The news pleasantly surprised me on Sunday morning when I came to know that Delhi Transport Corporation had decided to provide free AC and non-AC bus rides to women commuters on the occasion of Rakhsha Bandhan. Initially, it felt like a generous gift, after all, who doesn’t like freebies? However, this trivial gift encompasses an orthodox and rather harmful attitude towards women. I hold two prime reservations towards this gift. Firstly, it is in the context of the occasion that the women were being provided free rides. Rakhsha Bandhan celebrates the loving and caring bond between a brother and sister, embeds the idea of identifying women only in relation to their male family members. A display of this seemingly innocent and insignificant attitude towards women signifies the lack of individuality in women.
If DTC offers free rides on a day which glorifies the “sisterhood” of women, it actively reserves the role of women in the society to just that. When the DTC is denying a raise in the salary of contractual workers and offering free rides to sisters to reach their brother’s place to tie rakhis, it highlights an obvious disregard of the more important issues. This benevolent move by the DTC is not being proclaimed either by them or anyone else as a measure of women empowerment. Although, it does allow us to wonder why doesn’t it provide financial relief to the women on more relevant days such as International Women Day (March 8) or Workers Day (May 1), which celebrates the spirit and choices of women more significantly.
Even if the occasion of the day is ignored, it is harder to overlook the fact that the free rides could be availed only from 8 AM to 10 PM. While the DTC bus begins to ply from about 4:30 AM in the morning until about 12 AM in the night, this offer could be availed exclusively during the prescribed time. This covert suggestion that women travel (or, rather should travel) during the “respectable hours” is extremely restrictive and regressive. This exercise by the DTC actually reflects the values and codes of the society that has definitely become slightly liberal to provide the women with limited freedom, but not a complete agency over their lives.
When the society fails to ensure the security and equality of women from exploitation ranging from sexual abuse to unequal pay for equal work; sometimes analysis of simple things makes us realise the complexities. Empowerment isn’t a simple task, rather a continuous, multi-layered process which deals with continuous and multi-layered issues. As the process continues, we realize the new challenges. The early women movements were fighting for women’s right to be educated; today we are battling for equal pay for equal work. Yesterday, the women were demanding access to public spaces; today we are struggling for access to equal and safe public spaces. An exercise of granting free voyages might even seem empowering in the modern sense as it promotes the women’s movement. However, it comes at the cost of compromising women’s choice, autonomous and agency.