The paper examines how technologies intended for ensuring women’s safety affect freedom of movement and reproduce masculine domination over space.
Since times immemorial, humans have had an innate desire to explore and discover new spaces. However, for women, this desire has often been curtailed, due to the fear of being harassed or assaulted. Women tend to live by the ‘rape clock’; their daily routines, clothes, travel schedules and companions are constantly adjusted according to the location they have to visit. The recent proliferation of safety apps seek to offer a more secure way to travel through neighbourhoods. Inbuilt with safety audits, these apps prescribe the routes that women can take to travel to their destinations. The apps allow users to evaluate their current location in terms of seemingly objective parameters like security, openness, crowd density, lighting and transportation. In addition, the users can proactively determine the ‘safety score’ of the locality depending on how they feel about it and can also share its photos to justify the score.
However, the paper argues, safety apps tend to circumscribe women’s desire to loiter. By recommending routes to travel safely and by constantly prescribing the parameters that women need to keep in mind while venturing out, these apps narrow down the spaces women can access. It enhances the fear of being assaulted and curtails the pleasure of loitering. Secondly, the apps neglect the fact that conceptions of safety vary according to one’s social location. Most safety apps begin with the notion that their users comprise of an abstract, universal category of women. But, individuals hailing from different backgrounds, including class, caste, education, region and religion experience the world differently. What counts as a safe neighbourhood for one may be considered unsafe by another. The subjective evaluations in safety apps tend to present a lopsided notion of safety which may tilt the scales against localities frequented by people hailing from minority communities. This may have other cascading effects such as overpolicing, non-access to goods and financial services, etc. In addition, these apps tend to shift the onus of safety onto the woman. Moreover, the GPS tracking feature of apps is undergirded in the misogynistic logic that women’s movements are to be controlled.
The paper therefore critically analyses intriguing questions — How do safety apps determine what constitutes a safe neighbourhood for women? To what extent do these apps encourage freedom of movement for women? How can safety apps be restructured to accommodate women’s desire to loiter?
In India, safety apps have recently emerged as a panacea for women’s safety. Following the gruesome Delhi gang rape and Shakti Mills cases,1 which sent shock waves across the country, several safety apps were introduced to facilitate secure travel for women through city streets. These apps rely upon safety audits to evaluate neighborhoods on the basis of infrastructural parameters like security, lighting, and transportation as well as subjective evaluations by users. The apps accordingly prescribe the most secure routes that women can take to travel to their destinations. These apps are legitimized on the grounds that they will encourage women’s participation in urban spaces. Women often live by the “rape clock,” and their life routines are constantly adjusted according to the threat of being attacked. Their choices of clothes, travel schedules, and companions are calibrated according to the location they have to visit. As such, they are denied the opportunity to experience the city the way men do (Dreyer and McDowall 2012, 5). Therefore, these apps are being proposed as a technological magic wand to ensure safety for women. According to Jagan Shah, the director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, information and communications technology (ICT) tools like Safetipin must be promoted to protect women’s claim to cities (Vishwanath et al. 2020).
But even as they promise to re-create female versions of the mythical flâneur immortalized in Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project in 1982, safety apps end up falling short of their claims. This article argues that such technologies can be exclusionary, can inhibit the desire to walk for leisure, and can reinforce patriarchal control of women’s movements. In the algorithmically constructed universe of safety apps, the city is projected as differential risk zones, creating new fault lines based on prevailing social prejudices and forms of discrimination. Moreover, contrary to Bertrand Russell’s enthusiasm (1932) about machines paving the way for leisure, safety apps magnify the mental exhaustion of their users by shifting the onus of safety onto women and by evoking a state of constant crisis and thereby perpetual preparedness. Safety apps eventually draw Lakshman Rekhas (protective boundaries), very much like the famous Lakshman Rekha marked out for Sita in the Indian epic Ramayana.2
This article seeks to reflect on the epistemological underpinnings of the safety apps and their implications, thus moving beyond a focus on technical faults in the apps, such as nonfunctioning of SOS buttons. How do safety apps determine what constitutes a safe neighborhood for women? To what extent do these apps encourage freedom of movement for women? How can safety apps be restructured to accommodate women’s desire to loiter? Safety app developers work closely with urban planners, municipal authorities, and the police to shape decisions about designing and regulating cities. Hence, there is a need to be critically aware of the limits of these apps and their repercussions.
The first section of the article provides a walk-through of the safety apps. The second section looks at how safety apps tend to inhibit the desire to loiter. In the third section, the article probes the notion of “safe space” as conceived by the apps and its implications. The article then proceeds to focus on how the apps urge monitoring of women’s movements through GPS tracking features. The next section examines how the burden of safety is transferred onto women. Finally, the article looks at the possibility of restructuring the apps to enable loitering and to challenge barriers to accessing urban space.
A Walk-Through of Safety Apps
To illustrate the core argument, a combination of secondary literature and the walk-through method has been employed. The walk-through method, proposed by Ben Light, Jean Burgess, and Stefanie Duguay (2018), is useful for critically engaging with an app’s technical features and the cultural references undergirding it. It involves a detailed analysis of interactions with the app’s screen, activities it enables, requirements that users are expected to comply with, presentation of icons and images, materiality, buttons, drop-down menus, the GPS feature, and how the app interacts with operating systems, hardware, structures of connectivity, and other apps (Light, Burgess, and Duguay 2018, 7-9). Walk-throughs are “uniquely performative as a situated rendition of a user’s journey that foregrounds material characteristics of the interface” (Dieter et al. 2019, 5). Grounded in science and technology studies and cultural studies, the walk-through method highlights that apps are not just technical objects but also sociocultural artifacts. It highlights how these technical features in turn influence values of the social, cultural, economic, and political environments.
Safety apps evaluate neighborhoods based not only on “objective parameters” like security, openness, crowd density, lighting, and transportation, but also on subjective evaluations. Users can proactively determine the “safety score” of the localities they visit depending on how they feel about it. They can also check photos attached by others to ensure that the audit has been accurate. These apps accordingly prescribe the most secure routes to travel. For instance, the Safetipin app maps out safe and unsafe locations and enables GPS tracking. The Safecity app invites women to share their experiences about security conditions in various places, so that others can use that information to avoid those areas. The Nirbhaya app promises to sound the alarm if the user strays near a dangerous area. Some apps enable users to select a list of emergency contacts and to allow family members and friends to track their movements through the GPS feature. For example, the Smart Sheher Women Safety Shield Protection app enables tracking of a user’s movements in real time (Times News Network 2014). The Suraksha app, an initiative of Bengaluru police started in 2017, has a SOS button which has to be pressed by the user five times to alert family and friends. It will also relay the message to the police control room, which immediately sends the nearest patrol van to the crisis location. The Suspects Registry app enables women to snap pictures of an incident, which are immediately uploaded on the app’s Facebook page (Times News Network 2014). The Vith U app alerts emergency contacts and apprises them of changes in the user’s location every two minutes (Times News Network 2014). The Circle of 6 app, besides sending a message to six trusted friends, allows its users to contact two preprogrammed national hotlines and local emergency numbers (Times News Network 2014).
