The thing about routine lawlessness is that over time the one trying to oblige appears to be an odd one out. At every time people manage to find convincing reasons to not follow a regulation, just in trying to satisfy their self-consciousness.
This one afternoon I boarded a local bus from university to back home. Inside all six of eight ‘ladies seats’ were occupied by men. This is not so unusual, not even for me. For those who don’t know, first eight seats in local buses here in Kashmir are reserved for women. I don’t get back at these people ever. Not that I remember of having done it or having seen anyone else do it. But this one day I was carrying the magic gizmo that would convey my disagreement without me having to get into a brawl: a camera. I caught all the stares the moment I pulled it out from my bag. I pointed the camera at the ‘ladies seats’ with the poster aforementioning the edict of seat reservation and there it is – a man gets up and …
No. He didn’t stand up to allow me in but to question my attempt to take a picture. As I tried to explain, he took no time in jumping to the deduction that whether I deserved to get that seat depended on how whether I ‘dressed as lady’ and as it would seem meant dressing in salwar kameez. My attempt was nowhere to shame the men occupying those seats but to spawn a tinge of realization. I miscalculated it. Instead he ended shaming me and my way of dressing and asked me to ‘be like a lady first‘. The fellow passengers resorted to what psychologists call the diffusion of responsibility; some snubbing a smile, others burying heads in mobile phones and a woman bunking off her gaze to nothing significant outside the window.
Again nothing unusual but the quest for understanding those elusive spectre-like routine dealings that haunt, control and regulate our lives can prove to be a life changing journey. Everyone in the bus maintained silence as though agreeing to the proposition that ‘your possession and exercise of privileges depends on your dressing’ was foreordained. As though my jeans even made the hands groping me in a crowded bus legit. A painful yet filled with an overwhelming sense of discovery. Adiscovery that enabled me to name this elusive phenomenon: Patriarchy.
Not only is it the tyrannical man over a woman or the stifling marriages but the enforcement of strict regulation of female sexuality. It is how the economy, religion, culture and social practices have laid out a well-defined, yet unwritten, norm of masculine and feminine behaviors and roles. And in pursuit of maintaining the status quo of these unwritten norms over-riding the written ones thereby pushing women to margins. It requires a certain degree of control on opposite gender to operate. Women who do not abide by these norms are targets of humiliation. However that moment my silence contributed to its sustenance.
The entire drama did not end there. The same man offered his seat to a woman in hijab who boarded the bus a little later. While standing he chatted with a man by his side, sharing light laughter and words that stood distinctly loud and clear: ‘seat chodo activist’. It is so easy to grab labels. Not only had I faced the unceremonious embarrassment but also been lowered in the class that the society has constructed. Nevertheless, this behavior just happens to be a reflection of societal attitudes at large. Society has used dress in two related ways: to maintain the customs and establishing a visual identity and secondly to control the individual identities of its members by symbolically denoting as in need of control. Here it’s the latter and the people that fall under the category of to-be-controlled happen to be women. For the men passing remarks women are hardly dressed according to the customs and tradition. The large value people attach to various pieces of clothing becomes the barometer for their worthiness.
Since the choice of clothing should be utterly personal bearing in mind the setting, the dissent here has the potential of becoming the main arena of societal disharmony. Dressing up based on choice and not having to be shamed would represent a critical marker of social identity of women for a human ceases to be so when he/she cannot chose and relaxing them from exercising their choice is freeing them from a larger responsibility.
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