Risk and Gendered Surveillance: Redefining the ‘Good’ Woman

Chinar Mehta

Jan 11, 2019 · 15 min read

In September 2017, a student of Banaras Hindu University was allegedly sexually harassed by two persons on a motorcycle while she was walking back to her hostel (Kumar 2017). Amidst protests by students, one of the steps that was taken after the incident, was to install 70 CCTV cameras across the BHU campus. This reaction suggests that there is some kind of agreement that the presence of video technology can render the space in such a way that real events can be recorded and evaluated for later use. In other words, keeping a recording of a small space will ensure that perpetrators are identified quickly. It is with this incident as a starting point, that this essay attempts to argue for a better understanding of the ways in which technologies such as CCTV are implicated in protectionist sentiments for particularly upper-caste women, while also propagating ideologies about who the perpetrators of sexual crime are. In the recent decades, the Foucauldian imagination of the ‘panopticon’ (wherein the ‘few’ can discipline the ‘many’) is accompanied by a ‘viewer society’ (Mathiesen 1997 cited in Ball, Haggerty, Lyon 2012, pp. 244), such that the ‘many’ are also able to view the ‘few’. ‘CCTV footage’ can become keywords and categories of their own. These ‘few’ are hurled back such that there is fear and moral panic around the construction of the crime, especially if it is sexual in nature.

Moral panic and the gendered discourse of safety align to each other. Technical solutions are offered to sociological issues. There must be a feminist inquiry into the intersections of the perceptions of safety, technical infrastructures, privacy and sexual crime. This essay attempts to do so within the discourse of safety in a globalised Indian context, such that software mediates the ways in which spaces are understood and dealt with, especially with regards to stereotypical fears of sexual crime in public spaces.

Double violation

Surveillance studies is a relatively new area of inquiry. This recent surge of importance is due to the prominence of surveillance in many different projects. Legislatively, a relevant recourse has been to outline privacy as a fundamental right (Tarafder 2017), and gendered minorities and women are beneficiaries of such an outline. Tarafder exemplifies this with the arrest of non-heterosexual persons in the 1950s in United Kingdom, and how public consciousness awakened after this. This led to the Wolfenden Report , which clearly stated that homosexual acts between consenting adults should not be a criminal offence because the law has no right to interfere in an individual’s private life. It was the recognition of homosexual acts as a ‘private’ affair that led to it being decriminalized. Additionally, the jurisprudence around termination of pregnancy in the US has been charged with the discourse about the ‘woman’s right to choose.’ The author is arguing that bodily autonomy within the institutions of marriage and family emerge directly from the articulation of a physical privacy, which can be a right. However, the recent judgments with reference to the Aadhar Act in India do not uphold this idea, particularly with reference to biometric identification. The measures taken at BHU are in strange alignment to this sentiment. With the CCTV surveillance, the idea is that it is by violating the privacy of individuals that bodily safety can be ensured. Privacy can be guaranteed, insofar as the individuals concerned are not deviant. This applies to both, the harasser who violated a woman’s bodily integrity, and the woman herself, who faces a double violation so that there is assured justice. This is an exchange of privacy for safety. CCTV surveillance intends to capture any kind of deviant act, understood to be mostly crimes, in the space. In fact, the presence of cameras are almost ubiquitous at this point; they are in shopping malls, train stations, universities, banks, hospitals and even schools. It doesn’t help that ‘developed’ nations like Britain and France have the most intensive surveillance systems within their boundaries (Takala 1998 cited in Koskela 2002). In these ways, discourse about privacy and surveillance includes gender in ways that does not fully acknowledge the ways in which a gendered body is policed.

