~ Preeti Singh
It looks like we in India have taken the rhetoric of asking each other to go to Pakistan way too seriously. So much so that our everyday has now become suffused with the “go to” vocabulary. Go to Pakistan. Go to Bangladesh. Go join the ISIS. I have been watching this for a long time now, mostly in rage and lately with increasing amusement. Amusement until today, when I was told off by an impassioned middle aged man in the unreserved compartment of the metro to “Go to the Ladies Coach”. The incident that ended in a shouting match between us , began somewhat like this.
I took the metro bound for Qutub Minar from the Vishwavidyalaya metro station and found a seat in an unreserved compartment. Since most of the trains terminate at Vishwidyayalaya, it is easier to find a seat here. At the Kashmiri Gate station, there was predictably a large crowd. I continued reading my book till I heard a man standing in front of me, loudly telling an elderly man to sit and directly pointing at me. It may require mentioning here, that I was not sitting on a place reserved for elderly people. I however offered my seat to the old man who was reluctant but the man sitting next to me got up and insisted that the elderly man take his place.
The middle aged man, dissatisfied with the result of his intervention, now told the young man to sit down, since women should after all be travelling in the Ladies Compartment. This comment found many supporters among the men in the compartment. Furious, I reminded him that while the last metro compartment is reserved for women for perfectly valid reasons, the other compartments were not exclusively meant for men. And as long as I am not sitting on the seats reserved for the elderly, I am perfectly entitled to be in this compartment. One of the men, who had got actively involved in the discussion, responded that since I had earlier cited harassment as a ‘valid’ reason for women to have a separate compartment, perhaps it would benefit me to move there to ensure my safety!
When I discussed this incident with my women friends and students, I discovered that this seems to be an almost everyday occurrence for most. We are often subjected to snide remarks about how the women’s compartment is empty and how we are usurping men’s seats in the metro. In their expression of discontent about the reservation for women in the Delhi metro, male passengers almost inevitably seem to imply that in a train comprising of eight compartments, if one is reserved for women, all the rest are meant only for men. One is not unfamiliar with this argument. We hear it all the time with relation to caste based reservation too. Moreover, “Why don’t women sit in the Ladies Coach to avoid harassment” is a statement that besides being a veiled threat, also viciously subscribes to the idea that if women get harassed in the metro, they are somehow responsible for it. Much like the revolting “She-asked-for-it”, male passengers who tell a woman to go the ladies coach are really warning her that if she does not tread within the confines of the space “reserved” for her, then she is asking for it. By saying this, they are not only insulting themselves and their ability to behave like responsible human beings, but they are also subscribing to the vocabulary and politics of confinement of women that has been naturalised in our society. A woman must not be out late into the night otherwise she will be raped. She must not talk back to men otherwise she will be abused. She must not wear “inappropriate” clothes otherwise she will be harassed. This “warna/nahin-toh” phenomenon seems to be plaguing Indian society at all levels today. But this is not it. Many men tend to assume a patronising attitude towards women in the unreserved compartments. We are somehow expected to be grateful for the space afforded to us, space that is somehow constructed as a product of their charity. How hard is it to understand that if I am sitting in an unreserved seat in the general compartment, I am like any other passenger, man or woman, who finds a seat and takes it. This seat was not offered to me by a chivalrous man and I don’t intend to be grateful for it. It is perhaps for this reason that I and many women I know would neither expect a man to offer his seat to them nor accept an unreserved seat offered to them. The case is ofcourse different for pregnant women or those with babies.
It was in 2010 that the Ladies compartment was introduced in the Delhi metro. There was a sudden increase in traffic after the yellow line was extended from Central Secretariat to Huda City Centre. The metro became much more crowded and more often than not we found ourselves in the midst of uncomfortable situations, being inappropriately touched, jostled and harassed. Every other day, some woman I knew, would complain about being groped or verbally/physically harassed in the metro. We therefore heaved a sigh of relief when the ladies compartment came into being. But to my surprise, most men around me did not feel the same. There were unending jokes about the fragility of “ladies”, the privilege that women enjoy in the public sphere, the victimisation of men and so on. A very close friend of mine, a talented cartoonist, shocked me when he published a cartoon in DU Beat that depicted a claustrophobic, unreserved compartment with men literally standing on top of each other, ready to fall into the ladies compartment, where all the seats were empty except for one woman who sat with a vanity box filing her nails! This attitude extended to the practical regulation of the women’s compartment too. In its first year, I remember male passengers would deliberately occupy the seats in the women’s compartment, refusing to move even when there were women standing in front of them. More than the need for a seat, these incidents were a sign of the entitlement that men in India feel to their right to public space, a right they refuse to negotiate with women.
