On an unusually sweltering October evening, a handful of women, mostly from Delhi's Lady Shri Ram (LSR) College gather near the college's back gate. The location of this gradually-increasing gathering is pertinent to the impending march. The back gate faces a mostly-defunct park that is used by passers-by to cross to the colony of buildings, located on the opposite side. On both sides of the park are two alleys.
As women and a few reporters trickle in and start mingling with the crowd, the policemen and women shuffle about and become alert. A couple of onlookers have also stationed themselves in the park, trying to understand what all these women are creating a fuss about.
It is around 6 pm and the crowd of around 150 people is pulsating now; the drums have been brought out and slogans of azaadi — from oppression, from harassment — are ringing in the humid air.
Students from LSR have been complaining for a while now about lewd men harassing women from the college. They say that men often park their cars near the gate and masturbate. The streets are not well-lit and the patrolling car that should be parked near the gate is never in sight. The students say that the policemen have mentioned there is no space to park near the gate. But one can see there is enough parking space and the streets are mostly deserted.
"There are so many cases of sexual harassment these days. Even if we complain, the patrolling cars are here only for a month or so, and again the same thing happens. We want more people to complain and the police to take some permanent action. After the recent case of harassment that had happened, all the PGs put a curfew time of 9 pm. But that is not the solution. Locking up the girls is not a solution. So, today we want to carry out this rally as a protest to ban these restrictions and the taboos. Yeh raatein bhi humari, yeh sadkein bhi humari (this night is ours, these streets are ours too)," says Divya, a student of LSR college.
One policeman, who wishes to remain anonymous, says, "I'm always around and I haven't seen anything unpleasant till this day. Their friends come here to pickup or drop them back. No one else comes here."
Pinjra Tod, a women's collective, has taken out similar protest marches in all the universities across Delhi. As the name suggests, they want to break the cage — remove the restrictions around women and make the streets safe for them. This march was for the South Campus colleges of Delhi University (DU).
But students, mostly women, turn up from the colleges in the North Campus and other institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Milia Islamia as well. The students start cheering as Devangana Kalita, one of the key members of Pinjra Tod, climbs on the gate of LSR college to address them.
Kalita says that even after the December 16th rape case, the police, in an attempt to make the streets safe asked the street vendors to shut shop at night. She mentions that that only made it more unsafe as the streets became all deserted. One cannot out put discriminatory laws in the name of women safety. Kalita also makes it clear that one rally is not going to set things right, but it is, at least, a start. It will make people aware of the problems.
Speaking to HuffPost India, Kalita says, "We want to call out the farce in the university and in the patriarchal society. Our streets can only be safe if more women are around, and more women won't be around if you lock them up with restrictions and curfews. We want safe infrastructure and safe mode of transportation in the universities, instead of locks."
Kalita further mentions that another objective of Pinjra Tod is more hostels. PGs are really expensive. Kalita says, "So, does that mean that education is only for the upper class?"
The guard on duty mentions the back gate is shut at 7:30 pm and he hasn't come across any lewd activities since he has recently joined on duty. On the other hand, a student, who wishes to remain anonymous, mentions, "We thought this (college) would be a safer zone but now even here we are facing harassment."
Students Khyati Saigal and Kavya say that while commuting from the college to the Moolchand metro station people have witnessed a lot of unpleasant incidents — "men doing disgusting things", they said, without specifying these actions. "It's a daily thing. There's no patrolling when we need it. There's police on the main road but even then incidents happen. College authorities mention police patrolling but nothing happens, since the police are always on the main road and not in this lane," says Saigal.
A student from Jamia who wishes to remain anonymous says she has been part of the Pinjra Tod movement for about a year now. "These public spaces are just not ours, wherever you go. So it is important that women assert themselves through these events. Even in Jamia, people have no space. It is too restrictive. We don't understand the regressive policies that try to control us there," she adds.
As the students start marching, a bystander, a frail old man, smirks and says, "It's become a fashion these days," to which two policewomen say, "Obviously, you're going to say such things, you'll never understand." The policewomen then mention that just three days ago a guy was nabbed from one of the alleys for indecent activity.
As the march progresses, traffic halts and passersby stop to look at the protestors. They march through the posh Kailash Colony, where residents peer out to see what's happening. Seeing the crowd approaching, a PG owner slams the gate shut, but is caught in the act. The crowd halts in front of the gate and slogans of azaadi pierce through the still air.
The crowd eventually moves on the main road and gathers near the front gate of LSR.
Even as the number of onlookers increase, there are mostly women in sight, except for about five men who joined the rally, not counting the media. Accompanied by men and women from the police and the patrolling van, it is difficult not to recognise the fact that this is a women's movement — of, for and by women. As Kalita explains, that is the idea behind it -- this is a women's movement, men are welcome and they can be allies but women do not need external support to fight for their rights.
Almost everyone whom this author spoke to can be neatly divided into two sections -- the women, who have taken to the streets because of the relentless harassment they face; and the rest of the people, who claim they have seen or heard nothing and have come out to the streets to look at the protesting women.
But as the women promised, this march is not the end, only a beginning -- to get the rest of the people used to the idea that the streets belong as much to the women as to the others.
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