DELHI — On a recent Sunday morning, a group of 13 women set out from their homes to take a nap in a popular Delhi park.
It was over an hour away by bus and the park was packed. But that’s what they wanted — to be seen.
Sahani Khatun traveled with her sister, Afsana, and some of neighbors from her village. It was the first time she had ever done anything like this.
Two weeks before the Khatun sisters headed out for their public nap, a woman’s charred body was found in Hyderabad. Four men had raped and burned her.
“That woman was coming back from work. Did she ever imagine that she would run into these monsters?” says Afsana. “There are very few women who dare to go out in the public after dark. And those who do it must be so scared within.”
India’s National Crime Records Bureau says that a rape is reported every 15 minutes. Experts say that the number is much higher, since many women don’t report violence.
For Sahani, Afsana and other women fed up with an epidemic of gender violence, napping in public has become an act of resistance.
A survey by CharityAid UK said that nearly 80 percent women in India face public harassment in the form of staring, catcalling, groping or rape.
“The first time I took a blanket and a sheet to a park, I was surprised because I could not sleep at all,” says Jasmeen Patheja, an artist in Bangalore who conceptualized Meet To Sleep — the annual event where women gather to sleep in public. “Even though I was accompanied by friends, the slightest of disturbance like the sound of a falling leaf or a dog passing by would make me startled. That’s when I realized the depth of our fear. We all carry a story of fear.”
“It’s a pledge not to forget,” Patheja says.
Delhi has the fourth most dangerous transportation system for women, according to a 2016 Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of the world’s 15 major cities.
The kind of harassment that’s common on public transportation is part of the story of “every woman in Delhi,” says Sundari Thakur, the youngest member of a group of women who call themselves Khadar ki Ladkiyaan, which means “Girls of Khadar” — a reference to the area of Delhi they live in.
The group came together to write a rap that reflects those experiences.
“We all wrote it together. We brought together our stories of violence and struggle and made it into a song,” says Thakur.
“The city is for you and me
The city is not anyone’s property
Why has society kept me suppressed?
Instead of ironing out its own faults
Why am I the one facing house arrests?”
Several initiatives were promised by the government after 2012 to make public spaces safer for women. Helpline numbers were launched and painted on buses and other public places. Last year, the Delhi government made traveling in public transport free for women to encourage more women to use it.
Neha Singh, a theater practitioner in Mumbai, has her own response to the idea that women shouldn’t be out on the streets alone.
She started a campaign in 2014 dubbed Why Loiter, named after a book by author Shilpa Phadke that makes the case that women do not have equal access to public space.
“This fear narrative after every incident is dangerous. Reducing women’s visibility in public spaces would put them at an even higher risk,” says Singh.
Every month, anywhere between four and 20 women meet at a designated place and loiter in public spaces. They walk on streets after dark, sing songs on the metro, play board games in parks, read books and cycle.
Midnight walks, however, do not come without challenges.
“We are harassed by police. More than other men, we have to confront cops,” Singh says. “They presume we are sex-workers. They ask for our identity cards, take our phone numbers and threaten to call our families to complain on us”
Singh says they try not to explain the initiative to anyone who stops them.