neha Singh arches her back - her slim stature and almost hip-length hair make her look like a young girl from a distance. Here, just before midnight on the outskirts of the city, she looks a bit lost. She shakes herself, raises her right hand and waves into the darkness of the night. The ferryman on the other bank starts the boat's engine. Neha Singh's night walk has only just begun.

She doesn't walk around town at night for fun. Neha Singh is the inventor of a movement that has declared walking to be a form of protest. "I love Mumbai, the beaches, the parks, the fishing settlements - but I've never really felt part of the city," she says, 36 years old, children's book author and theater director. For girls and women, the city is characterized by unwritten laws and invisible borders. "You determine where I can be with whom, what I can wear, how I have to behave in order to be considered a respectable woman."

Disenchanted myth

Because even in Mumbai, India's most liberal city, the streets are full of men, old and young; they stroll, laugh, drink tea and loudly discuss the state of the world. “Women do not have a fixed place in this picture,” says Neha Singh, “we rush through these scenes on the way to work, home, shopping - even when we have nothing to do, we are busy so as not to be suspicious Act."

In 2014 she came across a book called "Why Loiter", translated: "Why we hang around". It is a research by the journalist Sameera Khan, the sociologist Shilpa Phadke and the architect Shilpa Ranade, who examined access to public space in the metropolis of Mumbai. Her interviews with hundreds of women from the most diverse social backgrounds demystify the myth of Mumbai as a borderless city.

They challenge the traditions that deny women the right to participate in public life

“Why are there so much fewer women on the streets than men, at all times and in all corners of the city? Why do women here carry pepper spray, brass knuckles and other weapons with them in their pockets? Why do women in this city feel that they have to justify their stay on the street? "

In their book, the authors show that the residents of Mumbai know exactly where the boundaries imposed on them run. In the end, there is the thesis that loitering in parks, on streets, on beaches can be a first step in transforming the city. Neha Singh read the 200-page book within two days. After that, all she wanted was to go out into the street to hang around. “That was the first step towards freedom for me,” she says today.

After a short crossing, Neha Singh jumps off the small ferry boat and goes up to the house where she pays for the crossing. It is 0.15 a.m. Singh pushes 10 rupees over the counter and pays, unmoved by the penetrating glances of the cashier. This is where the only road on Madh Island begins, a dirt track that is now almost completely deserted. Only two men are still standing at one kiosk, a third is sitting in the dust next to it, two dogs at his feet, one black and one white. Singh single-mindedly walks up to the group, buys a cigarette and lets the kiosk operator light him up.

During the day there are many people out and about who want to visit the beach in the north of Mumbai. But now, at night, the appearance of a young woman causes a stir. The men stare at her, look over their shoulders at the street to see if anyone else is coming. Neha Singh takes a first drag on her cigarette and blows the smoke up into the air. She knows that, the staring, the disapproving silence, the uncomfortable, sometimes threatening silence. She turns them around and asks the man what the dogs' names are. “Kaallee”, black man, he says with a heavy tongue and nods his head in the direction of the black dog. When asked about the white dog, he slurps: “Black too.” Neha Singh laughs out loud, pats the heads of the two dogs. Now the drinker smiles too. Not speaking to strangers is one of the worst pieces of advice that was given to her as a child, says Singh. When fear threatens to push itself like a wall between you and the world, today it takes a run and jumps.

It all started with a simple visit to the park. During her first action four years ago, Neha Singh and a friend went to a park in the middle of the Kandivali district for lunch to take a nap. What sounds harmless quickly caused a commotion. More and more passers-by stopped and stared, the gardener - concerned about their safety and public order - spoke to the women with angelic tongues to get them to leave. They stayed where they were. "We just want to relax, uncle," Neha Singh told him. Then the gardener came every five minutes and asked if they had finished relaxing. Neha Singh laughs loudly when she talks about it: "We were totally surprised how easy it was to cause trouble with our presence - and we also had fun." After she posted photos of her nap on Facebook, everything went well very quickly: Many women wrote to her and wanted to take part. Neha Singh set up a WhatsApp group, then a Facebook page, and finally a blog called “Why Loiter”.