A walk-through of three apps—Safetipin, Safecity, and bSafe3—will elucidate some of the concerns discussed in this article.
The Safetipin app, developed in 2013, relies upon crowdsourced data to evaluate the safety index of localities and streets. It relies upon photography to map the city and consults Google Earth and Street View to support the user data. Safetipin has shared its user data with government authorities to guide them in urban design and planning, particularly focusing on women’s safety. For instance, it identified 7,800 areas with insufficient lighting, prompting the local authorities to resolve the problem (Fleming 2018).
The app’s initial interface outlines its claims. Firstly, it promises to mark out safe routes for its users to travel. Interestingly, the image presented seems to redline the shortcut as opposed to greenlighting the longer route. Shortcuts, presumably through narrow side lanes, are then presented as unknown, dangerous, and risky territories as opposed to longer, circuitous routes. Users are expected to use those routes only and not stray from the marked paths; doing so would be deemed irresponsible. Therefore, app users eventually have to traverse longer routes.
Secondly, the app promises to assist users in discovering safe places to live (renting or purchasing), represented by icons of houses with varied ratings. Thirdly, the app enables users to allow their families and friends to track them and vice versa through the “Stay with Me” feature. It allows users to add family and friends as emergency contacts who will be notified in case they stop somewhere for a long time or change their route. The duration of notification can be selected. It is pertinent to note that the icon for this feature shows a man tracking a woman to her destination. This suggests the possibility of being stalked by possessive partners or oppressive families, cleverly cloaked as a concern for the app user’s safety.
The app requests the location of its users to show a safety score, calculated on the basis of safety audits. The screen interface depicts a map that can be consulted to identify secure zones; if users feel unsafe, they are directed to the nearest safe refuge (hospital, ATM, public transport, or police station).
Users are requested to engage in the safety audit by rating their neighborhood on a scale of one to ten. It also invites its users to visually represent the safety of the neighborhood by choosing from a range of emoticons (frightening, uncomfortable, acceptable, comfortable), based on how it made them feel. Such a play on the affectual aspect of experiencing an urban space opens up possibilities of projecting all kinds of subjective perspectives on a neighborhood that emerge, as we shall see in the following sections, from social and political contexts. The app urges users to appraise the facilities and constraints of the environment. I had to rate my locality in terms of the following parameters: light (whether there is enough light to see around me), walk path (if there are pavements or roads with space to walk), openness (whether I can see and move in all directions), visibility (are there vendors, shops, building entrances, windows, and balconies from where I can be seen?), public transport (are metro, buses, autos, or rickshaws available nearby?), security (are any police or security guards present?), crowd density (whether the place is deserted or crowded), gender usage (what is the proportion and diversity of women and children present?), and feeling (how safe do I feel?). I could also add pictures and describe the locality. Each parameter is embedded in specific epistemological assumptions. For instance, the openness criterion is based on the assumption that narrow lanes are dangerous and that open spaces where one can freely move are ideally safer. This again hints at the notion that congested (and presumably poorer) neighborhoods are more vulnerable to incidents of assaults. When I typed the inputs for my neighborhood and gave positive feedback, I saw that the cumulative rating was around 7.0/10.4 There is a dedicated comments section, where I could see a user report that there was an incident of stalking and catcalling in the neighborhood and that no one was on the road to help. No further details are given regarding the incident. The anonymity and ambiguities of the subjective evaluations can have problematic implications, which will be discussed further.
Founded in 2012, the Safecity app relies upon personal accounts of sexual harassment and abuse in public spaces that are aggregated to create maps that highlight “hot spots.” It seeks to identify trends and patterns in users’ reports and uses the insights to narrow down potential factors that can trigger specific behavior resulting in crime. The founder stated that the app had been envisaged as a platform for evaluating the safety meter of cities, just like Tripadvisor (Bramley 2015). It shares its data with the police, who accordingly alter their patrol timings and increase vigilance in areas suspected to be unsafe. The data is also used to develop interventions for resolving other problems. For instance, Safecity had informed the municipal authorities that due to lack of toilets in one locality, women had to relieve themselves in the open and were vulnerable to assault. The authorities, who had previously locked the toilets to avoid cleaning them, were subsequently forced to reopen them (Bramley 2015).
The app requests its users to either log in through a verifiable Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google account, or to report anonymously. It then requests users to share their location data. There is a separate section listing safety reports for localities. Safecity urges its users to report incidents of harassment, including the type, date, time, and a brief description of the incident. Users can also attach pictures, graphics, audio, and videos. The app thus fosters a vigilance community online. Users are urged to categorize the incidents under different heads—objectionable comments, groping, sexual invitation, stalking, catcalls, human trafficking—which then serve as searchable tags. Such a categorization scheme regards harassment as isolated incidents, sanitized of their embeddedness in asymmetrical power dynamics of caste, class, sexual orientation, race, and ethnic relations. Moreover, in the absence of detailed complaints, the act of reporting harassment is limited to geotagging and categorization. Carrie Rentschler argued that by rendering the extended reporting of an incident as optional, safety apps tend to reduce the act of witnessing to pinning (Rentschler 2018, 140).
Perusing the comments section revealed insights into the fragmented notion of safety. A user had complained that a group of boys and girls were congregating near a public toilet and that the girls were allegedly swearing and cracking jokes about other women passersby. The discourse of safety is then intertwined with notions of respectability and can be used to discipline behaviors that are considered to transgress social norms. There is also a “Safety Tips” section where users discuss how to ensure protection in public spaces. For instance, they mentioned the need to carry pepper spray, to be vigilant while talking on the phone, to avoid the local crowded market, and to be alert for chain snatchers. Other comments highlight a certain image of perpetrators, usually hailing from working-class backgrounds or of foreign origin. For instance, a user cautioned against a place because it was unlit and was occupied by construction workers, while another user vaguely mentioned that “myrks,” who are like the “bydlo,”5 are capable of committing sexual assault. Most of the tips are incomplete or vague. It is noteworthy that the developers deny responsibility for content uploaded on the platform that may be erroneous, false, or objectionable or may incur charges of defamation and slander.
