When alone on the road, feminism is one thing, safety another

Gayatri Jayaraman
Gayatri JayaramanDec 09, 2014 | 19:15

When alone on the road, feminism is one thing, safety another

Hell yeah, I’m a feminist. I’m a walk the talk feminist. I live on my own, am a sensual, sexual being, demand equal pay, will do anything they tell me I can’t do, wear what I want, and agree to obey and honour nothing that I don’t want to. I also happen to be a practical single woman and mother. So when the istriwala comes to the door for his monthly bill, and pulls the security door wider open, though he has been coming to the front door for two years now, I will say “please stand back and don’t touch my front door”. It needs to be at an angle where I can pull it shut in a hurry if I need to. He also knows that he will not get his bill paid if he arrives a minute past 10pm because the door will not be opened.

In the wake of numerous articles doing the rounds that label posts cautioning women against falling asleep in cabs as "victim shaming", I have to ask: what on earth has feminism got to do with good sensible safety precautions?

A year ago a colleague who had come to Bombay from Delhi had her phone snatched while chatting at an open cab window. Her first reaction was: “Oh my god I thought Bombay was safe!” Mine was, “It probably is for those who take precautions”. Any Bombayite will tell you that even in the mythical “good old days” on the way to college, we always clutched bags to our chests while catching trains, never bought a bag that didn’t have a good firm zipper, have seen our mothers use safety pins to clasp their gold chains to their sari blouses so it would fall into the vestment when slashed, and seen grandmothers always ask someone to accompany them when making a bank withdrawal of cash or gold.

When alighting the train at Matunga (East) station after journalism class, at 9pm on a weekday, my classmate who lived in the railway quarters, literally a hop, skip and jump away, would ask her brother to come pick her up because the sleepy South Indian suburb of early risers would be all but shutting down at that time of night. It was a one kilometer stretch. Personally, I chat with potential cab drivers to gauge their knowledge of the city, by asking about potential shortcuts they might take, like an uncle once taught me, or asking where they live, before I hire one for a night journey. Then there is the police helpline number for women drivers who travel solo, to which you may text the number of the taxi in which you are being driven home solo, for the police to keep track of. And, as embarrassed as I am by it, I do have an 11pm curfew (that I don’t always follow) levied by an overly panicky partner (IMHO) who lives in eternal panic of what time I reach home. When equipped with a First Class pass, after 10pm or before 6am, travel in second class or the Gentlemen’s First Class compartment. When a repair man is working in an inner room, a colleague at the Indian Express who lives alone gave me a tip: she rings the doorbell of a neighbour and asks her to keep her front door open while the handyman is inside.

I don’t view any of these as potentially curbing my feminist tendencies. I do view these as necessitated by the concern of people who would like to know that I am doing all that I can in order to stay safe. These are precautions all seasoned Mumbaikars have passed down from one generation to another. The city is as safe as the precautions we have taken while navigating it. It’s only new migrants who would stick their iPhones out the window and expect the city to miraculously acquire a code of safety that exists irrespective of its citizens. Sorry to break it to you: the city wasn’t ever “safer”. People were just far more cautious about themselves and each other.

So every time an incident of molestation or sexual assault occurs, the cry of “stop shaming women by insisting on safety precautions” begins; one has to ask: where did good, old fashioned, sensible precautions that any woman, or man, should take, go? As a mother to a 13 year old boy, I levy the restrictions on him too. I do tell him not to go inside any friend’s house without prior permission, not even for a minute, while playing, to retrieve a book, or a ball – he is to wait downstairs, or outside the door; evaluate how safe he feels when he gets into the elevator with a sole person or wait for the next elevator; do not open the door to strangers, not even to delivery boys he thinks we’ve known for years; never allow himself to be led away into a remote area with anyone at all on school premises or on camps; and do not allow anyone to invade his physical space with a touch, stroke, or any form of groping, or deshabillement. He is not to allow autorickshaws that he takes to take alternate routes, he is to pay attention to which route is traversed and he is to yell or call for help when he senses real and imminent danger. He has learnt basic martial arts for self defence for when cornered or bullied. And he has a curfew, a cut off time for all things, even return from school that allow those tending to him to gauge whether a change in routine might indicate the occurrence of danger and call for cross checking. These have been drilled into him since his first grade, or when he began to circulate in a larger world where he is open to the persuasions of others.

None of these codes have anything to do with his gender. They have everything to do with self preservation from sexual assault.

The same codes inflicted on a woman, would, in modern terms, be oppressive. I am increasingly alarmed by the rhetoric that circulates in the name of feminism that tells women they do not need to be responsible for their own safety, but that society owes them a certain security. Yes. Ideally. That world does not exist. We are not living in it. And pretending we are does not make us any safer because we imagine ourselves to be so. We do not inherit the earth because we believe this to be true.

I have travelled frequently in the South, on several budget holidays, via public buses, with the child from an age of three years onwards. I’ve pulled up at bus stations at 4am. These are the rules, passed on by elders at some stage or variously dictated by the experiences of fellow passengers and friends, that we followed: Do not leave the safety of the bus station in the dark of the morning, even to a grandmother’s house that if you got a cab would be just half an hour away. Wait for the light of day, and crowds on the roads. Sit on a bench, in the public space, not a private waiting room, at the bus station. Carry a shawl for the cold while you wait, and to cover up when creeps stare at you. Do not use the washroom in the wee hours. Do use public transport where available. When drunk, sleep at a friend’s place or have someone drop you. Never travel when you will fall asleep in the cab. Call when you leave. Text as soon as you reach. Message the cabbie’s phone number and vehicle number. Keep your phone charged at all times. Keep a friend on the phone and keep talking giving clear directions about your whereabouts if you start to feel unsafe.

No precaution will ever prevent rape or sexual assault, but they are precautions that hopefully, will put you out of the reach of such a situation for as long as possible. As my statistician sister says when asked to do something that violates one of the codes “just once”: “No thanks, I don’t want to be a statistic in tomorrow’s newspaper”. It does mean sometimes you will not make it to a movie with friends because you don’t have or don’t trust the transport back. Yes. Sometimes you will have to say no. You can’t predict when saying yes will harm you. You are not to blame when it does. But try deprivation sometimes? Going without? It’s not a value our generation is used to having to deal with. It is however what some people in rural and semi urban India, of an older generation, of a more fearful countenance, do. It’s okay to do it sometimes. Not go because you didn’t feel safe enough to. It’s not your failing as a woman to achieve individuality. Yes, it is the failing of a society to make you feel safe. It is okay to say that you will not exercise your individuality, or have been deprived of the chance to do so, because you didn’t feel safe enough to. I do believe several women put themselves in harm’s way because our modern feminist oriented society makes them feel obliged to be braver about being women. No one says “I can’t come because I don’t feel safe/my parents won’t allow it/it goes past my curfew” anymore. Because none of that is cool. But it does keep you safer. I’d much rather anyone I know be the latter than the former.

My parents used to tell me when I first began to work and they read about a young woman who lost her limbs after falling from the train fighting to retain her handbag which had only Rs 80 in it; “If someone asks you for your purse, leave your feminism at home and give it to them.” Unfortunately in today’s politically correct world, parents aren’t allowed to say this. Parents are obliged to say “Women are no less than men. Fight for your rights. Go where you will, demand your due. Let boys cry else they will make others cry” and other such impractical nonsense. To say otherwise impinges on individuality. Women’s rights today have begun to mean allowing no quarter for precautionary advice and offer the idealism of a victory for a war not yet won.

 A still from Alia Bhatt's "Going Home" video; directed by Vikas Bahl. 

None of this means that following all these precautions will prevent rape. What it does mean is that the daft Alia Bhatt “issued in public interest” video of a young girl hitching a ride with five men in a vehicle on a deserted Delhi road, is more counter-productively naive than idealistically feminist. Today, as a mother to a teen, whether girl or boy is irrelevant, I find it heart-stoppingly dangerous to even imagine a young woman would take that video to heart and attempt a friendly request for help. It is heart-stoppingly naive to think potential rapists are watching it and transforming themselves to help women on the streets. If no one is taking it to heart, what exactly was its point “in public interest”? This is the tripe new age feminism is becoming increasingly about instead of any real issues.

It’s not that if you do not take precautions you are somehow to blame. It is that if you do not take precautions, you are opening up yourself to a world in which there are elements that do not share the same value systems as you, that you do not control, and will not always react in the way you expect them to. It is that by not informing you that these are precautions you must be conscious of at all times, you are somehow being led to believe that the world owes you a sense of security that you are not responsible for co-creating. That this world is safer for men than it is for women (I would beseech you to allow your sons also to not fall asleep in a cab either). And that you can exist independent of your concern for your own welfare. This never has and never will be, true. To believe otherwise is an idealism that only your parents can ever find the courage to tell you, is a misplaced one.

In a much earlier designation in his career, the current Police Commissioner of Mumbai Rakesh Maria once said in response to being asked what his biggest worry for safety in the city was that “parents are not checking in on their kids”. I would agree. There is this veneer of political correctness and protection of individuality that now oversees all parental interactions: Us not wanting to impinge on or disturb the fierce independence that a whole new generation of women is acquiring. Men who decree curfews for women are patriarchal. Women who seek the protection of patriarchy are weak feminists and a shame to all forms of the freedom movement. All you have achieved is to remove the defences of women in a society that has changed nothing about itself.

Empowerment is great, it really is. Independence is. Individuality is. It’s great to see young women go out on a limb to work, play, create, generate, ideate. Choose who you marry or not, where you go, who your friends are, where you work, and how you live your life. But choose your war zones, pick your battles, know when to retreat, and that it is okay to, sometimes.

Let’s just stop telling each other feminism is a woman acquiring the freedom to act without having to consider the context of a society that doesn’t always think the way you do. It isn’t. That’s just recklessness.

Last updated: December 09, 2014 | 19:15
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