By Simin Akhter Naqvi:
I don’t see the number of women driving on the roads of Delhi that I would like to see. There are few of them on the roads in general, too many in the side and back-seats, too few out late and hardly any on the highways and expressways. The reasons are many, and common sense tells me I shouldn’t be too surprised about it. Given the 25% participation rate of women (for the year 2011 according to the International Labour organisation as per a report in the Hindustan Times), the fact that a lot of women, even when they work, don’t have a control over how they use their earnings, and that Delhi’s roads are not really a safe place for women in general.
Reports on participation of women in the workforce tells us that a large number of our women don’t work outside the homes. Even amongst the ones who earn, a large number across different layers of the socio-economic spectrum don’t have control over their earnings. Many can’t spend the money they earn without the permission of their husbands or in-laws. According to the United Nations Development Programme, 80% of Indian women do not have a bank account. We have seen a large number of young women students take to scooties of late. It is rather encouraging but a casual look around reveals that a very large number of women from households with cars, use other means of transportation to go for work. While male members of the family use the car. Moving higher up the social ladder, even though the number of women who travel around in cars is high, most prefer to sit at the back.
Needless to say, patriarchal social attitudes and internalisation of the same by women determines how this unequal control over household resources works and why women don’t resist it as actively as one would expect them to.
The sun apparently never sets in cosmopolitan cities but sundown is actually still a word in the mental vocabulary of women drivers in Delhi. Anybody who drives around Delhi knows there are too many dark stretches as not all roads are properly lit in the city. General attitudes toward women drivers are chauvinistic and impolite, if not lewd. Gender stereotypes about women not being as good as men at reversing and parking are too rampant, to even expect these roads to be a comfortable space for women. Sadly, we also have too few roads named after women. Not that it will make it any safer to drive on these roads, but yes encouragement does matter. In most of the main roads, many men drive very fast and do not follow road rules in general. If it’s a highway, you can’t go too slow; if the traffic is unruly, you can’t stick to the rule, making it an established and accepted majoritarian space in a very aggressive way. Many drivers have a gleeful, vulgar and happy look when they overtake you, just for the heck of it.
Also, size does matter! With women riders and drivers mostly on scooties or in small cars, the sight of inter-state buses, trucks or DTC low-floor buses moving around like boomerangs is particularly intimidating.
There are too few roadside toilets. The ones which do exist are not user-friendly and hardly safe for women. It gives even the women traffic constables posted on the road a tough time. Even though some taxi agencies such as Ola Pink and Meru Eve have launched initiatives to encourage women to become professional drivers, actual number of women drivers on the roads continue to be abysmal. There are too few women constables posted on the roads and too few PCR vans around in case of emergency.
The streets in general are not safe for women. How many roadside shops can be considered safe for us to get down and buy a pack of cigarettes? How many intersections are there, where a woman can casually light a cigarette? How many streets exist where we can park aside for a quick puff or to attend an urgent phone call? Not too many, for there is judgement and then there are also real safety threats. We often sneer at women driving carefully, but we seldom acknowledge that they may be doing so because our roads have become sexist and patriarchal spaces which are unsafe. How irrational or wrong is it then, for them to go slow, watch out for themselves, avoid confrontations and do just what society tells them to? “Be safe rather than sorry”.
Finally, while driving on Delhi’s roads may still be a risky adventure for women, I’d personally like to see much more women drivers. More women cabbies, more women car and bike rallies, more women taking to the steering wheel, women driving more confidently and with a sense of due entitlement. Most importantly, women simply walking around and occupying the streets and roads, in defiance of the fear of moral policing, societal judgement and sexist stereotypes; while the state can prepare the police force to be more gender sensitive and ensure that the streets and roads are well lit. Families and educational institutions can get busy with the more important job of encouraging and preparing women to start driving!