100 Women 2016: Indian women 'loiter' in public places at night

By Divya Arya
BBC Delhi

media captionWalking the streets of Mumbai after midnight as a woman

Four years on from a fatal rape that shocked India and the world, women want to reclaim public spaces and are speaking up about the violence they have faced - but they don't just want to be seen as victims.

Every month, Neha Singh sends a text about the next midnight walk to a group of women.

A quick discussion on the route follows. The date fixed, they agree to meet at midnight, with a plan to loiter until 03:00.

It's a time when you normally don't see women out on their own. Even well-lit streets are considered unsafe after midnight anywhere in India.

But these women refuse to be boxed in.

image captionThe women stop for a cup of tea and talk to a group of men about their right to be there

On the night I join the walk, four members turn up. One of them, Celina John, is wearing shorts and a sleeveless top.

"Why should I dress differently at night?" she asks.

"The more you dress freely, the more people will get used to it, and in a tiny way that will change their attitudes to women."

These attitudes started getting questioned after a 23-year-old physiotherapy student, Jyoti Singh was raped by multiple men on a moving bus in Delhi, in December 2012. She died from her injuries.

It was so shocking that it caused an international outcry and India tightened its laws that deal with violence against women.

First protest, now action

Neha was one of the thousands who marched in the streets in protest.

And as she thought of ways to bring about lasting change, she stumbled upon a book called Why Loiter, which argues that women's access to public spaces in India is "at best, conditional".

The book argued that women should have equal access to public spaces, and inspired Neha to start her group, also called Why Loiter.

image captionNeha Singh (R) is all smiles after the walk but has faced threatening situations

"It has its challenges, like once when a man stepped out of his car and started masturbating in front of us," says Ms. Singh.

"But the loitering had changed us and instead of feeling ashamed or blaming ourselves for it, I took out my camera, pointed it at him and said this will make a viral video on YouTube, and the man zipped up and fled."

Every four minutes in India in 2015, a sexual crime against women was reported to the police.

Observers suggest broader definitions of violence and harsher penalties have encouraged more women to report attacks.

Ending the silence

Some women have also felt emboldened enough to report instances of sexual harassment and rape against men in authority.

Sameera Khan, a journalist and co-author of the book Why Loiter, says the Indian woman has turned defiant and this defiance is taking different forms across the country.

image captionAuthor Sameera Khan says Indian women are tired of being labelled as 'victims'

Protest groups like Why Loiter in Mumbai, Pinjra Tod'(Break the Cages) in Delhi and Blank Noise in Bangalore are being led by young women but have found support among men too.

"The message out there to the west is that we are not only about violence and being victims," Ms. Khan says.

"Instead we are empowering our lives in many different ways, raising questions, talking about our personal narratives of facing violence and understanding that these are not private stories that need to be hidden under the carpet anymore or in the closet."

What is 100 women?

BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year. We create documentaries, features and interviews about their lives, giving more space for stories that put women at the centre.

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Recently, one of India's top sportswomen Mary Kom went public about how she was molested as a teenager.

Indian women don't normally talk about harassment because of the shame associated with it.

It took Mary Kom, a five time world boxing champion and an Olympic bronze medallist, almost a decade to come out with her story.

image captionBoxer Mary Kom has fought her way to the top and wants to change how society treats women

"I was nobody at that time and wasn't sure I'd get support if I spoke up," she tells me when we meet at her boxing academy in the north-eastern state of Manipur.

Now, after having put her state on the world map, and witnessed a change in the way women are perceived, Mary Kom believes it is time for people like her speak up.

"In India we place the burden of honour on women," Ms. Kom says.

"I believe that women should not be shamed whatever harassment or violence they face. We should speak up. Only then society will change."

image captionMary Kom is determined to live the change and is raising her three sons to respect women

Even Bollywood seems to be opening up to progressive portrayals of attitudes towards women.

Far from depicting stalking and rape threats as romantic overtures in popular cinema, the newly released Bollywood film Pink has a strong message that no means no.

On the streets and elsewhere, women sense that some doors are finally opening.

Neha of Why Loiter is getting married next year and says her partner fully supports her activities.

She says: "I want to be as free as any man in the country. Why should we settle for anything less?"