Last week when I was reading this article on the need to do away with the ladies coupé in the Delhi metro, I could relate to the author's views that segregation takes away responsibility from the culprits (harassing men) and places it on the already aggrieved (women). It makes men feel that only a corner belongs to women and solidifies the myth that to be safe women need to shrink themselves and keep away from men they aren't related to. But when I flinch at separated compartments am I being myopic?
Ten years ago I was in the middle of a discussion meeting organized by the Women's Development Cell of the college. As a fresher, I was listening starry eyed to an articulate senior argue that we do not need separate seats for women on buses because we are equal. Our teacher agreed with the premise but gently reminded us that 'it's not a level playing field'. That gave me something to think about, and I keep going back to it because the field is still not level, except that some of us have become hardened nuts to survive the bumpy ride.
That toughening up takes time though. A middle aged woman, an MTNL employee, said that she can set right any man who tries to mess with her. But, she added, even young girls travel in the metro and at that age they may be at a loss when they are harassed. Another woman said she teaches her daughter to be strong and not fear anyone. So while this gender training has been taking place, it is not a feature of all homes and often girls don't know the first thing about how it would be to venture into the 'jungle' out there. This is where the ladies' compartment comes in to make that girl's first step outside a little easier.
Solidarity and support
To get diverse opinion, I went to a group of three young women who seemed to be from outside Delhi. When I tried to speak to them, they seemed a bit nervous and I realized that they couldn't speak Hindi or English. If they had been travelling in the general compartment and had had the guts to speak out, which language could they have chosen?
Public support at such times is as infrequent and short-lived as rains in Delhi. Before a spunky woman can have the satisfaction of having brought her harasser to book, she often has to go through the the process alone, which entails speaking out, reporting the harassment, calling the police, convincing them that you don't want to "let it go" and finally registering an official complaint. The system of online reporting started by the Washington metro, even if started in India, will be a complete success only if all the women commuters are that familiar with technology.
For the past three months I have been part of a team called Genderventions that has been using theatre in an effort to make the city a more accessible place for women. To watch our act while men gather around more easily as audience, we have often had to approach women and request them to watch. Watching a road show surrounded by men isn't something they are used to. We even had to intervene once when a lone young girl at an inter-bus state terminus kept going from one spot to another trying to watch us perform but the shoving crowd of men won't let let her be.
Even while performing, in our heads we used to desperately count the number of women in the audience and mostly they could be counted on your fingers. Our other women team members would stand around these women, talking to them, listening to them if they had a point to make that they were softly uttering, urging them to speak out. Some of them were quite vocal when they began, and a few confidently participated without being persuaded. But the latter were not the rule.
We hope that the hesitant ones who broke their silence would continue the practice. To do that, if they needed that initial solidarity from other women like us (who were in turn encouraged by other women when we weren't too articulate ourselves) in a predominantly male space, which would have sometimes jostling, sometimes drunk men, we don't think it's a reflection on their capabilities.
One of the places where I learnt to articulate resistance was my college. In class when the question of limited seats in the girls' hostel came up, our teacher felt that the ideal way is to let people have the hostel in the first year, and in the second year these residents should make way for the next batch of freshers who could live on campus.
Back to the compartment
The ladies compartment could also be used just for this initial push. It could be used by women whose families feels comfortable in sending them only to girls' colleges or women dominated spaces, if there are any. Or when a woman wants to work and her family says she shouldn't travel alone, the existence of a ladies' coach may help her convince them that travel won't be an issue.
Of course the coach doesn't guarantee safety, and work or education cannot be completely empowering if it has to be customized according to orthodox familial and social conventions. But the first foot forward into a brave new world brings to many of these women the courage to break out of these very conventions.
This applies to all of us, not just to women of a certain class or background, because it is a process that we have all gone through or are in the middle of. Priyanka Sharma, a member of the Genderventions team, recalls that till college she was picked up and dropped in a car. The first time she needed to go somewhere in a rickshaw she wondered about what exactly she should say in order to hire it. Her wish was not to forever stay in the cocoon her family offered her but to come into her own. In the company of other women in college, this wish only got strengthened and she saw the endless possibilities waiting for her. By the end of her final year, she was heading the dramatic society and rushing alone to railway stations to book tickets for her team for inter-city competitions. And today while she is still trying to convince her family, she has fulfilled her resolve to do theatre full time and travel anywhere her work would take her.
The ladies' coach could be in a way a space for unspoken solidarity where women from different backgrounds travel together, drawing strength from and learning from each other. For any woman who has felt the pinch of assumed inferiority and aspired for the self-respect brought in by equality, the ladies' coach may be the passage but would never be the final stop.
First published in Quartz, 1 December 2014.