Everyone must have, at some point or the other, wondered how safe their city is for women, especially at night. Late on Tuesday night, three women police officers from Kerala's Kozhikode district decided to find out the answer for themselves.
Led by Kozhikode City DCP Merin Joseph, the team ventured out on the streets of Kozhikode past 9 pm, not as police personnel, but as ordinary women.
Sans their official police uniform, DCP Merin and two women constables VK Soumya and M Sabitha walked around the city in plain clothes for hours together, to find out what the city's darkness had in store for its women.
"This is the first time women from the police department have done such an experiment to assess the situation on the ground. When I travel in my official vehicle as a cop, I get a completely different experience, which is drastically different from what an ordinary woman walking on the road goes through. We wanted to see the experience women have to face, when they step out at night. I was sure nobody would recognise me," DCP Merin tells TNM.
She says that a lot of people including media persons had been asking her about how safe the city was for women and says that she could always answer that question only from the point of view of a cop. That's why DCP Merin decided to carry out such an experiment, along with Malayalam news channel Mathrubhumi.
While the two women constables ventured out on the streets after 9pm, DCP Merin joined the experiment at around 11.40 pm. They had already selected the areas they would cover on foot – Mavoor road, KSRTC bus stand and beach road.
Incidentally, she did not find a single woman on the road past 11.40 pm, DCP Merin says. However, there were men standing on road sides, even riding their bikes.
DCP Merin says that she found several vehicles slowing down as they went past her, to stare at her.
"Men stared at me, probably wondering what a lone woman was doing out at that time. They are just not used to the idea of a woman walking around at night. I waited around at the bus stand for some time and caught many men staring at me. Then I walked around, went off to the beach and sat there for some time. The experience was no different. Beach area is a place where women don't come alone, they are almost always accompanied by men or their families. But what if a woman wants to just sit there? How is it like for her?" Merin asks.
While her own experience was limited to men staring at her, the case was slightly different for the other two women constables. Men on motorbikes slowed down and asked them to go with them.
The situation is hardly perfect, but the positive take away from the experiment, she says, is the strong police presence at night in all the places where the three women officers went. At one place, a cop on patrolling duty went up to DCP Merin to politely ask her if she wanted any help, she points out.
"Even as I appreciate the number of policemen on ground at night to make sure everything is alright, it is the people's attitude that is to be talked about. Even the policemen are not used to the idea that a lone woman can venture out at night just to take a walk! Basically it is because our people are not used to the idea. It is not normal to see a woman alone, if she is accompanied by a man at night, then they draw other conclusions out of it," Merin says.
While the team confronted all the situations like a normal woman would do, DCP Merin points out that much needs to be changed to improve the safety of women.
"Although there are enough policemen on patrolling duty, they must be standing in a place where there is more visibility to improve effectiveness. So we need to make small changes," she says.
Asked about her personal experience of leading the team, DCP Merin admits that she did feel vulnerable at some point.
"The vulnerability element was there. If I was an ordinary woman, I wouldn't feel safe. I would have felt vulnerable, because you feel conscious when men are looking at you. At night, it's even more scary. But from this experiment, I hope other women will get the confidence that policemen are on duty at night to ensure their safety," DCP Merin says.