Claiming My Space as a Woman in India!
by Rita Banerji
When I first went to the U.S. from India, as a student, I was 18. And it was then that I learnt something about being a woman that I could not have learnt had I stayed on in India.
I learnt, with a certain feeling of jubilation, that it was absolutely possible for me, to walk down streets and into public places, alone – and not be prodded, grabbed at, stared down, commented on or stalked by vagrant men that hung around every street corner! Like most girls who grow up in India, I too went places only in pairs or in a group. But never alone! The feeling of suffocation and repulsion in something so simple as walking down a street as a girl or a woman in India, is dreadful. It is like walking through a war zone with your defenses up, always expecting an attack. There is no telling when there will be lewd remarks passed, or you’ll be molested or followed. Often the men hang around in groups, which makes these encounters that much more aggressive and terrifying. There is a power dynamic set through these social patterns of gender interaction. It is how men reinforce their dominance over space in India. The response of girls, the fear, the self-imposed restrictions, self-blame (such as if men harass you then you must have asked for it either through your clothing or behavior), is a subconscious consent to this kind of territorial male assertion.
And so we Indian girls grow up like hedgehogs, always curled into our protective balls – trying to be as inconspicuous as possible, trying to occupy the least space possible. This pulling in of our “selves,” our bodies, our breaths, our thoughts, our presence — is evident everywhere. If you walk down the streets in India, or walk into public places—government offices, banks, the market, the post-office, 80% or more of the people present will be men!
But after living in the U.S. for more than a decade, something had definitely changed for me. It was not so much that I had forgotten what it was like to be a girl in India, but that when I returned, my expectations had changed. Simply put – as a woman I now expect to occupy public space with the same freedom and nonchalance as men! Moreover, my response to these old gender dynamics has changed. The territorial male responses don’t offend or frighten me anymore; they infuriate me! I am amazed I don’t cringe the way I once did, and the way I still witness other women cringing. Something in me, almost compulsively pushes back, and I stand my ground.
I remember this one incident in the post-office, where I was standing at end of a 30 people queue, incidentally the only woman in the queue that day. A man came and stood behind me, and even though there was plenty of space, he stood close enough so he could attempt periodic body contact with me. This is a very frequent occurrence and the way women deal with it is by pretending to ignore it or even giving up their place in line. I turned around and calmly told this man to move back and not touch me. He said, with a tone of aggression men often use in public spaces, “You can’t tell me what to do. Do you own this post-office?” None of the other men in the post-office said a word. In situations like this there is a collective male hostility often directed at the woman. The tacit message is: “You don’t belong here. You deserve what you get.” I looked him right in the eye, and replied firmly and loudly for the benefit of all, “No I don’t own it, and neither do you. It’s a government office for all citizens to use. I am treating you in a civilized manner. As a citizen I expect you to do the same with me.”
Perhaps the important question that I ask myself now is: what changed the way I respond. I think for me the answer is in that my perception my “self” as a woman has changed. Femininity in India is a uniformly tailored cultural costume that all girls are expected to wear. We are told how to dress, what to say, and how to behave. Any deviation is harshly judged and penalized. Growing up, I too unquestioningly had worn the “Indian girl” costume. If I deviated, I believed, like others around me, that I was ‘rebelling!’ But going from my late teens into adulthood in the U.S., I was initiated into a whole different concept of being a woman. My womanhood is not owned by anyone other than me. It is for no one to tell me what it means to be a woman. It is simply who I am. My womanhood is how I evolve as an individual. It is the process of growing into my own skin, and is defined by my unique thoughts, ideas, and experiences. And I am free to experiment; and I am free to change. I don’t have to explain it, justify it or defend it – to anyone!
It is now that I see that this is where my power lies. The freedom and ability to decide how I will occupy the space within—the space that I call ‘self’ or ‘woman’ – is what gives me the power to determine how I will occupy the space outside – the streets, the country, and the world!
Rita Banerji is an author and gender activist, and the founder ofThe 50 Million Missing Campaign to end India’s female genocide. Her book ‘Sex and Power: Defining History Shaping Societies,‘ is a historical and social look at how the relationship between gender and power in India has led to the ongoing female gendercide. Her website iswww.ritabanerji.com She blogs at Revolutions in my Space and tweets at@Rita_Banerji