Saturday, 3 October 2015

'Cycle waali chhori' : new chapters in street harrassment- Neha Singh


I have recently acquired a brand new, red, semi-expensive bicycle. I had wanted to get one for a long time. A lot of my fondest childhood memories revolve around my BSA SLR cycle that I had as a child. My father had taught me how to ride it when I was seven years old and since we lived most of my growing up years in small towns and cities, I always had quiet, safe streets to ride my cycle. Apart from serving recreational purposes, it was my vehicle to school, to the swimming pool or the badminton court, to tuition classes in the evenings and  going to friends' places. I remember knees that were constantly in bandages from the countless number of times I had fallen off my bicycle too, but that never ever discouraged me from getting on it and experiencing freedom that only a teenager on a cycle can understand.

Somewhere in the chaos of college, moving to bigger cities in pursuit of education and job, hectic lifestyle and crowded roads, I lost touch with my cycle. I am embarrassed to say that I don't even know what happened to my BSA SLR cycle. Whether my parents gave it away, left it in the junkyard or sold it off second hand. I have no clue!

Last month I bought a new bicycle, and I can safely say it is one of my best purchases in the last few years. I use it to go almost everywhere. I love the feeling of the sweat on my brow and the energy in my legs as I peddle along the cars and scooters. I love the fact that I can turn my cycle towards the beach or the panipuri stall or just stop to look at the cakes on display at the pastry shop without having to piss off the autorikshaw guy or creating a traffic jam. My cycle has reconnected me to the freedom and impulsiveness that I felt as a child on my bike.

What has been a brand new experience, however, is the whole new gamut of street harrassment I face on my cycle as a grown up.


Most of the times men give me strange looks and stare when I go by on my cycle. Sometimes they bring their cars and motorcycles really close to my cycle as I am riding and honk loudly to get my attention. Then when I do look at them, they grin or stare or make singing noises and then zoom past. This behaviour cuts across ages, class and I am guessing, religion. Young boys standing outside their schools and colleges point at me and laugh, while older men walking past or in cars and on scooters stare incessantly.

Once I was going past a posh mall in Malad (west) in the suburbs of Bombay and a bunch of young men dressed in expensive clothes and shoes, all wearing expensive shades laughed at me and made incoherent verbal comments as I cycled past on a hot afternoon.

Often, men on motorcycles will ride up to me, look at me and shout 'race, race, race karegi?' and then zoom off laughing. Then they stop a little way off, wait for me to catch up and repeat the 'race, race karegi?' comment.


Once I was cycling in Andheri and this man in a car slowed up close to me and said 'licence number?'. I looked at him curiously. What pleasure did he get out of saying that? After asking me 'licence number?' he drove off, grinning creepily.

The most hilarious part is, I often get men ON CYCLES themselves looking at me and passing comments as though I am doing something really bizarre.

I am still trying to understand what makes it so weird for men to see a woman on a cycle minding her own business. I thought maybe it is because it is rare. Possible. In a month I have seen only about seven or eight girls on bicycles and all of them were school/college students. So then is it weird for men to see a grown woman on a cycle? Maybe. Then why isn't it weird for men to see men on cycles? Because I have noticed MANY men on cycles in this one month. Does it make me more vulnerable to be on a two wheeler that goes much slower than a scooty, for example, and much more 'uncovered' than an autorikshaw/taxi/car.


Sometimes I feel like a clown, going by the number of men that laugh at me when I cycle past them, and I am happy I can provide comic relief to men that obviously need some kind of therapy. But I also wonder that if a woman on a cycle can be such a hilarious sight, why don't I evoke any laughter from women that I go past? Why am I funny only to men? Also, even if men do find the sight of a woman on a cycle peddling along funny, why do they point at me and laugh in my face. I mean, do they do that when someone falls on the road? That is pretty slapsticky too, right?

Anyhow, over the days I am getting a feeling that the comments, the laughs, the insensitive pointing and requests of racing are a collective brotherhood trying to make the sight of a grown woman on a cycle 'extinct' from the current situation of 'rare'.


Some of my friends also tell me that they have faced similar experiences when they jog/practice yoga/exercise/swim in public spaces. So, forgive my extrapolating, but then is this specific sexual harrassment a way to tell women that they should not/cannot be as physically strong or endure as much as men? Or atleast they shouldnt try doing it unless it is a structured event like a marathon or a cycle race.

Or is it just another excuse to harrass? Like, oh, a girl in short clothes: let me harrass her for that. Oh, a girl out at night, let me harrass her for that. Oh, a girl smoking! let me teach her a lesson. A girl on a cycle! Let me show her her place.

Well, these are just theories I am trying to mull over as I happily peddle past these harrassers. I couldn't care less or be bogged down by these incidents. My reconnect with my childhood is far more precious. But I really wonder when these men will grow up. Its high time.

To sign off with another bewildering experience, just today I was cycling home from work and a big SUV type car was parked on the side of the road. A young boy of around 18 and a middle aged man were standing resting their backs on the car. When they saw me coming up the road on my cycle, they started smiling at me. When I got closer, the older man pointed at me and said 'Puncture! Puncture!'. I looked down at the front tyre as I rode ahead. No puncture. I looked at the rear tyre. No puncture there either. I turned my cycle around and went back to the car. This time I noticed the saffrom flag with a roaring tiger on the dashboard. I also noticed the saffron T shirts the men wore under their shirts. This was an official Shiv Sena car.

