By Sohini Bardhan:
To state facts very clearly, I am a Bengali and very proudly so. Two years ago when I shifted to NOIDA, I was told that I couldn’t wear short skirts or dresses because this place is not as “liberal or feminist” as Kolkata. I believed it. For months, I would shy away from wearing clothes I am comfortable in just because I was scared of what people might think and the fact that I might really get molested. A semester down, I realised that this is not how things work. I was scared because people wanted me to be scared. I was shy because that is how society expects a woman to be.
I went back home. Met my favourite teacher back in Kolkata. She sensed the change in me that I, myself, had not noticed till then. She was appalled. How could a person who always stood for her rights meek down so much? She told me, reminded me, in fact, that wearing what I want does not reflect on my character, neither does it invite rape. She reminded me of everything I stood for back when I was in Kolkata. She reminded me of every ounce of the person I used to be. She reminded me that meek, un-opinionated women never made anything of themselves. This, coming from a teacher, shows how liberal minded most of the city is.
Since my first day here in NOIDA, in a new city with new people, I stuck to the fact that Kolkata is indeed a very liberal city. Its people are indeed very liberal and rooted to their culture. Two years passed, and I still reiterate the same thing over and over again, because that is what I’ve seen since childhood, that is what I’ve felt the city to be and that is what I believed in, until today.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Kolkata, I really do. It’s not just any city. It’s the city that taught me to respect every person because of who they are, the city that taught me that tolerance is an evil word and harmony is key, the city that taught me that other religions are not to be tolerated but respected, the city that taught me to celebrate with food, the city that taught me to respect both men and women equally for their individuality and not sex. I have defended this city at every single turn of events in these two years. I’ve yelled myself hoarse at how there is never any gender discrimination or stereotype in this city. I’ve convinced many a friend that the biggest fight we have is only over which place has the best food and nothing else. I’ve been labelled a feminist, a Bangalan (like that’s a bad thing, huh), a ‘woman with a mind’ and a lot many ‘horrible’ things. But it never hurt me, because that is essentially who I am.
When I see women smoking here, it doesn’t appal me, because I’ve seen a lot of women smoke back at home. Even though my parents are teetotallers and non-smokers, I’ve been sensitised to the fact that women do indeed smoke as do men. Before coming here, I never thought there was any difference between a man and woman smoking. Yes, eyes are raised at almost everything a woman does, in this society, but as a woman, you learn how to live with it. You only notice a change when it is dancing naked in front of your eyes wearing Dobby’s tea cosy. And that’s okay.
So, today, when I’m preparing for my end semester exams, I read an article which is a horrible disgrace to the entire Bengali community. A woman smoking on the road with a male friend, probably discussing life/college or whatever they want to, it is their personal life, was allegedly manhandled by people who all my life I believed were liberal. Her boyfriend was beaten up by them because she was smoking. This is heights of gender discrimination and intolerance. And to make matters worse, the police harassed her and a leading regional daily decided to print the story with her picture! This is a gross violation of privacy. When you know that violence is brewing, how in the world do you print the story with her picture? Do we not have enough of ‘victim’ blaming already? Say what you want, this is not fair.
After reading this, some people might label me to be a smoker/addict, but I don’t care. I’m not advertising smoking. All I’m saying is Bengalis are stereotyped as sitting with a cup of chai, a cigarette, and a newspaper and discussing politics. Bengali women are stereotyped as the most liberal and argumentative of the lot. You don’t have a problem with such a stereotype. Then why this hypocrisy? Everything I believed my city not to be, became so. I am appalled!
How do you expect me to show my face to my friends here and tell them the same thing I’ve been telling them for two years? What happened to the liberal minded city which opened its arms for everyone? What happened to the city that defines equality? Are we turning into another Afghanistan? I pray not. But someone, save my city from its ruin. Please.