Neha Singh, stroller

"My mother thinks I am ungrateful and do not value freedom"

Today women meet in Mumbai every four weeks to hang out together. 2,000 women walkers are part of this gang. The idea has spread all over India and as far as Pakistan: There are now political walks in Delhi, Hyderabad, Lahore, the groups are between a few hundred and over 10,000 people. The women walk day and night, alone or in groups, they play cricket, ride bicycles, take to the streets with painted lips, with short skirts and without a bra.

In this way, step by step, walk by walk, they break through the boundaries that their mothers, their parents and themselves have imposed on them. They challenge the traditions that deny women the right to participate in public life. In times when the Hindu nationalists rule the country, that is a lot, says Neha Singh. “Women's rights have continued to shrink during the BJP government.” At the moment, elections are being held in India, and will gradually be held in all parts of the country until mid-May. The 900 million voters will decide whether they will continue to support the course of the Hindu nationalists or whether the Congress Party, which led India to independence in 1947, comes back to power.

How great the threat is for women on the streets of India is difficult to grasp: Not only that violence against women in the cities and in the countryside is very different. 66 percent of Indian women live in rural areas, and the number of reported rapes outside the big cities is up to seven times higher. The risk is also very different in the individual states and between social classes. Numbers alone do not help: In India with its 1.3 billion inhabitants, almost 39,000 rapes were reported in 2016, three rapes per 100,000 inhabitants. In the United States, ten times more rapes were reported in the same year.

Statistically, the stigma of the Indian rape culture cannot be proven - it is the stories of everyday harassment on the street, at work, in the family that provide an insight into the problem. The public debate about this was largely triggered by a rape case that made headlines around the world: In December 2012, a young woman was brutally raped and tortured by a group of men, and she died as a result. The case sparked protests across the country - women's safety became a public issue.

This text comes from the taz on the weekend. Always from Saturday at the kiosk, in the eKiosk or with a practical weekend subscription. And on Facebook and Twitter.

"In private, women and young girls were even more intensely informed that the city out there was dangerous for them," says Sameera Khan, one of the authors of "Why Loiter". "Many families used the debates as an opportunity to deny their daughters access to public space - often enough women did that themselves out of fear." With every new murder or rape case, the world outside, outside of the apartments, had an effect Offices and shopping malls even more threatening. The message to the women is clear - one of the perpetrators in the Delhi case stated in an interview that his victim had the same share in the crime as he and the other perpetrators: "A decent girl would never run around outside at nine o'clock in the evening."

It is one o'clock in the morning and Neha Singh is slowly strolling north along the coast of Madh Island, further and further out of the city, past deserted beaches. To the left of the potholed road there are corrugated iron huts, to the right an impenetrable jungle grows. On the horizon the lights of the larger apartment buildings glimmer some distance away. A couple of street dogs are yapping on the gloomy coastal road. The riskier the better - according to this motto, Neha Singh chooses the routes for her walks. She calls it steadfastness.

Anger at the circumstances

Stubbornness, that's what they called it in her family. Neha Singh grew up sheltered as a child of the aspiring middle class. Life was good, but traditions overwhelming: “As a daughter, I lived under the sign of constant apology. While my parents gave away sweets when my brothers were born, they cried at mine. "

An anger blazes in her gaze that has burned there since childhood. Anger that no matter how hard she tried, she could not erase the iniquity of her parents. “All good things are associated with men in our society, what place is there for women?” Asks Neha Singh.

She walks past shacks where fishermen sleep wrapped in blankets. The piles of rubbish and the undergrowth on the side of the road are constantly on the move, and are teeming with rats. Neha Singh walks in the middle of the street at a suitable distance. Upright like a ballerina, she walks through the darkness with emphasis and self-confidence. There are only a few men sitting on the side of the road - if they are not staring at the water, they are staring at the woman who is walking by. The further she moves away from the city, the clearer it becomes: Here Singh is on his own. If something happens, if someone attacks her, nobody here will help her.