Founded in 2011, the bSafe app assures its users that they will never have to walk alone. It provides its users a virtual companion who will track their movements through “risky” neighborhoods. It creates a community of users who look out for each other. The app urges its users to forge a “security network” by connecting with their family and friends (depicted by an angel icon), who can act as lookouts. It also has provisions for in-house purchase of premium features—SOS button, fake call, voice activation, live streaming, recording, and tracking—that can either be unlocked for twenty-four hours (by paying a nominal fee) or be unlocked for a longer period. Users can ask their friends to follow them to their destination; when a friend accepts a request, the user is alerted, and an icon appears on the map. Moreover, the app has a “Follow Me with Timer” feature that enables the tracking of the user for a specific period of time (even if the user does not carry the phone). If the user has not checked in before the deadline, the alarm is automatically triggered, and the guardian network and security personnel will be alerted immediately. In case of emergency, users can send an alarm signal to their security network by clicking the SOS button, saying a code phrase or setting a timer alarm. The guardian network will immediately receive audio and video reports of the users’ movements through live streaming. The alarm is not deactivated until the user puts in the pin code. The app also saves the location data, event time stamp, video, and audio, which can be used as evidence by the user.
It is noteworthy that the app depicts a group of men tracking a woman’s movements while the road ahead appears shady, isolated, and dangerous, with a few shadowy figures lurking in the background. Such images are significant because they justify the monitoring of women’s movements by men who are deputed to be their protectors. Interestingly, the app also depicts a Black man (another vulnerable group) being tracked by another Black man and two white people. While the app appears to recognize Black people as vulnerable, it still appears to treat harassment as isolated incidents, sanitized of the intersecting axes of racism and sexism. Furthermore, the automatic alarm feature forces the user to be alert constantly since the app keeps sending reminders of the impending deadline.
Curtailing of Desires to Loiter
Safety apps tend to circumscribe the freedom of women to loiter. By recommending routes to walk and by prescribing parameters to be kept in mind while venturing out, they narrow down the spaces that women can access and enhance the fear of being assaulted. As women increasingly rely upon such apps to chart out strategic paths for the purpose of everyday commuting, the pleasures of loitering without a purpose will be circumvented, thereby curtailing their access to leisure. Moreover, the automatic alarm feature puts pressures on women to stick to the task at hand and to avoid loitering. This is especially difficult for persons with disabilities whose myriad route deviations and additional time needed to reach their destination are not taken into account by the alarm feature’s rigidly calculated time frame, which is primarily oriented to movements of able-bodied individuals and conventional modes of transportation (Ellcessor 2018, 160).
Loitering involves the ability to easily venture into public spaces without drawing censure or suspicion and to immerse oneself in the crowd. The figure of the flâneur, the quintessential loiterer, has been analyzed explicitly by Walter Benjamin. He was concerned with how capitalism and technology in the nineteenth century were not only transforming cities but also creating new urban sensibilities. He focused on the arcades in Paris, which had garnered importance as centers of consumerism because “the streets were not wide enough to stroll and the risk of vehicular accidents was high” (Dreyer and McDowall 2012, 2). The iron- and glass-roofed rows of shops gave birth to the flâneur, who enjoyed exploring the streets without any purpose. Fascinated by the sights, smells, and sounds of the city, the flâneur would immerse himself in the crowds. Unencumbered by the burden of eking out a living, he could leisurely explore the city (Dreyer and McDowall 2012, 3). Benjamin regarded the flâneur as “a detached observer of the adverse impact of capitalism and modernity” (Livingstone and Gyarkye 2017).
The flâneur had traditionally been conceived of as a man, though prostitutes and homeless women were exceptions. Lauren Elkin challenged the male gaze of the city, immortalized in the countless treatises written by men about their experiences of navigating the cityscape.6 She instead looked at the different ways in which women have engaged with the city, as artists, writers, journalists, and photographers (Adhikari 2017). Elkin explained that “unlike the flâneur, the flâneuse commits an act of ‘transgression’ by persistently crossing over into forbidden, uncharted territories” (Elkin 2016). Elkin asserted that by partaking in flânerie, women are overcoming their fears, hesitation, and even shame associated with venturing outside, thereby contesting the societal norms that dictate and shape their life trajectories. Even as their trysts with the city have been invisibilized, women have been constantly engaging with it, whether to “partake in political protests, to map the city, to think and write about it, to strive to belong to it or to lose themselves in it” (Bliss 2017). Interestingly, Elkin stated that technology like Google Maps does not necessarily inhibit the act of flânerie. She added that “getting lost” in the city is always a matter of individual choice (Adhikari 2017).
Developers of safety apps like Safetipin, which claim to encourage flânerie among women, have actively campaigned for pedestrianization in India. Deemed to be intrinsically linked with the issue of women’s safety, pedestrianization is an attempt to make streets amenable to strolling. In order to popularize the project, Raahgiri events were held in Connaught Place in 2013 and in Chandni Chowk market in 2014, which created a carnivalesque atmosphere with live music, Zumba, food stalls, and various activities, and which witnessed the participation of several women and families. In 2019, a Raahgiri event was planned from nine until twelve o’clock at night in Karol Bagh, which had been pedestrianized, to encourage women to venture outside after dark (HT correspondent 2019). The event was organized by the municipal corporation in association with Safetipin, Jagori, Raahgiri Foundation, and the Centre for Green Mobility. Under the guise of guaranteeing safety, pedestrianization is increasingly introduced to ensure a more orderly procession of people and to nurture new urban citizenship sensibilities.7 The support for pedestrianization by safety app developers is undergirded by a problematic discourse of safety. The prevailing narrative of safety, according to Shilpa Phadke, is “driven by twin concerns of contamination of women and contamination of public spaces” (Phadke 2007, 1510). She argued that public discussions of safety focused disproportionately on violence against middle-class, upper-caste, heterosexual, and able-bodied women while neglecting assaults on lower-caste and tribal women. The blame for that violence was often pinned on lower-class and minority men, followed by calls to remove those “threats” to the reputation and honor of middle-class women from public spaces. The narrative eventually serves as a rhetorical device intended to deter sexual liaisons between groups, thereby re-entrenching class and gender hierarchy in the public space (Phadke 2007, 1511). As reputation and honor are prioritized over safety, there is greater policing of women’s movements, and measures are taken to reduce their presence in the streets. Simultaneously, the vision of a globalized city, enamored with the idea of an orderly movement of people, insists on driving out perceived threats from the streets; subaltern groups like vendors, migrant workers, and Muslims8 (Phadke 2007, 1514-15).
As such, the attempt to ostensibly create a “flâneusian experience” is built on exclusion. Lower-class, lower-caste women and sexual minorities cannot always afford the freedom to venture with impunity. The attempts to make streets safer through pedestrianization can be traced primarily to elite groups who seek to assuage their own anxieties about safety by reclaiming spaces occupied by marginalized groups. The latter, on the other hand, are expected to accept the streets as they exist, with all their risks and vulnerabilities.
