Are urban spaces more liberating for the woman? Not quite. Just take a walk on Bangalore’s roads and find out what it is for a woman to be at the wheel. Acceptance is far, women drivers continue to be harassed and abused. Harshini Vakkalanka and Sravasti Datta drive around to find out
Ask a woman, she will tell you what it is like to fight for her education, to wear what she wants to, to date the man she wants to, to marry the man she wants, to fight for her career and in between, even fight for her space on the road to drive freely.
It’s all subtle, the bullying. It’s never on the face. But if you are a woman on the road, you know what it’s like to have vehicles squeeze past you into the tiniest of gaps from every side either with no warning or with exaggerated fanfare. Ask the auto drivers who zigzag their way around you, onto you, not even moving aside to let you pass despite travelling at the speed of a horse cart. It doesn’t stop there.
“I always have horns blaring at me just a fraction after the signal turns green just because they assume I’m going to take my time. Just in case a vehicle slams into mine, those men simply drive off,” says Dr. Meenakumari, global head at a multinational. “On the other hand, we are made to pay for mistakes we don’t commit. Once, when my friend braked suddenly because the car in front of her came to an abrupt halt, a two wheeler slammed into her car and the driver made her pay Rs. 24,000, an exorbitant amount for the vehicle he was driving. And she had no choice.”
Is it that just because it’s a woman behind the wheels, people assume it has to be her mistake? And she is assumed to be a careless driver?
The authorities have a different story. “I have seen over the past five years in my post that women are rough drivers. They do not follow traffic rules. They jump signals, even when I tell them to stop,” says S. Sumathi, who directs traffic outside the Police Commissioner’s office on Infantry Road. “Sometimes I get so angry that I raise my hands at them, though I have never touched them. It’s only because of their rash driving I think that men might irritate them. I see ladies doing their make up, talking on the phone or even eating while driving. Though I do know a few ladies of wonderful character.”
Male traffic cops on the other hand are more ambivalent. “I have never observed any instances of male drivers bullying or disturbing women drivers. Maybe nobody does it when the police are there,” says traffic police officer Suresh Mohan.
“I think men only overtake like that when they are in a hurry. If they linger and block the road then it may be a case of bullying. But I have rarely seen that happen. I don’t think it happens often because it’s dangerous to attempt such things. I do feel that some women drive rashly, they don’t follow traffic rules,” says yet another.
The prejudices against women drivers are undeniable, say women drivers. “People are quick to point fingers at women drivers. I have heard people with basic common sense, including women, point and say: ‘Oh, woman driver!’ I think people enjoy doing this,” says writer Catherine Rhea Roy. She, however, also observes that women drivers receive help on the roads much more than male drivers. “The downside is, if as a woman driver you show you are afraid or under confident, people take off on you. Also, women drivers are a lot easier to reason with. Women drivers are treated as secondary beings. If a woman overtakes a guy, it becomes an ego issue for him more than anything else.”
For playwright Swar Thounaojam, the plight of being harassed and targeted by a mob for speaking out against an errant driver last year, continues. Hardly any action has been taken against the accused. The police constable who assaulted her has filed a counter-complaint saying she assaulted him, despite proof to the contrary. “Autowallahs and bikers overtake us and cut corners, and if we don’t allow it, then they start abusing.”
Software professional Richa Gaur recounts a harrowing experience. “I was at a junction where a right turn wasn’t allowed. I could only go straight, but since the signal showed red, I stopped. An auto driver behind me wanted to overtake, but because I stopped at the signal, he couldn’t drive past. He got out of his auto, with a slipper in hand, and told me, ‘I will beat you’. I just kept calm, locked the doors and sat inside. The traffic constable did nothing. There are bad drivers, both men and women. But there’s a prejudice against women drivers,” says Richa.
Swar says that male drivers become intimidating on the roads. “I have seen women drivers are disciplined. Even if women drivers follow rules, they are harassed. Traffic police have an entrenched prejudice against women drivers, so they side with abusive drivers.” As for women drivers filing complaints, Swar says there is a systemic problem. “I am going through such a harrowing time following up my case. Complaints by women are always disputed. For women with commitments at their workplaces and at home, it’s difficult to keep up the fight.”
Many male drivers simply said “Of course, women drive well”, steering clear of the issue. Others were more genuine. Like Naval Gupta, corporate trainer and arts therapist,who said he knows of amazing women drivers. “I don’t even think if a car is being driven by a man or woman. It doesn’t matter. But I have observed that people, in general, are unfair to women drivers. They need to be sensitised.”