This ‘synoptic-panoptic fusion’ (Ball, Haggerty, Lyon 2012, pp. 247) makes possible also the furthering of panoptic measures. This is also evident in the solution that authorities at BHU attempt. However, it becomes important here to examine the various ways in which surveillance may be performed. In junior colleges in Mumbai, it would soon be ‘mandatory’ to take biometric (fingerprint) attendance of all the students to prevent the commercialization of education (Indian Express 2018). Students in junior colleges attend ‘tie-up programmes’ between junior colleges and coaching centres, where colleges offer a minimum attendance without attending classes. This arises from the need of students to study CBSE syllabus to prepare for exams like NEET or JEE. The biometric attendance does not address the bottleneck that exists here. The student is both ‘victim’ (because it is in the interest of the student to attend junior college classes and the state department ensures this with biometric attendance) and the ‘surveyed’ here. This is similar to where a woman’s safety is ensured by exchanging her privacy, while the perpetrator of a sexual crime is not deserving of privacy at all. The moral panic around the safety of women further drives the discourse of more areas being put under surveillance without addressing the ways in which spaces are made inaccessible for women.

Eyes and ears’ of Hindu society

When Kumar writes about BHU struggles in Hindustan Times, he interviews people claiming that the campus had been safe a couple of decades ago. This idea of a space being ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’ itself is a question of great urgency. The categorisation itself is a product of the assumption that it is the space that determines whether criminal activities happen or do not happen. Spaces may be conducive to criminal activities. What makes these spaces more conducive to criminal activities? This is a difficult question to answer. One must also understand how deeply entrenched this assumption is in the dichotomy of ‘public’ and ‘private’, similar to the dichotomy between online and offline. It is only when the opposite of private is discussed, that the idea of creating safe spaces are entertained. It may be said that constant surveillance is increasing the feeling of safety in women in public spaces, and that women have been the social group that have earned the benefits of the system. However, it is important to address where these ideas of safety are coming from. While the hegemonic dichotomy of public and private is itself problematic, my argument in the essay is that what are or are not perceived to be public spaces is dependent on culturally constructed notions of where one should or should not be. In addition to video surveillance in public spaces, location mapping is also a service that complicates the idea of safe spaces and risk. Employing technological artefacts to monitor an area does little for the ways in which women may avoid certain spaces because of assumptions about risk in those areas. More importantly, these artefacts curtail the freedom of women to claim public space in a manner that fosters real access, and therefore, reproduce the logic of protection of only some women.

Phadke et al. (2011) argue that the ‘out-of-placeness’ of a woman in a public space is guided by internalised markers of what separates a ‘private’ good woman (who is temporarily in a public space) from a ‘public’ bad woman. Women use their identities of being students or employed persons to legitimise their presence in a public space. It is very important to note here how internalised these modes of thinking are. Brahminical ritual normalizes women’s bodily movement to be instrumental to being of a particular caste; to reduce the sexual access that ‘other’ men may have to her, or to exclude women of other castes from the same set of expectations. This is supported by the ways in which the female body becomes the site of control over kinship ties (Chakravarti 1993). Incidences where unmarried women have been questioned for simply allowing men into their homes (FirstPost, 2017) are not new or unheard of. Women, even in their private spaces, have always been surveyed in such a manner. This is partly also in support of what Young (1980) describes to be the way in which women perform actions; that attention is towards whether or not the body is doing what the individual wants it to do, as opposed to the result of it. Surveillance is not only performed by the ‘other’ but also by the self.

The security camera documents the body. Being in a space, I might have a feeling of safety or discomfort due to a variety of different factors. The presence of people may make one feel safer as opposed to deserted areas, but this overlooks the ways in which we view the others in our vicinity. Security cameras may not do much for this feeling. The all-seeing, inescapable gaze of video surveillance may create a sense of safety because one assumes that in circumstances where a woman’s bodily integrity is in danger (especially sexual harassment), it will be easier for authorities to find the culprit. Firstly, it is already assumed that the video surveillance records a frame out of reality. The trust that technologies cannot ‘lie’ itself creates a dichotomy between what is recorded and what cannot have happened. Secondly, with regards to sexual harassment or assault, the cameras only suggest that the culprit may be caught, not that the crime is entirely prevented. This allows a glaring issue; it is upto the judgment of the overseer to inspect what aspects of the circumstance would have prevented the crime. In the news story about BHU, Kumar (2017) reports how the protests started after a proctor at BHU blamed the woman for staying out late. The presence of the camera and it’s recording does not change the perception that there are rules that women should follow in order to be ‘safe.’ What may become relevant in the actual event of the sexual harassment, is up for scrutiny. In fact, violations of hegemonic rules are quickly used to dismiss a plea.

