Coming from a relatively protected upbringing, I have not experienced the kind of violence and discrimination that many women in our country face on a daily basis. But I happen to believe that patriarchy affects most women and men in one form or another. So if we listen to each other, no matter where we come from, women and men, all races and socio-cultural backgrounds might find common grounds and stories to share. We as a society, in general, have allowed many social wrongs to continue as normal occurrences we need to get ‘used to’. Sexism is normalized and not nipped in the bud, and this is exactly why larger and more shocking crimes take place. The underlying problems need to be addressed and those begin early.
As a clueless teenager, and now recalling memories of the time, there are certain incidents which have changed me as a person, and I am not talking about all the positive ones. I used to roam around on my bicycle, just like a youngster would, wearing my shorts and a comfortable tee. And I remember one day, a stranger coming uncomfortably close to me and uttering a word I did not even know back then. I had to look up the meaning of the word ‘slut’ because that man had just casually passed a remark using the term because he felt that a 14-year-old biking around wearing shorts was somehow inappropriate. That incident changed my idea of what it was to be a woman, especially in our society.
Women have a complex dynamic when it comes to clothing, space and the notion of a public appearance in India. Since that day, I must say that I shrank a little, I was hurt. I never thought about clothes as a means of judgment before and now my relationship with clothing seemed to have changed. Same goes for space. Let me elaborate. The idea of owning (feeling authority or comfort in) public space is alien to a woman.
She, most of the times feels like the object of a situation or a place and not the subject. She is, after all, being looked at, and not the one looking. The gaze, mostly the male gaze makes her the object, and she has her own way of dealing with this discomfort. She will either try and project her confidence by dressing up to the expectations of others, conforming to societal norms, losing her identity at times, or play the rebel being aware of consequences that are not pleasant.
Compare the body language and sitting postures between a man and a woman at any public place in general. I saw a man, for example, the other day, sitting in front of me diagonally to the left, at the very first seat of the bus. This gave him a chance to spread out and put his legs over the entrance railing. There he was in public transportation, sitting comfortably with his legs wide apart over a railing.
Although there is common human decency and etiquette when it comes to space in public transport, a part of me envied his brazen albeit misplaced inner confidence. As a woman, my relationship with space and the authority I felt over space was very limited. Sometimes when I sit, I also inadvertently shrink. There is that word again. Shrinking. Most of the times I must see where the dupatta is, or if my t-shirt is too low or if I am so-called ‘modest’ in my appearance so as not to provoke or offend anyone. And every day, my feeling of being part of public space shrinks.
Talk about pan stores and chai laris in the same vein. If a woman goes to any such a ‘male-dominated’ area or locality of the city, she becomes in some or the other way, a spectacle. She is made to feel uncomfortable by the intensity of stares and the number of eyeballs on her. Imagine some areas and places in a city are off-limits to you because your sex is not permitted there, in some unspoken sexist rule-book. This underlying unspoken barrier of society is something we are all so used to like women and tend to internalize. We go out in pairs and groups to share that disquiet or even worse, remain indoors within boundaries of comfort.
I went to watch a movie on my own, the other evening and could not comprehend the level of uneasiness I felt when I was stared at, for being on my own? For being a woman? There are moments when I wish I was a man. Self-confidence is not just an internal state, but a state of ease that we are responsible for and must encourage as a whole, a collective people. There is no dignity in restricting half of the population to the inside of the house or the car. Places, experiences and the joy of life is not gender allocated.