Indian watch aims to stop rape, but may lead to false security

Can technology make day-to-day life safer for women in India?

The spotlight has been firmly trained on the Indian government since the horrific gang rape of a 23 year old woman on a New Delhi bus in December. A massive outcry arose from many citizens, who saw the government's slow response to the incident as indicative of a general complacence in tackling violence against women, a feeling spurred on by the high number of rape incidents in the country's capital.

Protests included a candlelit vigil, which was derided by the President's son, Abhijit Mukherjee, who said: "…those who are protesting have no connection with ground reality. These pretty ladies coming out to protest are 'highly dented and painted'".

However, not all in power share this misogynist view and the government has responded to the strong public feeling with a series of measures, albeit slightly ham-fisted ones. Perhaps the most controversial was the announcement that all convicted sex offenders will be named and shamed with their addresses published online.

The latest comes in the form of an announcement from the government's Information Minister that a new kind of 'safety watch' will be distributed later in the year with the aim of reducing violence against women. The watch can send text alerts to local police and family members if the wearer is in danger, and can record video footage for up to 30 minutes. The government noted in a subsequent press release that the device would be timely given “unfortunate incidents of crimes against women in particular.”

The idea is to make women feel safer on the streets by having a personal alarm system attached to their wrists. However, the idea has been met with scepticism from women's safety campaigners who argue that without a strong support network in place, an alert system is a redundant technology. Preethi Herman, Campaign Director at change.org in India, said: "Sensitisation of police on violence against women, broader police reforms, effectively functioning help centres are desperate fixes that need to be made before any technology can be successful."

In fact, the watch may do more harm than good if the wearer relies on it as a safety mechanism. As Preethi says, "the watch might, at the most, provide a not entirely realistic perception of security to users." Its into Indian society assumes there is a ready and waiting police force nearby, poised to jump into action at the first bleep of an incoming SMS alert. The reality may not be so heartening. Women's safety campaigners in India have reported that the police can be obstructive when a woman tries to report a sexual attack, and that is when she visits the station in person – there is no guarantee that an alert sent remotely via mobile will be responded to quickly enough to prevent the woman coming to any harm. 

In a TrustLaw survey taken with 370 gender experts last year India was found to be the worst country to be a woman. This worrying finding, along with the increased media attention that recent attacks have attracted, is spurring the government into action. However, without focusing on underlying gender equality issues ingrained into society the introduction of safety technology may be seen as little more than a gimmicky attempt to appease an angry electorate.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue