I was returning from an evening movie show with a friend one night, and we were sitting at a bus stop waiting for the 10.40 PM bus to take us back to our university campus. A trio of possibly inebriated men walked past us. The tallest of the group stopped, turned and stared at me for a long moment. His mouth pulled back into a condescending sneer, and he said, (in Tamil) “Did you forget the rest of your pants at home?” I was wearing knee-length shorts and a baggy t-shirt – rather unfashionable attire, to be honest. I stared at him in shock, at his impudence, my surprise and lack of Tamil skills preventing me from coming up with a response.
This man is not an exception. This man is not a special kind of jerk. This man is an everyman. This man believed that he had the full right to pass loud judgment on my body and my clothes, because I was a woman, and I did not conform to his idea of what a woman should be wearing.
The first time I was molested (that I can remember), I was eleven. I was on my way to school. Being the dreamer I have always been, I was dawdling with my head down, looking at the pavement. I felt a sharp pinch on my right nipple, still extra tender from the growing pains of puberty. I gasped at the pain and looked up, but the perpetrator had already disappeared into the mill of the school-day crowd of parents and students and drivers and attendants. I have never walked with my head down again.
These stories aren’t just mine. Every single woman I know is teeming with tales of sexual harassment. Leisurely conversations in college dorm rooms about assignments as yet incomplete and movies still unwatched have meandered into molestation stories. Invariably, everyone has some to contribute. With my early introduction into the world of harassment, I tried to be cleverer about avoiding it. Of course, my upper-class upbringing and chauffeured car greatly aided this process, but that isn’t the case for millions of women that have to take the bus and train to school and college and work. But the lesson I did grow up with, one I’ve been teaching myself since that day when I was 11, is that public spaces do not belong to me, because I am a woman.
Men own public spaces. They walk about on roads and parks and jogging lanes and tennis stadiums and school paths with no fear. The skulking awareness of the closest exit sign, now a constant resident in my brain, does not haunt them. Public spaces were created for them to enjoy, to walk around, to occupy.
As a woman occupying a public space, I am first and foremost a female body and only second a human being. The man, by contrast, is universalised – men are just people, their gender is almost non-existent in the way that maleness is made generic, and the deviation from it; femaleness, the exception. As a woman, my body takes centre stage, awaiting appraisal, before my words and opinions are taken stock of.
Also Read: The Right to Walk: Women in Public Spaces
A woman in a public space is immediately an object of consumption. And I’m not just talking about the risk of sexual harassment. The very fact that there are more men than women in the average public space makes us an object of intrigue when we step out. My body, my clothes, my manner, are immediately dissected and deemed appropriate or inappropriate (usually the latter, but hey, who’s keeping track?). It takes far more effort for a woman to be regarded as “presentable” than a man. A visible bra strap is a source of far greater scandal than a banian (undershirt) peeking out of a guy’s T-shirt. We are judged far more harshly for looking unkempt than men would. We occupy our bodies with far more self-consciousness than men do.
Objectification isn’t restricted to The Times of India publishing a zoomed-in photo of Deepika Padukone’s cleavage. It is very real and very personal and we experience being treated as an object – all legs and breasts – every time we step out onto the street and a disgusting middle-aged man leers at us, or a boss in our workplace flirts with us.
Certain public spaces are extra inaccessible to women – temples are banned to menstruating women to conserve the notion of “purity”, as though the biological process that is intrinsic to giving birth is impure. Alcohol shops and little roadside smoke joints are some of the most uncomfortable public spots a woman can occupy. The twin gazes of judgment and desire that a woman holding a cigarette evoke makes our skin crawl.
We are taught and have trained ourselves to shrink in public spaces, to occupy as little space as possible, to keep our heads down and walk fast. The myriad of ways in which public spaces are unwelcoming of us is drilled into us. Choosing to occupy them anyway is rewarded by mental and physical violence being inflicted upon us.
Most men, however, happen to be completely oblivious to the general fear and unease we feel in public spaces. So much so that one male friend jeeringly asked me, “So you feminists want equal rights for men and women, but happily take the woman’s compartment in the trains, don’t you?” The fact that women get pinched and groped and masturbated at in general compartments didn’t even occur to him. He was, in fact, rather stunned when I told him that.
And how is this unease and fear we feel in public spaces dealt with? By restricting the movement of women of course. For our safety, haven’t you heard? Women’s hostels for fully grown, adult women, have curfews at ridiculous times like 6.30 PM. Women’s bodies are constantly policed – dress codes are imposed far more strictly on women than men in most universities.
The problem of women feeling uncomfortable in public spaces is solved by removing women from these public spaces, or by making sure they conform to patriarchal standards of femininity in order not to “provoke rape,” as though such a thing exists. The discourse around women’s bodies in public spaces is often organized around the concept of safety. This “safety,” however, is often as patriarchal as the sexual violence meted out in its absence.
What we need to work on is how to make public spaces more accessible for women. We need to ensure that the conversations around women’s bodies in public spaces is focussed on our right to occupy it without harm, rather than focussing on how to keep us safe in what are essentially men’s spaces. Failing to conform to these patriarchal rules of safety-for-women is then a free-for-all to blame women for the violence inflicted upon them.
Women have as much right to be wearing the clothes they want and occupying the spaces they are, as men do. Criminalising us for daring to go partying at night, or jogging on that lonely road, only adds to the perception that we are not welcome in public spaces. It adds to the perception that we must limit our engagement with public spaces between the hours of 9 and 5, when it is respectable for us to do so. And by the way, in case this point hasn’t been made enough, sexual predation happens at all times of the day and with women wearing all kinds of attire. So let’s stop pointing fingers at women wearing short skirts and start pointing them at the shady men who leer at women wearing short skirts (or salwar kameezes or burqas, for that matter!).
Let’s recognise the disparity between men and women’s experiences of public spaces and work on dismantling that. A woman has the right to occupy public spaces without fearing for her safety, no matter the time of the day or her choice of clothing. Eleven-year-old dreamers have the right to dawdle on their way to school, watching for cracks in the pavements without a care in the world.
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