Twelve years ago, in 2000, my hometown witnessed one of the most horrifying attacks it had ever seen. You can read about the Arti Shrivastav acid attack here, a case that shook an entire city. Because incidents like these always shake cities and sensibilities. For a while. A few years later, one of my cousins told me about the pepper spray she carries with her and how she’s had guys follow her in car and how she’s had some very narrow escapes. Then there was that night I spent on the Blank Noise website trying to understand how rating women(something that me and most of my friends – male or otherwise – had/have occasionally indulged in) classifies as eve-teasing(about the same time I learned not to use the C-word while talking about people from the North-east).
And then, there was the Guwahati incident.
This is one of those posts which can be regarded as an aftermath of that incident. I’ve read a lot of them lately. There’s Localteaparty on teaching your son some lessons. There’s daddy_san with a flowchart. There’s Lavanyan’s two cents(which has a link to a DIY tutorial on making a pepper spray). Calamur draws a parallel with Draupadi in her column. There’s subfusced on violence against women. There’s Sandygrains on her experience (with a video on self-defense). And then there’s UnnamedEntity’s post(of a series) and Krtgrphr’s on male sexuality(in the Indian context) and Natasha Badhwar’s moving post on the same issue.
I’ve never witnessed any such incident in real life but I did see a few of them on Youtube(there was one in Mumbai where this guy was beaten up and his girl molested). The Guwahati incident was the first, in-your-face account of mob brutality that I had seen. But more than that video, I found Natasha’s account(link above) disturbing. Disturbing because of the sheer helplessness one experiences in that moment. Probably the same one a ragging victim experiences. Just that there’s a lot more to lose in case of the former.
All this in a country that has a twisted sense of morality and an even more twisted interpretation of its own culture and history. A country whose police force is as sensitive as a rusted knob on an 80s radio. Where the moral police is swifter than the real one and at times you can’t really tell the difference between the two. And then there’s the extremely efficient judicial system that forgets to measure up the injustice freely being delivered, while it takes its sweet little time to decide and deliver a verdict(if at all it feels like delivering one). Then there’s the censor board that has been showing rape scenes in graphic detail in a pre-Mahesh-bhatt era, while innocent lovers had to hide behind flowers and trees. That’s been telling the audience that you need a Screaming Sunny Deol to get justice in this country. Then there’s an overzealous media and politics and people like me who have never really cared to vote or to change things.
So there are a lot of vicious circles and they overlap like a fucked up venn diagram. And there’s no point in endlessly ranting about it. And no way to fix this machine without bringing it all down and putting it together again(something I’m hoping 2012 would do, unless the Mayans were mistaken and we’ll still have this shit forever).
However, Natasha’s experience and the other blog posts had me thinking. Thinking of how technology can help where other things refuse to work.
A few days ago I read about the 1is2Many initiative. As a part of the 1is2Many initiative, the department of health and human services organized an app challenge that “encourages the development of applications that provide college students and young adults with the tools to help prevent dating violence and sexual assault.” 32 apps were submitted in this challenge(you can read about them here) and two apps won the challenge. You can read about OnWatch and Circle of 6. There are more apps listed later in this post.
I was also thinking of other ways in which we can approach this problem:
#1 Mimicking Animal Defense Mechanisms?
Lavanya, in her post(link above), mentions how women can start fighting molestation attempts by not being silent. But that’s not easy, at least not always. Between fight and flight, the flight is often the easier option and safer too perhaps. We’ve been conditioned to be silent and not ‘make a scene’ and breaking that mold isn’t easy. And things could always get worse. But what if this act of defense wasn’t reactive and proactive?
I am thinking of a phone that shrieks on behalf of the victim. There’s a T-Mobile phone that does that. What if there was an app that a girl could activate/use to create a scream that could disorient her attackers and attract attention at the same time? In case of drunken assaults, such an act could surely startle the attackers and give the victim a window of opportunity. I do have my doubts as to the efficiency of this method but I’d like to see someone try. Instead of a scream, an app may use crowd voices/alerts/police signals or a number of other sounds and see if any of them are effective. If a phone’s speaker isn’t powerful enough, speakers/devices that could be attached to bags, kept in pockets – basically something that someone’s able to carry around without attracting any eyeballs – could be designed. Who knows?
(Check out the YWCA app – http://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/ywca-safety-siren/id372269044?mt=8 – it also works by simply shaking the iPod)
I’m just thinking aloud here(which I’ll probably do a lot in this post) but there could also be a way of using light as a distraction. An app or a device that can create a blinding flash of light? The only con of this method is that it may probably disorient the victim as well.
and then there’s the skunk.
The skunk has a crazy defense mechanism where it uses a scent gland to spray a chemical with “a highly offensive smell that can be described as a combination of the odors of rotten eggs, garlic, and burnt rubber. The odor of the fluid is strong enough to ward off bears and other potential attackers and can be difficult to remove from clothing. Muscles located next to the scent glands allow them to spray with a high degree of accuracy, as far as 3 metres (10 ft). The smell aside, the spray can cause irritation and even temporary blindness and is sufficiently powerful to be detected by a human nose up to a mile downwind.” 
Though the human olfactory system isn’t as sensitive as other animals, if there were a way to use a similar mechanism to disperse such a spray in case of a molestation/rape attempt, it’d certainly disorient the attackers. I am not sure but I feel that an obnoxious smell emanating from the victim(and something that can infect the attacker’s clothing) would definitely put them off.