Flânerie, contrary to Elkin’s view, is then not always a matter of choice, and technology can further hamper one’s ability to “get lost” in the city. Safety apps, mired in a problematic conception of safety, chart out specific routes for women to reach their destinations. By marking designated routes for women, the apps decisively shape the purpose of women’s movements and inhibit any desire to explore cities.
Lopsided Conception of Safe Space
Urban mapping tools using crowdsourced data have recently emerged as popular techniques for pinpointing safe and unsafe zones in order to ensure better planning, development, and regulation of cities. In 2017, a crowdsourced “Free to Be” map was prepared by the XYX Lab, an urban research center, following a survey in cities like Sydney, Delhi, Lima, Kampala, and Madrid (Architecture AU Editorial Desk 2018). The respondents were asked to identify areas where they felt safe or unsafe by pinning them on a map and describing those spaces. The data was then used to identify hot spots. Apps like Safecity and Safetipin also rely upon aggregated valuations of areas to evaluate the safety index of cities. The digital map created is used to guide users to secure locations.
However, these apps’ conception of an “ideally secure space” is not an objective, preexisting category and cannot be taken for granted. Most safety apps fail to recognize that their conception of safety emerges only from a certain group and a specific cultural context. Individuals hailing from different social locations experience the city differently. Caste, class, sexual orientation, religion, and race often act as markers of bodies, affecting an individual’s passage through the city. For instance, manual scavengers, who usually hail from subcastes of Dalits like Valmikis, often find it difficult to navigate the city. As they walk through the city, people tend to cross over to the other side of the street to avoid contact with them (Safai Karamchari Andolan 2012, 1). Sometimes, as they pass through a lane, people close doors on them (UNDP Report 2012, 11).9 Similarly, members of the LGBTQIA community, women hailing from the northeast, and Muslims, as well as Africans, struggle to navigate the cityscape. For instance, members of the LGBTQIA community are often denied entry to some public spaces, denied access to or assaulted in public toilets, molested in public transport, stalked and monitored by the police and security guards in public spaces, beaten by the public, and prevented from entering malls, hotels, and salons on suspicion of engaging in illegal activities (International Commission of Jurists 2019, 116-29). Transgender persons are often targeted in the streets by the police, who arrest and register bogus cases against them to fill their daily quota of cases (International Commission of Jurists 2019, 113). Northeastern people are frequently stalked and accosted in the streets, harassed, subjected to hostile stares, and beaten on the pretext that they are cannibals or prostitutes, thereby embittering their experience of walking through the city.10
What is perceived to be a safe neighborhood by one woman may be considered unsafe by another woman and vice versa. For instance, a North Indian, Hindi-speaking, upper-caste woman may designate a particular neighborhood as safe, but the same neighborhood may be perceived as unsafe by a northeastern woman on account of the racial slurs and sexual harassment directed at her. Notions of safety may thus differ. For instance, in Delhi, Khirki Extension is perceived as an unsavory locality and the center of prostitution and drug rackets. In 2014 a mob led by AAP MLA Somnath Bharti raided the houses of Africans in the locality, alleging that they were sex workers and were hiding drugs.11 The Africans were humiliated and battered, and their travel tickets were shredded (Express Web Desk 2018). Following the midnight raid, police were deployed in the area and were instructed to not allow African women to walk to the nearby mall after ten o’clock at night. The Resident’s Welfare Association (RWA) had earlier demanded that landlords evict African and transgender tenants from their houses, citing safety issues (Chatterjee and Vatsa 2014). If one accepts the RWA’s claims about the “dangerous elements” in the neighborhood, one will fail to understand that Khirki Extension is actually home to a thriving, vibrant “community of artists, students, the transgender community and foreigners” (Chatterjee and Vatsa 2014). It is also the site of a school for underprivileged children, a recycling NGO, and a dance studio. Some residents reported how they had always felt safer in the neighborhood until the police patrol. This begs the question: whose safety concerns are ultimately articulated and legitimized and why? Perceptions of safety are contextual, and certifications of safety cannot be based on instant judgments about a place. The subjective evaluations in safety apps tend to present a lopsided notion of safety which may tilt the scales against localities frequented by people hailing from minority communities. The very fact that certifications of neighborhood safety by a specific group get legitimized by safety apps reveals that the conception of safety is often not a value-neutral question but a play of privilege and entitlement.
This has already been witnessed in the cases of apps like SketchFactor and Good Part of Town that promised to guide users away from “unpleasant” areas of the city. SketchFactor relied upon public crime data, crowdsourced data, and metrics like low lighting and isolation to demarcate “shady” neighborhoods and to designate safe routes. The skewed nature of the users’ comments, including discomfort about the presence of a homeless shelter in the neighborhood, revealed that definitions of what constitutes a safe location are biased (Gittleson 2014). In 2012 Microsoft’s Pedestrian Route Production App incorporated crime statistics into its Bing Maps to provide safe walking directions and to steer users away from areas that have high levels of violent crime (Bishop 2012; Matyszczyk 2012). It was accused of targeting areas populated by Black communities and was dubbed the “Avoid Ghetto” app. Similarly, community policing apps like NextDoor invited users to share information about their neighborhoods and to report crime. However, in NextDoor’s “Crime and Safety” section, minorities, especially Black men, were accused of engaging in “suspicious activity” for simply jogging through the neighborhood or driving slowly (Tashea 2016, 18). Other apps like Citizen and Neighbors that curate notifications about crime in the neighborhood through police scanner alerts were building prejudiced surveillance networks. The users’ inputs were not verified or contextualized, and they were driven by racist and class prejudices (Kozlowska 2019).
The apps reinforce the prevailing prejudice that particular neighborhoods regarded as alien and chaotic by affluent white people are hotbeds of crime (Capps 2014). This is also evident in the case of predictive policing models that identify “hot spots” and direct patrolling decisions. They consider crime statistics, crime history, socioeconomic indicators, and innocuous factors (like weather, temperature, access to schools, or number of bus stops, bars, and restaurants in the neighborhood) as criminogenic metrics of the inhabitants, to draw speculative observations about the site and time of future crimes, and to determine police intervention (Scannell 2019, 8-10). R. Joshua Scannell highlighted how deterministic projections of programs like HunchLab and PredPol tend to portray the vulnerability of a community as a certain predilection for crime, without any heed to their conditions of oppression. These programs then enable the relaxation of standards for “reasonable suspicion” and justify intensive patrolling in minority community neighborhoods that are deemed to be threats to the white public, thereby resulting in selective imprisonment (Scannell 2019; Capps 2014).
