Walking The Streets Is A Statement

by | Sep 12, 2018

It starts with the clothes. They are the usual culprit – so a lot of thought has to be put into what I wear – and what it signifies to the person looking at me. It may invite attention, and I can never know what kind, so I always have to be careful, so I am.

I keep my strides well measured and fast. I need to balance the wobbly line of being confident but not over-confident. I have never felt confident enough to wear earphones as I walk through the streets; I need to be aware of my surrounding. I seek the visibility of streetlights and will need to turn away from a familiar street if the lights are not on due to infrequent power cuts.

I am hyper-vigilant to the point of paranoia. It is just a walk but I might as well be criminal suspect by the look on my face – the darting eyes, the nervous lip biting, fluttering instincts. This is too descriptive but these 169 words are just part of my experience with public streets in Kanpur. I have heard accounts of these stories from rural and urban women alike. In my focus group discussions relating to sexual violence, women reported being groped and pinched and having to always be on the watch for an errant hand that might find its ways towards their bodies. The urban women know to avoid those spots where the possibilities of getting eve-teased or flashed, increases. We have internalized these dangers and aversion seems to come to us as naturally as breathing. But the question is should it be so?

In my case, I have lived in Kanpur for almost a year now – I should be okay walking in a public place, says my rational logical brain. The rural women, when they narrated their incidents, were just on a public transport or roads. The urban women walk by those roads every day. Why is it that we should be afraid?

The looming threat of violence and rape towards females is a time-honoured tradition. Recently, I came across a news article that single women are being restricted from entry in pubs and are only permitted entry if they are accompanied by their husbands and in at least one establishment are being asked to produce wedding photos or a marriage licence to prove that they are married. Since the Gurugram’s administration has been unable to ensure the safety, they seem to be adapting the well established Indian response – keep the women inside your homes.

In her book, as Susan BrownMiller talks about rape – as “a conscious process of intimidation by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” In the book Against Our Will, a feminist classic, she states it as a political problem because it is systematically shrouded in stigma and silence to protect the honour of men. She emphasizes on rape as a tactic in a war that frames sexual violence as a collective social problem as well as a deliberate, calculated act meant to humiliate and degrade the victim. Fear reigns supreme and a lot of seemingly feminine response is a reaction to this invisibly looming threat of violence and fear. Femininity’s essence, she defines it as, to mystify or minimize the functional aspects of a woman’s mind and body that are indistinguishable from a man’s and to accept the handicap of restraint and restriction, and to come to adore it. As a society, we have internalized and now-by instinct-regurgitate these responses in our social and personal settings in words and actions.

 

So, walking the streets in defiance of the patriarchy is really a political stance women take.  It is a public space and to demand recognition and rights is a bold move. We all celebrated the release of Saudi Arabian women and deemed it a real achievement in the pursuit of women empowerment. That was a political victory. Our quest for infrastructurally smart cities with unsafe public places is a hollow victory. Closer to our own nose are spaces and people that are not free yet.

According to a survey by Safety Trends and Reporting of Crime, 87% of people in Delhi start worrying by 9pm if a female member of the household is out alone. International Center for Research on Women published a survey concluding that 95% women feel unsafe outdoors and 51% of men admitted to committing acts of sexual violence.

Women, in their long-held domestic and traditional roles of wives, mothers, sisters have always had restricted mobility. Their characters are tied directly to their mobility- The more visible and public you are, the worse your reputation is.  So, If you see girls walking on the street, seemingly confident, just know it is a facade. It is a bravado that we are forcibly manifesting to show that we deserve to be there, we have just as much right as you do. Yes, everything women do is for men. When we face gender-based violence, there are two choices we have. Tell everybody and slowly watch how people find ways to blame you or pretend it never happened. The blame will occur in guise of protection – it will punish you by limiting your freedom and rights.

When I met the women from Self-Help Groups, their progress stories sounded incredible to me because of their first major hurdles(and eventual victory) is that they are able to get out of their homes. They spoke vividly and sheepishly of the resistance they faced from men and the in-laws when they started attending the monthly meetings to present-day where they are the ones encouraging them to attend. The northern patriarchy has ensured the fear is well and live through local instances of women being beaten if they went out without informing and a survey by Indian Human Development Survey  only confirms it- 51.7% of women think it is usual in the community for a husband to beat his wife if she leaves the home without telling him. The Purdah/ Ghoonghat, as was argued by proponents, was designed to protect women from being harassed and seen as sexual objects. So, they literally hid the women from the sight of men to protect them and deemed it as an act of honour and virtue.

An incident that occurred in an urban slum, Dakkana Purwa – foremost on my mind in relation to public places, the threat of violence and women safety. Swati and I were on a field visit and were observing the disappointing public forum exercise in which the authorities failed to show. Their failure to appear led to a discussion of what can be done to get their attention. Women and girls face not just an abuse of dignity but also actual violence in the shape of kidnapping, rapes and mocking as they try to relieve themselves outside. I was sitting with the women as they described their trials. They related their daily harassment endured which ranged from getting groped, pinched, eve-teased right outside their homes. I was wondering how these violent incidents continue to further the helplessness that their poverty creates. Then a sudden commotion drew our attention. The next scene was a woman hitting a man mercilessly with a slipper and hurling rapid abuses in a tone that spoke of her pooled anger. The man was drunk and seemed disoriented; her violence had been severe enough to cause him a bleeding from nose (as far as I could tell in the dark unlit public road of that slum).

The crowd tried to pacify her but she seemed to have had enough, she yelled that this is a daily occurrence; she is never able to walk far enough on this road before a groping hand finds her body. As pacifiers took over and sought to solve the situation, we were hurried into a car for safety. As my mind sought to grasp and unravel everything that happened, I wondered about that woman and the others who would have to continue to be in that hostile environment and wondered how she would do it. Her and I, and women in general, we all learn by trials and tribulations and continue to be brave enough to walk the streets.

Every woman has a street story – where she had to fight off unwanted attention. We always have to consider whether the clothes we are wearing are appropriate for the locality we are going to be in. We have to walk the streets with considerations of visibility and safety. We need to move beyond stay aware and be careful trope. It is not working. Here’s an interesting thing I want to end this blog post on. I googled “walk the streets”, here’s what I found.

 

google keeps me fun

Sources:

  1. https://www.firstpost.com/india/how-safe-do-women-feel-in-indias-metro-cities-87-people-in-delhi-start-worrying-if-girls-arent-home-by-9-pm-4090753.html
  2. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/95-women-feel-unsafe-outdoors/articleshow/18283775.cms
  3. https://www.hindustantimes.com/columns/our-cities-cannot-be-called-smart-until-women-feel-safe/story-HYBjewRfPQwMJTDcMwxzWN.html
  4. http://time.com/4062637/against-our-will-40/
  5. https://scroll.in/video/884621/watch-a-saudi-arabian-woman-celebrates-the-lifting-of-ban-on-female-drivers-by-rapping-about-it

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1 Comment

  1. Vishal

    That is a great and a wonderful blog you have written…it’s a eye opener

    Reply

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