There are those who say women should behave if they want to remain safe; their most potent weapon against us is our own fear. Instead of giving in to paranoia and shunning ‘dangerous’ places, we must learn to take calculated risks, for that is the only route to fearlessness
In 2009, when thugs were attacking jeans-clad women, a group of young female Bangaloreans decided to ‘Take Back the Night’, a 1977 campaign by U.S. feminists. I am told that they hung out near Town Hall at 10 p.m. Last week I received a message from one of my transgender friends, asking me to go to Town Hall at 10.30 p.m. to “take back the night”; it was a call to “make the city safe for all”.
What’s this namby-pamby 10 p.m. business? If that’s what you mean by ‘night’, it is already mine. I cannot take back what has always belonged to me — me, tramp, vagabond, footloose lover of the wee small hours. It’s beddy-bye time for all good girls when I amble my way back home after an evening’s entertainment.
“How are you getting back?” It’s a question that men never get asked. I’m sick to my back-teeth of hearing it for the last 34 years from concerned citizens who grow even more concerned when they realise that I depend on public transport. And then they ask: “Is it safe?” It drives me mental. I was myself unaware of just how allergic I am to the word ‘safe’ until my unsuspecting friend R got it in the neck from me last year. One night, I was traipsing in Majestic with R and his former student, whom I shall call H. We snacked at Sukh Sagar and made our way to Subhashnagar. The bus bays here aren’t clearly identified, and if you’re not a daily commuter you tend to do a fair bit of rambling and peering at destination boards. H urged me to take an air-conditioned bus because it was ‘safer’ at this time of night. I exploded. Me, veteran patron of BMTC, being given a lecture on safety by this pipsqueak! What made me livid was that R appeared to agree with him. When they stopped at the enquiry counter to locate the a.c. bus that would take me home, I simply abandoned them. In an instant I plunged into the vast sea of people and buses. It took me five minutes, with directions from assorted conductors, to find my bay and board an ordinary bus. I realised, with malicious glee, that neither R nor H had my mobile number, and that they were probably hunting fruitlessly for me. Which they were, for 40 minutes, said R when he called my landline, late night.
Poor H, a young man from a small town in Karnataka, was the misplaced target of my pent-up fury against the entire tribe of male protectors. Haven’t you heard these specimens in the media, yapping on and on about how women should behave if they want to remain safe? Doling out preposterous advice (girls to wear overcoats, chant mantras), using culture as a stick with which to beat us down? Their most potent weapon against us, the ‘weaker’ sex, is our own fear. They know that if we are scared of the bogeyman we will stay “within the limits”, their pet phrase. In the guise of concern for our safety they want to keep us shackled indoors or segregate us from men. But we, instead of giving in to paranoia and shunning ‘dangerous’ places and actions, must learn to take calculated risks, for that is the only route to fearlessness.
I have never encountered, in Bangalore, the kind of naked aggression that seems to be the norm in Delhi. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t encountered what practically every woman does, in every Indian city, town and village: unwelcome male attention and sexual harassment. Listen up, grandpas, papas and uncles, while I briefly list what strange men have done to me in public spaces: dirty talk, flashing, breast-watching, pick-up attempts at bus-stops, groping in buses and cinema halls, grabbing on the streets. Welcome to the world of the average, repressed Indian male. Has he managed to curb my movements?
Not one whit. A tramp I shall remain till my dying day — or till my legs give way! Demanding law enforcement is just one side of the picture. On the other, we have a crucial task cut out for us: changing male behaviour. To put it mildly, that’s a long-term project. What do we do in the meantime? Put up a robust fight. It need not involve fisticuffs; it could be a shout, a curse, an angry look, a sarcastic remark. Man staring at you? Stare back, unblinking, poker-faced. Man next to you in overnight bus resting on your shoulder? Give him a hard nudge. Man behind you slips his fingers in the gap between the seats and starts feeling you up? Create an almighty ruckus. Man in local bus rubbing crotch against your rear? Turn around, stare him full in the face, and continue to stand facing him. Grey hair is no turn-off; a young fellow-passenger proved this one sunny afternoon in 2010 when he assiduously explored my ribcage; I barked at him, he leapt into another seat.
The low-risk offender is usually a gutless lone operator who backs down when women turn on him. The high-risk ones form malevolent groups. We each have our own survival tricks and have to continue using them until the day every man begins to respect every woman. Er, in which millennium? Don’t place any bets yet.
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