Interview: Anni-Elina on Women’s Safety in Mumbai, India

Anni-Elina has Finnish roots and was born when her family lived in Russia. She has lived in more than seven countries, including the Netherlands where she finished her bachelor’s degree in International Studies. During her degree, she chose to specialise in South and Southeast Asia and also learned advanced level Hindi. This is also how Anni and I met each other. We had a great time sharing our passion for India and we remained good friends after our studies. Anni wrote her bachelor’s thesis on rape culture and victim blaming in India for which she also studied the influence of Bollywood movies. This opened her eyes to the injustice and violence that women face. She became more interested in these topics during her trips to India where she witnessed the influence of patriarchy on women’s lives. For instance, in Bihar, she saw how a family with five daughters tried to marry them off after they had turned 18, how the girls were doing all the housework instead of going to school, and how men would eat first and girls would eat last.
Anni pursued her master’s degree in Asian Studies in Sweden. She wrote her master’s thesis on sexual harassment in public spaces for which she interviewed Indian women living in Mumbai. People had told her that Delhi is the worst place for women’s safety, but Mumbai is a great place where women can wear shorts and have fun. However, Anni experienced the opposite. In Delhi, she was harassed two times, but in Mumbai she experienced sexual harassment on a daily basis. I am interviewing Anni on her own experience with women’s safety and the insights of her research.

How is the situation in Mumbai with regards to women’s safety?

A: Mumbai is a huge city with different neighbourhoods. There are posh areas such as Bandra, Colaba, Versova, Juhu and Khar. These areas are safer to roam around and the people living in these areas are generally well off. These are also the places where people party and dress more Western. Areas like Chembur are more conservative. There are huge differences between Bandra and Chembur. Chembur has different pockets, a Muslim area, a cobblers’ area, a fancier area…I lived in a South Indian colony, which was really conservative, and bordering a slum area. Groups of men who came from the slum used to hang out on my street and give stares. Chembur is also in between Kurla and Govandi, where you have lots of informal settlement. Women’s safety in Mumbai depends on the neighbourhood and locality that you are in.

What inspired you to write your thesis on women’s safety in Mumbai?

A: I was not pleased with the comparison that Mumbai is safer than Delhi. On my second trip to India, I went to the movies with my Dutch friend. It was around 9 pm in the fancy area of Colaba. We thought of walking back to the hotel, because it was a ten-minute walk. When we were walking on a busy side street, there was a man following us and we were like okay…what is going on. He was talking to us in Hindi, making remarks, and then he showed us his phone. It was porn. At that moment, we were appalled and afraid as he was also making motions to come along with him. We ended up running away and taking the first taxi that we could find. We gave up on the idea of walking after 6 pm, in the dark hours. It just gives you a creepy feeling. I don’t think that he would have harmed us, but just the fact that he was so pushy. I just don’t want a stranger showing me these type of images. After this incident, I wanted to find out how women who work and live in Mumbai feel about their safety.

Have you experienced forms of harassment yourself other than that incident?

A: In Mumbai, men would stare, pass comments, sing songs, or uber drivers would look at me in a nasty way or ask too many questions. I did not feel like I was in danger, but it does limit my freedom. I would choose carefully, which locations I go to, and pay attention to what I was wearing. Only once I tried putting on shorts and I realised it was a big mistake. The moment I stepped outside, I got so many bad stares, also from women. Random men would come to me and say “oh hello, how are you?”. I felt really strange and wanted to hide, but I just wanted to test once if it was okay to wear shorts. I concluded that it is better not to wear shorts, only in clubs and malls with company at most.  However, I have seen girls on campus dressing the way they like. Outside, they alter their clothes. The girls told me that they always choose their outfits on the basis of the location that they are going to. It is a constant game of adjusting yourself.

S: I also adjust how I behave. I remember when I was with my parents in India at the age of 18. I was sitting in the rickshaw, but before I entered the rickshaw I smiled at the driver. As I was sitting in the back he was smiling and glaring via his rear-view mirror. That really made me think like I should not have smiled. If you are raised in the Netherlands though, you can smile at strangers and they won’t take it as “I like you in that way” or “I am interested in you”. I was not aware of that, so for me it was a lesson: don’t smile anymore and avoid eye contact.

A: I experienced something similar like that but more extreme. We hired a car driver in Rajasthan and I was taking care of the communication in Hindi, but he got it all wrong. He started texting me at night and asking if he could go with me somewhere alone, while he was married and had children. He was doing this in front of my mother and it was a shock to me that he did not feel ashamed at all for his behaviour. I have also learnt not to act too kind in order to avoid sending the wrong signals.

