Streetwise Motoring

How older women experience the city

CHENNAI, 19/02/2013: Palavakkam Beach. Photo: M. Karunakaran   | Photo Credit: M_Karunakaran

When Fiona Vaz was 20, she dreaded taking the bus. “Every time I took the bus in peak hours, I was anxious. I had to mentally prepare myself for some man leaning onto me or rubbing himself against me, or a hand on my thigh or at the very least men staring non-stop. It felt torturous,” recollects this retired teacher. Walking on the street or park was never a pleasurable activity; that too brought on apprehensions of being sexually harassed (verbally and/or physically) or molested, she remembers.

But now aged 62, Vaz experiences public space quite differently, in fact in more pleasurable ways. “My attitude has changed to public space. I exude a certain confidence when I’m out there. Maybe it is because society’s attitude to me has changed due to my age and grey hair,” she laughs.

For Vaz, ageing has provided a release from what most women experience daily of ‘being continually noticed and assessed’ (McDevitt & Brooking, 1994) on the streets. When she was younger and faced verbal comments on her appearance, she was often jokingly told that she should “enjoy the attention” because when she was 60 no one would “compliment” her any more. But for Vaz, and most other women, those remarks were never compliments, but assaults or incursions that constantly reminded them of their gender and “sexual being”.

With age has come some liberation from those “compliments”, and for this she is grateful. “Without that cursed attention that younger women attract, I feel freer to do as I please, to walk in my city with an ease I didn’t experience when younger,” says Vaz, who often walks her dog on the street late at night.

Research shows that as boys become men, their space expands to include increased access to public space and the larger city. But as girls become women, their space shrinks and they access public space and the larger city in limited ways and via complex negotiations that take into account concerns of safety and respectability. However, as Why Loiter’s research on women and public space shows, for older women, notional access to space expands with age, in comparison to that of younger women. Since fears of unsuitable alliances diminish with age, older women often use this to their advantage by strategically accessing public space with skills honed over a lifetime. “I now go off to watch an afternoon movie on my own or a play with my friends,” says 76-year-old Ragini Mehta. “I don’t feel answerable to anyone.”

In fact, Why Loiter’s interviews with senior citizens found that older men, used to unrestricted unthinking access to public space as able-bodied youngsters, are often more anxious regarding accessing public space due to less-able bodies.

Though older women may feel less censured by society, they too feel vulnerable due to age. They might feel liberated from the persistent male gaze, but they do report being harassed, particularly by older men. While most rape victims are aged below 30 years, older women don’t escape assaults entirely. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2009, 95 rape victims were over 50 years of age; in 2013, 256 victims were in that age group.

Concerns over reputation and respectability don’t totally vanish, and for many older women, this means seeking legitimacy of public access through groups, health and spiritual pursuits. What older women then desire is acceptance for who they are, without the pressure of conforming to a gender or age stereotype.

Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

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Printable version | Mar 7, 2021 3:18:51 PM |

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