Some nights, when she knows I am alone she'll come down and knock twice. If I catch it, I open. She won't enter, no. Not until she holds my heart and feels it beat, at twice the speed. She turns me around, and puts it back in. Brings her lips closer, as it beats quicker. Her fingers trace... harsh lines from a mean bra and her lips soothe, slow and steady. Then we go to bed and she hugs me, heart in hand making sure it doesnt break, making sure it doesnt hurt.
Women and Public Spaces
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.
Woolf on the Streets
This is a blessing of the face mask. I have finally become a lot more comfortable in public, and have successfully been able to resist the urge to only observe myself. Hiding behind it, I focus now on others and the spaces they occupy. These others are almost always men, and during some opportune moments, women.
It is easier to observe what is so common, so out there always. Men occupy the center in the large back seats of buses, they sit with their legs crossed- right ankle on left knee. They loudly proclaim business decisions, casual musings on the state, and evening plans on phone calls- allowing their voice to occupy more space than I find women occupying physically. Women choose to cram themselves into small spaces, their eyes focusing first into little screens and then at the roads and their buildings, trained eyes that don’t stop for any detours. But we must pardon my rogue eyes, for they- though once trained are now in the process of un-training.
I find that women occupy more space in men’s eyes than in the physical realm. At first, I would try my best, through ample shirt tuggings, buttonings, and layering, to prevent this kind of occupancy. I watched in awe, from my tiny little pocket, how men occupy the physical so boldly, and then allowed for a moment for self observation to mull over my inability to even begin approaching this space without thinking it over five times, without calculating the risks- the potential for embarrassment.
But then I spoke to Virginia Woolf, and she told me, through ‘A room of One’s Own’ how I must occupy more space- physically.
She told me how years ago, a woman would need to think five times, and calculate the risks- the potential for embarrassment, before she picked up a pen- the only activity that today I find myself doing with no extra thought or effort, even in public. She told me with brilliant humor, about the discomfort with which their writing occupied space- that made possible the comfort with which my writing occupies space today.
And so, thinking of all this from my corner seat, I stretched my legs out a little further, I read a funny article and laughed out a little louder, I crossed my legs- left ankle on right knee until it hurt, and played the music on my headphones loud enough to block out his unimpressive evening plans.
Most importantly I tried to steady my eyes. Raising them. Readying them to shoot back relentlessly when reluctant male eyes bounce back up from my cleavage.
On Physical Abuse
Physical abuse against women has been happening for so many generations that one may even refer to it as a part of culture or tradition. The only reason it hasn’t been proudly acknowledged in public today is because of the progress that feminist movements have been able to achieve.
When a man abuses a woman, it is an act of power. Abusive men are quick to justify their actions by claiming that they lost control. A listener may infer this statement as- the abuser lost control over himself, but what he really means is that he lost control over the woman- his woman. His patriarchal (male) privilege of owning all the women in his family was lost, even if just for a minute.
The patriarchal society we find ourselves in today has dictated specific expectations with regard to the way a woman must act at all times. Take for example, how loud should a woman’s voice be? loud enough that she is heard by all household members when they are called for mealtime, soft enough to be ignored when they don’t want food yet. And never so loud that it can be heard outside the house. If you watch old Disney films like Bambi or Cinderella, listen to the voices of the female characters- it’s soft, reserved, and almost never angry unless she is chiding her children. An indoctrination of patriarchal expectations from a young age is what I find this to be.
When women don’t match the strictly prescribed code of conduct, i.e. if they are stubborn, arrogant, quick to anger, loud, or even physically consume a little more space than what is designated, they are met with backlash. If snarky comments don’t work, physical abuse is the next stop.
To accompany this male entitlement are those who support the men- who enable them. Together they attempt to justify the abuse, mostly done by blaming the survivor for not following patriarchal rules.
This support is further extended by encouraging the survivor of abuse to maintain silence and fall back into the patriarchal system- commonly done by outsiders and extended family. Or by their own silence- i.e. ignoring the issue- commonly done by the immediate family. They assume this silence to be a position of neutrality. It helps them gather favour in the eyes of the abuser who holds much power in society, while also enabling him- it is like the nod or wink that the protagonist’s best friend-turned-villain shows to the other villains while hugging or pretending to safeguard the protagonist. They are the Brutus, the Judas.
If the survivor resists and continues to fight, they try to discourage them by appealing to emotions, to spare a thought for the greater common good- “think of the family”, “think of the baby.” It seems babies are only meant for emotional blackmail. It is astonishing that we are more okay with the idea of a baby being raised by a patriarchal, abusive man, rather than trying to raise the baby in a more feminist world by:
1. Obtaining justice for the survivor,
2. Raising the baby in an environment where no patriarchal beliefs are tolerated.
The final blow is an expectation that the survivor will forgive the abuser with a compassion that was forgotten/ deemed unnecessary when the abuse was taking place. That forced forgiveness, contrary to all your “be the bigger person” nonsense, is a silent hand back of the power she had fought for. It is an even bigger slap.
If after all this the survivor persists in her aim for justice, she is met with hostility and banishment from her own family. With no support, she is forced to think twice- was it my fault? am I making a big deal?