Similarly, location mapping is a form of surveillance that is very different from security cameras, but it may be useful to discuss the creation of data that could measure ‘safety.’ Uber, the taxi service, has features that allows the rider to ‘share the ride’ so that a contact can track their location in real time. Being able to visually interpret the map so as to understand one’s own position in relation to the urban infrastructure is a habit that we have cultivated with repeated usage of the language used by maps on screens. Within the city, certain areas may be marked with more number of points (notwithstanding what those may be) depending on who visits or what is the crowd that has crowdsourced this data, and this may become a signifier of what is or isn’t safe. Commercial locations are more commonly marked because the users of something such as Google maps belong to certain classes and castes, and areas of high civil activity may still not appear on the maps, particularly if they are frequented by persons with less digital capital. Are there avoidance strategies gendered subjects use in establishing where one should or should not go? What we increasingly know of city spaces is in part guided by popular software, and this is not much different from the ways in which flyovers and walls are built to hide the ‘others’; lower class and caste men and women.

Who is watching?

At this point, it is then important to discuss who interprets and creates the data and why. In certain locations, it may even be so that women believe security cameras are being employed for recording, but this is not actually true. The ‘docile bodies’ are thus made, due to the invisibilisation of video surveillance. Moreover, there is no upfront information that is provided about who is watching the footage or who has any control over it. While there may be warning signs in certain urban locations, the fact that is culturally acceptable to be in spaces constantly being recorded is interesting because it suggests a normalization of documentation of the body. Video recording itself is taken to be harmless, and meant for social control. How often do we assume, or are even aware of, whether or not there are security cameras in a space? Does this make us feel safer? The eyes and ears on the street were sources of social control prior to video surveillance (Fyfe and Bannister 1996 cited in Koskela 2002), and they still are. But cameras are eyes that, while not in the close vicinity, are understood to produce impartial truths.

The peeping tom of surveillance

A quick search of YouTube for ‘CCTV footage woman’ displays results that are mostly compilations of footage of women stealing. This is footage taken from various locations across the world, most of it footage from security cameras. Although it is difficult to source the footage to its precise location, the very fact that the footage is not secure at all is enough to make surveillance a threat. In a society where the sexual access to women is guarded, even a ‘look’ has manifestations of power in them. Security camera systems may be designed to remain secure; however, there are ways to disrupt this. The hours and hours of footage of security cameras on YouTube are evidence of this. The presence of the camera, then, itself becomes a way to harass. When a woman enters a public space which she may presume to have cameras, who is she permitting to view recordings of her? For what purpose should the footage be used? The articulations of this concern are already in an assumption that consent is required before video recording, and that this consent can be clearly given if the subject is given enough information. The conflict arises when women may celebrate the presence of video surveillance as making streets safer, but the footage can then be used to regulate her movements almost entirely; whether voyeuristically or by vicious control of sexuality.

In fact, we should look at the phenomenon from a perspective which employs the assumption that Chun & Friedland (2015) claim, such that the new media are not about leaks but that they are the leak. New media technologies constantly redefine and maintain the strange dichotomy between the public and the private. By installing video surveillance cameras, the suggestion is twofold: firstly, that the space is prone to criminal activity, and secondly, that it is the presence of the camera that discourages it because some authority is watching. Even if security cameras may be argued to provide a false sense of security, generally, they are heavily present in urban areas. Are women expected to feel more unsafe where there is an absence of a security camera? There is a class bias, definitely, but there is also a suggestion that it is not by default that a ‘safe space’ exists. In fact, it has the potential to become one way to regulate women even more; their own choices of where they should be might as well depend on where there is or isn’t video surveillance in that location. Outside of one’s private home, places that have video surveillance are safer. This is a reproduction of the logic that surveying women is the way to protecting women. However, hegemonic regulatory frameworks that control sexuality or freedoms, are within the purview of both the private and the public. Security cameras may be more common in private properties or public properties with some kinds of perceived threats, and the lack of cameras may even be symptomatic of who does or does not ‘require’ protection. These become based in deep-rooted class and caste hierarchies.