According to your research, what are the common places where sexual harassment takes place?

A: It could basically happen anywhere that is what I learned from the women. There is no place where you could not be harassed. It also happens at home or at the workplace, but the most common places in public are crowded places such as markets, and public transport such as buses, metros and the local train. Of course taxis/autorickshaws and uber as well. When there is a crowd, it is easier for the perpetrators to grope someone and quickly leave. It is hard to say who it was. 

What are the types of sexual harassment that your participants experienced?

A: It was ranging from severe cases such as rape or being abused as a child to eve teasing, groping, touching, staring, singing songs, and passing remarks.

Do they find Mumbai safe?

Only two out of ten women felt that Mumbai was safe, but they moved from conservative cities to Mumbai. So, they felt that Mumbai was safer, but they also stayed in posh areas in Mumbai. They were not exposed to the worst places and even their offices were located in their living areas. The other women did not feel safe in Mumbai, especially the women from Northeast India. They mentioned that this is due to their looks and ethnicity. Men have this perception that they are cheap and more sexual. They also said that they would get comments from uber drivers, who would suggest a place and say we can go there.

How did that come about?

A: It is just that they look different and “exotic” in the eyes of men. Due to sex trafficking and human trafficking, there is prostitution coming from Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, as well as Nepal, and the North-eastern Indian women resemble them, ethnically. Hence, men associate them with that. North-eastern women also tend to dress more skimpily, because they have a different fashion, so men perceive that in a sexual way. Many of them work in the beauty/service industry, with spas and salons. In general, it is just the idea of being different. There are many Christian or Muslim women who are perceived not to be like their Hindu women. I am not sure how and when it started but according to North-eastern women, and the studies that I have read, these perceptions have been there a long time.

What are the measures that women take to protect themselves?

A: They keep a check on their behaviour, modify their dress according to the place that they go to, choose the times when they go out, avoid night-time, choose ways of commuting according to the time, and they go out in groups. One woman mentioned that she never goes outside by herself, she is always in company. She is too scared.

S: And do they or you avoid walking?

A: Haha, yes. That is one thing. We are used to walking half an hour or so in Europe, but here they look at you in a strange way when you say that. Like what? Yes, it is not a big deal, but the women always take a vehicle here. That is one way of avoiding strangers.

In your study, you also mentioned a woman who consciously chose to live in a safe area even though it is more expensive.

A: She was more well off in terms of salary, so she could afford it. If you are single woman in Mumbai and your family lives in a different state, you want to assure the maximum security for yourself, because your family is not with you.

S: This shows what it takes to guarantee safety for women. The struggle for safety even hits their finances, while they could have saved that money for other things.

What is the role of caste and class in sexual harassment cases?

A: Social class plays a role in the sense that money can buy safety to a certain extent. Women can avoid public spaces and public transport, but at the same time even rich women get raped or harassed. Even if you go to a rich people’s club, there are many cases where women still get harassed. It does not provide full safety, so it is a sense of artificial safety. If you look at the crime statistics of rape, in the majority of cases the victim was known to the perpetrator. It is difficult to expect that they would do something, because women trust these men. According to the statistics almost 50% of women experience domestic violence. That is a lot.

S: In the Netherlands 45% of women experience violence or sexual abuse in their lives. That is also a lot.

A: About caste, in the past there has been a pattern of highly caste men raping lower caste women, because they feel entitled to do so. There was a movie called Damini, where a lower caste woman got gangraped and Damini is trying to get justice for her. Nowadays, even when a dalit woman goes to the police they might not take her seriously, because of her position. There have also been cases of custodial rapes, so when a dalit woman is in prison she gets raped there. If you are wealthy and you have connections, then you have more chances of getting justice. It all depends on money, connections and who the perpetrator is.   

What is the root cause of the issue?

A: Patriarchy is the overarching cause; women are inferior to men. It is the socialisation of gender roles in the family. Roughly expressed, when a son is born everyone is happy, but when a girl is born it is unfortunate. Also, the dowry system, dowry has been banned but it is still practised. They see women as a burden, because they have to give their daughters away while also paying for them. In contrast to sons, who bring wealth to the family. For a lot of Indian families, this is still a reality especially in the more conservative areas. Then there’s also the lack of awareness and missing or poor sex education. And unfortunately, young men get exposed to porn very early on. Two of the women whom I interviewed mentioned that they saw boys who were ten years old, watching it. Little boys get twisted ideas on sexuality and those ideas are often not corrected throughout their lives, because talking about sexuality and sexual intercourse is a taboo in India. So, ideas on it get shaped through what is available: sexual images and what is taught in movies. Also, children witness their fathers abusing their mothers and believe that it is normal behaviour. When they grow up, they believe that as a man they have the right to do that with their wives. A woman’s body is their possession and it is up to them what to do with it.