Another way of achieving this may include a tagging chemical that leaves an permanent(long enough not to be temporary) imprint on attackers. If your son or husband comes home with that print on his t-shirt, there is a 50% chance that he tried molesting someone earlier that day. (Again a completely ridiculous thought but who knows)
Say a range of clothing armed with such chemicals, which if ripped, lets loose these chemicals. A locket or a ring with a capsule which can be crushed to release it.
#2 Stun-suits, anyone?
I checked out this article on Stun-gun on HowStuffWorks and somehow, I feel, that can be formed/fitted into a dress/accessory(say buttons on shirt) which can be activated in case the victim senses danger. Or something that makes the victim’s dress statically charged so that any molester touching her gets a funny sensation(or a not-so-funny one). I am not sure how feasible, safe or even legal this is but worth imagining, no?
#3 Applications that help? (most of this already exists)
Read about Circle of 6 and OnWatch – http://www.tuaw.com/2011/12/16/brooklyn-filmmaker-working-on-app-to-help-prevent-sexual-assault/
There’s an app to share your story on the Hollaback blog – http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/hollaback/id379866261?mt=8
In Egypt, use HarassMap to report via. SMS.
Believe it or not, there’s actually a Cracked.com article on the topic – http://www.cracked.com/article_19051_6-new-anti-pervert-technologies-we-really-shouldnt-need.html
There’s an app for finding sex offenders in your area(US based only) – https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.life360.android.safetymapc&hl=en
There’s an Indian app as well – http://www.fightbackmobile.com/welcome
The YWCA Safety Siren app – http://itunes.apple.com/ca/app/ywca-safety-siren/id372269044?mt=8
There’s this article on Good.is that’s worth a read too(with an idea very similar to @daddy_san’s post) – http://www.good.is/post/three-apps-that-might-actually-prevent-sexual-assault/
We can probably borrow from these apps or build one that suits/adapts to the Indian context and borrows data from national databases(I have no clue what I’m talking about).
What I’ve also noticed from the Guwahati incident is that nothing can fuck up molesters more than people identifying them and screwing their lives. Which sounds brutal but is probably just the right amount of punishment. In that case, ideas on devices that can capture their images or record their conversations could help. In case of molestation by a group of attackers, identification becomes a concern. But that’s a lot of grey territory with privacy variables and stuff like that(till we get surveillance cameras and traffic cameras in India).
or how about using real-time updates(something like harassmap above), gathered in an anonymous format(no point asking me how, I don’t know. yet.) to map ongoing incidents of harassment/molestation on a map and alerting local residents/police stations/patrols/others? This will also help in identifying high-risk areas(I think such maps already exist for India, not sure).
#4 Elements in town planning/design?
What if our streets were smart enough to fight molestation? (and I am not just talking about surveillance cameras). So here’s the deal. Suppose on every street light, we attach a device(let’s call it The Box) that detects a certain frequency and when a victim sends out a distress signal(from any device, let’s say an imaginary one), The Box sounds an alarm that lets the neighbourhood know something’s wrong. The Box also sends this info to the police department and alerts a passing patrol to revisit that area.
Let’s extend this a bit too far and imagine in case a victim’s abducted and she activates this device. Say she dials a number(say 999 – this approach eliminates the need of a smartphone) and the service provider geolocates the device, sends signals to the nearest Box and alerts it. That way, in case of a victim who’s location is changing, the service provide keeps sending out an alert to The Box every 3 seconds, so that every time the location changes, a new box is alerted and thus the route of this abduction can also be deduced.
Extend this further and let’s say we program this box in a manner that it can only be overridden manually(that too by someone from the neighbourhood/police/something). And that it is not shutdown in say, 10 seconds, it alerts the next nearest Box and so on. This way, even if the crime happens in a remote/lonely neighbourhood, the alert reaches people who can help. Breadcrumbs, anyone? Imagine placing such devices in high-risk areas. Near pubs or discotheques or brothels or railway stations?
I’ve run out of ideas and words so I’ll stop here. Some(rather most) of this may sound ridiculous, creepy even. But I’d say they are ideas and questions worth pondering and make for worthier summer projects than that ‘library management system’. If you have similar ideas or have heard of other applications, leave me a comment. I’ll update this post with your recommendations.
If you think any of the above mumbo-jumbo makes sense and you can translate it into a device/application/prototype/something, please go ahead and do it. If you need my help/suggestion/anything else, leave a comment or get in touch using the Contact form(or drop a mail on shantanu dot adhicary/gmail).
For more horrors and such, you can try reading the Tehelka series of articles – Anatomy of Rape and The rapes will go on. There’s also this article which is in two minds about the use of technology as well(can be used to balance perspective, just in case) – http://lindaraftree.com/2012/01/23/can-mobile-phone-apps-prevent-violence-against-women/.
or you can choose to do nothing, which is perfectly fine by me. I’ve been doing that for the past 20+ years as well.
 – Personal opinion. I am aware of the horrors of ragging, thank you.
 – from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skunk
 – I’ll keep adding to this post as and when ideas/comments arrive. If you want to be updated, everytime I edit this post, drop me an email and I’ll keep you posted.