But what was the need for you to be there at all?”
This is the overwhelming question any woman is asked for any act of minor or major infraction in public space. A few weeks ago, some women friends and I were at Park Street in Kolkata close to midnight. The streets were well-lit and there were several people around, including the book-sellers shutting up for the night, delighted by a late-night sale when my friend bought all the copies of a magazine for which she had written a feature.
We had hung out at a nightclub, listening to the music and watching people in the dim light. We could have had some random conversations, as often happens, in places like these. Had we not had a car, we could have accepted a lift from someone whom we had just had a conversation with. Much like Suzette Jordan did in February last year. Of course, it’s risky, but eating raw vegetables is risky — you might get a brain worm; crossing the road is risky — you might get hit by a car.
And yet when women step out into public space, especially without a purpose, the question hanging over our heads always is, “Do we really need to be there?” and it’s corollary, “Is the risk too much?”
Even in feminist conversations the “was this a good idea” question raises its head. In April 2009, a young woman, an international student in Mumbai, went to a flat in the city with a few young men whom she had met and hung out with twice and who had been introduced to her by a friend. This was where these men, along with some others, drugged and assaulted her. This particular case invoked a variety of conversations that questioned the choices the young woman made pointing to her inability to recognise the danger signals. Earlier, when two NRI women were molested by a group of men in Juhu in Mumbai on New Year’s eve of 2008, one writer suggested that women from outside the city were being harassed more because they did not know the codes and hence did not sense the danger.
But before we ask, “she did WHAT?” or “she went WHERE?” in tones of mingled horror and astonishment at what we assume is the lack of forethought and a presence of stupidity that accompanies any act that might be seen as risky (and increasingly a walk on the street after dark might be that), it might be useful to pause. To pause and think of all the times we did something that had gone wrong, and would have been called “unnecessarily risky”.
Speaking for myself, there was the time when a group of us missed the last train home one night in over-zealous preparation for a college festival. In riotous glee we headed to Marine Drive and hung out there as long as we could, then went to an all-night coffee shop in a nearby hotel where we had, I think, two cups of coffee among half a dozen of us, since it was all we could afford. Or the times when one has walked late at night in the city, taken a rickshaw or a taxi home.
Or indeed when a friend of a friend escorted one home. All of these acts are now often the subject of happy nostalgia since we had such fun. But, in relation to the possibility of sexual assault, all of these could be cast as risky propositions. On the other hand, if we are to look at statistics of sexual assault, then being in one’s own home is perhaps the most risky of all. But it is public space, not the home where women are seen to be at risk. Women’s actions which might be cast as “risky behaviour” are often seen as stupid, especially when they appear to be for no reason at all, to simply have fun. And yet I would argue that fun for women has a radical subversive potential.
Suggesting that it is acceptable to take risks in order to have fun transforms the terms of the debate. It places women’s engagement with their cities in a space which is ambiguous and most importantly unregulatable. A premium on fun focuses on the possibility of pleasure rather than the threat of danger. Fun is important because it is so incendiary, bringing forth accusations of not just frivolousness but also immorality.
It is my contention that if we, in fact, locate the debate on risk, women and the city within the politics of fun, we might find ourselves asking very different and more nuanced questions. Instead of asking why women take risks, we might query why actions such as a simple walk on a street are risky at all? Instead of asking why women appear to act against “common sense” we might ask why women may not have fun?
Ironically, globalisation has made some risks such as those related to international ﬁnance very sexy, while walking on the streets for women has become ever more taboo and too risky.
A Bambaiya phrase that young women in Mumbai use to describe their friends or peers who are rebellious is “usko bahut daring hai” (she has guts) and their tone is admiring not derogatory. This suggests that young women implicitly recognise that there is pleasure to be found in transgression. What women need then is the right to ‘dare’, to take chosen risks, in an environment where their ‘daring’ is recognised and celebrated.
The author teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and is co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets
But what was the need for you to be there at all?”
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