- October 8, 2015
PEARL HO (M.Arch 16′)
In India, one rape occurs every twenty two minutes.
Many of us were raised to have a certain respect for the man-made landscape, seeing in the built environment a neutral canvas, a place for us all to sketch out the contours of our common existence. But this environment is no tabula rasa; it is a socially constructed thing which both inherits and embodies the qualities of gender, race, and class relations in society. Architecture, in particular, is the stone cold record of the few among us with the power to build; it is shaped by the ebb and flow of social, political and economic forces beyond our immediate control. The city, then, stands as a material expression of that power, baked into rigid forms, divided into cookie-cutter grids. In India, and places like it, physical violence often becomes the unwritten grammar giving structure to this urban landscape. And misogynistic violence, in particular, thrives in those places where the lack of infrastructure has been married to a certain seedy, smug complacency, thus comprising the dysfunctional logic of the modern city.
It can be difficult to understand, and even harder to reveal, the complex network of power relations underpinning the thriving culture of rape and violence against women in India. Perhaps it is time, then, that we, as architects, address those facets of the problem we can hope to understand: the deeply material, distinctly spatial dimensions giving shape to the mental and physical terrain of women’s struggles today. Keller Easterling has urged architects to think of space as a medium, a powerful instrument of human ingenuity, capable of being deployed against even the world’s most intransigent challenges. If, as Anthony Vidler says, architecture is frozen history, then surely those of us who build have the power to construct something new, and good, for society.
On December 16, 2012, Jiyoti Singh, a 23-year old medical student, was fatally gang raped by six men with a metal pipe on a moving bus.
The bus which captured Jiyoti Singh that night must be understood as more than a neutral instrument of public transportation – it is a vehicle of accentuated masculine power. Indeed, this bus exemplifies how apparently benign miscalculations in auto-centric planning often have their costs measured not in dollars, but in human lives. One devastatingly impactful component of contemporary urban infrastructure in New Delhi, for instance, is the Ring Road – an enormous beltway encircling the city. While on the surface the Ring Road appears to be little more than an especially efficient automotive transportation network, this non-stop infrastructural switch allows traffic to pass, unimpeded, through vast stretches of some of New Dehli’s most impoverished neighborhoods, without so much as a traffic light, without having to stop, without ever being seen. K.T. Ravindaran, former head of the New Delhi School of Planning and Architecture, has noted that “One of the most common places of rape in Delhi is a moving vehicle…They can just go on until the fuel runs out.” The construction of bridges and overpasses along major roadways has gradually eliminated the need for traffic lights, steadily increasing the speed of urban vehicular traffic over the last decade. These apparently benign infrastructural updates have produced a parallel surge in crimes committed on and along India’s motorways — the most dire of which being violent assaults against women trapped in cars, trucks, and buses.
On the evening of May 28, 2014, a 14 year-old schoolgirl and her 15 year-old cousin accompanied each other to a field a mile away from their house to relieve themselves. There are no toilets at their home in Uttar Pradesh. The next day, they were found hanging from a rope in a mango tree.
Hundreds of thousands of women and girls across India risk the daily threat of rape and assault, in both urban slums and rural areas, due in part to their communities’ lack of basic sanitation infrastructure, the likes of which are taken for granted throughout much of the west. Many girls wait until dark before they head out, ashamed to be seen in the daylight. UNICEF has reported that in 2011 alone, 10.6 percent of rape victims were under the age of 14. Indian government statistics suggest that 51% of unrecognized slums and 17% of recognized slums are entirely without latrines.
While correlation does not necessarily imply causation – and while the culture of rape and sexual assault is far too pervasive to be remedied through basic infrastructural improvements – a clear relationship between the lack of basic infrastructure in many parts of India and the perpetration of violence against women and girls suggests a spatial, material component to this admittedly much larger problem, one which can and should be addressed, not only by governments, but by all of us with a stake in maintaining a safe and free built environment, in the perpetuation of a public sphere. It is, however, jarringly clear that India’s cities are failing the country’s women. That failure is structural. In order to remedy this, new infrastructural systems must be fundamentally rooted in feminism, broadly understood to include the spatial and material – indeed the public – support and facilitation of equality for women. Feminism must be cast into our cities’ infrastructure.
We often hear architects, in both the profession and the academy, pontificate on our moral responsibility, as stewards of the built environment, to facilitate positive social change. In the wake of famine, flood, and earthquake, architects are quick to embrace this responsibility, offering their expertise in the service of those millions left behind by natural disaster and tragedy. What, then, of social disaster? What of cultural tragedy? Are the countless victims of rape and abuse somehow less worthy of our professional attention? Is this not a call to action?
In India, one rape occurs every twenty two minutes.