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Good girls don’t loiter

By Ditilekha Sharma

Walk purposefully, don’t loiter, dress modestly, take the crowded road or train, hide yourself behind a burkha....Despite all their negotiations, safety in public spaces is a big challenge for women who attend night schools in Mumbai

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Dipali Gambhire, a student of Modern Night High School, Mumbai Central, says she is not afraid of travelling back to Peddar Road alone after school. As we walk back to her home together one night she explains that as a mehendi artist she is used to returning home late during the marriage season. But she avoids shortcuts through dark alleys and sticks to the main road. Being on a well-lit main road, she explains, gives her a sense of security. For all her avowals of fearlessness, however, she clutches her mobile phone in her hand and walks quickly, explaining that if she gives the impression of walking purposefully nobody tries to mess with her.

For female students wanting to attend night school, safety is the biggest challenge, especially whilst travelling back home. Although Mumbai is projected as one of the safest cities in India, the statistics hardly reflect this. In 2011 the city reported the highest number of rape cases in Maharashtra – 221(‘Mumbai Not Far Behind Delhi in Crimes Against Women’, by Vijaya Deshpande, The Hindu, December 20, 2012). Mumbai also registered 553 registered molestation cases, 162 sexual harassment cases and 191 cases under the Immoral Trafficking Prevention Act.  Though the overall crime rate had declined, crimes against women which include kidnapping, dowry death, rape, molestation, and attempts to commit murder for dowry, went up. It is not surprising then that women are nervous about venturing out in public spaces, especially at night.

Only three of the 15 women in night schools interviewed for this report claimed that they were unafraid of travelling alone after dark. As was discussed briefly in the first article in this series, most women meet this challenge by travelling in groups or taking public transport. However, despite all their mental calculations and precautions their apprehensions never end.

Sangeeta Kadam, headmistress of Meena Tai Kurude Girls Night High School, Wadala, explains that it is much more challenging to run a girls’ night school: “It’s extremely difficult to convince families of the girls to send them to night school. Once we get them to school it becomes necessary to take extra care of their security. If anything happens to a girl student, parents will refuse to send their daughters to school.”

This burden of ensuring the safety of female students is so heavy that night school teachers often let their female students off early at the students’ request. During the course of an interview with this reporter, Shweta Sonawane, another student from Modern Night High School, Mumbai Central, requested that her interview be cut short. Her mother was waiting to take her back home. Shweta’s mother Sunita picks her daughter up every day on her way back from the market. According to Shweta, her mother sometimes arrives well before school got over. Teachers don’t usually stop the students as they believe their safety is top priority.

At the Ambedkar Night High School in Worli teachers refer to a student who was constantly absent. Interaction with the girl confirm that she stays away because she was afraid to travel alone after dark. She is extremely nervous and hesitant to talk, but after a bit of coaxing shares her desire to complete her education. Her parents have not been able to allay her fears. In spite of extending their full support, they are unable to convince her to return to school. She has not yet revealed the reason for her fears nor has she related any experience of sexual harassment. Masoom, an NGO that works with night schools, has intervened and put in a special request to the Meena Tai Kurde Night School, Wadala, to admit the girl in the middle of the session so she does not lose a year. As this school is much closer to her home they hope she will be able to complete her education.

Who are the women who claim they are unafraid to travel at night? There is 43-year-old Yamuna Dalvi whose confidence stems from her affiliation to the Shiv Sena, which she feels assures her protection at all times. Twenty-four-year-old Sunita Shinde, who has to travel back to Badlapur, also says she feels no fear despite having to cover a distance of over 120 km each day to attend school. Sunita, who gets home after 11 pm, says: “There are many women on the train, so I feel there is nothing to fear.” However, she admits she never takes a relatively empty train. She takes a fast local from Dadar as it is likely to be more crowded.

Naazma, a student of Maharashtra Night School, Kurla, who is also comfortable braving the night says: “I wear the veil whenever I go out of the house even though my mother says it’s unnecessary. With the veil on I don’t feel scared to travel alone around my community even after dark.” Naazma makes it a point to cover herself up the moment she steps out of the school premises. Her mother too has worn the veil from a very young age, so even at the young age of 16, Naazma identifies the veil as a marker of respect and safety in public.

Clearly, a woman’s respectability is perceived as determining her safety on the streets. A retired teacher and social worker who works with a night school improvement programme says: “It’s not safe for girls to be out at night. In order to protect themselves, the girls must wear respectable clothes and not provoke men. They should not travel in unsafe and dark areas of the streets.”

The issue of provocative clothing crops up every time there is a debate about women’s safety. Another teacher at a night school says: “I tell my girls not to wear flashy clothing. Or act in ways which could attract the boys of the streets.” Night schools do not have uniforms, so the issue of ‘right’ and ‘respectable’ clothing becomes more important. Respectability seems to come also from being at the right place and for legitimate reasons. Travelling back with the students, we saw that boys did not hesitate to loiter about or stop for a tea or snacks; girls  made it a point to head purposefully home as soon as classes got over. The most common reason given for this was: “Good girls do not hang around.”

In spite of all their negotiations, women who dare to go to night school cause raised eyebrows. Rashmi Kadam, alumnus of a night school and currently a student of Milind Night College, Parel, says: “My neighbours look at me with suspicion because I come back home late at night after attending school. They often question my family about my late timings. Night schools are not seen in a very positive light by most people. The common perception is that women who attend night schools have gone to the dogs. They are not good at studies; their character is not good either.” Despite attempts to conform to the good-girl ideal, the stigma attached to the night is so strong that it taints the character of any woman who ventures out.

The stigma sticks regardless of class. Women from relatively higher classes who enter into the night school space as teachers, social workers and volunteers, face the same attitudes. Fatema Kakal, a young student of Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai, who volunteers with Masoom as a teacher at Gokhale Night High School, Dadar, says: “While for me it was never a huge challenge to convince my parents to let me take up this work, most of my friends could not do so. My sister is already into social work so my parents had been sensitised. Not many parents feel it is safe to let their children go out at night to the slums and lower-class localities.”

What is it that makes the slums more unsafe than the rest of the city for middle- and upper-middle class women? Perhaps the answer lies in the perception that ‘strange’ men reside in such spaces.

If a woman’s class determines her access to different spaces, age matters too.  Madhavi Joshi,  63, and working with Masoom towards the development of night schools, says: “Even at this age I feel unsafe. I can imagine how unsafe the younger girls must be feeling. My family is scared that someone will catch hold of me at night. They tell me that there is no need for me to work. I understand that if it is difficult for me to negotiate at this age, younger women must find it even tougher.” Younger women experience stronger restrictions perhaps because the fear of sexual defilement rests more firmly on their young bodies.

While crime against men at night could be equally high, or even higher, it is never as sensationalised as crime against women. One major reason for this is because the street is not seen as the ‘right’ place for a woman. Another reason could be the fear of strange men sexually defiling ‘their’ women. The irony is that if women are unsafe in public spaces after dark, they are equally unsafe inside their homes. In a survey conducted around the topic of sexual abuse by Masoom in Meena Tai Kurde Girls Night School, Wadala, which has 116 female students, close to 12% of the girls said they had experienced sexual harassment in the family and community. The actual number could be much higher. Most of the women did not even know about sexual harassment; only around 5% of the students said they were aware of sexual harassment before an awareness session was conducted. In a subsequent survey with a sample of 40 girls from three night schools -- Sarvajanik Night High School, Dadar, Meena Tai Kurde Girls Night School, Wadala, and Maharashtra Night High School, Kurla -- only four girls could identify the difference between safe and unsafe touch. Apparently, most often it is not the safety of the girls themselves that concerns families. Rather, they are concerned about the sexual defilement of their women by an outsider.

So, although women going to night school may be said to enjoy a certain degree of freedom in accessing the night space, this freedom is seldom accompanied by agency.

(Ditilekha Sharma has an MA in women’s studies from TISS, and works with an NGO called Masoom. This is the second in a series on women who brave the night to go to night schools in Mumbai)

Infochange News & Features, April 2013