Stealing Spaces

Note: I am re-publishing an essay which I read here. I think it is relevant and makes sense of the issues of rape and sexual harassment in India.

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A woman’s place is in her home, in her kitchen and in her duties as the mother, wife or sister. It’s her father, husband or brother’s prerogative to keep her safe. As a woman, she is accompanied by her father or her brother in a public space. She doesn’t negotiate with men, she never learns to be on her own. Her domain is a private place, in the four walls of her house. This is how most of Northern India has functioned since a very long time. Even now, in most villages and towns, the above statements hold true.

What happens to such men when they, in search of economic prosperity, come to bigger cities and a thriving metropolis like Delhi? Or they, even if living in big cities, come from such patriarchal cultures? They find women unaccompanied by men, driving, walking, using the public transport, working, wearing what ever they want and most importantly, negotiating the public space like they belong in the complex social milieu.

The old ideas of women’s need to be protected, to be kept at home, to be kept safe, all melting away in front of their eyes. Instead they find these creatures – bold, secure and confident. And then begins the game of reclaiming their space, their perceived threat to masculinity.

Ask any girl or a woman in Delhi about sexual harassment, termed so beautifully as ‘eve teasing’, and they will have horror stories to tell. At 13 being groped at places where breasts don’t exist, at 14 being flashed by a man in an alley, at 15 being touched between the legs in public buses. A Delhi girl grows up fast. She knows she is fair game for being letched at, cat called and groped at any age. Her first encounters with anything sexual is strange men trying to reach in her pants or touch her breasts. She knows that no doesn’t really mean no. That no will mean a green-light to the man. But before she learns to say no, she is taught to be quiet, she is told not to confront such a person and she is told to look the other way. That there is shame in feeling violated. Shame in the way she dresses, shame that she took that bus or walked down that street. That it is her fault, somehow.

A Delhi girl grows up thinking that it’s perfectly normal to be wary every single moment of her life outside her home. That it’s normal to think that every man on the street will try to assault her and when he doesn’t, it’s a miracle. At some point if she decides to confront the ‘eve-teaser’, then the power balance starts to tilt. In most cases, this deterrence works but in some it doesn’t. What most people fail to understand is that it’s a man’s pent up desire to have sex at that very moment with that girl or a woman. Sexual assault or harassment is hardly ever about having sex, it’s about asserting power.

And in such context, when a Delhi woman doesn’t just use the public transport to work or study, she also wears what she wants, ‘hangs out’ with her boyfriend, and even enjoys a drink or two, it creates an imbalance in a man’s game of power. She is economically empowered and will assert herself. She is not just bending the rules, she is breaking them. Centuries old culture is crumbling and she is being blamed for it. The onus lies with her to preserve the traditional space she belongs to. And the onus lies with some men to show that she has violated their public space and thus she needs to be violated in return.

The challenge ahead lies in the way public spaces are perceived. A women’s only coach in the Delhi Metro has been lauded by the Delhi woman. This is a relatively safe place for her from prying hands. But a solution which has helped her, has also hindered her. Men seem to think that all the other coaches belong to them, that it’s okay to harass a woman in these coaches. It’s detrimental when women employees are told not to work beyond 6.30 PM, when they are told they will be escorted home after 8.00 PM. Because the message goes out is that a woman is a property which needs to be ensconced in a safe-space.

So, even before a man has properly learnt to negotiate that a woman can exist in the public space, the message of segregation and time-boundaries has made him unlearn that the public space belongs to both. Unless a Delhi woman learns to demand her equal right to remain and negotiate in that public space, she will never be able to normalize her presence in it.

Rapes will continue to happen in India. Because women will continue to pour into the space which belongs to all. Because some men will continue to feel threatened and show them that their place belongs inside the sanctum of their houses. And the onus, once again, will lie with the woman to steal that public place which colludes to keep them away.

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