Saturday, 9 August 2014

“It is better to live one day as a lioness than a hundred years as a sheep”- by Kanchan Gandhi

Loitering in the north and the south of India

No matter where you live in India, you will always be a woman who has to face the flaneur gaze if you are perceived to be doing anything “deviant” by being out at the “wrong” time or in the “wrong” space. When I was based in Delhi, working at an NGO, a job that took me to different states and cities for fieldwork, I was still a woman who needed to be indoors after sun-set and now as an Assistant Professor in a South Indian city, a single woman who shares an apartment with two other single women, I am still that woman who needs to be safe and cautious and watch out for intruding male gaze all the time. How does it matter that I am going to turn forty in two years’ time, I have put on loads of weight in the last decade and I am no longer an attractive prey. I am still a woman and other things just don’t seem to matter. What has changed however is, my level of fear and trepidation when men stare at me or drive closely past me on their bikes and cars. I feel more prepared to face and challenge sexual oppression in contrast to what I felt 10 years ago when I was not married and the society told me that the onus to preserve my virginity and “izzat” was on me. Although an element of insecurity is still there when I am alone at odd hours walking on the street or in an auto, it is accompanied by some level of confidence that I will shout myself out of a bad situation if it arises. I am not afraid of post-sunset travels anymore if the mode of transport is crowded. A crowded metro-train or a city bus is comforting at such times. The fear of private buses with tinted-glasses however is still large especially after 16th December 2012.

When I was working at the NGO in Delhi, I accompanied one of my male colleagues on a field-work to a slum in South Jaipur in March 2012. We stayed at an NGO premises in Malviya Nagar (South Jaipur) and our field-site was a 10 minute ride away on a public “tempo” the service of which was quite regular. The days passed happily and I never felt uneasy in the city of Jaipur as the people were friendly, helping and very respectful. I gave Jaipur 10 out of 10 marks for liveability as it was positive on all the criteria that I had set for my dream city where I would like to live. The top-most being the lack of fear of molestation while walking on the street. During the day the streets were full of men and women going about their daily activities - shopping, work and child-care. We hardly ventured out in the night and spend our time writing field journals, cooking, chatting and watching TV.

 One day we decided to have dinner in the old or the pink-city which was an hour ride away from the place we were staying at. We resolved to finish our day’s work by 6 pm and take a city bus to the pink-city. When we arrived in the pink-city we headed to the “Bapu bazaar” as I wanted to shop for dress materials and bed-sheets. The bazaar was bustling with activity. Each shop was crowded and there was festivity in the air. Women were busy shopping and bargaining with the shopkeepers. I was very happy that we had decided to come to the old-city. We had dinner at the famous LMB Hotel in the pink city.

After finishing dinner we headed to the bus-stop to catch our bus back to Malviya Nagar. To my surprise the bus-stop was rather dark and scantily lit. Additionally there were no women passengers waiting for the bus except me. The bus-stop offered two options for our travel back to Malviya Nagar, a city bus that would arrive in a few minutes and readily available jeeps and tempos run by private operators. Since the jeeps and tempos were full of men and we would have to cramp in, my male colleague suggested that we wait for the city bus so that I would be more comfortable riding it. The city bus arrived in few minutes and we boarded it. It was 10 pm by then. There were no women even on the bus. I thought to myself, maybe some women will board at the next station. The bus kept moving, but no woman boarded it. Through the long ride on the pitch dark streets I kept wondering – “where did all those women we saw in the bazaar vanish?”, “did they all come on private vehicles only?”, “how come post-sunset Jaipur looks so different from day-time Jaipur?” “How is it possible that there is not one woman on this bus except me?” Jaipur had suddenly lost a bit of its charm for me. It had slipped one notch down on my criteria of a dream city. Women do not use public transport at night and it becomes a male-dominated space – not good, not good at all I thought.
What I had failed to do was to check the statistics on crime against women before I had glorified the city as my “dream city”. A look at the National Crime Records Bureau tells us about the most risky cities in terms of crimes against women. It states:

“Among 53 cities, Delhi (5,194 cases) has accounted for 14.2% of total such crimes followed by Bengaluru (6.2%) (2,263 cases), Kolkata (5.7%) (2,073 cases), Hyderabad (5.2%) (1,899 cases) and Vijayawada (5.2%) (1,898 cases). The crime rate was significantly higher in Vijayawada, Kota, Kollam, Jaipur and Indore at 256.4, 130.2, 106.3, 98.1 and 88.8 respectively as compared to average (47.8) of mega cities.” (Chapter 5- Crime against Women, Crime in India, 2012 statistics )

Jaipur figures high on crimes against women, and so does Vijayawada, the city I chose to move in for my next job as a University Professor. I was elated at the thought of a new job and a beginning that would allow me to explore a hitherto unexplored state when I got a job offer at a central government University in Vijayawada, Andhra Pradesh. I was getting quite overwhelmed with the crowded life in Delhi and was looking forward to moving to a much smaller city which would offer some breathing space without looking at the statistics or realising the trials and tribulations that single professional “outsider” women have to face in this rather conservative city. I was going to share an apartment with my 2 other female colleagues. They arrived in Vijayawada before me and started the house-hunt. I would call them from Delhi and ask what progress we were making on the accommodation front only to hear negative and frustrated responses from them. For a month they kept telling me that no house owner was willing to let their house out to 3 single women. The city’s propertied people favoured “families” as tenants and were rather intolerant towards us deviant women. After much sweat we found an apartment and heaved a sigh of relief. It was in a housing society, a so-called “gated community” and we felt that finally we had a safe roof above our heads.
The myth of the “safe roof” however did not last very long. There were prying eyes of men especially car drivers who waited on the ground floor with their vehicles when we left for work in the morning or returned from work in the evening. We decided to be very careful and aware of our surroundings. Then came the earth-shattering news that a 41 year old woman had been gang-raped by her husband’s 27 year old driver and his friends in her own house and later murdered. Her body was recovered from a canal that flows through the city. The news freaked us out and we were really concerned especially since one of the drivers in the society had really been noticing our movements. We decided to talk loudly about our police-connections when we passed through the parking lot the next morning. We did it in front of that driver.

The joy of a highly desirable academic job has gotten diluted by these daily uncertainties and negotiations in public space. The questions that arise in my mind are – “is there really no space in this country for single professional women to feel safe and pursue their lives and livelihoods with dignity?” “Must we always live in fear of some known and some unknown men hurting us?” “Till when will violence begin at home and continue into the public space for so many women in this country?” I have so many questions but find no answers. I constantly remind myself of an Italian proverb “It is better to live one day as a lioness than a hundred years as a sheep”.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting blog. I guess it would be fair to state that Indian men have a long way to go before they learn to respect women. Unfortunately, Indian society has the ostrich-head-in-the-sand syndrome when it comes to sex education. I recall vividly in the year 2009 when the proposal to introduce sex education was shot down by government-appointed body. What followed was an asinine alternative. Instead, teach the kids about India's thinkers and freedom Fighters.
    Typically, this is how the politicos would have wanted it:

    Little Boy: Teacherji. What is sex?”
    Teacher: “Hush, do you know of our country’s glorious culture? Let me tell you about Swami Vivekananda..”
    Little girl: “But Teacherji. What about sex?”
    Teacher: “Hush impudent girl! Chandrashekar Azad was a nationalist who fought against the British along with Bhagat Singh. Let us sing Kadam Kadam Badhaye ja, Khushi ke geet gaaye ja….”