By S. Sandhu
Conversations about women’s safety, or lack thereof, tend to centre around what we can’t do and how we are restricted. It’s hard not to focus on all the things that we have to do for our safety as women.
Growing up as a young girl in 90s urban India, life was essentially a long list of dos and don'ts (mostly don'ts), in order to ensure my personal physical safety. Don’t be out alone. Definitely don’t be out alone in the dark. Don’t wear skin revealing clothes. Don’t talk to strange men.
Sometimes, don’t even talk to known men. Marrying strange men via the “arranged marriage” amenity of our culture, however, is perfectly acceptable but we’ll keep that for another day. Don’t travel alone. Don’t take public transport or hire a cab, ever! Don’t be loud enough to attract attention. Don’t do anything that might make someone notice you are a girl outside your home, especially if you are unescorted by a male, tempting fate.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that anyone had a personal problem with girls being out and about on their own, at least so I was always told. We all must know what an unsafe world it is out there for women in India, so it’s always better to be safe than sorry. I accept(ed) that. If it meant choosing my safety over what should be my unequivocal right to explore the world on my own, I would most likely choose the former, every single time. And I think I speak for a lot of women, not just in India, when I say that as much as I don’t like having to police myself, my body and my activities, it’s something we just have to do in order to make it from place A to place B unharmed. The worst part about it all though is that even when we do all of the things we’re told to, the danger we are exposed to is still largely out of our control. As we’ve seen in multiple cases, from the gang rape of Manisha Valmiki in Hathras, to the murder of Sarah Everad by a police officer in London, violence can happen anytime and anyplace, regardless of our conscious choices.
So can we ever walk the streets safely?
I vividly remember observing foreign women in India, always standing straight and tall, even though they were perplexed by all the attention they got, simply because they had the much coveted “fair” and lovely skin. I, on the other hand, had started to slouch as soon as I required a sports bra, as an unconscious protective measure perhaps, to cover up and hide so that no one may notice. Being exposed to a seemingly safer and more liberated world for women through Hollywood movies and magazines, I figured the answer probably lay in Western pastures. However, that dream shattered soon enough, when I heard stories from women who had grown up and lived there. When travelling to the “developed” countries, I noticed that while I could be more daring, if you will, in what I wore, what time of day I decided to be out at and who I talked to, I still could never lose that sense of constantly looking over my shoulder. And so, I accept(ed) that too, and went on with my life.
In 2018, while I was in the process of moving from India to Canada, two of my girlfriends and I decided to take a trip somewhere, so we could make some great memories to live by before I finally moved. Before choosing a destination apart from budget and time constraints, of course, one of the most important things to look at, was how safe the place would be for three young women travelling alone. Last-minute plans during peak summer holiday time meant we had to choose affordability over everything else. Ultimately, we decided to go to Taiwan, a tiny island off the coast of China and a population of 23 million people.
What started as a vacation to let my hair loose one last time, before life as I knew it would change, also led to an unexpected eye-opening and delightful experience for all three of us. Taiwan is not a popular vacation destination (yet) like Thailand or Indonesia and thus did not have too many international tourists. Language was definitely an issue for us as most people were not English speaking. We definitely stood out almost immediately, because we looked different from everyone else and did not see other brown people around either and yet, it was the safest we had ever felt in our lives. We did everything we had been raised NEVER to do. We wore clothes that showed our legs and arms, we travelled alone in cabs and buses, even at odd hours. We went to bars, clubs and night markets and drank and walked around the streets of Taipei. Not once did we ever feel that someone was looking over at us in a way that would make us feel scared. We didn’t even get any looks of sheer curiosity for that matter. Everyone we interacted with (with much difficulty due to the language barrier) was nothing but polite and helpful and there was never a time we felt uncomfortable or feared for our safety.
Except for one time though, on our first night there, at a 7/11 store late at night where a bunch of young men stumbled in after a night of partying to end it with hot dogs. We were there too, getting midnight snacks. As soon as they walked in and we noticed they were loud and a little inebriated, the three of us left whatever we were doing and gravitated towards each other, huddling in a corner of the store, almost panicking. Safety guards take years to build and don’t disappear in a day. This was no different, we immediately went into a corner and literally tried to hide in the store, so they wouldn’t see us. Not for any other reason but that we have been trained to think since we could barely walk, that unknown men equals danger. While we were imagining the worst and holding our breaths till they left, all they did was turn around and tell us not to eat the hotdogs without the local special sauce, bought theirs and just walked out. We didn’t see them again and that was the moment everything changed for us.
What made this place different?
The answer is nothing, really, because of course, it’s not like Taiwan is a country without crime against women. In fact, the rate of domestic abuse against women is alarmingly high in Taiwan. Women in Taiwan account for nearly 93 per cent of sexual assault victims and 74.3 per cent of individuals requiring adult protective services. For that matter, it’s also not like men are always safe, outside their homes and on the streets. The difference, however, is that for the first time in my life, I felt unshackled from a system where my safety or lack thereof, did not depend on me merely being spotted or seen outside my house, doing things I was ‘not supposed to be doing. The ripple effect it had on my ability to explore and enjoy my life, without wearing fear and guilt as irremovable accessories, was absolutely life-changing.
It’s a difficult feeling to put into words, but I will try. It was like an extra layer of mental attire had come off or like a weight that had been lifted, only the absence of which made us realise how much protective burden we actually carry on a daily basis. It was liberating to not find ourselves in a constant state of hyperarousal because we were around strangers. I finally knew what must feel like to walk the Earth as - the only way to put it is - a Man. We went about the rest of our trip feeling like those men who are never ‘asking for it'.
If we were hit on at a bar, a polite no sufficed.
We even made friends with a young architect, at a bar of all places, who was kind enough to take us to one of the popular night markets for trying out street food, for no reason other than the fact that he was a fellow foodie!
It made me consider what actually makes a woman feel safe, and one of the primary answers is the presence of other women in spaces that accommodate for your presence. Travelling as a woman is an experience with dangers at every stage, you often feel increasingly unsafe in a place you don’t know with a language you might not speak. However being with other women reduced those anxieties considerably, and it speaks to the importance of visibility in public spaces. Feminist architecture theorists dive into this, pointing out that the design of streets, public spaces, and urban planning fails to consider the threats and vulnerability of women and marginalised genders.
In a 2019 talk called “The Feminist City”, UCL professor Dr Ellie Cosgrave said that “it is the multiple and constant threats that young women experience that tell us that the city is not a place where they belong.” Lack of street lighting, access to safe female toilets, and overcrowded transport systems are just a few examples of this.
As women cannot avoid visibility, the design of our public spaces needs to accommodate our safety as a priority. On top of this, larger factors such as concentration of funding on creating corporate landscapes at the expense of public leisure have a part to play. Community neglect, the underfunding and degradation of civic spaces such as parks, and the insufficient measures for those with children in public all contribute to the vulnerabilities we face. As much as our safety depends on the individual actions of men, who should do more in reducing the insecurities and dangers to women around them, violence against women is a structural issue that needs wider, societal change in its solutions. Cultural change and structural change come as a pair, and separating one from the other ignores the fact that the power that men hold over us as we walk the streets is a consequence of those power relations being embedded in structural designs. As for my experience in Taiwan, I was lucky enough to feel the benefits of partial cultural differences in men’s attitudes towards my friends and I, in environments where we could relax our “on guard” mindset. I certainly know now, that replicating this experience for more women is possible and not just an unattainable dream.