Something has been changing and yet, what has?
I write this in the context of my involvement with Blank Noise and my experience of having lived in two different cities with diametrically opposite reputations where women's safety is concerned. Delhi was known as the big, bad wolf. Bombay was known as the best deal possible. Over the last decade, through visits, through media and through the lived experience, I've had a chance to compare and contrast how safe one is and - sadly enough - how mythical and transient the notion of safety for women is.
In the last year or so, after I moved back to Bombay, I found myself swinging between two extremes. Or rather, I found myself trapped inside a triangular box of behaviour patterns in public spaces. I was either super-confident and barely thinking about myself as a woman in a public space. Or I was worried, super-conscious of the fact that I was a woman and unbearably aware of how I was dressed. Or I was just plain angry.
I have written before about rampant harassment in this city under the guise of massive crowds that are in a constant rush to get somewhere. I have written about helplessness and bottled-up anger often being misdirected, and the worry that one may be over-reacting: after all, the push, the shove, the brushing against could be an accident. How do you prove that it isn't? And yet, the more I travel by trains, the more I walk on crowded streets, the more convinced I am that a lot of the touching is not accidental. Often, I have been caught in a huge crush of people who are trying to go up a narrow stairway, while another crush of people is trying to come down the same stairway. Ninety percent of the time, if I am surrounded by women, I notice that I am not being touched or pushed around.
The sad thing is, that ninety percent of the time, I have begun to manipulate my ascent on the stairways and down platforms so that I am surrounded by women on all sides.
I find this deeply saddening because, in the first flush of confidence after being in Blank Noise interventions, having understood the problem of street sexual harassment as well as street social dynamics better than I used to, I had begun to believe that there was no need to sequester or segregate myself.
It is true that I am no longer feeling as vulnerable as I used to feel. I have learnt to stare back, and to use the simple act of looking as a deterrant, a weapon of self-defense. I have learnt to enter spaces where there are very few women, or none who can afford not to be there, and to walk in with a straight back, a challenge written on my face. But on the other hand, I find that I still have to use this weapon a lot of the time. If I begin to relax - for instance, read a book in a public space, within moments I find that strangers are starting to walk past a little too easily, a little too close. If I were to close my book and look directly at them, the men automatically step back a little or put a few more inches between themselves and me. I feel like I am in a constant state of battle, unable to drop a physically defensive stance.
Of course, this is not true of all public spaces. But it is true that I cannot allow myself to feel safe in this city. Where I live used to feel pretty safe. This is a distant suburb that has gotten heavily populated only over the last decade. I had never had a problem finding transport and had never really been harassed or stalked in my neighbourhood. But recently, late one night, the driver of the auto I was in suddenly slowed down. I asked why and he said someone was flagging him down. Two men on a bike caught up with the auto rickshaw. I told the driver not to stop. The men bent their heads and peered into the auto, staring at me, as they vroomed past.
I found myself wishing that they would fall and have an accident. And was promptly appalled at the violence inside my head.
But increasingly, I find myself bubbling over with a powerful kind of rage. I have - and I am deeply ashamed at this - picked up stones from the street and hurled them at a bunch of boys. It was the day before Holi. I was sick and tired of having things thrown at me, hurtful things like water balloons and chunks of ice. The next time I felt water on my shoulderblades, I whirled around, grabbed the nearest stone I could find and threw it back in the direction the balloon had come from. I bent to pick up some more stones. Two or three seconds later I realised the boys were kids - perhaps between the ages of ten and fourteen. I was sorry, of course. I still am. But one part of my mind was unforgiving. It was saying: 'Fine! So let them learn young'.
Tonight I was talking to a friend, a girl who was so nervous about being at the station in a knee-length dress (with black stockings on underneath) that she called a male friend and asked him to stay on the phone with her until she boarded a train, ladies compartment, of course. I began telling her that I wanted to commute with a long, fat lathi. I would walk out of the house with the lathi held in both hands, horizontal, so that nobody came too close, and on railways bridges, I would keep whirling the lathi like a professional fighter. The image of me as a lathial-ninja was funny and we both had a good laugh about it. But I find myself lapsing into such aggressive feelings that if, one of these days, I am touched on purpose and I catch hold of the guy, god help him.
In Delhi, oddly enough, I never felt this much rage. I don't know why. Perhaps, because the harassment was of a more persistent verbal kind. Perhaps, because I rarely took buses. Perhaps, because whistling or staring or being 'proposed' is annoying but is not such an immediate physical violation like unwanted touching. Perhaps, it is just that in Bombay, all frustrations feed into each other - the violation combined with a lack of physical space and privacy, which mingles with a sickness that comes from incessant crowds and actual filth and garbage and pollution.
On the other hand, I had accepted a circumscribed lifestyle in Delhi. At least, partially. I had accepted the fact that I would not go out late at night unless somebody was going to drop me home. I had to ask friends or even reluctant friends of friends to drive an extra fifteen minutes for my sake. I refused to accept party invitations unless I was certain I could ask this of someone. I rarely spent any time alone except at cafes or bookstores, or whilst shopping, or traveling. I wore western clothes but carried a wrap or jacket if it was a strappy dress.
In Bombay, I don't have the option of being alone, but if there were empty and quiet spaces, I think I would be more open to being there. Or maybe not. After all, I begin to get nervous walking about in Fort or Parel or Nariman Point or Versova or Khar after ten at night. And it is equally true that I have been out in Delhi at midnight and felt perfectly safe, surrounded by friends, women friends, all of us dressed up and in high heels.
The other frustrating thing is the overcrowding. I have been traveling mostly in the first class compartment for Ladies because I cannot find the energy and strength to fight my way into the chaos of the general dabba. After 11pm, the second class ladies' compartment which is adjacent to the first class (24 hour ladies) is converted to a general one. The men come trundling in. Even if there is some room in the general converted compartment, all the ladies insist on trooping into the first class. This is a daily affair and I have made my peace with it. I don't even like this business of second class and first class dabbas and it makes me queasy even bringing up this issue of who belongs in which class, much less fight with some poor harassed woman at midnight, three sleepy little kids in tow, asking her to get off and go travel with the men, or to walk further down the platform to the second class (24 hours) ladies.
What I find sad is the utter ghettoisation of men and women with regard to each other. Most women would rather risk being caught ticketless or be fined for traveling in the first class than get into a train compartment with a lot of men traveling in it. And if I find myself the only woman passenger in the first class ladies dabba, I take the trouble of running to the end of the platform to get into the second class ladies compartment. In fact, I have witnessed fights in the ladies compartments where one lady accuses another of not having a first class pass (based on her dress and appearance, of course, on which another post, another day) and the other lady promptly replies: 'Well, thank god for the second class women's presence or else all your first class women would have been robbed or raped'. What kind of culture is this? How is this a safe city, then? How much safer than other cities?
As soon as the Delhi metro web gets wider and stronger, as soon as the late night trains begin to run a little later, Delhi will end up becoming a safer city. Women's safety has so much to do with infrastructure and so little to do with 'culture'.
How safe women feel is finally just a question of numbers. I notice that, in Bombay, if a woman is traveling alone in a train, she is always looking about in a nervous way. The moment another woman enters the compartment, she breathes a deep sigh of relief and smiles in welcome at the new passenger. If two or three more women board the train, all of them feel safe. If one woman is wearing a short skirt, she appears to look around, unsure of herself. If she spots another woman wearing jeans or a sleeveless top, she feels confident.
The train doesn't change. The city doesn't change. The time doesn't change. The clothes don't change. But the women's experience of the city, the train, the time, their clothes changes - through the simple fact of them being out there in greater numbers, in all their diversity of dress and make up and profession.