In March of this year, a young woman was abducted and gang-raped after leaving her job at a mall in the booming city of Gurgaon, India, near New Delhi. It was just one in a series of sexual assaults that have left the women of the city in fear for their safety.
The initial reaction of Gurgaon’s administration? To invoke an old law saying women should not be working after 8 p.m.
That response provoked an outcry, and officials quickly backpedaled. But Richa Dubey, a communications consultant who moved to the city with her husband a year and a half ago, decided that outrage wasn’t enough. She wanted to act.
“I see women’s safety as a collective social responsibility,” says Dubey. “I don’t see it as the responsibility of women to stay at home.”
Gurgaon is a city of glittering malls that cater to residents of the private gated communities that have sprouted up in recent years to house workers at a host of multinational corporations. Public infrastructure is essentially nonexistent; there was no real municipal government until just a few months ago, despite a population that stands now at 1.5 million. Most transport is privatized. Fancy housing developments lack sewage systems. Outside the walls where the upwardly mobile middle class live in safety and luxury, the working class live without basic services.
Because of the way Gurgaon has been developed, shopping centers are, in effect, nearly the only public spaces the city has. Boycotting – or girlcotting – the businesses there made sense to Dubey and her allies.
And so, working with several other groups in the city of 1.5 million, Dubey organized “Girlcott Gurgaon.” On the group’s Facebook page, she posted this:
Ladies, plan your shopping carefully this week. No women rupees to Gurgaon from Friday 13th - Sunday 15th April. Whether it's groceries, a visit to your hairstylist or a new phone, spend out of Gurgaon or out of that weekend. The Gurgaon Girlcott is on.
The weekend-long action may not have had a huge economic impact, although several people posted on Facebook that they held back spending on amounts ranging from 3000 to 8000 rupees (approximately $55 to $150). More important was the publicity the Girlcott generated around India and even internationally.
Dubey and her fellow organizers have immediately followed up by conducting a safety audit of what is known as the “Mall Mile,” a stretch of road lined by high-end shopping centers. So lacking in public infrastructure is Gurgaon that there are no streetlights at all along this section. The only light at night comes from the malls. Sidewalks are inadequate. For women who must walk home from their jobs, this is frightening territory to traverse.
Dubey says that some members of the middle class are to a degree insulated from the sexual violence and harassment that women face here on a daily basis. “I might be popping out of my gated community by car and going to another safe space that way,” she says. The woman she employs part-time to do domestic work, in contrast, must walk out of the gates and across a field to get home.
And yet Dubey says that no female – including herself -- is immune to harassment. “There is no age, no dress code, no behavior that protects you,” she says. “Everyone is targeted. A six-month-old girl was raped. I was stalked in broad daylight at one of the city’s largest metro stations, and I was wearing a sari, which is considered to be the most modest attire.”
Which gets to another problem with the official response to violence against women in Gurgaon. The police often blame the victims for the crime because of the way they dress – without a dupatta, or head scarf, for instance. If a woman has been drinking or even talking to men, she can be seen as “asking for it.” In one recent case, a young woman who complained of being molested by her neighbor was questioned as to why she lived with her male cousins.
Debey says that the problems with violence against women in Gurgaon are linked to the patterns of development and a sense of rootlessness in this brand-new city. “We are all migrants to Gurgaon,” she says. “It is a city where people come to work.”
Can such a city evolve into a place where people feel connected and feel a sense of ownership and civic responsibility?
“I think we’re seeing the birth of it, some kind of a nascent engagement,” says Dubey. She hopes that the Girlcott campaign, in alliance with many other organizations such as Let’s Walk Gurgaon, Jagori, the Asmita theater group, and the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, will help contribute to a sense of community and identity.
“Ownership of a city comes when you’re invested in a place,” she says. And Girlcott? “It’s a beginning.”
Photo credit: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters