It is the summer of 2014. We have at least a couple of centuries of feminism under our belt, if we take Mary Wollstonecraft as our beginning. I am thinking, we should have come a long way baby. But here I am, about to start a column on the new, urban woman, and already I see that the strands I pick at to weave my stories stretch back centuries. Worn thin at places, frayed at others, but strong as fetters for the most part, it is only in a few areas that we have managed to break the bonds completely.
So it is that writing in 2014, I will still be asking questions that we started asking 200 years ago. Why must women worry about what they can wear? Why must they be told how to behave? Why do they still get groped in workplaces and marketplaces? Why do they still earn less even if they do more? Why are there invisible barriers to how far they can rise in the corporate world?
Already, as I ask the questions, they sound so familiar they are almost boring. Already, I hear groans of ‘oh no, not another bra-burning feminist rant’. And I prepare my response in advance. I begin by telling you a silly little story, but one that I imagine will convince you why these questions must still be asked.
So it was that one day not so long ago I was taking a morning walk on the street where I live. A middle-aged woman in a baggy tracksuit walking at 6:45 am on a Chennai street lined with trees. From the other end emerges a young man. He sees me, checks his step, retreats to the side of the road, and exposes himself. I steel myself to look him in the face. I yell invective. He runs off. I walk home. End of story.
But the fact remains that at 6:45 am, when the milkmen and paper boys have already begun their deliveries, when the average Tamil home is humming with the strains of Suprabhatam and the smell of coffee, a man on the street feels absolutely no qualms about trying to sexually intimidate a woman. He is not in the least bit afraid.
And that is because he thinks he owns the street. As men across India think they do — they own public spaces with the confidence of a birthright. Women, on the other hand, are afraid of public spaces. They are taught to fear it and if they don’t, they are taught a lesson. By way of molestation, lewd remarks or rape. In 2014, a man still feels entitled to touch a woman’s body if he finds her alone at a bus stop or on a train. Nothing in his experience has taught him that this could even remotely be wrong.
Which is why these uncool questions must still be asked. Why along with worrying about colour-coordinated shorts and espadrilles, and worrying about earning enough to buy them, we still have to worry about reaching that damn beach at all.