Safety apps, too, produce “calculated speculations” about certain neighborhoods based on decontextualized, unfiltered inputs. This can have far-reaching implications. When a neighborhood gets classified as unsafe, it finds it tougher to access services and faces the threat of overpolicing. For instance, in Ahmedabad, where the River Sabarmati clearly segregates the city, the localities where Muslim communities predominantly reside are deemed risky and avoided. Areas like Juhapura, which emerged in the aftermath of the Godhra riots in 2002, have terrible living conditions, claustrophobic lanes, dilapidated residences, littered streets, and lack of access to public transport (Biswas 2014). Since they are perceived to be unsafe, delivery services to the locality are deterred. Similarly, Dalits, denied accommodation by other communities, are coerced to occupy the city’s peripheral neighborhoods, such as Azadnagar Fathewadi, which have disheveled dwellings (Biswas 2014). Studies have demonstrated that wherever Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe communities are concentrated, piped water and toilets are not easily available (Devulapalli 2019). As neighborhoods get stigmatized, the residents find it difficult to access financial services. The poor (despite demonstrating in their applications that they have a regular flow of income) have a hard time procuring loans from banks because they are viewed as bad applicants and lack collateral and appropriate title deeds (Jeelani 2015). Residents of “unsafe” neighborhoods are sometimes not allowed to buy things on installments, and they have to ask residents of other localities to purchase goods for them on installment. Eventually, biased data about a neighborhood can affect land and property values and can lead to demolition and displacement. As such, the marginalized groups will be pushed further to the margins. This, in turn, can have other cascading effects like limiting access to opportunities for a better life such as education and jobs, thereby perpetuating a vicious circle of poverty (Biswas 2014).
Apart from subjective ratings, safety apps also take into account “objective criteria” for evaluating neighborhoods. The assumption is that a locality that scores low in all the above criteria—low lighting, low presence of security personnel, less people (especially women and children), narrow footpaths, less open, less visibility, less access to public transport—is unsafe. However, these criteria need to be critically unpacked and cannot be taken at face value. Sometimes, darkness can provide a safe cover for individuals. Sex workers find it easier to covertly conduct their business in poorly lit alleys that provide refuge from the patrolling policemen. For instance, in Ireland, a poorly lit area called Benburb Street, Emma Heffernan stated, was the preferred spot for sex workers to seek clients (Hefferman 2011, 114). When tracks were built for the tram system and street lights were installed, the sex workers were pushed into other darker areas because their clients would no longer come to Benburb Street due to the presence of guards. The guards began to harass the sex workers, and working there became difficult. Those who remained had a tough time hiding from the guards and yet appearing visible to potential clients (Hefferman 2011, 114). Badly lit areas also provide a safe cover for gay men who seek partners in places like public washrooms or bus terminals. For instance, Nehru Park in Delhi is a popular cruising spot since the badly lit area provides anonymity for gay men to scout partners.(Cruising Gays n.d.) It is pertinent here to refer to a discussion by Women Walk at Midnight (WWM),12 where a participant revealed that she despised streetlights when she was younger because as soon as they were switched on, she knew that she had to return home. Street lighting thus is not always reassuring as it may also signal the limits of freedom. Similarly, visibility and number of people cannot always be reliable measures. For instance, in 2016 when a girl from Manipur was beaten, dragged, and molested in Mumbai, no bystander tried to help her (Wungkhai 2016). Sometimes, the police and security guards can equally be perpetrators and can turn a blind eye to harassment, as evident in the above case where the victim’s complaint was deliberately not registered. In Bengaluru, due to a complaint by the Cubbon Park Walker’s Association that gay men were smoking, drinking, and instigating others to take part in “immoral activities,” the security guards chased them away (BR and RB 2018; Sudeep 2019). In Delhi, the cruising spots frequented by gay men are often patrolled by undercover policemen to harass and to extort money from them.
There is a need to critically scrutinize the parameters chosen for branding an area as safe or unsafe. A user review of Safetipin reported how the safety score audit had helped her identify the parameters to consider while stepping out. This suggests that the safety audit is simultaneously a pedagogical tool as it shapes the conversation around safety. If such criteria endorsed by safety apps are considered seriously by users whenever they step outside, they can induce a constant sense of insecurity. They can also lull users into a false sense of security, even though areas deemed to be secure in terms of parameters like lighting, visibility, and the like (such as malls) can be sites of violence against women.
Control of Women’s Movements
The GPS tracking feature of safety apps is undergirded by the misogynistic logic that women’s movements need to be controlled. In the past, tracking technologies had come under heavy criticism for collecting extensive information related to users’ movements without their consent, thereby violating their privacy. In 2009 Google Latitude was promoted as an upgraded feature of Google Maps that allowed its users to trace movements of families and friends through their phones and helped them contact the latter through SMS, Google Talk, and Gmail. However, it was highly criticized for enabling stalking, especially considering that the people being stalked may not even be aware that their movements are being tracked. Privacy International, an organization working to defend privacy rights, cautioned that if a stalker gets hold of a person’s phone and switches on the tracking feature, the unsuspecting person may be followed indefinitely (Gaudin 2009). In 2018, Associated Press research revealed that Google Maps or Google Weather continue to record time-stamped locations of their users even when the privacy setting on their phones is activated. A seemingly innocuous query posted in Google’s search engine will capture and save the exact latitude and longitude of one’s location to one’s Google account (Associated Press 2018). Tracking technologies can threaten to jeopardize the freedom of their users, especially women. In 2019 Absher, a government e-services app in Saudi Arabia, came under sharp public scrutiny when two sisters called upon Google and Apple to withdraw it. The app was criticized for enabling men to update or to rescind permissions for women relatives to travel abroad (Reuters 2019). It also relayed SMS messages to the men in case the women’s passports were being used. As such, the sisters were forced to steal their father’s phone to get their passports and the authorization to flee to Istanbul. Absher, like most tracking apps, facilitated the male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia that empowers men to make decisions regarding their women relatives’ desire to travel, to marry, or to work (Reuters 2019). This has prevented a lot of women from leaving their abusive families.
Safety apps can similarly reinforce patriarchal injunctions against women’s freedom. It can hand over tremendous power to families who seek to constrict women’s movements. Possessive male members of families can keep tabs on female relatives’ behavior when they venture out, even while advocating in seemingly neutral terms that “it is for their own good.” Interestingly, one of the reviewers of the bSafe app claimed that the app was useful for tracking his girlfriend’s movements when she returned from the office late at night. Another woman user reported how she could step out with ease as her husband did not have to “worry about her” anymore. Even when a woman does not wish to disclose to her family the areas she visits, the GPS tracking mechanisms can act as digital panopticons that induce conformity with patriarchal dictates.
