Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Reclaiming my Space

When we first got Angel, I took on the responsibility of walking her. I used to do all her walks, including the early morning and late night ones. And then I stopped.

The ostensible reason was that it was getting too much for me. I was doing all the cooking myself at that point. I had to wake up half an hour earlier to walk her before coming back and getting stuck into tiffin-making. And I was completely pooped by the time I had made dinner, fed the kids and put them to bed and the prospect of a half an hour walk after being on my feet all day was not appealing, to say the least. So Jai took over the early morning and late night walks a few months ago and when he is traveling, the driver walks her.

There was, however, another more insidious reason why I was only to happy to accept Jai's offer to walk her, especially at nights. It had to do with the sexual harassment I faced when I was on the streets. There have been eve-teasing incidents during her daytime walks too - most recently, an affluent guy driving a BMW slowing down, rolling his window down and giving me the once-over - but there's something about the dark that seems to make such men bolder and their 'advances' more menacing.

Let me be clear about the incidents that have happened. There were all, with one exception, mostly verbal and relatively harmless. The one incident that was a little more more than that involved a biker driving past me four times on the same stretch of road. Having a large dog with me ensures that people keep their distance so there was never any real risk. Overall, the incidents have been more irritating and offensive than threatening but they made me uncomfortable enough to want to avoid the road at night.

However, the horrific events of 16th December and some of the debates surrounding it have made me rethink my stance. Incidents like these are becoming depressingly commonplace in our country and it is time we rethink whether hiding in the comfort and relative security of our homes is the right way to make our cities safer for women.

Among the many links and writings that I have come across in the last few days, discussion about a book called Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets sparked something in me. At the outset, I should mention that I haven't actually read the book (something I intend to correct soon, having already ordered it from Flipkart) but I like what seems to be the basic premise of the book. Here are excerpts from a review of the book in DNA:
The writers contend that Mumbai’s women “feel compelled to demonstrate at any given time that they have a legitimate reason to be where they are. Commuting to work, ferrying children to school or going shopping are seen as acceptable reasons for women to access public space”.
In the section titled ‘Imagining Utopias’, the authors make the case for “loitering as a fundamental act of claiming public space and ultimately, a more inclusive citizenship… Loiter without purpose and meaning. Loiter without being asked what time of the day it is, why we are here, what we are wearing, and whom we are with. That is when we will truly belong to the city and the city to us.”
The book is about Mumbai but I think the insights apply to any other city. We have given up our claims on public spaces all too easily, all in the name of safety. And if the rising rates of crimes against women are anything to go by, this has been counterproductive, if anything.

We are only reinforcing the dominant rhetoric that women are safer at home when nothing could be further from the truth since a majority of sexual assaults happen to women in their homes and neighbourhoods, their so-called safe zones.

We don't need less women on the street, we need more. Not just because there is safety in numbers, though that certainly counts. But also because it should become everyday and commonplace for women to be found out and about, not just when they need to be or are allowed to be, but even when they want to be there for no specific or 'legitimate' reason. There should be nothing special or notable about a woman on the street, nothing that inspires comment or judgement, nothing that signifies that she is 'asking' to be heckled, groped or assaulted.

And it has to start with us. If we want the streets to be safer for our daughters, we have to first find the courage to be out there ourselves. Locking ourselves and our daughters away is not the solution. It is our world too and we have an equal right to inhabit it in full measure. It is up to us to claim that right instead of letting our own fears and the judgment of others inhibit us.

So long story short, I am going to put my money where my mouth is. I am going to start walking Angel in the night again. Not on a daily basis, because the end-of-day exhaustion was a genuine reason to stop as well and Jai enjoys the opportunity to stretch his legs after a long day at an office desk. But I will not hesitate to take her out for a long walk on the dark streets when he can't or doesn't feel like doing it. Because to not do so would mean giving up a piece of public real estate that rightfully belongs to me. I am not going to enjoy the heckling that I will inevitably face when I go out, but I will not let it change my behaviour because then they win.  

28 comments:

  1. Well said Ro. I have always been a brave and adventurous sort - to the point of being considered very foolish by my mum and causing her undue stress. But I have been everywhere alone and since I am impatient I usually don't wait around for people to escort me. Of late, as my daughter grows up and I deal with situations at my work place with young women, I find myself being more cautious, and recommending staying put in their rooms.... I guess I am being a hypocrite! Your post has made me re-think!

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    1. Much easier to put oneself at risk, than those you feel responsible for. My daughter is just 3 and I am already fretting about how I will strike this balance when it comes to her.

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  2. Anonymous8:34 am

    I'm so proud of you. I'm proud of you for (trying to) bring the change we badly need.
    K

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    1. I am really not doing that much. I wish I could do more.

