Any spot to protest in the Smart City?

Kalpana Viswanath

Dr. Kalpana Viswanath has been associated with Jagori for over 25 years. She has spearheaded the Safe Delhi for Women initiative led by Jagori in partnership with UN Women and led the research work that included conducting women's safety audits and surveys and played a role in creating partnerships with key stakeholders. She is the co-founder of Safetipin, a mobile app developed to support community and women's safety. She has worked as a consultant with UN Women and UN Habitat on issues of gender and urban safety on several projects around the world and has led research studies on violence against women in public spaces in cities. She has also provided technical support to safe city for women programs in Cambodia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Kerala, Mumbai and Kolkata.

She is a Board member of the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime (ICPC) and the Chair of the International Advisory Committee of Women in Cities International. She is also on the Advisory Committee of the Second State of Asian Cities brought out by UN Habitat and UN ESCAP and has published widely and has published widely in magazines and journals. She has co edited a book on Building Gender Inclusive Cities.

Any spot to protest in the Smart City?

Using public spaces to protest is a right guaranteed in a democracy. The women's movement has over the years used public spaces in creative ways to spread our message about violence, women's rights and women's lives. I have been a part of protests in Delhi since the early nineties when we would gather at Ram Lila Maidan, Delhi Gate, ITO, India Gate or other places carrying our messages and shouting our slogans as a way to interact with people on the streets.

Over the years though, I see that the space for protest has continually been shrinking. Where earlier the entire city was open for us to raise our voice and issues, today we are all protesting in one small pocket of the city. It was only for a brief period following the 16 December, 2012 rape case that people spilled out into the streets to protest to vent their anger at a city and system which could not keep them safe. The images of young women and men at India Gate were shown all over the world, including the images of violence by the police while attempting to halt the protest. But that was shortlived, and we are now back to protesting at Jantar Mantar which while in the centre of the city is nevertheless a small and limited space.

It was a cool November evening in 2003 (during the 16 Days of Protest against Violence Against Women) when we had held a candle light Women in Black protest. Over 150 of us had dressed in black but our banners were colourful with messages of peace and non-violence. 

Marching to demand a right to a life free of violence for all women in India and all over the world, we descended upon India Gate. At this memorial to the fallen “heroes” of war, we carried our own list of “heroines” who had died due to violence, especially intimate partner violence. Our placards had names of women who had died at the hands of men, especially intimate partners. We had gotten this idea from marches that had been done in other parts of the world to commemorate women and name the dead.

While there was still some light, we formed a circle around the canopy near India Gate and held up banners with messages such as "Violence Free Worlds are Possible" and " Why are some men silent when others are violent". This attracted a lot attention from passersby who stopped to read the messages and ask questions about our protest. This was an opportunity for us to mingle and converse with the public. Some tourists from South India stopped by and asked some of us why we were protesting; they joined us to hold the banners and take photographs, as part of their memories of their visit to Delhi.

As dusk fell, we moved towards India Gate, chanting slogans and spreading messages on violence- free lives for women. Finally, as the evening wound up, we lit candles to commemorate the lives of women who had died due to violence. Candles as always provide a sense of peace and a very vivid visual image to the protest.

Claiming space at India Gate was a very powerful and empowering process for all of us. It is among the few spaces in Delhi where women and families are comfortable to loiter in and engage in leisure activities, besides being a fixture for tourists. Holding a protest there is not only significant but also allows the message to reach far and gives an opportunity for people to join in too.

November 2013. Getting ready to start the march, members of different women's groups at the venue:_Jagori, Nirantar, Action India, Burmese Womens's organisations and others.