I asked the man , "what were you saying when I rode past?"
After getting over the shock of a woman actually confronting him on a road, he said, "I was saying your cycle might get punctured.'
I said, "Why?"
"It could get punctured, you know. Like, if you ride over a nail or something."
I said, "your car could also get punctured, do people come in front of your car and say 'puncture, puncture' to you?
He said, "I just wanted you to be careful"
I said, "and what makes you think I am not?"
He said, "I was saying it for your own good."
I said, "I thnk you should leave people to figure out whats good and whats bad to themselves."
He said, "I think I made a big mistake by saying something for your own good."

That is when I realized that this Shiv Sainik in an S.U.V was just a symbol of the stifling patriarchal, misogynistic country we live in where men harrass women and later claim they were doing it 'for our own good' and had absolutely nothing to do with their concern and everything to do with their complete unacceptability of women's physical/mental independence and strength. A woman on a cycle is too much of an attack on the Indian man's fragile notions of masculinity and femininity. 

Here's hoping for a country full of women on cycles helping men break that notion. Enjoy the breeze in your hair as you peddle on.



18 comments:

  1. Brilliant post and so inspirational. Renewed a lot of pent-up anger against the idiotic Indian male. And made me want to go cycling again.
    Chryselle

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    1. Thank you! Hope you get on that cycle soon and make it a part of your routine as well!

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  2. When people come up against me and say race? I race with them till one of us wins or loses. Its fun.
    Yesterday at the park on the jogging track 2 guys said chalo aunty say race lagatay hain...it was fun and funny leaving them far behind...we both had a good laugh.

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  3. When people come up against me and say race? I race with them till one of us wins or loses. Its fun.
    Yesterday at the park on the jogging track 2 guys said chalo aunty say race lagatay hain...it was fun and funny leaving them far behind...we both had a good laugh.

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    1. Thats awesome Sajida! :) Sometimes the best way is to add some humour to the situation.

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  4. "... I must learn to ride now!!" - says the ever procrastinating me in me :)

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  5. "... I must learn to ride now!!" - says the ever procrastinating me in me :)

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    1. Yes madam, please start. There is a cycling session coming up soon.

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  6. Nicely put Neha...I can totally relate to the feeling....I am known in my colony as the aunty who rides a cycle, plays badminton and football with the kids and does not use polybags.....but none of that deters me. Kudos to the "aunties" like us. Cheers !!

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    1. thats pretty awesome Deepali :)

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    2. thats pretty awesome Deepali :)

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  7. Great post :)
    My dad bought me a cycle (BSA/SLR :) when I refused to go by the public buses in Madras back in the early 90s. When I told him the eve teasing and/or sexual harassment in those buses made me sick- he told me that he couldn't afford autos/taxis or drop me off at college everyday. I loved his solution - environmentally friendly and healthy too :)
    He taught me an 'inside' route to avoid some major roads and a couple of 'men's colleges' - it was ~7km one way. I used to enjoy riding-sometimes got cheered by some flower /fruit vendors.

    Sorry to hear the 'harassment' part hasn't changed- I hear about it in the US as well- really sad to report idiocy is not just restricted to indian males - seems to be a worldwide phenomenon!

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    1. yes, I heard that things are pretty much the same in other parts of the world as well.

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    2. yes, I heard that things are pretty much the same in other parts of the world as well.

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  8. I saw this post on The News Minute. Your enthusiasm for cycling, and the way you indicted male harassment for what it is, I found admirable. You used objective story telling and humor to allow others to clearly see the sad injustice of one part of society trying to hold others down, in yet one more arena of freedom and empowerment. I've cycled since I was about 6 years old, starting with a brother's bike even though I had to pedal within the diamond triangle since it was too big for me. From then on, at first using mostly hand-me-down bicycles and ones that I cobbled together myself from the local 'bike dump,' I knew independence and utility that opened my eyes and brought many possibilities my way. In my country I know I have had much more freedom, but from the late 60's to now I still encountered backwards attitudes. I got a racing license, qualified for Nationals, attended the World Trials, and worked for years as a mechanic (not just a 'salesgirl') in several great bicycle shops. Your joy and dedication to cycling, as if nothing can tear you away from this wonderful invention, is also what carried me along. So often, a customer would look past me at the repair counter, bobbing their head right and left, looking for 'a real mechanic.' I didn't get upset, as I know progress moves along at a rate that matches even well-meaning people's comfort and awareness levels. Fortunately within the shops, overt jerk customers were rare. (not always true on the roads.) My colleagues who knew my skills were great guys. There was the time someone asked to talk to 'the expert' with Italian racing equipment, as they looked right past me. Our manager said they could work with whomever they wished if they insisted, but he pointed to me as the shop's most up-to-date and knowledgeable mechanic in that area. I did not need that customer to be humbled by this, mostly I saw that the example from other males were part of the solution to ignorance and discrimination. And, the mere existence of women going about doing 'unexpected' things. Some day I hope it will seem very ordinary for women in India to cycle about; not a cause for harassment, not some kind of unusual spectacle. I'm an optimist--but it's your courage and determination that is paving the way!

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    1. Thank you Eileen for your encouraging words. and what a wonderful life story you have. :) Which country are you from?

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  9. I am from North America, currently northern California. My 'bike-dump' days were in rural Hawaii near the Hawaiian Homelands tracts at the eastern base of the Koolau mountains.

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