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  3. So true. But we need to acknowledge the reality and learn self-defence probably. Bravado is good, but bravery even better, huh? And raising our sons and daughters well. What a tall order... sigh!

    Cheers (and good luck)
    Meera

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    1. Agree. No point in taking ridiculous risks. But what I don't want to do is stay away from even low-risk situations because of discomfort or fear of being judged.

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  4. Absolutely, we need more people thinking along these lines. Same applies to dressing conservatively so we don't "invite trouble". I say to hell with that. I hope one day the sight of women in skirts and shorts becomes so commonplace no one bats an eyelid.

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    1. Doing my best on that one too. I am frequently found in shorts and skirts.

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  5. Well said. Need to reclaim our space bit by bit.

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  6. Great writing Rohini. All strength girl!

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  7. You go girl! Train her to fight and carry a pepper spray - Stay safe and enjoy your night walks :)

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    1. Where does one get pepper spray? I want one!

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  8. Anonymous12:47 pm

    Ro,very well said. I am a Malayalee living in Kerala, the so called literate state of India, and even before the horrific incident in Delhi I have thought about my space in the public. In Kerala we talk about giving women all the freedom, but if you look closely males alone are the sole custodians of public space. A woman cannot attend a festival, boat race, or any such events without the fear of someone misbehaving. Because of that our husbands, fathers and brothers prefer if we stay home! And I ask why? I wish I knew more women who would loiter with me!

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    1. Get a dog. They make good loitering company :-)

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  9. Anonymous6:20 pm

    Ro, please save me the book after you've read!! Am dying to read it - looked at it online after reading your blog! Ayesha

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  10. I feel really torn about this. If all you feel is 'judged' when you go out at night then you should definitely reclaim the streets. If you feel unsafe, then ... I don't know how I feel about you possibly putting yourself in harms way.
    Either way - stay safe. (& Carry some pepper spray!)

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    1. I feel judged, uncomfortable and offended. But I really don't think I am really jeopardising my safety. Like I said, I live in a very safe neighbourhood,and my big doggie is a deterrent to any real trouble makers.

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  11. I'm so looking forward to read the book now!

    Growing up in India as a student and then as a working woman, it was disgusting to being subject to dirty glances, lewd gestures from all around. Old, young, educated, sadak-chhap, drunk or not, almost every other man had to do or say something vulgar. I walked the 10 min stretch from my office bus drop home at 9-9.30 pm. Occasionally I used to be in tears thinking that here I'm, a competent finance professional at office and yet walking with my heart in my mouth at the sight of every guy on the road. Though I kept my routine for years, as I think about it today I vividly remember feeling extremely scared and helpless and finally feeling greatly relieved at reaching home safely, and I feel so sorry for myself. :( A big dog would have helped me so much!

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  12. It sucks that you had to face that. We really need to fix this :-(

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  13. Anonymous1:00 am

    Thanks for your post. many eons ago i went for a walk in one of Delhi's beautiful public park around 4 pm or so. there, a man tried to grope me, and was shocked that I, a 19-year-old girl, would have the balls to kick him in my defense. i went home, shaken, and told my mother about it. she asked me if i was afraid to go back to the park. i said no. she said that I must go back to the park tomorrow at the same time, by myself again- not to prove anything to a pervert on the street, but to myself. guess what? i did go back the next day for a walk in the park. it was my right and noone could take it away from me. it was the best thing my mother taught me.

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    1. That's a great story! Kudos to you and your mom for not letting the incident propmt a lockdown.

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  14. Oh, I am going to draw strength from you!! We don't have to be stupid enough to walk down a desolate street at 11:30 pm, but should not worry about walking at 9pm when people are around and shops are open and street lights are on.

    After an incident, of all the places.......tirupathi temple.... I have been paranoid about walking down alone anywhere after 8pm unless I have someone with me... I have lost faith in freedom in this country and the charm of visiting a temple.... thanks to that!!!

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  15. I hear you. Angel's walk too is at 9 p.m. so there is no *real* risk. Just makes me uncomfortable.

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  16. I've never really lived in India, except when I was 10 (still have the slouch I developed then to diminish my pubescent breasts). Each time I visit I promise myself I'll walk straight, confident and sneer at those that leer, but one lecherous look and I'm 10 again -- slouching and pressing my legs tight in the auto ride back from school. Being enraged is not enough, I need to try harder next time I'm "home". Color me inspired. Be safe and kick butt.

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  17. Bravo Rohini! I have some deep dark thoughts on the subject, and loved reading your balanced outlook. All the very best - Give them Hell!

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  18. Bravo! And yes, we need the freedom to loiter safely, whenever we so desire!

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  19. Way to go Rohini! Hope you have been able to keep walking.

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