“Hey, could I borrow some cash from you? I don’t want to stop at an ATM dressed like this!”
“Hey, text me once you get home. In fact, take your phone off silent and keep texting me till you get home. Let the driver know that you are talking to someone.”
“Arre, I am waiting at the bus-stop. So much lewd staring! I should have just taken a rickshaw.”
“A couple of guys on a bike kept following my car. You know what I did? I parked at the next signal and right next to the police booth! That taught them a lesson!”
“I need to pick up some things from the store. Could you take me? I just don’t want to walk down. That last stretch of the road has no streetlights…”
“Why are you travelling alone to U.P. by train? It just isn’t safe!”
“Why don’t you ask for an earlier shift at work? It is just not safe coming home so late!”
Any of these phrases sound familiar to you? They mark every landscape of a girl or woman’s life. We learn to anticipate danger; we turn our fear into a shield. Like the scouts and guides’ motto, we learn to ‘be prepared’.
How do we learn to fear the outdoors? Does it surface from an ocean of experience, or from conditioning – the framework within which a woman can exist ‘freely’?
I can’t remember when I learned to catalogue dark spaces; shield my chest as I walk down the streets, to dress ‘modestly’ when using the public transport, to summon up my city girl tricks for safe cab travel, to avoid basements of office parking spaces, to keep in constant touch with friends and family when I am travelling alone.
What I do remember is the first time someone groped me at a bus-stop – a quick squeeze before the faceless offender jumped on to the footboard of a bus. It took a few minutes for it to register… however, the emotional recoil was instant. That dirty feeling that no amount of soap could wash off, the helplessness-meeting-anger-rush that stung my eyes and nose. I was in school at the time. For days afterwards, I could recall the repulsive lingering pain left behind by those assaulting hands; I would physically shake my head to get rid of them. A few more years of lecherous men, catcalling, groping, flashers, masturbators, and stalkers later, a defence mechanism arose. We, women, learn these ways young; a sad rite of passage.
A few months back, my 8-year-old daughter came home from the park looking pale and quietly told me that two boys kept touching her ‘there’ – pointing to her chest. She was visibly shaken and distraught. And along with waves of pain I felt for her, there arose a sickening acknowledgement that for her it had just begun.
Is this the kind of world we want to live in? The kind where little girls are taught to build armour, learn to fend off predators, learn to shrink their presence to avoid and deter violence? Violence that will always be seen as a result of this girl not having been careful enough… Is a world where streets, transportation, bus-stops, stations, parks, basements, hours of the day or night, pockets of neighbourhoods/cities/countries are cordoned off, one that heralds freedom?
Can we aspire for a world where safety from violence is not left to preventive measures? Segregated compartments, pepper sprays, CCTV cameras, curfews, well-lit spaces, SOS apps are all fine, but how long can the conversation revolve around protection of women rather than the creation of a gender-equitable world. I would like to believe that it is not impossible for a woman to step out without being seen as an object to desire and acquire; for women to be seen for what they are…human beings.
As I pondered the incident at the park, I thought of those two teenaged boys. Could they have known that they had caused such agony to another human being? I wonder if somewhere those boys’ parents spent sleepless nights wondering if their sons would further add to the already imbalanced gender equation; if they took care that their little boys did not turn oppressors; if they understood that infringing on another’s personal space couldn’t be written off as ‘boys being boys’.
If we need to move forward as a society, it is critical that each of us have the freedom to go about our daily activities without watching over our backs. More women in the workforce are good for the economy; inclusive spaces are good for everyone! How can we engage with all stakeholders in this society to edge our way towards a gender-equal world? How can we subvert the patriarchy and create an environment of respect, empathy, equality and humanity?
Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments! Let us take this conversation forward… Let us work towards creating a better future… For our girls and our boys…
P.S….If you are in Hyderabad and support the need for creating safe spaces for women, you can join me and VOICE 4 Girls as we take the Freedom Walk, on August 15. Let us band together and raise our voices for freedom from this fear,
Disclaimer: The author of this blog, Malini Gopalakrishnan is the Content and Communications Officer at VOICE 4 Girls. The thoughts, opinions, and ideas expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of VOICE.