Throwing technology at the women’s safety problem won’t make it go away
Using technology to counter misogyny is basically well-meaning bullshit.
Mandatory “panic buttons” on cellphones, legal action against online trolling, GPS-enabled jewellery that women can wear around their necks like dog collars, apps on the phone that are supposed to alert family members if a woman is in distress, and of course, countless CCTV cameras. Thank you, technology, for making us feel like we are navigating a minefield in Syria instead of going for a walk around the block!
Since that terrible night in December 2012, when a young student returning home from an evening at the movies was brutalised and left to die by the side of the road, urban Indians seem to have gotten into a semi-paranoid state of constant vigilance. The term “Women’s Safety” has become a handy garnish to put on any tech solution you serve to the public.
Uber and Ola cabs should be GPS-enabled and must have “panic buttons” — because women’s safety. You’ve developed an app to deliver food, but what about women’s safety? Instead of designing jewellery that just, you know, looks good, why don’t you put in a tracking device so that women’s families can track their every move (a great idea in a country where women are not controlled enough!). Go ahead, do it, because women’s safety.
‘Women’s safety’ cannot exist in a vacuum
Look, this is well-meaning bullshit at best (at worst it’s a cynical tactic to use an emotive issue to generate good PR). Technology is only going to go so far to ensure safety for women until attitudes and mindsets change. You cannot have a Minister for Woman and Child Development announcing that online trolling and abuse of women will be monitored and potentially penalised, when many of her colleagues in the Cabinet and other politicians reveal their misogyny and patriarchal beliefs with their rape apologies, victim-blaming and ‘ma behen beti’ statements (as if women have no identity apart from the ones defined by their male relatives).
Instead of designing jewellery that just, you know, looks good, why don’t you put in a tracking device so that women’s families can track their every move (a great idea in a country where women are not controlled enough!). Go ahead, do it, because women’s safety.
It will not work as long as the most abusive and misogynist comments on Twitter come from extreme right-wing supporters of the government and the prime minister. Unless the PMO turns against these people and tells them to STFU, which it will not do because they are such good fanboys, how can this even work? Do you see the inherent hypocrisy in this, Ms Gandhi? You may be able to shut down one out-of-work singer who abused a prominent journalist, but what about the millions who are part of a Twitter army and who go around threatening to rape women for criticising the PM?
Then there’s the problem of implementation. Take the holy technology troika that has emerged in our cities: GPS tracking, CCTV cameras and “panic buttons”. The Delhi government recently announced the rollout of buses in the capital that will be equipped with these silver bullets. But scan a dozen news stories about the announcement and you won’t find any details of how these measures will help (what is the point of tracking a bus carrying a 100 people, unless you’re expecting it to be hijacked in a Speed
-like situation?), how the data is going to be used, what would actually happen in case of an “emergency” if a woman is sexually harassed on a bus and presses the “panic button.” It’s all wishy washy, ‘oh we are doing this for women’s safety now women will be really safe no really we mean it’ (but written in officialese).
Scan a dozen news stories and you won’t find details of how these measures will help (what is the point of tracking a bus carrying a 100 people, unless you’re expecting it to be hijacked in a Speed-like situation?)
Having a thousand CCTV cameras up in our cities to ensure women’s safety is useless when there is no guarantee that these gadgets work and can actually be used to bring culprits to justice swiftly — without demeaning women further by making it seem as if monitoring their every movement is the only solution. And by the way, why do only women have a claim on safety? Do you know how many children, men and transgenders are raped and assaulted every day in India?
Paranoia over women’s safety is counter-productive
This paranoia over women’s safety is sexist and counterproductive, and actually restricts women’s freedom. In fact, even the efficacy of CCTV cameras is doubted by experts. The Hyderabad Urban Lab, which specializes in research on urbanization, in their recommendations to the Committee on Women’s Safety in Telangana, commented on the efficacy of CCTVs. Its report said: “Investment in new surveillance technologies is at best a short term deterrent. In the long term, only an investment in social institutions can guarantee safety for women.”
CCTV footage of couples from the Delhi Metro was leaked as pornography on the internet.
Women’s rights activist and member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Kavita Krishnan has written about
how GPS tracking devices are most often used by family members who want to control and monitor what women do outside the home, and by “possessive” husbands and boyfriends who stalk their partners. Krishnan also talks about how CCTV footage of couples from the Delhi Metro was leaked as pornography on the internet. How empowering!
The point is, women’s safety cannot exist in a vacuum, and throwing technology at the problem in a world where deeply held patriarchal beliefs go unchallenged, and are even endorsed through thoughtless messaging in government campaigns
, is pointless. Investing in social institutions like sensitising the police force, making sure women’s complaints are taken seriously, and training officers to deal with changing social realities, is a long-term project, and not likely to create much of a media stir.
Therefore, let’s bring on those panic buttons and GPS-tracked buses instead, because that will make even the international press take
notice. Win win!