S: This is how beliefs are shaped. They might not harm women themselves initially, but if they witness their father doing it while growing up, the belief of how women should be treated already gets shaped.

A: Yes, and if you get celebrated as a hero from childhood and even your own mother does not correct your behaviour then of course you are going to believe that you are allowed to do anything. Everything is in your access and you don’t have to respect other people’s feelings or bodies.

What about victim blaming?

A: When a woman gets assaulted, the man usually denies it and tells that she was asking for it. It is what she wanted, or she was wearing that type of clothes of course I am going to approach her, why did she come to me at that time in the evening. One of my participants was raped by her cousin. Her cousin would point out that her bra strap was showing and that she should cover up. She never noticed that he was looking at her in that way, whereas he probably looked at her body and thought to himself that she is available to him. It is disturbing that your own cousin can look at you in that way. What is more is that his girlfriend had witnessed the rape. She did not say anything to stop him and said to my participant “he only did it once, why are you so upset about it?” This is crazy how women actually protect the rapists and take their side. It is really messed up how power hierarchies play out. The same goes for mothers who protect their sons even when they have raped a woman. There is this “boys will be boys” mentality. They just forgive too much. In the case of domestic violence, a lot of wives are afraid and think that the husband is right. Of course, there is shame as well to speak up about these issues. A lot of women are also not aware that life can be better. Especially, if they have experienced it since their childhood, it sort of becomes normalized.

What actions do women take to claim public spaces?

A: Women are taking more actions to claim public spaces, but it is a practice of the more educated and liberal women. Women belonging to a conservative community, do not have the possibility to do that or they don’t even try to go against the rules out of fear. But also, paradoxically, worker women such as sweepers, cleaners, and market sellers, have to occupy the public space daily, and often the not so pleasant places and corners. However, they would not do it in the sense of going out or loitering for enjoyment. Middle-class and upper-class women, who live in Mumbai by themselves are the ones who often challenge patriarchal rules. Due to education, awareness, and a certain quality of life, they are aware of the more subtle forms of patriarchal oppression, that a working-class woman would not necessarily notice, because she is more focused on daily survival in terms of income.

One of my participants goes to the liquor shop to buy alcohol. Even though everyone looks at her disapprovingly, because women are not supposed to go there, and a woman is not at all supposed to drink. So, it is like a double disaster sort of, haha. She is angry that these rules are created by men and the society. Another participant smokes on the streets. She also gets bad looks, but she does not care. It is her way of being a rebel. There is a Bangalore based NGO called Blank Noise Action Heroes and they started a public campaign of sleeping in the open space. On a specific day, women sleep on the beach or in the park and post it on social media. It is a symbolic way of claiming the public space, because it is not okay for women to loiter or chill outside, nor to sleep somewhere out in the open unguarded. They want to prove that the opposite is possible. The norm is that the private sphere is for women and the public sphere is for men. If a woman wants to go outside, she needs to have a good reason, she can’t just go outside for fun. If she is going outside, she needs to have a male escort. Shilpa Phadke started an academic discussion on loitering which evolved into a movement and wrote a book called Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011). She claims that the only way that Mumbai is going to be a global city is when women start loitering, going out in public, and hanging out with other women without feeling afraid.

What was the impact of the #metoo movement in India?

A: It started a good public discussion on the issues that women experience. Women spoke up about the harassment that they had faced, many for the first time. It provided a platform for discussion. Lists of perpetrators were shared on Facebook. This started in academia actually. Professors who have been harassing students were listed. Later it moved to Bollywood. However, I would say that it is still a movement of the influential people. It does not include people from lower caste and classes, so the influence of the movement remains limited. Even though all the women who have been harassed, did not participate in the movement by sharing their violations in public, it enabled a conversation between friends, daughters and mothers. This was remarkable, since it created a space for women to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences on the matter. This is truly empowering. Some people kept the abuse a secret for years. One of my participants told her mother about her abuse as a child after the #metoo movement when she was 30. It healed an emotional wound.

S: On one hand, it is good that she had the courage to speak up, but on the other hand it is sad that she had to wait for such a long time to feel comfortable to talk about it. It is a burden. You have to live with it and the fact that she could not share it with her own mother…

What is the influence of Bollywood on how women are perceived?

