Inside outside

J Devika | Updated on March 10, 2018
Wheel away: The Indian women’s right to mobility in public spaces has come under repeated attacks from right-wing vigilante groups. Photo: K R Deepak

Wheel away: The Indian women’s right to mobility in public spaces has come under repeated attacks from right-wing vigilante groups. Photo: K R Deepak   -  The Hindu

J Devika

J Devika

The public, despite its many flaws and inequities, is where women may reveal their real selves to one another

The event was happening at a market-square at the heart of Thiruvananthapuram — and I was hurrying, last minute, through the crazy five o’clock traffic, wondering why I was so confused about the slogan that animated today’s protest. It was about women’s right to go out and be safe outdoors, held by feminists as part of a nationwide campaign in defiance of the repeated attempts by the right-wing to curtail women’s mobility in public spaces. My confusion related to the fact that the division between inner and outer no longer made much sense to me — despite knowing well that women’s right to full presence in public spaces was to be defended at any cost, it didn’t feel so urgent for many like me. Maybe because the outside was no longer totally inaccessible, with live streaming and so much else available on the internet. However, there was more to the demand than just access to events outside the home.

Just outside the gate of a major city market, rows of plastic chairs were lined up, and a group of activists was preparing to start the evening’s deliberations. One of them stepped up and began to share her thoughts, remarking that for most women, going out was a daily series of unpleasant experiences and constant reminders of their second-class citizenship. The chairs were occupied by familiar faces in feminist protests in the city, and a large group of primly-dressed, middle- or lower-middle-class young women. The way they held their bodies revealed that this space was indeed alien to them. Probably noticing this, a teenage college-goer in a short dress sitting near me hissed, “What’s the point of saying ‘I will go out’ unless we can go out dressed as we please?”

Meanwhile, a woman sat down near me. I recognised her as a homeless person I had seen either sitting or sleeping in the market’s corridors, carrying her belongings in a small bundle. “What is going on?” she asked. I whispered that it was about the right to go out safely. “Go out?” she seemed genuinely puzzled. “Not all the time,” I clarified, “To go out and return home safely too.” “Ah,” she said, “so for the right to have a safe place, go out safe, and come back safe!” “Right,” I said. “I came out a couple of years ago. It wasn’t safe there,” she said. “My son-in-law was terrible, now I live here, do small jobs at the market.” “At night, too?” I asked, thinking how horrible it must be to fend off a range of predators — from mosquitoes to criminals. “Yes, I wear a burqa,” she said, “for the night. Most men keep away. For others, I have my tongue.” Not so easy perhaps, I thought.

Meanwhile the activists were encouraging the audience to sing along. The teenager, my new friend and I related very differently to the day’s theme. The teenager insisted on going out on her own terms; I no longer have the youthful insistence on going out, and my new friend stayed outside and bravely fended for herself. I baulked, thinking of how inadequate this slogan of ‘I will go out’ was to address the complexity of it all.

Nevertheless, we sang along.

Sure enough, the inadequacy surfaced. The three of us fell silent together when the singing reached a line which exhorted us to resist the burqa. “Telling us again how to dress,” muttered the teenager. The line made my new friend and me look at each other. “I think they’ve got it wrong there,” said I, sounding apologetic. But she said, “I wear the burqa at night, but there’s no guarantee that it will keep me safe.” I did not ask why she wore it then. Maybe it gives her a feeling of having a private space, however temporary, a place to relax, away from prying eyes.

Suddenly, it struck six and we were overwhelmed by the clatter of feet. The young women in the front rows hurried to get to their hostel — curfew called. In a trice, the space was nearly empty. The three of us marginals, struggling with our confusions, suddenly felt naked and exposed. A sense of déjà vu descended on me. That familiar scene in which the ideal is abandoned by those who appear to be its staunchest aye-sayers and the sceptics end up extending enduring critical support.

But, I came away with a good reason for going out. Would I have ever met my new friend otherwise? Would she have ever spoken with me? The public, despite many flaws, is where we may reveal ourselves to each other. And who knows, perhaps liberation begins at the margins and spreads inwards?

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on March 24, 2017

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