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Ladies, Freedom Comes With Footnotes

Editor’s note: This story is in response to Youth Ki Awaaz’s topic for this week – #UnsafeInMyCity. It highlights how safety is a concern for all of us, living in different parts of this country. If you have an experience to share, write to us here.

As a research scholar, it has been ingrained into me that nothing is acceptable as “authentic” without citations. Without footnotes. Clarify your position. Acknowledge when you borrow someone else’s ideas. Give credit where it is due. Footnotes vouch for the ethical value of your research. Footnotes help substantiate one’s work. Footnotes serve to provide additional information. You cannot do without footnotes.

These footnotes are also the most overlooked aspect of research. Sometimes unimportant, even ignored, asides. They’re a nuisance, these footnotes. Distracting. Time consuming. Under-acknowledged necessities. What they also are, are “conditions apply”. Disclaimers. Absolving all responsibility of the writer to respond when their views are challenged. Other times, they just indicate afterthoughts that have no real bearing on the “actual” matter.

In the past two days, as I scroll down my Facebook newsfeed. I find a lot of happy new year messages. People wishing each other the best in the coming year: some morbid, macabre thoughts about the futility of it all, some looking back at the happiness the previous year brought, some the disappointments.

A few scrolls down, I was thinking about footnotes again. Footnotes and freedom as I read through reports of the molestation that happened in the city on New Year’s Eve. My city.

And I was thinking about the #WhyLoiter online campaign actively continuing in the past few months not just here but across the border. GirlsatDhabas shared a photo of a woman in a burkha riding a bike in Karachi just the previous day. “May this courage be with you always, whoever you are!!” the description reads. Solidarity with the woman stranger in her ability to express courage enough to claim the streets. A celebration of owning public spaces. Yes, it is indeed heartening to see that women are out and about on the streets and letting the wind ruffle their hair without a care.

But all joy, as they say, is short-lived. Let me take you back again to the discussion on footnotes. How do we usually indicate that there is one? An asterisk *. Or superscripted numbers.  Yes, you may loiter.*(1)

*(1) Q: But what are you wearing?

A: A short dress. (Ah, see you are being provocative)/ A saree (You need to let yourself loose a little)

Q: Where are you loitering, with whom, at what time, for what purpose?

A: Just out with friends, late at night, for a New Year’s party. (Why are you going with friends so late in the night? Why do you have to go to a party? Go in the morning, with your father or brother. You’ll be safer.)

Every conversation is a variation of the above. The asterisk here is not an afterthought. It is the quintessential patriarch asking these questions. The minute women decide to step out, even before we do, the asterisk follows like a surveillance camera, the all-seeing, controlling panopticon. The minute we stumble, it is unleashed, as both a validation and disclaimer. It authenticates if we meet all the “conditions”  that “apply”, invalidates if not.

This footnote is not under-acknowledged. This footnote will not be ignored. This footnote holds power.  Power like the foot that can either take you places to loiter or freeze you within claustrophobic walls. So beware. For freedom always, always, comes with a footnote.*(2)

*(2) for a woman