Results from a survey conducted by NGO Save The Children inform me that an overwhelming 50% of the adolescent girls they surveyed feel unsafe every time they use public transport. And why wouldn’t they?
9:34pm. As you climb down gate no. 07, your left hand unconsciously clutches the handles of your bag together. You zig zag across the path to avoid walking too close to anyone around. You remember to breathe as you join the line for the security check.
As you head towards the platforms, zig zag-ing isn’t really an option anymore. Your train is about to leave. But you find yourself clutching your bag harder as you walk along the platform. The doors beep and the train leaves. Next train in four minutes.
‘Why does the women’s compartment have to be this far?’
Public transport. The saviour of the masses and pet peeve to anyone with an Uber app. But, as ‘public’ is increasingly proceeding towards meaning the average Indian male, women are even more apprehensive about that lone ride home.
Public Transport Poses Many Ordeals For Women
Before the #notallmen activists arrive, we need to address the reasons why this blog is afloat.
Are the hassles of public transport the same for women and men? I think not. While the claustrophobia of crammed spaces treats no person differently, the different reactions that women and men have towards the same situation illustrates the problem.
Thanks to centuries of oppression, women have internalised fear. When this fear is not a direct result of an unfortunate personal experience, it’s the result of years of convincing that womanhood is accompanied by an inherent need to be protected. This fear translates into hyper-awareness in public spaces, in order to ‘better be safe than sorry.’
While using public transport – whether be it the metro, buses, trains, or even autos – this hyper-awareness reaches a peak. Albeit occasionally unnecessary, this ordeal is exhausting, but has now become an accepted ‘way of life.’
This response is not exactly an overreaction either. Stories of unwelcome physical contact, groping, cat-calling, and even public masturbation have become commonplace in public transport services.
While these are more explicit examples, even subtly, the male gaze is concentrated into these spaces, allowing men to subject women to incessant staring and increasing the discomfort experienced by them manifold.
How Effective Are Women-Only Compartments?
Public transport authorities have one response to making these spaces safer for women- women only seats/compartments. While this is a welcome and necessary measure for immediate effect, it can’t be the solution.
These ‘safe havens’ are often small and overcrowded, and become a fetishised space for the average man. On the other hand, the general compartment begins to easily be misunderstood for being a male space as opposed to a common space.
Once again, it becomes the woman’s job to keep herself safe by travelling in the overcrowded women’s compartment, and not situate herself in a vulnerable place. We often forget that this vulnerable space is indeed the general compartment in a means of public transport, which demands to be as much for her as for him.
Metro rides in Delhi, bus rides in Bangalore or train journeys in Calcutta, the situation remains the same. Women continue to feel unsafe in spaces that are meant for the ‘public.’ The question then becomes, what can be done about it?
Cordoning off areas in the public sphere for women is definitely not the answer. It only creates a space that further alienates womankind from the mainstream public.
A good place to start would be to destigmatize the discussion of women’s lived experiences in these public spaces. A significant number of people live under the illusion that these incidents happen only to some people in some places.
Many women believe they are alone in what they’ve experienced, and internalise the trauma. This turns into a vicious cycle of fear and inaction – and hence the violence perpetuates.
Let us begin, then, by asking the woman next to us, “When was the last time you felt afraid in what was supposed to be a public space?”
(Chandana Krishnegowda is a second-year English major at Ashoka University. When not catering to ever-growing academic demands, she finds solace in the kitchen, cooking up a storm. She is passionate about fighting the patriarchy, with poetry and prose as her weapons of choice.)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s personal views.