Rachel Pain (1997) stated that when the private domain becomes championed as a safe refuge against risky public spaces, patriarchal notions about which places are appropriate for women are entrenched. Feminist groups like Pinjra Tod have highlighted that the family can be oppressive and have campaigned for women’s freedom of movement. The mounting cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence during the ongoing COVID-19-related lockdown as reported by the National Legal Services Authority is testament to the fact that private space is not safe for women (Times of India 2020).
Phadke argued that policymakers have emphasized upon the vulnerability of women in the streets rather than focusing on women’s right to access public space. They have introduced a slew of measures such as reducing women’s working hours and policing them (Phadke 2013, 50). She argued that the discourse of safety thus ends up denying women access to public space. Safety apps reinforce this discourse. With GPS tracking mechanisms, safety apps, rather than encouraging women to reclaim public spaces, tend to reinforce patriarchal ideas about controlling women’s sexuality and hence their movements.
Onus of Safety on Women
But the most worrying fallout of these apps is that they will shift the onus of safety onto women. The Safecity app claims that the data collected will enable people to make informed decisions about their safety, such as when to venture out or the kind of transport to be used (Economic Times n.d.). It is pertinent here to refer to a comment by the founder that “while the police and state should be held accountable, women have to take their own precautions” (Bramley 2015).
Since the unsafe areas have been clearly delineated, women venturing into these areas will be accused of being “irresponsible.” This was observed in the Uber rape case13 and the Soumya Vishwanathan murder case,14 in which the victims were blamed for falling asleep and for being “adventurous.” The assumption is that women have to be on their guard all the time and that any laxity on their part is unpardonable and will inevitably lead to an assault. Such binary accusations of being “foolish” or “fearless” against women who venture outside tend to obfuscate their life experiences (Bliss 2017).
Women are held responsible for their own safety. They are constantly harangued about venturing out and are advised to avoid confrontation, to return home early, to be careful in their interactions with others, to avoid eye contact, and to smile less so as to not “encourage attention”—to be completely inconspicuous in public space. Phadke pointed out that women are coerced to constantly produce symbols of respectability such as the company of male guardians, proof of matrimony, or carrying work bags to demonstrate that they are “worthy of protection” (Phadke 2007, 1512). While “the middle class, Hindu, upper-caste, heterosexual, married or soon to be married woman is deemed most deserving of protection, prostitutes or bar dancers are sought to be evicted from the streets since they complicate the task of identifying who are respectable” (Phadke 2007, 1515). It is this intertwined discourse of safety and respectability that weighs so heavily on women that they would rather endanger their physical safety than risk their respectability.15 This still does not guarantee women unconditional access to public space (Phadke 2007, 1511-12).
Safety apps tend to draw Lakshman Rekhas, boundaries that mark the limits of one’s own neighborhood, where one is purportedly safe. If a woman transgresses the line, she is condemned for “inviting trouble.” Safety apps do not move beyond the prevailing discourse of safety and fall into the same trap of demonizing city spaces and reiterating the dangers of the unknown to their users. They tend to feed the paranoia concerning navigation of unfamiliar territories. Consequently, women are forced to be hypervigilant all the time. They cannot afford to be complacent or to relax and leisurely explore the city. Women’s bodies are already trained for calculating and recognizing the risk of venturing out. This is evident in the way they walk (erect with arms around their chest as a protective shield), looking straight ahead, avoiding distractions, and always on the lookout for potential threats. The WWM participants stated that every time they walk outside with keys in hand posed as a weapon and armed with pepper spray, they are constantly reminded of their womanhood. They carry power banks out of paranoia that their phones would run out of battery and that without the GPS, they would find it difficult to navigate the city. Contrary to claims of encouraging women, the constant notifications and GPS trackers of safety apps reiterate the notion that women are vulnerable.
Bertrand Russell’s unbridled optimism about the possibilities of machines enabling leisure can be reevaluated in this light. He argued that following the Industrial Revolution, the advent of machines eased the burden of securing necessities on individuals and paved the way for leisure, not just for privileged classes but for the entire community (Russell 1932). Leisure, he asserted, constitutes the foundation of civilization as it ensures that there is a reasonable pursuit of activities leading to advancements in the arts, sciences, and philosophies. By permitting more hours for leisure, individuals will no longer passively consume but will actively produce works of public importance. They will suffer less from physical and mental exhaustion and will lead a life of contentment. The quasi-religious myth of progress associated with technological innovation, Joel Dinerstein (2006) stated, had always been the cornerstone of the West’s modernist, progressive claims and belief in its superiority over other purportedly regressive or stagnant societies.
However, such enthusiasm is unfounded today as technology has not necessarily eased the burden on women. By constantly drawing attention to “danger zones,” safety apps tend to escalate fear and anxiety instead of inducing a sense of calm among women while navigating the cityscape. For instance, the Being Safe app, besides notifying emergency contacts of the user’s location, also notifies other users in a same area range about an incident. The Citizen app tends to depict numerous red pins on the map based on its users’ reports, thereby aggravating feelings of fear and suspicion. As the possible spaces for women to loiter shrink, their movements get curtailed. Hille Koskela (1999) pointed out that when women constantly encounter constraints on their movements, they are forced to acknowledge their powerless position. Also, by restricting their movements, they end up reproducing masculine domination over space. As women’s access to public space gets strained, their relationship with the city may gradually get estranged.
Restructuring Safety Apps
How can we reimagine the structure of safety apps? Most safety apps begin with the notion of an abstract, universal category of women. However, intersecting axes of identities complicate this neat, pigeonholed category.
Rentschler critiques the proclivity of safety apps to categorize harassment into watertight compartments (groping, sexual gestures, stalking, transphobia, racism), thereby universalizing gender violence and ignoring the complicated ways in which axes of racism and sexism intersect and undergird gender oppression (Rentschler 2018, 139). Also, Ellcessor argued, the apps foreground certain citizenship claims and belonging rooted in sexist, ableist, racist biases by focusing exclusively on young, able-bodied women traversing cities at night as bodies at risk and deserving of protection while neglecting other vulnerable bodies (Ellcessor 2018, 157). Therefore, the notion of safety needs to be contextualized. It should be more inclusive and must embrace a diversity of users having a plethora of experiences of urban spaces. Even though the Safecity app tries to take into account harassment incidents based on ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation, it still tries to identify predictive trends and profile incidents related to certain neighborhoods. As one keeps in mind the problematic assumptions and their potential for discrimination, it is important for safety apps to revise their guidelines on the valuation of localities. For instance, in response to complaints about racial profiling, the NextDoor app introduced protocols for reporting suspicious action, urging users to focus on the individual and to avoid racist bias (Tashea 2016). It probed the cause of the complaints and issued notifications about the need for users to respect each other in the comments section (Kozlowska 2019). Safety apps must investigate the background of users to ensure that they do not hail from similar social backgrounds, so as not to arrive at a biased perception of a neighborhood. For instance, if the bulk of the users are upper-caste, middle-class Hindu women, it may drown out the voices of minority users. Moreover, the idea of safety is temporal. Safety evaluations of neighborhoods cannot be determined on the basis of instant judgments. One’s notion of safety can change over time. When individuals venture out of their comfort zone into unfamiliar territory, there is a tendency to be paranoid, given the warnings about the dangers of the unknown. However, over time, one can get acclimatized to the area, and the more one navigates the new neighborhood, the more it can appear nonthreatening. Over time, the individual can possibly traverse the same neighborhood without suspicion and anxiety. Interestingly, the founder of SketchFactor app had commented that having lived in New York for years, she found almost nothing sketchy anymore (Crains New York Business 2014). Hence, safety apps need to ensure that the subjective valuation of a neighborhood is not based on a single point in time but is measured over a period of time. It needs to have mechanisms to verify each evaluation against those given by a cross-section of users.
At the same time, we should recognize that the approach to rectify the imbalance in the data by reconfiguring the algorithm can be limited and can rectify only the problem of representation. Scannell argued that by simply coding and correcting the data fed into predictive policing systems, the deeply rooted racist bias among the police cannot be weeded out. In a bid to construct more efficient, transparent predictive crime models and to rectify the problem of overpolicing, increasing data sets are curated to make speculative, decontextualized deductions about neighborhoods populated by marginalized minorities. Incorporating a multitude of activities and affects under surveillance will hardly make a dent in the racist, ableist, sexist, and classist bedrock of policing (Scannell 2019, 2). He argued that given that the American politico-legal capitalist system directly benefits from the incarceration of minorities, the larger problem of structural violence cannot be reduced to restructuring the algorithm. In fact, the hoarding of a vast repository of data ends up bypassing legal protections around individual liberty and magnifying the carceral state’s powers. Predictive policing programs inevitably reproduce carceral violence (Scannell 2019, 7).
Safety apps, too, will eventually induce a sense of insecurity. By projecting the city as an unknown, risky territory, the apps exacerbate women’s fears and emphasize their vulnerability, thereby inhibiting the desire to loiter. They force their users to be perpetually oriented toward preemptive action. Preparedness, as enforced by surveillance technologies, tends to play up future risk scenarios and produce a state of constant crisis in order to justify security interventions (Scannell 2019; Ellcessor 2018). Preparedness actively produces instability while simultaneously producing a veneer of stability. In such a state of preparedness, security institutions are prioritized over social welfare institutions, and individuals are held responsible for their own survival. Preparedness signals a transition from social planning, democratic participation, and dependence on public institutions toward unaccountable, precarious transactions with private companies (Ellcessor 2018, 162-63; Dinerstein 2006, 573-74). Moreover, by foregrounding preparedness, the apps ignore power dynamics and unequal distribution of resources, which do not allow vulnerable groups to adopt the prescribed course of preemptive action (Ellcessor 2018). The proponents of these technologies have failed to recognize that they are merely transposing technologies onto the existing bedrock of structural inequalities, rather than effecting any kind of actual political and social transformation (Dinerstein 2006).16
Technology cannot be regarded as a magic wand for conjuring instantaneous solutions to structural problems. Dismantling patriarchal discourse and behavior requires sustained offline and online feminist movements that claim their right to public space, which technological devices cannot guarantee. Movements like Girls at Dhabas, Why Loiter, and Blank Noise have challenged the prevailing narrative on safety and have encouraged women to participate in public space, through exchange of personal stories of sitting at conventional male spaces like dhabas (roadside food stalls) or sleeping in public parks. For instance, in 2014, the Why Loiter collective undertook an online campaign that invited women to post images of having fun in the city (Phadke 2020). Feminist activist Vani Subramanian had also conducted a workshop where she invited the participants to stamp emoticons on a map to represent their responses to different parts of the city, while also noting their social location (Vishwanath et al. 2020). Such initiatives are fruitful because they pave the way for nuanced conversations on where women do or do not venture and why, disrupting the presumed homogeneity of notions of safety.
Technology is not neutral and immune to racist, sexist, classist, and casteist biases. In fact, technology, undergirded by prejudicial assumptions, perpetuates oppression. It is not always benign, can thwart an individual’s freedom rather than enhancing it, and is often exclusionary in nature. For instance, Safiya Noble’s analysis of Google search results highlighted how distorted notions about marginalized communities, especially women and girls of color, are circulated and lead to technological redlining whereby online data is used to profile people (USC Annenberg 2018).
Even as safety apps have been hailed for their promise to facilitate secure travel for women in the city, there is a need to critically examine the extent to which they encourage loitering for women and accommodate different safety concerns. Safety apps are undergirded by a discourse of safety that tends to privilege the safety of certain groups of women while neglecting others. As such, their conception of a secure space tends to be rather skewed. Safety apps have simultaneously given rise to new imaginations of the city. While the city is reconceptualized and redesigned to accommodate the hopes and aspirations of one group (evident in pedestrianization projects), other vulnerable groups tend to get sidelined.
Women hailing from different backgrounds should have the freedom to explore and to claim public spaces as their own. They should be able to access the same spaces as others and loiter in so-called “undesirable” neighborhoods. The protectionist discourse of safety must be supplanted by a safety discourse that focuses on making women feel comfortable in public spaces and recognizes their right to take risks (Phadke 2020). The participants of the WWM discussion concurred that although venturing out at night ushers in paradoxical feelings of excitement, guilt, and fear, risk-taking bolstered their confidence.17 As one of the participants observed, “Every risk taken (that pays off) dismantles fear, which is the effective tool of patriarchy” (Women Walk at Midnight 2020).
Walking through the city then becomes a way to contest the patriarchal status quo. Unlike the dispassionate observation of the city by the flâneur, Elkin noted, “the act of flânerie for women is an emotionally charged experience since it is often a way to test the boundaries set by her family or to demonstrate her independence” (Adhikari 2017). Phadke pointed out that women are expected to have fun while staying indoors and be passive receptacles of conspicuous consumption, but not by actively wandering on the streets. Having fun by loitering then subverts societal expectations of what women can and cannot do and what is desirable for them. Such acts of claiming public spaces, Phadke argued, are not forms of individualized, neoliberal consumerism but an act of collectively claiming citizenship in the city.(Phadke 2020)
Unless the prevailing discourse on safety that reiterates the vulnerability of women in the streets is contested, safety apps will continue to reproduce the patriarchal rationale. Safety apps reinforce patriarchal notions of controlling women’s movements and shift the onus of safety onto women. They draw boundaries that mark out safe (private) domain from unsafe (public) domain. By harping on the dangers of unfamiliar territories, they exacerbate fears about venturing outside, thus straining the relationship between women and cities. As a woman reflecting on her personal connection with her city observed, “In the pursuit of being safe, I stopped feeling invincible in my own city” (Jamini 2019). Safety apps do not test the existing Lakshman Rekhas. Rather, they tend to etch them deeper, making it more difficult for women to engage with their cities.
