Monday, 9 March 2015

Actually, the ladies compartment in the Delhi Metro isn’t such a bad idea

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.


Loving and Living in India

A boy and a girl come from their respective hometowns and take admission in the same or respective colleges. It's a new life; friends provide the high in life. Once life starts getting 'serious' and one opts for higher studies or a job many friends, intent on making a living, start drifting apart. Families, joint or nuclear, had already been left behind. One is left alone to deal with the big bouts of loneliness brought in by big cities. Girl meets boy in college or office, love is fallen into, a bond of empathy is established. Life is busy, whatever amount of time they spend together seems less, running two different households in a pain. They think it only makes sense they should live together. But two different flats are still retained, rent for each is still paid. For when the parents come they must not know. (Many parents are kept off Facebook by their kids for these and similar reasons.) 

Live-in relationships are still considered beyond the pale in India. But, in a country where parents often murder their children for marrying out of caste, many brave couples do live together without getting married. They face social opprobrium and many legal hurdles. 

When I and my long-distance partner started visiting each other, we too could see that there isn't complete acceptance yet of a couple living together. I then thought it’s worth doing some research and preparing a guide for what a couple intending to live together should be prepared for. 

Dealing with family

Despite live-ins having mushroomed in India for years, parents prefer to live in denial. And having never discussed love or sex with their parents except as a 'dhokha' (deceit) to be wary of, their young 'uns prefer to avoid the confrontation with parents 'liberal' enough to marry them to the person they claim to have met, liked and decided to marry, not lived with. But what if one wants to live in not as a guarded, temp arrangement until married? What should one be prepared to deal with if planning to live-in openly with or without any plans for marriage?

Families cringe at the idea of live-ins because it hints at sex for pleasure instead of for procreation, which marriage implies. They see marriage as commitment while live-ins as abstinence from responsibility. Often it is assumed that in future the man would shirk and the blind-in-love woman who had been led into such an ignoble union shall cry her eyes out, for which other man shall accept her thereafter? This assertion of choice and independence to lead her life by a woman insults those who believe that the woman is to be given away through 'kanyadan'-the gift of the virgin. The guy would be branded less harshly but would still have to fight for the respectability of a householder. At times the families would say that they do not have an objection to the arrangement but their relatives in the village and the city, their neighbours and their service providers-clubbed under the much abused term 'society', which TIME magazine can certainly put on the list of words to ban as far as Indian youth is concerned-would simply not approve. So while personally parents might end up seeing things from your perspective, it seems an anomaly when they see it in the context of the social spaces they inhabit. 

Getting even to the point where your parents may not be convinced by your stand but would respectfully and peacefully agree to disagree may be a long and arduous process requiring much patience but some people find it worth the effort. Anupama, a product manager in Bangalore soon to be married to her live-in partner, insists, 'People in live-in relationships should definitely have the guts to talk about it without hesitation to their parents, friends, colleagues or anybody else.'

Since such debates are held between logic and rationale versus rhetoric and emotional blackmail, they do not progress in a linear fashion and are immensely frustrating for both the parties. At this juncture, some feel that the only way to observe ceasefire is to stop communication. One party lives with the fact that the other is 'too orthodox' or 'too rebellious'. Some others, resilient enough not to give up on their families or the idea of bringing in change, believe that one cannot stop there.

'Just as it is their duty to protect us from the big bad world, it is the responsibility of the child to open up new worlds for the parents. Educate them about gender equality, about the freedom to act upon your convictions, follow up on your dreams in your own terms, question social conventions . . . In a way, equip them to answer back to the nagging society. But most importantly, show them that you are a responsible, strong and independent person. When they see that you are happy in your surroundings, or unhappy on your own terms, they will come around,' said Paloma Dutta, an editor in a publishing house in Delhi and someone who has been in a live-in relationship for five years. It took her half a decade but she was eventually able to convince her mother to stop worrying and feel confident about her daughter's choice and her ability to live with it.

Looking for that room on the roof

Emotional and mental tugs-of-war apart, a live-in couple in confronted with their first pragmatic hiccup when they set out to find a house to live in. The first question a broker or a landlord would ask you is, 'Single or family?' Interestingly, family doesn't mean you have to live there with your parents or grandparents or children. You can be a couple and still be called a family by real estate hawks as long as you are married. Or say that you are. In some people's experience, it is only in posh areas that people accept you as live-in partners but if you cannot afford those you have to lie to the owner of the house. But in my own experience of house-hunting when my partner moved to town, reservations exist in both expensive and more modest localities. 

In some cases regardless of the area the owners do not care if you pay your rent on time. In others, many would ask you if you are married and would be satisfied with your verbal answer (though a friend told me that in Mumbai they look for a marriage certificate) and not willing to probe further. It is not that they care that much but do not want to go into uncharted territory and are essentially saying 'if you say you are married we will expect “decent” behaviour and trust that you shall not be found to be leading a drug and sex racket'. Their efforts to stay out of the reach of the long arm of the law also stems from the fact that they are letting out their properties without paying tax on rent. 

