Samta Katkade, a third-year BSc IT student of Vidyalankar College in Wadala, Mumbai, looks over her shoulder constantly, almost as a habit, each time she steps out in the night. To her, nighttime is synonymous with fear. She has been conditioned to believe that if she ‘wanders’ late into the night on the streets alone, she is inviting ‘trouble’.
But Katkade has had enough of the prejudices. She is looking forward to being part of a campaign that around 20 women's organisations in Mumbai decided to launch in the wake of the brutal gang-rape of the 23-year-old paramedical student, who died on Saturday of a severe organ failure following serious injuries to her body and brain, to highlight the need for adequate security on the streets in the night. The agitation, aptly dubbed ‘Reclaim the Night’, seeks to let participants walk Mumbai’s streets in the dark without a hint of fear. “Through this activity, we want to stress that it's important not just to let women feel safe out of their homes in the day but also in the night,” explains Nandita Shah, co-director, Akanksha Centre, an organisation that works for woman survivors of violence and discrimination.
Not willing to let the campaign die with the night, the activists plan to meet chief minister Prithviraj Chavan and director general of police Sanjiv Dayal with a charter of three demands — to launch an emergency helpline across Maharashtra, to fast-track cases of crimes against women in court and not push for capital punishment for rape, but instead ensure that proper police investigation leads to adequate conviction. At present, the emergency helpline number 103 is functional only in Mumbai and Thane.
The organisers, however, haven't been able to zero in on a date for the campaign because they are yet to get police permission for it. “We hope to get it soon so that we can take to the streets and build women’s confidence,” adds Shah.
“Each time an incident of violence against women is reported, people ask women and girls to sit at home and not step out in the night. But why this discrimination between men and women?”
Asha Bajpai, professor, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and Human Rights, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, echoes her. “Women should be able to move freely as and when they want. After the December 16 gang-rape, women are scared of public spaces. The government should take measures to assuage such fears.”
Women in Mumbai alone aren't claiming their right to the streets in the night. Delhi, the epicentre of the protests following the gang-rape, will see a similar campaign by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) community on December 31. Shakeel Anjum, general secretary, students' union of JNU, says, “The protest will be against the patriarchal mindset of our society.”
The JNU campaign, which will start at 10.30pm, will include street plays, songs and lots of cultural activities by students. “They will march the entire length of Munirka, Vasant Vihar and nearby areas. We plan to continue it till at least 3am,” says Piyush Raj, joint secretary of JNU's student's union. "This is an open call [for the protest]. It will be attended by the entire JNU community and even outsiders can join. We expect at least a 1,000 participants.”
Earlier in the day, almost 500 students and teachers of JNU took out a silent march from their campus to the Munirka bus stop in south Delhi from where the paramedical student was picked up, to pay their homage to her and to demand strict measures to prevent repeat of such a crime.
Pooja, a 38-year-old homemaker who joined the march with her husband, says she found her voice in the protests that the incident gave rise to. “I cannot remain isolated from such as issue. I have always faced the prejudices of our patriarchal society.”
Although she admits that things cannot change overnight, she emphasises, “We need to take a step forward which will bring about the change. This brave woman has shown us the way. Why should I be guarded by my husband or a male member each time I want to get out, especially in the night?"