I grew up with my grandparents. Though a (girl) child, I was always old enough to refuse school trips even before bothering to ask permission at home because I knew it would be a tough decision for them. As they saw it, they were responsible for me and answerable to my parents for my safety. When a friend would persist that I stay over or join a picnic, I would be peeved that she was putting me in a position where I would be putting my ‘guardians’ in a difficult spot – they would be tense and a debate would ensue on the best way and time to drop me and pick me up. I also never signed up for drawing, music or dance classes after school.
In those days I used to think parents and guardians were synonyms. I guess the trick was to understand that the prime duty of parents is to protect and everyone who protects or claims to protect should be considered equal to parents, which is why so many people easily place their claims upon women through the popular refrain, “You’re like our own daughter,” and if you question them you are seen as hurting their parental sentiments.
But there is a difference between actually trying to ensure safety without impinging on freedom and taking the most convenient way out to fulfil the self-imposed obligatory function of ‘giving’ safety.
In college, when I came under the supervision of a warden (sharing its etymological history with the word ‘guardian’), a principal and other authority figures, I was allowed a lot of ‘late nights’ because I had to do work related to college and hostel societies. When I walked back on those nights with the winter air slicing through the thin fabric of my salwar or carried fistfuls of stones to hurl at hooting bikers, I wasn’t asked by the authorities if I had issues working late at night outside. If the magazine had to be out on time and I had to be out ‘late’, so be it. So was not allowing these late nights as easily to others out of concern for their safety or a way to tell them they were not to be trusted with those bonus hours?
Being a part of various college societies I was lucky to get more exposure and travel extensively within Delhi. Yet when my parents bought a house in the city and I moved there during my postgraduate studies, it was as if I had entered the city for the first time, as if the past three years I had been playing at being free and independent. The tritest of clichés describes most aptly my years in my college and the hostel: the best years of my life. But perhaps the period also lost a chance to be ‘bestest’ because if we had not been gated inside, our footing in the city – with so much solidarity to fall back on in case of any hiccups – would have been surer.
Living at home with my sister in the initial years, I tried to avoid going out when my parents came visiting so we could have enough time together. Once, however, during my father’s visit a friend booked an expensive ticket for a concert and I did not want it to go waste. My father expressed his discomfort at my going out at a time when, he said, people are supposed to return home. His wait for my return started then, before I had even gone. Despite being a fan of the band that was playing, I could not enjoy the music much because I was constantly looking at my watch. We were two women with a male friend. Although I was anxious to return, I knew my father would prefer that the man dropped us home, something which made me feel inferior and helpless. When it was time to leave, we discovered he hadn’t got his car. So by simple route pragmatism, we ended up dropping him in an autorickshaw. Upon my return, my father was visibly perturbed. Gentle by temperament, one of the ‘nice men’ we all seem to know, my father admits to not enjoying the role of a typical patriarch. Yet perhaps to fulfil societal expectations he tries to do it at times. This was one of those times. He questioned the sanskar (values) he had given me, asking whether I had forgotten that we came from a village where the lights went out at dusk. In irritation, he finally said we could do what we liked after we were married. I did not say a word as I did not want to upset him further, but I too was hurting, then and for a very long time after. Out of nowhere I would find my eyes flooded with tears of rage at the injustice: at all the implications of a girl going out at night, at the debate shifting from safety to sanskar, at the assumption that Indian villages with intermittent or little electricity promised morality, and, most of all, with this transfer of ownership from guardian to husband.
What sort of safety does this transferring of the protection-baton ensure? When I speak to family of my molestation as a child, they’re baffled. They don’t know what to do with the information and ask all the wrong questions, including why I did not report it then. Perhaps they do not want to feel that their guardianship failed. When we go out with our elders, are we not ogled or groped? I was once out with some relatives and their awkwardness at my calling out a harasser was palpable. In such cases, this illusion of the elders being able to provide a safety net to women in the family is ruptured. Feeling helpless, they often vent their frustration on the woman for engaging with ‘nobodies who should be ignored’.
When I travel with my partner in the metro nowadays, I still get stared at. It stops when I confront the gawker because it tells him that I will act if I am wronged. If my partner intervened for me, it would just send out the message that I can be attacked when alone, robbing me of a chance to assert myself as a person with a voice and not a stationery object that does not look or talk back.
Now that I am married, nightly calls from my mother about my safe return home have reduced. While I am glad to see her less anxious, she knows that I have chosen a like-minded partner. It is not like what I believed in earlier or the nature of my travelling within or outside the city has changed. So while the concern for safety is still there and always will be, while she still regularly checks on me when I am travelling out of town, has it grown more temperate because I am safer being married (how, keeping the above examples in mind?) or because my parents have now been ‘relieved of the responsibility’ of keeping me safe?
They could not and cannot fulfil the responsibility of my protection because no full grown person can assume this responsibility for another adult. The only assistance parents can provide is to train their children to walk with their head held high in the world, not run away from it.
After the admonishing from my father about the concert, my sister had asked me why I chose to go out that night when I usually don’t. While the date of the concert was entirely coincidental, once again it raised the question of what mattered more: the question of whether we were actually safe or whether we could untruthfully assure our guardians that following their instructions had ensured our safety, thereby leading to restrictions upon more women. Families and ‘well wishers’ must decide if it is more important for them to live in a bubble and be placated that all is well with women’s safety, or to confront their fears and work with women to change the conditions that give rise to them, rather than transferring those fears to women, who are already dealing with their manifestations.
Women don’t need to be told that they need to be caged at home or in institutions because going out means risking their safety. They need to know that they have the right to take that risk if they feel that their dignity lies in going out with their heads held high and facing the world, rather than feeling inferior and scared all their lives. They don’t need to inherit misplaced notions of shame; they need to know that as long as they’re being true to themselves they have every reason to be proud of themselves.
First published in The Wire, 8 Mar 2016.