A: My participants all said that Bollywood has a big impact on how women are perceived and on the perception of romance. Stalking and violent sexual behaviours are presented as romantic. There is this typical trend that the woman is resisting, but the man keeps insisting and coming from all over. If you watch old movies, it is actually kind of creepy because guys would climb up the window and be like “Hi, I am here”. Boys watch this and think “Aha, this is how to be romantic” forcing yourself on a woman. Finally, the woman falls in love with him and sees him as her “hero”, which is not the case in real life. Men watch this and think this is how to approach a woman. Luckily, nowadays there are more films that address sexual violence and try to break taboos, such as Pink (2016) and Guilty (2020).

S: Mom (2017), is also about rape. I have major issues with Bollywood and Indian soaps, because of how they portray love and what they teach about women saying no. No means no in real life, but in movies they portray a woman saying “no” as she is saying no, but she means yes. In soaps, men act passive-aggressive, treat women badly, are constantly angry on them, not showing that they love her but then they do love her. She is a good and sweet wife who changes him into a good person. I am like that is not love. A woman is not a rehabilitation centre where men get treatment to change their behaviour from bad to good.

A: It is very toxic and also the lyrics of some songs about women. Sexualising, objectifying and portraying women in a bad way, calling her a piece of meat. She is put in the centre of attention and is only there to entertain. It’s a classical scenario of the male gaze.

On the basis of your research, you have found the main causes for sexual harassment and the precautions that women take to lower the risk of sexual harassment. According to you, what is necessary to improve women’s safety in India?

A: It is a combination of grassroots level and the higher-level efforts. The society has to collaborate with the judicial system and the government institutions. Everyone needs to be educated: families, children, government officials, and the police. People can’t fully rely on the government, because the government bureaucracy is often inefficient and there is lots of internal corruption and overarching patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes amongst the representatives. It takes a lot of awareness work. There are many NGOs doing great work and that needs to be expanded. Also, sex education should be taught in schools, and children should be taught gender awareness, which is happening now more. One of the participants is a mother of a five-year-old daughter, and her daughter is already taught at school about good and bad touch. Now they are changing it and it is good to see that they are active. There should also be more female representatives in the parliament, the judiciary, and other government institutions. Finally, people have to stop prioritizing men in families, there needs to be equality in the upbringing of girls and boys.

What is the relevance of women’s safety for women not living in India?

A: For women like us, even if we live in a safer country and we don’t care about women’s safety per se, the reason why you should care is that even though you would not see visible forms of oppression; it is always there in the background. It is in small ways that your behaviour is controlled, your position in society and your perception of yourself as a woman is formed. Unfortunately, gender dynamics affects everything, it is the invisible power relations surrounding you. I think everyone should care even if it is not visible, one day you might experience gender-based harassment yourself. In a woman’s lifetime, there comes a moment when she experiences it and it does not matter where she lives. It happens in Europe too. It happens in offices, on the streets, in clubs, and public transport, there’s no limit. Women should be supportive of each other, because it is hard to go through these experiences alone. You need to have a safe space, where you can express feelings and reach out to people.

S: I think that every woman indeed experiences this at some point in their lives either through comments, staring, or an unwanted touch. Unwanted behaviour that we are not asking for just by being kind or the way we dress.

A: It kind of kills the feeling of celebrating that you are a woman, because you are feeling like I am not allowed to look good, to look pretty, to enjoy my own body, because it feels like there’s something wrong with that. This is what is messed up, because there is nothing wrong with being a beautiful woman. The wrong part lies in how men address women. They should never address us in that way. You should feel safe and free to express your femininity in the way you like and without being punished for it. Why do women always feel like they are too much if they wear something nice or too feminine? And on the other hand, there’s pressure not to be “too little” either, because a woman is supposed to look feminine and attractive. It is hard to find the right balance sometimes.

S: I can relate to this. Thank you Anni for sharing your insights! I hope that women start speaking up about these issues more often.

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4 thoughts on “Interview: Anni-Elina on Women’s Safety in Mumbai, India”

  1. Great works.
    I read the report from Japan. Actually, Japan is also an Asian country.
    I understand deeply the situation and some directions we should do.
    I checked myself what I have done in Japanese culture.
    Thank you for giving us reviewing and considering our way.

    1. Thank you Osamu for your compliment. I am happy that you enjoyed reading it. It is interesting to see the relevance of this topic for people from other cultures.

  2. Having lived in the Indian subcontinent for several years , I can totally empathize with the contents of this conversation with Anna Elina
    This is a much needed platform for women to come out in the open , share their experiences and thereby create more awareness amongst the masses Great initiative Shakila ! Keep it coming 🙂

    1. Thanks Lata for the support! We have had many conversations about this and it is important to mention these issues again and again until they no longer exist.

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