Besides, there is also this general belief that the Ladies Compartment is almost always empty, while the unreserved compartments are brimming with people, thanks ofcourse to women who are hell bent on taking away men’s seats. This needs to be placed in context. Few weeks back, I was waiting to board the last metro to Huda City Centre from the New Delhi metro station at around 11pm. This was the first time that I was taking the metro so late in the night (by Delhi standards) and was surprised that I was the only woman besides five others in the Women’s Coach. I could not help but recollect my time in Mumbai, a year back, when I took the last local from Colaba to Powai and the ladies coach was full of women, chatting, laughing, reading or even standing at the doors, relishing the quiet of the city with the breeze in their hair. I was brought back rudely to reality in Delhi, when I heard an elderly woman telling a young man to move to the unreserved compartment because he and many others had occupied the women’s compartment. But these men stood defiantly threatening, refusing to move.
I have almost become numb to the unceasing jokes about women’s innumerable “privileges” in the public space. How queues for women are shorter than those for men, how men are forced to be extra careful about ‘brushing’ against a women lest she should wrongfully accuse of him of harassment and ofcourse the seats reserved for women in public transport. It becomes necessary therefore to enlighten them about some of the problems regarding the public transport system that women in Delhi face on a day to day basis. This is especially important at the present moment, when women are once again being exempted from the Odd-Even rule in the use of public cars and the men of this city just cannot stop complaining. And I say this, not as someone who owns a personal car but rather as a student who is now familiar with all forms of public transport in Delhi- buses, metros, taxis and autos- having worked, studied and lived in this city for the past nine years. Delhi’s reputation as a city unsafe for women is well known to everybody and this is based on certain valid facts. The buses are a haven for those who want quick titillation by groping a women’s breast or crotch . The auto-rickshaw drivers in Delhi are almost never ready to go by meter and they can refuse service to anyone at anytime of the day or night. Especially, if you are a woman wishing to hire an auto at night, be prepared to hear a price twice or even thrice of the actual price by meter. More than once, late into the night, I have had to fight with a group of auto-drivers at Hauz Khas or Green Park, who won’t take me home unless I pay them much beyond the actual price. These drivers have a consensus among them and know that a woman negotiating late into the night, will eventually be left with no other choice but to take the expensive auto back home. Then we have the taxis. Apps like Uber and Ola promote themselves as safe means of transport for women, who need a late night ride home. Notwithstanding the multiple instances when women have faced harassment at the hands of a taxi driver, the taxis raise their prices to twice or three times their morning prices, making sure that women have to pay much more their due, if they want a “safe” ride. Besides, taxis are completely beyond the reach of women from certain classes whose safety somehow seems to be of lesser concern than those belonging to the middle classes.
In such a scenario, it becomes apparent, why women are infuriated, every time they are ‘shown their place’ by a male passenger in the metro, or are forced to put up with jokes about the countless privileges they enjoy. Perhaps it is necessary for the male residents of Delhi to introspect on the reasons why the women’s compartment is empty after ten-thirty and why is it that woman are forced to spend their hard earned money in an exorbitant taxi, rather than take an auto/bus like any man could have done. Also, before men shout hoarse about all those women, who claim their reserved seats from elderly men and physically challenged people, I would reiterate, that it is a question of ethics which apply both to men and women and is not specifically an issue pertaining to women.
If Delhi hopes to improve its reputation as an accessible and free space for all, it will perhaps have to begin by educating the vast majority of its population on issues regarding public space, reservations and privilege. Because the way I see this problem, it is not merely limited to the struggle that women face in the public sphere. Rather, it is an extension of the sense of entitlement to public space that has been perpetuated by the caste system and patriarchy, a dangerous combination. But perhaps that would require another article. Till the time, we could overcome those, I would be happy to see those advertisements featuring Asharam and Ramdev in the Delhi Metro, to be replaced by educational ads for Delhi’s population, to teach them a few important lessons about day to day conduct in the metro.