Social exclusion

Neha Singh is recognized by her fellow citizens because of her appearance and appearance as a member of a privileged class: Her black culottes linen trousers are considered Western clothing, the eye-catching nose ring is not traditionally Indian, but a fashion accessory. When she speaks, her choice of words reveals her level of education. This can be an advantage because potential attackers are more likely to fear the consequences than if they were assaulted on poor women - on the other hand, their self-confident strolling can also be seen as a provocation.

The boundaries of the city run along different lines for women from different groups and strata of society. While upper- and middle-class women can buy liberties by driving around town in taxis and enjoying their free time in upscale shopping malls and air-conditioned cafes, women from poorer and marginalized groups have to fight more fundamental struggles.

The boundaries run not only between rich and poor, but also between religious groups: in the metropolises, gentrification goes hand in hand with the exclusion of minorities, which are put under pressure by the Hindu nationalist government. In Mumbai, it has become almost impossible for people with Muslim-associated names in many parts of the city to rent apartments - many real estate advertisements say “Muslims undesirable”. Religious neighborhoods, apartment complexes and residential complexes are considered safer.

"This wagon mentality is of no use to women or society," says Sameera Khan. The author, who has become an important voice in the feminist movement in India in recent years, is herself the mother of two daughters. Even knowing the pervasive fear that something might happen to her children, she encourages her daughters to explore the city and brave the risks. “My fear doesn't make a better city,” says Khan, “but maybe my daughters' untroubled spirit of discovery will.” Khan and her co-authors are concerned with the transformation of the city. If you venture out on the streets, in the parks, on the beach, you will establish a new relationship between yourself, your fellow human beings and the city. The loitering women say it all starts with a walk.

They consciously accept a certain risk, they never know how it will turn out. Just like a year ago when 30 men suddenly appeared on the street, on foot, on motorbikes, formed a circle around the women and stared at them, that's how Neha Singh tells us today. She went on the offensive, insisting on talking to the men, and convincing them to take turns introducing themselves personally. In the end, the men said meekly that they hadn't known how to approach the strange women in any other way.

Lying to go for a walk

Police officers often mistake the activists for sex workers, says Neha Singh. And because sex work is illegal in India, the police are hoping for bribes. “They quickly notice that we are not sex workers. Mainly because we don't allow ourselves to be intimidated or chased away, ”she says. Their actions move in a legal gray area: On the one hand, it is the basic right of women to move freely - at the same time, the Bombay Police Act of 1951 states: Anyone who wanders the streets between sunset and sunrise and is unsatisfactory to the police can be punished with fines and up to one year imprisonment.

The loitering women, however, reap the greatest lack of understanding in their families. “My mother in particular thinks I'm ungrateful and don't value the freedoms I already have - she doesn't even see the boundaries within which we live,” she says. How much she loves walking through the city at night, the quiet, the cool air, the empty streets, the young woman cannot convey all of this to her family. Most of the drifters are like her: they have to lie at home to go for a walk. Often they give each other alibis to justify themselves to their parents, families, and partners. Going for a walk gives them new freedoms, but also alienates them from their surroundings.

After a two-hour walk on Madh Island, Neha Singh arrives back at the ferry dock shortly before two o'clock - just in time for the last crossing. She breathes in and out deeply, her loose hair blowing in the wind. “Only those who know these moments can understand why we go for a walk at night,” says Neha Singh. The dodgy Madh Island, the fishing village, the dark bay, she has conquered all of this with this walk. “It's part of my city now - I can come here every day and night from now on. Unafraid."

Julia Lauter, 33, is a freelance reporter.In 2018 she researched in India for four months as a scholarship holder of the “Media Ambassador India – Germany” program. The story will appear in June in the anthology “Flexen” by Verbrecher-Verlag.