The perception of safety is constructed in ways that lead to a feminist discourse that takes the space itself to be the starting point for harassment to happen, and suggests solutions for how they can be made safe. Harassmap (Harassmap, 2018), a non-profit mobile application based in Cairo, Egypt, seeks to use interactive maps to identify hotspots of sexual harassment, and works with locals in the area to make spaces ‘harassment-free.’ Similarly, Safetipin, based out of Gurgaon, has a set of mobile applications that crowdsources data about incidents of sexual harassment.[1] This data is shared with a ‘range of urban stakeholders including the police and urban planning departments.’ The application is easy-to-use and asks the user specific questions about the area in question. The main page locates the user using services in the device, and asks the user how safe they feel there. The user can answer with the help of choosing one of a range of smiley faces. There are other kinds of information that can be chosen when one decides to ‘pin’ a location; lighting, openness, visibility, number of people, security, walking path, availability of public transport, gender usage, and ‘feeling’ (consisting of options like uncomfortable, frightening, among others). The application also suggests a ‘safest route’ to get from one place to another. While such an application may be helpful, there has to be a recognition in the exclusionary assumptions this practice makes, especially considering the demographics of the women crowdsourcing this data. Instead of a postmodern feminist reflection about the constructions of the feeling of safety, centrality is assumed by the need to protect by making sure one is not out of sight. Even with many metrics of measurement of safety, crowdsourcing this data erases the context of sexual harassment incidents and pins the location (and hence the people who are most often at the location) to be the culprit. The idea is that these locations and the people there should, therefore, be avoided.

Comparison of ‘safety score’ in Bandra West as opposed to Kurla (Image credit: author)
Nehru Nagar, Kurla West being categorised as evoking ‘fright’ (Image credit: author)


When measures like security cameras or mapping of safe locations are suggested as a solution to criminal activity, the discourse changes from the right to public space, to the removal of deviant members of society. There is a danger here of ‘deviancy’ being defined according to hegemonic ideas. Sexual harassment is a deviant act, but it may as well be that a woman leaving her home late at night is also a deviant act. Part of a personal feminist project is to unlearn ideas of safety and risk, and replace them with a more nuanced understanding of how power plays a central role as far as crimes against women are concerned. Additionally, fear and anxiety have been channeled into further restricting women’s access to spaces. To claim public space, one may need to question the habits that quickly categorise an area as safe or unsafe.

I would propose that in order to make public spaces be available for claim by marginalised gender identities, including Dalit women, women with disabilities, and gender non-conforming persons, and not just upper-caste and class women, more questions need to be asked about protection forcibly provided to them, as opposed to redefining protection using technologies. I would argue that the justification of data collection for the safety of women does not address already existing power hierarchies that may prevent women from complaining about sexual harassment, but in fact, becomes a vehicle for caste biases. Of course it is important to imagine ways in which spaces can become friendly towards women, however, it is essential that the political nature of data is recognised. In fact, surveillance only exacerbates and reimagines the labels of ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ that are constantly being created in civil society. For women, being ‘safe’ is no longer a matter of inductive reasoning on their part, but a luxury that is afforded to them by the virtue of being in areas where there is constant vigilance to prevent criminal activity. In order to accomplish this, it is important to recognise the complicity of the upper-caste notion of protection of women as becoming a part of the feminist exercise of ensuring safety, without being critical of the ways in which caste hierarchies appear in these discourses. Overcoming this requires more awareness at a personal level, about the ways in which one’s social location as a woman, reflects in the construction of the feminist discourse.


[1] Safetipin does not actually collect data about incidences of sexual harassment, but of how the user might feel about safety in a particular location.


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After graduating as an engineer of Information and Communication Technology, Chinar worked as a web developer for 2 years. Currently, she is a post-graduate student of Media and Cultural Studies at TISS, Mumbai. Her research interests largely align with feminist approaches to technology and culture.

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