Then, she has to fight herself and her family.
Two wooden boats were rowing side by side, slowly approaching two gates. The first boat carried men and women, and the second boat carried only women. There was not a sound. Not from the either of the boats, nor the sea, nor the air around.
The first boat- with the men and women- began to speed up, taking the lead. It chose a gate and began rowing towards it. One woman stood up when they reached the gate. She was slapped, and the boat continued through the gate. The woman did not say a word, and I did not catch her face. Not one person from the boat looked up.
The second boat, carrying only women, chose the other gate. Just before they reached their gate they saw a big white shark swimming towards them. All the women knew the shark was going to attack, but they did not seem scared. They sat still, looking forward.
One woman in a black hat, who had till then only showed a pair of lips giving away a smile sealed in black liquid matte lipstick, jumped up from the boat and landed on the shark. Her knife made a smooth landing on it’s back. The shark was dead. The woman lifted her head and revealed to me a face that I want to describe as beautiful but am too scared to.
Her black lipstick made her seem pale. She wore a dress that was off shoulder and black, her pale skin peeking through the lace. She stood on the dead shark, and using it as her step, she climbed back into the boat. Leaving her knife to sink along with it’s victim. The boat of women moved forward, into the second gate. The happier gate.
Opinion: (Wo)Men in Power
The year 2018 proudly claimed much feministic progress when Aafreen Mody and Ankitha Hansda were elected as the President and Vice President of St. Joseph’s College (Autonomous), Bangalore. It was lauded as the first step. Fast forward to college student council elections for 2020, we have a majority of female office holders and one male as the Treasurer of the college. Students and teachers have been applauded for making such a progressive decision.
Only one question remains – How progressive is the newly elected female majority council?
Before any college candidate rises to power, there is one test that voters can use to determine their eligibility – How they lead their campaigning team.
So while our female candidates stood in front, being the face, who ran all the backhand operations? The men.
College elections, for the most part, tend to be very male oriented. Men take the decisions, form the strategies, even if it is a woman contesting. “Perhaps it’s just the things that they’re able to do, the things that they’re willing to do, you know, the men- crafty strategies, the tactics- these do play a significant role in any election, big or small, and it’s something that I’ve not seen any woman come up with. Perhaps it’s that they’ve not had the right amount of experience, but the women have done quite a bit too, to help out in campaigning, that shouldn’t be taken as insignificant.” Says Shruti Lal, 2020-21 President of the SJC Student council.
Angeline Katherina, also a current member of the Student council seems to agree with the view, “If I look at my election process, that statement is true in a way. Partially because most of the people I knew and who I thought could help me more than the others were predominantly male. Our elections require a lot of strategies and planning. Though I had made a lot of decisions…a lot of advice was given by a lot of my male friends, since they had participated in the elections before and knew how to go about it.”
The belief that women can’t do as much seems to have become a legitimate justification, which eventually makes ‘lack of experience’ seem like an accepted explanation. How will women get any experience, if the women who make it to the top don’t give them a chance? There is no glass ceiling here, because there seems to be no entry into the building to begin with, there is just a toxic loop of sorts.
“Women tend to assume that men do better solely because they’re more represented in the political front. But it’s far from true. Women should be given the opportunity to state their strategies. Unfortunately due to the bias against their capabilities, it is assumed that women wouldn’t want to help out or ‘there’s no point in asking help from someone who’s not active in the field’ and are shunned further” says Maha Aslam, who was actively involved in planning campaigns for Shruti Lal.
Few argue, that there was no such gender bias, that the current office bearers did seek advice from female office bearers of previous years who were still in Bangalore. Further conversation revealed that the questions asked were only regarding clothing, and the advice received was to go ‘traditional’ as it is more ‘appealing’.
Why is this issue not spoken of more often? Because it is systemic. Women working at the back end are always encouraged to come up with ideas for campaigning. This, to them, is empowerment enough. They are convinced that they have a voice. The disparity only discloses itself when they approach their candidate with their ideas and the reply heard is, “I will ask xyz (a senior male) and let you know.” There is some unspoken hierarchy, where even if the woman is given power, they prefer to run their decisions by a male. Whereas men for the most part, have complete authority and make their own decisions.
If the woman in power does not believe in her own authority, how will others acknowledge it? Once people are convinced that she is powerless, she will no longer command respect. Thus the vicious chain of, ‘women can’t be leaders’ restarts.
Over the years, our college has seen a handful of women, who ran their own campaigns, and a few who managed campaigns for others. Satyajeet Patra, a third year BA IES student, who takes active part in elections and helping candidates every year, tells me about Tejaswini, who was the General Secretary 2016-17 and the Vice President 2017-18. He also remembers Ashlin, who handled the campaign of two candidates in 2016-17. “In my 4 years of college I have seen a lot of female candidates and supporters who have played a major role in the elections” but is two or three women really that many? It is only a start.
So is this success really the success of women? The women in power don’t believe in the power of women, so how will they rely on each other? How will they act together and pass unanimous decisions? Will they depend on the one man present?
Should the current union be lauded due to its female majority? Perhaps. But more than anything, this is proof that our alleged feminism needs further polishing- it cannot be restricted to mere tokenism.