I know this shouldn't come as a surprise. We knew this all along. But somehow, it still does. I am shocked and bewildered and angry every day. I am trying to be conscious of all the ways in which I monitor my movements, try to make myself as small and inconspicuous as possible in public spaces. These are all things I never paid as much attention to as a child, because I was always out of the house with what I assumed were all-powerful adults. Since perhaps fifteen or sixteen, all of these things are a reality, and I have dealt with them only by ignoring them. Here goes:
Every time I step out of the house, I change. I make sure I am covered from shoulder to knee in sturdy fabric. Despite this, I also need to clench my jaw and be ready to be stared at. Give angry looks sometimes, but mostly remain silent and look away (read: look down. In shame). Don't really look anyone (read: men) in the eyes on the road. Or in a market. Anywhere. Even from inside a car, where I love looking out and just observing the strange circus of life taking place -- I cannot afford to catch somebody's gaze for too long. Somebody might flash me, or make a lewd expression, or follow my car. It will be my fault. I'm never too loud. Never really show affection in public. Terrified of doing that, of holding somebody's hand or grazing their cheek with a finger. Intellectually I know that these actions do not mean I'm giving a stranger permission to view me as 'easy', but I am still afraid. It will be my fault. My fault. To smoke, or drink, or laugh too loudly in public is scary. Angry eyes follow me. All of these things mean that getting out of the house is hard. The same street that I used to walk on so easily as a child, is totally alien to me. I get out of the house in a car, and now sometimes in a cab.
I know that I shouldn't be doing any of this. I also know that I'm in a society where if anything ever does happen -- and it does, it has -- then nobody will even need to blame me externally. I will blame myself. I will be too afraid to act. The patriarchy roars in satisfaction, from inside my belly, where it lives now. These days, I am angrier than ever. In a dream where I was being chased and followed by a strange man and my boyfriend and parents weren't taking me seriously, I woke up crying. Not with fear -- I managed to escape, I hit him, I was fierce despite being absurdly helpless -- but with anger. It is unfair. Unfair, that I am twenty, and have not been equal given access to this vast world. I want to travel, and sit in parks, and in marketplaces. I hate coming home to Chandigarh, because I am trapped in these four walls for more time than I am used to. I am used to the privilege of college, of 3am walks and no slutshaming. I am used to Delhi, scary as it is, inhabited by so many kinds of people that there's almost always space for one more. Chandigarh has no space for me. I can go out if there is somebody to visit, or something to buy. Or else I am home. "Of course you are right, it doesn't matter what you wear or how you travel, but you still need to be careful na, you can't invite trouble", my grandmother tells me. She doesn't need to, I tell myself that. So I hide out here, in this safe and equal space.
Fuck that. I want to own this city, and every city I am in. I am angry that I am twenty and fierce and intelligent and yet bound up in a history and a place that is refusing to give me my fair share. Here it is: I will go crazy if I am kept in these four walls. My prison is beautiful and full of lovely people, but I need to see sky. This TEDx talk is wonderful and articulate, and yes, yes, yes, we need to loiter, we need to spend hours and days on roadsides and in parks doing nothing in particular, but sure as hell that we belong there. It is unfair that the fight is so hard, but here it is, and it must be fought. My boyfriend is kind and wise and wonderful, but when he tells me, "we must not compromise", he is wrong. Every movement of mine in a public space is a compromise, and it has been that way as long as I remember. I am still afraid, and anxious, and dream about strange men who laugh as they harass me -- I am not going to stop compromising. I do not know how to, yet. But I'd like to think I'm getting there, that we're all getting somewhere with the awareness and discourse and conversation. He changes it to, "we must compromise as little as we can". Yes. We must. It's going to be a fight every day, and it is. To reclaim public spaces for our vast and wide and skinny selves, and to change a status quo which suffocates more people than it liberates.