Safe in the City? Negotiating safety, public space and the male gaze in Kolkata, India

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Negotiating public spaces to reach their destinations is an everyday struggle for women in India. Indian cities have witnessed a considerable increase in crimes against women, compelling women to avoid or minimize their use of public spaces. This study aims to understand how people and their actions in public spaces shape perceptions of safety amongst women, and how women negotiate public spaces to avoid such incidents of harassment. This study comprising of focus group discussions and in-depth interviews was carried out in Kolkata, India. Visual surveys were conducted to spatially contextualize the narratives from the participants. The data were thereafter transcribed, coded, and analyzed. The study finds that the following elements negatively impact women's perceptions of safety: ‘male gaze’; negative personality traits, appearances, and behavior of men; presence of middle-aged men and strangers; cultural differences; and places that reported repeated occurrences of harassment. Lively spaces and busy roads on the other hand where daily commuters, hawkers, shopkeepers are engaged in purposeful activities are perceived as safe by women. Women make constant efforts to negotiate unsafe conditions in public spaces through avoidance, protection, and prevention. Most women tend to internalize the process of negotiation than to reclaim their rights to public spaces. Younger women, however, tend to step forward and confront their harassers. The findings of this study can help planners and policy makers co-create safer public spaces for women and facilitate their right to the city.



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