The level of gender discrimination in our country, especially in the capital city, is astounding. A couple of days back, an incident with some auto-drivers made me realize the natural acceptance of this kind of gender restrictions and the menacing way in which they are implemented in society.
It was in the afternoon, around 3, when I was returning home from my NGO-internship with Teach for India. There was another girl with me, Niketa- a fellow at the same institute. It was an especially hot and humid day, not surprisingly, being the month of July. So, there we were having walked all the way from the bus stop to the shared auto-stand in Anand Vihar, ISBT, New Delhi. The exhaustion and fatigue had really gotten to us and when we spotted one of the shared auto-rickshaw -backseats completely packed with 3 women, ready to move with only the front seats empty- Niketa and I could not have been happier. We accosted one of the drivers (the autos function on a community system) and asked him if we could take the front seats, and with one quizzical, sceptical look in our direction, he nodded his head and said, “aapko koi problem nahi hai to baith jao.” (If you don’t have a problem, then sit there.)
And believe me; we had absolutely no qualms about where we sat as long as we got home. Shared autos are not bliss to travel in to begin with, so behind the driver or besides him really doesn’t make much of a difference.
Happy to have gotten a seemingly quick ride, we settled down. And that’s when the big controversial fuss started kicking in. In the shared auto community there are several swappable drivers and a manager who allocates number to the autos and so on. The moment the news of two “ladies” having settled themselves in the front seats reached the group of drivers and other people (vendors, perhaps?), they hurried over to our auto. I must admit, I had a pretty good idea that this was coming. But in what hilarious way it was to come, I was clueless. The following conversation about sums it up.
1st auto driver (to our driver): “Ye ladies logo ko aage kaise bitha liya tune?” (Why did you make these ladies sit in the front seat?)
The guy who let us sit (squeamishly): “Inhone kaha…” (“They said…” and then his voice trails off)
2nd auto driver: “Nahi nahi, ladies nahi baithti hai aage.. Madam aap utar jao.” (No, no, ladies don’t sit in the front seats, Madam, please get down.)
Me (looking annoyed): “Kyun bhaiya? Kya problem hai?” (Why? What is the problem?)
Then started the hilarious process of discouragement- scare us into getting down. And the tool he used for scaring us? The idea of sitting with another man. Gasp! What atrocity.
2nd auto driver: “Madam, fir yahan aur log ayenge.” (Madam, then more passengers will sit in the front seat.)
Me (blank face): “Toh?” (So?)
2nd auto driver: “Fir ladies toh baithenge nahi aur koi aage.” (Then no other lady would sit here.)
Me: “Theek hai.” (Ok.)
2nd driver: “Fir gents hi baithenge.” (Then gents would sit here)
Me: “Theek hai bhaiya, mujhe koi problem nahi hai.. apko koi problem hai?” (Ok. I don’t have a problem. Do you?)
5 seconds of stunned silence.
Niketa, meanwhile, was getting tired with all the fuss over nothing and whispered to me, “Andy, chuck it. These guys will create a ruckus. Let’s just get off.” By the time I was so annoyed, I wouldn’t have moved had they offered to pay me. What’s up with their stuck-up ideas? If I didn’t have a problem with where I sat, what’s with their whiny attitude?
Then again, a general murmur arose: “Police waalo ne dekh liya to danda marenge humein.” (If the Police see us, they will beat us.)
Me: “Accha aur overloading ke liye kuch nahi bolenge bhaiya?” (Oh, so they won’t say anything about the overloading?)
After a few minutes, I believe they all eventually realized that these “obstinate women” would not relent. And true, I was trying to make a point. The very idea that it is not right for women to sit beside the driver is rooted on baseless reasons. And if the implication is that someone would attempt to molest you in a moving public vehicle stuffed beyond capacity, then the inanity of such an implication is truly stupendous. Even if I were to grant them that remote possibility, how does it make sense that such a thing might happen in the more visible front seats of an auto and not in the back (where they stuff in men and women indiscriminately)?
In any case, the auto did finally get a move on, with all the drivers giving us the murderous looks reserved only for the most irredeemable criminal offenders. I, on the other hand, was feeling immensely proud of our defiance and the following success. What felt best was that I didn’t ask for my right! I took it, and then dared them to take it back. They couldn’t.
The mentality of the auto-drivers did annoy me, it wasn’t much of a shocker; after all, and we see this kind of gender-stereotyping among men every day. But what blew my mind, and not in a good way, was a comment by a fellow lady-passenger, sitting snugly in the backseat, who said, after the auto started moving, “Beta, utar jati. Bura lagta hai aise.” (Beta, you should’ve gotten down. It doesn’t look good.)
And that’s when it hit me. It wasn’t the fault of the auto-drivers or the other men. Their twisted sense of chauvinistic chivalry takes root in the twisted ideas that women have of their own dignity. If that’s what the women have to say about themselves and about equality, what hope do we have left?