“Where do you work (or study)?”, “Will you be back early?”, “I do not allow drinking in the house.”, “You cannot bring over men.” – these are some of the common questions or instructions single women looking for a place to stay face after meeting proprietors for the first time. The answer to the first question helps the proprietor assess whether the job is socially acceptable for a woman to do and the answer to the second is sought because women staying out late at night is still not socially acceptable. The last two instructions reflect a brand of morality that women have been traditionally subjected to.
This moral screening takes place as a single woman is considered an anomaly in our society. However, no matter how intrusive a violation of private space these questions pose, they seem harmless when compared to being outright rejected a place to stay because of one’s sex which often happens under the banner of the proprietor’s freedom of choice.
Mrinal Sen’s 1979 movie, Ekdin Protidin, shows how society puts restrictions on women’s movement and working hours as the protagonist is subjected to a constant litmus test by her family and neighbours as she does not play out the traditional role of a woman. Meanwhile, the parameters under which she is judged do not apply to the men in the family. This scene has not changed much since.
In a patriarchal society like ours, the kind of jobs women are expected to take up often depends on a perception of safety and certain jobs are socially stigmatised for women. It is relatively easier to imagine a woman in a classroom than imagine her running across the city at odd hours talking to strangers and looking for a scoop for a newspaper – one of the reasons proprietors will often refuse a place to women reporters.
Most hostels or paying guest accommodations have rules against women staying out late. Now, students from colleges across Delhi have started a campaign called Pinjra Tod to highlight and fight against this curb on women’s personal freedom in the name of safety. The campaign’s Facebook page describes it as “An autonomous collective effort to ensure secure, affordable and not gender-discriminatory accommodation for women students across Delhi.” It has recently started a campaign to blacklist PGs in Delhi so that women can make informed choices about their accommodation.
The International Labour Organisation has ranked India 120 among 131 countries on women’s participation in the workforce. But what is more worrying is the ILO’s global employment trends 2013 report which shows India’s labour force participation rate for women fell from just over 37 per cent in 2004-05 to 29 per cent in 2009-10. Meanwhile, census data has placed the number of single women in India at 71.4 million in 2011, which is a 39 per cent increase from 2001.
On one hand we have a burgeoning population of single women, looking for a livelihood for themselves, and then we have social mindsets inhibiting the same. For starters, even in cities, it is not very easy for single working women to find a place to stay in, especially on one’s own terms.
Most of my single women friends complain of proprietors interfering in their interactions with men. It is monitored, scrutinised and is a bone of contention every time there is an argument, even, over unrelated issues. Ritwika, who is from Kolkata and was staying in a South Delhi society, was admonished for ordering food late at night after coming back from work because the food was delivered by a man.
Later, some society members took it upon themselves to set a time limit for the main gate to be opened for outsiders. She says, “It is like always being under scrutiny, even if you are following the house rules. There is a deficit of trust and the tenant is always scrutinised on the basis of what other people might think.” She has moved out from that apartment since then. This being an extreme case, it is very common for proprietors to question women about their sexual lives and try to control or police it.
In Delhi, the proprietor problem gets magnified in case of women from minority communities. A friend from Manipur was once told by a proprietor that she should not be partying all the time like women from her community did. The pre-conceived notions about the lifestyle and food habits of women from the northeast make it less likely for them to get a place to stay. Monami who is from Assam says, “With the whole renting business being taken over by brokers, they only show those houses where landlords would not have a problem with us or with non-vegetarian food. But the catch is, landlords will try to swindle money through harassment and ignore issues like clogged drainage or wiring problems by taking advantage of the communication gap between us.”
A survey conducted by Centre for North-east studies and policy research, Jamia Milia Islamia, commissioned by National Commission of Women, found that northeastern women faced daily discrimination in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bangalore, with an alarming 81 per cent women reporting harassment from Delhi. As many as 23% of the respondents from the four cities reported harassment by landlords.
Similarly, African women in Delhi face racial stereotyping which is divided on gender lines. African women are presumed to be associated with the flesh trade and hence denied accommodation in many areas. The African diaspora is thus clustered in a few places in Delhi. In January 2014, Delhi’s former Law Minister Somnath Bharti conducted a now-infamous midnight ‘raid’ in Khirkee Extension, allegedly aimed at busting “prostitution and drug rackets“, giving an official stamp on the negative stereotypes and racism surrounding Africans.
With campaigns like Pinjra Tod and #WalkAlone started in June to demand freedom of movement in pubic places at all times, women are questioning the systemic moral policing that goes on in the name of securing their safety and trying to reclaim the spaces traditionally denied to them. Meanwhile, looking for accommodation is a fight women undertake individually at every new place they move to.