I live in Mumbai, famed for the crowds, the fast pace of life…and how safe it is for women. I am thankful for it. The city I call home, gives me the safest possible space to live with some degree of freedom. I have stayed in Delhi and in Chennai and I know the horrors of eve-teasing in both these places. Mumbai is too crowded and too busy for these. I can and do travel alone, at most times of the day (and night). I use public transport and don’t require to be dropped home most of the time. In a lot of ways, I wonder if what I have to say is significant considering the much worse experiences that women face in other cities.
What I have to say is this: There is nothing called an absolutely safe place for a woman. I’m not being paranoid or overly feminist. I have grown up in safe Mumbai and I can testify to the harassment that this ‘safe city’ metes out to its female population. I am not going to talk about the recent rapes or the fact that a ladies train compartment that has a cop in it wears an isolated look. I am going to talk about small ways that a woman is made to feel cheap and small, every day…every single, damned day. Harassment happens in Mumbai, just like in every other part of the world. And it has no face. Like everything else, it is swallowed up in the teeming masses of this city.
Mumbai’s train travellers have a code of conduct of their own. There are rules to get in, to positioning your bags (and yourself) and getting down. When the train arrives at the station, the crowds draw close to the track, getting ready for the run. And as the train nears, the tension is palpable. One section of the crowd moves back a good two feet from the train. Those waiting to enter the ladies’ compartment. It just is not safe to stand within arm’s length of the train. Of the crowds hanging out of the train, hands reach out to grab, to slap, to grope…to just touch any woman. And there’s no way of knowing who did it. There is a reason the women are willing to forsake the coveted spot close to the entrance of the train.
When I walk down the road, virtually unconsciously I assume a certain posture. My bag is held in front of me to cushion those blows. There are times I wish I could wear some kind of armour with daggers lined down the front to stab those big, hard bodies that deliberately collide into mine when I’m walking. My elbows point out to keep those shoulders from brushing mine and I know I look menacing and angry. It could be coincidence but there is the fact that my softer, gentler looking friends frequently get prodded and groped up in these same situations.
Auto-rickshaw drivers amuse themselves at signals by staring into passanger seats of the autos next to them, cruising alongside never taking their eyes off and on occasion singing along. I particularly detest auto-rickshaws that have a mirror above the driver’s head and pointed to the passenger. I’ve taken to glaring into that mirror to ensure the driver keeps his eyes to himself (and on the road, hopefully) because it is almost a given that the mirror was put there for a reason. It doesn’t always work.
Incidently the ‘safety’ of this city does not take into consideration the starers, the whistlers and the singers. Harassment happens with hands, elbows AND with the eyes. I can’t begin to explain how it feels to be stripped by a total stranger. Does it matter whether he actually tears my clothes off in public, or does it in his mind and makes it very clear what he’s thinking? The fact is that he does it with utmost DISRESPECT, with no fear of being pulled up. He is willing to demean me mentally and he would, physically too, if he had a chance. Staring is rude, we are all taught as kids. Why? Because it makes people uncomfortable. This is someone who doesn’t give a damn about making me uncomfortable and what’s more….he wants to watch me squirm.
Do I deserve to feel bad?
To be embarassed about my gender?
To downplay my appearance?
To move furtively and quickly when I am alone?
What right does any human being have to make me feel that way?And finally, what right do you have to prolong the feeling? How dare you call yourself my friend, sister, brother, parent….anyone who cares about me….when you let me down at the time that I need you?
I used to get my salwar-kameezes tailored by a popular darzi close to my colony. At one fitting, his young assistant groped me all over, on the pretext of getting my measurements. I had been seeing this guy at the shop for a couple of years and he had measured me before. I didn’t say anything. I tried to forget the episode and hoped it wouldn’t happen again. It did. And I stopped going to him.
I wouldn’t call it street harassment. Because it doesn’t stop at the street. It follows me into train compartments, where the men in the bogey adjoining mine leer through the grill and whistle. There is a reason I don’t stand next to the grill…too many fingers and eyes, too close for comfort. It follows me out onto the roads, where truck drivers speed up their vehicles and brush by me, making me jump, when I try to cross the road. It shadows me in the guise of the bus conductor who hands out tickets to the people behind me, each time ‘inadvertently’ brushing my breasts. It sneaks up to me when the security guard who lets me into the office leans over my shoulder to flash the card at the door and tries to look down my neckline. It is all around me all day with people whose eyes stay fixed to a spot about 3 inches below my chin….they are canteen boys, watchmen, courier boys and yes…even friends and colleagues.
I don’t often tell my family about these things. They would tell me to come back earlier from work, not go out at night, not wear certain clothes, not talk and laugh too loudly, not attract attention…..for all purposes be demure, unobstrusive and as hidden away as possible. I know they worry. Which is why I keep my silence with them and find ways to deal with it myself. Its like trying to fight a school of piranha fish that are hidden underneath the depths. I don’t know where the next blow will come from. I don’t know whether it will be a blow or yet another tiny bit of my dignity being shredded away. I haven’t the energy to slap every hand that gropes, silence every lewd comment and out-stare every humiliating look. I try and avoid getting too close to the source. There is a reason I look angry most of the time.