By Stephanie Owens:
The poet Derrick Brown once said, “You belong everywhere.” As a self-proclaimed global citizen, I cherish this quote and all it stands for. Yet, on the eve of Indian Independence Day, when I asked people what I could do to join the celebration, this is what I was told: “You could go to the parade. But don’t go by yourself!” or “Hmmm. Best to stay at home and enjoy.” It seems as a single female in Tamil Nadu, I do not belong anywhere but my house and office. Not if I cherish my safety. And definitely not if I am alone. This is shocking to hear in a modern country that prides herself on being the largest democracy in the world.
I have been living in Chennai for about five months, and have never felt threatened or unsafe in any area, and people have been nothing but kind. But there is still this lurking unease any time I venture beyond the confines of my triple-locked front door, or mention to a concerned co-worker that I plan to go somewhere alone. When I have stepped out, one observation that always strikes me is how few women I see, prompting the oh-so-articulate query, “Where are all the ladies at?!” Despite my street smartness and general comfort level with being different from the people around me, I have a nagging doubt that if anything were to happen, people would blame me–for simply daring to leave the house. I vehemently oppose this mindset and do not wish for any woman to live with these constraints. If a tiger attacked a village, the townspeople would go after the tiger, not lock up all the inhabitants forever. Yet when it comes to harassment, instead of blaming and controlling predators, the culture here demands that the victims be careful. I’ve been told that I belong everywhere; I celebrate that independence and I do not expect to give it up in any democratic country.
While considering this issue, I came across this illustration. It discusses the problem of harassment of women, and focuses on street harassment, cat-calling, and eve-teasing in particular, which tend to occur in public spaces. It explains, “This kind of harassment is based on the problematic idea that public spaces are actually men’s spaces–and that women passing through them are subject to the desires, needs, and opinions of the surrounding men.” Seen from this angle, harassment is not about sex or desire, but actually a question of who is empowered and in control, and who is not. When we set curfews for women (not men) mandating a return to the hostel by 9 PM, or when we tell women to “stay home and enjoy,” we support this notion that women do not belong in public spaces. We imply that to be there would be a type of trespassing on men’s territory and, naturally, trespassers are vulnerable to attack. But how can it be that so much of the space we inhabit is not actually shared? That, for a woman, merely setting foot in a train station, walking down a quiet street, or riding the bus at night is tantamount to an invitation to be bothered or harmed? To quote youth around the world, “It’s not fair!” Although most men are decent and harmless, failing to question this concept of who controls public space gives our implicit consent to those who believe that women who occupy public space are targets for mistreatment.
What’s more, most of this oppression stems from people with good intentions; people who do not want to see their wives, daughters, sisters, or friends hurt or harassed. But following this leads to statements such as this one, that I heard from a local store owner, “The problem is, women have too much freedom. They go out and they get in trouble.” Is it too much freedom to be able to leave the house with peace of mind? Is it too much freedom to walk on the street without worrying about being cat called, groped, or worse? Is it too much freedom to have equal access to public spaces? As we celebrate the 68th year of Indian independence, we must redefine what independence means for all citizens, regardless of gender. This change can only come when the entire population is willing to fight for the independence of its female citizens and celebrate their freedom to have equal access to all that India has to offer.