As I sat very helplessly watching the so called ‘Moral Police’ on TV dole out their brand of social justice in Mangalore, I could not help but wonder as Radha put it -In 60 years nothing has changed for India. As we discussed fear and gender in a workshop and did interventions in Bangalore a bunch of regressive goons went on rampage nearby - and had the gall to justify it in the name of culture and tradition. Not surprising though - similar views were put forward by many people whom I spoke to in a recent encounter at a bar in Mathikere. One line which rings in my mind - ‘Women who come here are not respectable, we do not respect such women’ , ‘She is either desperate or a prostitute’. Culture, Indian tradition , Good Women, Pure Women, Hifi Women, Lower Class Women were words that came up a lot.
We started the Off-Limit project as a study , a photo documentation on public places which are ‘off-limits’ to women. We were to look at wine shops, pan - beedi stalls and deserted roads and lanes. Places a woman feels fearful I started the work with a set of students from Srishti whom I told to look at these places and bring back images of places in which they felt this fear. The goal of this project was to create awareness of these places and try to understand how fear is used to keep people of a gender away from places which by law belong to all. We have come up with a set of interesting pictures and are all set for a show on the 28th. It is a tough project where the participants have to come face to face with a fearful place, overcome the fear and document it.
What we have achieved is a good start and I will work with them to complete the project by end February.
As part of this project , in parallel I started photo documenting these off-limit places at various points in the day and asking people there a set of questions -
- Do you think its safe for a woman to come here ?
- Do you think a woman should come here?
- What would happen to a woman if she came here ?
- Do you think this is a safe place ?
- If a woman came here what would you think of her ?
The need was to document the off-limits spaces and also to understand what makes a space off-limits to women. Some of the responses were shocking eye-openers to the reality of our public spaces, some were expected responses. Most people seemed to have very strict rules on what women were allowed to do and places where they could go. Also there were strong opinions on women wanting to smoke or drink or eat meat. Adjectives like modern and western seemed to be negative adjectives when used to describe a woman. Most people seemed to have a very sanitized , de-sexualized image of a ‘respectable’ woman in their minds. This was not surprising considering our history.
As Amanda Weidman wrote - “Much interesting theorization has taken place on the ways in which Indian women were allowed to enter the public sphere in the first half of the twentieth century by, in effect, creating an impermeable barrier around themselves. Mrinalini Sinha (1996) has discussed the kind of subject position that Indian women assumed in order to be heard in the public sphere in the 1930s. Women had to position themselves as modern but non-Western, as claiming traditional ideals in the service of the modernizing project of nationalism (Sinha 1996, 491). Partha Chatterjee (1993) notes that middle-class Indian women were able to travel out into the world once they had properly internalized a self-image of virtuous domesticity that effectively erased their potential ly dangerous sexuality; such women, projecting themselves as loving mothers and loyal wives, were able to carry the home with them into the world.”
So why did women fear going to these off limit places - What is this fear of ? I asked several women - from my friends to people I met during some of the interventions in the city.
It can be classified under the following heads.
- Fear of being attacked, molestation, rape
- Fear of appearing to be a lower class woman or a prostitute
- Fear of openly displaying want or need of something which the patriarchal society hasnt deemed fit for consumption by women
- Fear of society’s retribution for not following rules ( reinforced by attacks by the so called Moral Police )
- Fear of losing face
- Fear of demeaning family
- Fear of mixing with men ( from childhood one is taught to be careful of boys and not to mix too much )
- Fear of mixing with men and women of other classes
- Fear of attracting attention from the ‘wrong’ set of people
- Fear of going against the teachings of religion
- Fear of being commented on by other men
- Fear of men looking at them as sex objects
- Fear of being perceived as non-feminine
Of the places mentioned above in different parts of the city when we went to photograph them, women were not there. From Bars in relatively middle class residential areas like Mathikere, Cooke Town, Jayanagar, to Chai Shops in Shivajinagar women were not present.Pan beedi shops in most localities , we failed to see women. Cricket and football grounds - no women. Off-limits places were everywhere.And they were off-limits because of one or many of the fears mentioned above.
What comes out is the fact that the entire public space is designed for men ( who have free access ) and where women are allowed in time to time to perform certain duties - only when she conforms to a certain set of rules. The severity of these rules varied from place to place and were deep-rooted in culture and religion.
A woman is conditioned from her childhood to follow these rules and if she does not follow them she has the fear of a dire consequence in the form of a social retribution or violence instilled in her. Like Sita’s crossing of the Lakshman Rekha and subsequent abduction by Ravana the woman is ‘taught’ to never step beyond that line. What is even more distressing is that men from the society often take up the role of the villain just to teach an aberrant woman a lesson.
I quote from a piece by Kalpana Viswanath - “As much as violence itself, it is also the fear of violence that controls women’s lives. The response to this fear has usually been based on a notion of “protection”. Women are told to be careful about when and where they move around, and how they dress. Men are exhorted to protect the honour and dignity of women.
This approach has several unfortunate consequences. First of all, it makes women responsible for their own safety. If something happens to a woman, the assumption is that she did not follow the rules. Equally important is the fact that it restricts women’s freedom and autonomy, and curtails their mobility and their ability to work and participate in social activities.
Ironically, this restrictive approach does not even make women any safer if anything, it increases their vulnerability by making them live with fear. Discussions on women’s safety must, therefore, begin from the recognition of women’s right to a life free of violence”
Question is what can we do about it. Firstly, we need to be patriotic. We need to stand up for our constitution. A country where freedom for men and women is understood.
Interventions need to happen in various localities to help this understanding. One must also not forget history and how religious and moral bigotry threatens freedom in our country and the world. We must all put forward the messages at all levels to address these issues. One must make sure that fear is not instilled among women from an early age.
Women should be fearless and men need to make sure they get attuned to this reality. Law and order should provide for every ones safety. All of these goals seem utopian in a country where people get dragged out of a bar and beaten because of their gender or in troubled valleys where people are asked to shoot women in the leg if they wear jeans. We need to be optimistic and constantly fight against forces of fear and control.