Kaushiki Das is a doctoral researcher at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, pursuing her PhD on “Bioprospecting and Its Implications for Traditional Medicine.” She has published and collaborated on projects that include patenting and traditional medical knowledge. She has presented papers at several conferences, including a recent lecture on “Decolonizing Science Curriculum” at the Liverpool John Moores University, in the United Kingdom. In addition, she has worked on a research project for the Ministry of AYUSH, assisting in the preparation of a position paper for the 32nd Session of Inter-Governmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Folklore at Geneva. Moreover, she has consulted with WWF Indonesia on the ramifications of bioprospecting. Das has also been a recipient of the Erasmus Plus International Mobility Scholarship in Barcelona, Spain. Her research interests lie in intellectual property rights (especially pharmaceutical patenting), traditional medical knowledge, science and technology studies (especially decolonizing science), and feminism.
In 2013 a photojournalist was assaulted at the abandoned Shakti Mills by a group of men in Mumbai. In 2012 a young student was brutally assaulted by a group of men on a bus in Delhi. The incidents galvanized protest marches and initiated a slew of measures such as increasing policing, banning of buses with tinted windows, and launching women-only buses.
In the Ramayana, the Lakshman Rekha had been used as a powerful allegory to indicate the threshold of control that was forbidden for women to transgress.
These apps were chosen because they are hugely popular among users. For instance, Safetipin has more than fifty thousand downloads, and bSafe has around one million downloads on the Google Play store. Also, the developers of the Safetipin and Safecity apps have worked closely with the local municipality authorities and urban planners to influence the design and development of the city, such as the pedestrianization project. These apps are lauded and sponsored by premier institutions like Asian Development Bank, UN Women, and Ford Foundation. They have gained widespread public credibility as the magic bullet for resolving the issue of women’s safety.
However, despite choosing a smiling emoticon denoting that I am comfortable in the neighborhood, the final safety audit presented on the screen included a bland, unsmiling emoticon. I completed the audit twice, and each time it was the same result. This is significant because it appears that the algorithm has a different judgment about the neighborhood, given its “failing” score on certain parameters like walk path and openness.
Bydlo is a pejorative term, derived from the Polish word for ‘cattle’. It has been repurposed to refer to a certain type of east Ukrainian, particularly those hailing from the country’s easternmost mining region, the Donbas. It also refers to such individuals as aggressive and uncultured. See https://books.google.co.in/books?id=Ef4OEAAAQBAJ&pg=PA44&lpg=PA44&dq=bydlo+is+pejorative&source=bl&ots=oDcOeImhHm&sig=ACfU3U0l9ZPoGfpCBu9zEoM4PVp0o-6jUQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjDrumpsPTxAhUhxTgGHfqxAlMQ6AEwCnoECAgQAw#v=onepage&q=bydlo%20is%20pejorative&f=false and <https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Bydlo for further reference>.
Mayank Austen Soofi’s The Delhi Walla blog captures and reflects the city in all its shades, romanticizing its quirkiness. A Time Out magazine review called it a “one-man encyclopaedia of the city” (The Hindu 2013).
Pedestrianization got a further boost recently when the Indian Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs urged municipal corporations to increase the size of pavements leading to the market and to designate paths for cyclists in a bid to ensure social distancing and to control vehicular movement (Dutta 2020).
Phadke (2007) pointed out that though low-caste, poor, and Muslim men suffered as much risk in public spaces, the discourse of safety focused solely on women.
According to Hugo Gorringe and Irene Rafanell, caste is embodied through visible markers such as attire, body posture, and facial hair (Gorringe and Rafanell 2007, 103). In villages, Dalits are forbidden from cycling, from wearing shoes while walking through upper-caste neighborhoods, and from sitting on benches in public spaces (Gorringe and Rafanell 2007, 103).
During the COVID-19 pandemic, attacks have intensified against northeasterners as they are assumed to be Chinese and are regarded as carriers of coronavirus. They are being spat upon, verbally abused, assaulted, or denied entry to grocery stores (Sirur 2020).
African men and women are routinely targeted in Indian cities on the basis of their skin color. In 2017 they were targeted and assaulted in Greater Noida’s Pari Chowk and Ansal Plaza as they were suspected to be responsible for the death of a local resident (Prabhu 2017).
Women Walk at Midnight is a collective dedicated to encouraging women’s claim to urban spaces. On 19 September last year, it held an online discussion about risk-taking, “Raaton ki Baatein: Risk Wisk.” https://instagram.com/wewalkatmidnight?utm_medium=copy_link
In 2014, while returning from work, a finance executive hailed an Uber vehicle to travel to central Delhi and fell asleep enroute. The driver assaulted her and threatened to kill her like the victim in the Delhi gang rape case of 2012.(PTI 2018)
In 2008 Soumya Vishwanathan, a journalist, was returning from her workplace late at night and was shot by assailants, who have since been under trial.(Times News Network 2008)
A WWM participant revealed that she once waded through waist-deep water in Mumbai streets flooded by torrential downpours rather than wait for the water to subside. She was pushed to take such an extreme step to reach her home since there were mostly men outside.
Even as we acknowledge the debilitating impact of surveillance technologies, it is important to be aware that they do not overtly shape human behavior. A technological deterministic argument does not leave space for human agency. Surveillance technologies have been in the past thwarted or manipulated by users to serve their own agendas. Individuals demonstrate agency in creating and reinventing their data and are not passive, vulnerable targets of datafication and dataveillance (Lupton 2020, 3). But the acknowledgment of the potential for creative utilization of technologies does not preclude their oppressive tendencies.
Interestingly, the narratives of venturing out were couched in terms of “extraordinary adventures” and were often followed by the lament that in hindsight, they should have probably listened to their parents’ injunction against venturing out. Despite preparedness in the form of fully charged phones and GPS tracking of their movements, women still have an ambiguous relationship with loitering and staking claim to the city. Venturing out for them meant not a mundane course of action, but something out of the ordinary. As long as the patriarchal discourse against loitering continues to have a strong hold, safety apps will not improve the situation.