The following is a speech I delivered at NGAGE 2021, an event conducted by the Bangalore-based NGO Durga India, where I was the keynote speaker.
I have been invited here to answer the question- ‘How I experience public spaces as a woman.’
To get into this however, I think it is first important to identify what exactly is a public space for a woman. This is a tricky concept because to me I have always felt like my presence, my womanly existence makes any space I enter, public.
To explain, there is a constant eye on women. Everything we do, eat, wear, speak, there’s an eye on it all. An eye that is waiting to taunt, to blame–
“He raped her, because she was wearing this”, “He hit her, because she provoked him”, “They went to war, because she laughed”, “He sinned, because she gave him an apple.”
So there is something about a woman’s presence that makes every space she occupies automatically public, because suddenly it is open to comments from everyone.
So when we put it this way, the question then transforms to how I live through my daily experiences as a woman. How I survive knowing full well that I am being watched and observed.
The truth is, I survive in fear.
There is fear in walking out into the streets at any time of day, fear of laughing a little too loud, fear of wearing certain clothes, fear of just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet even in this fear, I am privileged. I was groped on the streets at 4PM in the afternoon while taking a road I take every day. The man came to me on his Yulu bike, groped me, and then went to the end of the street and flashed me the middle finger. I was frozen still. He then proceeded to imitate the penetrative action by pushing his finger into his curled-up hand.
After this incident occurred, I did not wish to go out at all. It was too scary. In fact, in a month or two I even shifted to another country. But for many other women, such occurrences are a constant reality. It is a chance they have to take every day in order to survive.
Based on your ethnicity, religion, sexuality, abilities, caste, and overall appearance, your experience in a public space can become worse and worse. And this is precisely why we need to stress the need for intersectionality today.
We need to be aware of these differences, acknowledge them, and most importantly address them. The feminist movement in our country will only progress if we begin to accept that there are certain systemic issues that contribute to making issues worse. Because it is not progress unless we are all progressing.
Incidents like nudes being leaked, which occur every other day, or the Sulli Deals incident which occurred a while ago where Muslim women were ‘auctioned’ off online bring forth another perspective in the case of women and public spaces, which is that the private becomes the public in the case of women.
There is a tendency to view our bodies as public property, which is why we are assaulted, our nudes leaked, and even our most private experiences tailored to fit public consumption.
And so this watchful eye that is waiting to critique everything we do, combined with the burden of heavy expectations that dictate everything we do work together to exclude us from many public spaces.
The phenomenal feminist writer, Virginia Woolf, wrote at a time when women were not encouraged to speak, read, write, or even think. There is a fierce speech she delivered called ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ where she talks about how she was denied entry into libraries and certain university spaces simply because they were meant only for men and she was a woman.
Fast forward to today, there are no more restrictions in place that prohibit women from entering any place. But it still silently exists, and it is very visible if you really open your eyes. I would still think twice before entering a tea shop if it was filled with men. In fact, any space with a male majority automatically causes me to rethink- “Do I really need to go here right now? is there an alternative place? is this really urgent? can it be pushed to another time?”
This is a sad bitter truth. And it may seem small when I put it only in my perspective, but think on a larger scale. Every day, there are so many women who make the same decision to avoid certain spaces after being intimidated by the overwhelming number of men present. This also means that every day, a huge chunk of our population is excluded from certain spaces.
It is men occupying more spaces, and women adjusting further by slipping into the shadows.
What makes writers like Virgina Woolf great is that despite not having space, they created their space. They fought for it in their own ways.
Today, by attending this platform I think we have all taken a huge first step into creating this space, and for that, I would like to congratulate us all.
But I would also like to urge you all to keep creating more safe spaces, and more importantly, to talk about the fear you experience, because we can only solve an issue if we first acknowledge its presence.