Staying in hotels

Some hotel websites mention that they entertain 'married couples only'. It is best to call in advance and say that you would be checking in with your partner so that you do not end up having an unpleasant argument at the last moment. Once despite prior notice I had an argument with the owner when the caretaker stepped in and apologized, saying that while they do not have a problem with two consenting adults staying together, they are wary of the police regularly checking their records and questioning them. Another owner of a bed-and-breakfast establishment in south Delhi said that he never plies his guests with personal questions as long as they are adults and have their identity proofs in order. He added that because he follows this the police has never found anything amiss in his records.

The benefit of staying honest about your live-in status is that nobody will get a chance to try to make you uncomfortable by probing or try to 'report to parents' when they realize that you have nothing to hide. From your own confidence in your conviction, your act would stagger their limited understanding of legitimacy.

Live-ins and the law 

In many other countries there has been a broader understanding of the idea of a couple and a family, which can be seen in their legal recognition of prenuptial agreements, cohabitation, civil union and domestic partnership. In India the Domestic Violence Act 2005 included within its purview live-in relationships under which a woman having with a man 'a relationship in the nature of marriage' can go to court if abused. Since this covers economic abuse, it affords women protection in case of a violation of their financial rights. The Supreme Court has stated that if a man and a woman '"lived like husband and wife" for a long period and had children, the judiciary would presume that the two were married.' In another case the court even declared, 'Living together is a right to life'. This was when film actor Kushboo petitioned the court to quash the 22 FIRs filed against her by groups in Tamil Nadu for allegedly endorsing pre-marital sex in her interviews. The court went one step further to assert, 'If living together is an offence, then the first complaint should be filed against the Supreme Court, because we have permitted living together.'

Children

The apex court has clarified that children born of parents in a live-in relationship could not be called illegitimate. Lawyer-activist Pyoli Swatija points out that if a child is born of live-in partners, then, unlike within a marriage, the mother is the natural guardian of the child. However, it also means that the father is not obliged to fulfil any responsibility related to the child. The Supreme Court held that a child born out of parents in a live-in may be allowed to inherit the property of the parents, if any, but doesn't have any claim upon Hindu ancestral coparcenary property. 

Pyoli, earlier in a live-in and now married, said that many live-in couples planning to have kids decide to marry to secure the legal rights of their children. Recently an elderly couple in Kerala reluctantly married after forty years of living together. Having taken the ideological position that their relationship was not dependent on social sanction, they had to alter course when they felt that the legal rights of their family, including those of the grandchildren, were threatened. 

Additionally, not everyone wants the children to face and be confused by people's questions about their parents' unconventional union. In her own case too, Pyoli felt that legal rights apart, if they have a child s/he, unlike the parents may not be able to deal with society's questions at a young age. 

A different argument is that if children are raised in a certain way and made to understand their parents' choice they would actually contribute to making a more tolerant, open and equal society, which would ultimately make the world a better place for the child. Envrionment activist Manshi Asher working in rural Himachal Pradesh has a child with her live-in partner and has not considered marriage. 'When we landed in the village with a baby in our arms, no one around really considered that we were not married. For the neighbourhood and local community we are a married couple. If people ask when we got married, we just mention the year we started living in together. If they look for a story behind how we got married, I say we didn't, if it's someone with the sensibility to understand or someone curious about if there is another way possible for a couple to be together.' 

Official documents 

In having joint accounts, insurance and visas, and possibly in visitation rights to a hospital, it could be tough if the couple is not legally married. International chess player and solo traveller Anuradha Beniwal was peacefully living in with her partner with no objections from family. (She did face veiled disapproval from some mothers who stopped sending their daughters to her for chess tuitions.) But when her partner decided to take up a job offer in London and she too was willing to move, they got married in a rush to avoid visa troubles. Of course many see this legal arrangement as the structure of a patriarchal state where only one kind of family is recognized. So there is also an informed choice either not to care for these privileges or to keep on fighting for them. 

More than just rebellion

Live-ins are not a new phenomenon in India. Apart from it going on in hushed or open ways in cities, it has been the standard norm in many of our tribes, some of which believe that the contemporary marriage system 'brings with it several impositions, especially on women'. Of course there were also live-ins more exploitative and unequal in nature like the Maitri Karaar (friendship contract)in Gujarat, later declared illegal, which involved a single woman in a relationship with a married man. In fact it was to secure the rights of tribal women in live-in relationships that the Madhya Pradesh State Women's Commission had recommended that such unions be accorded legal status. That more and more people are opting for it due to their own respective reasons is attested by the fact that the Internet has extended its matchmaking services to include finding live-in partners. In the year 2011, an NGO in Ahmedabad organized a first-of-its-kind event to help single senior citizens find companions. So clearly living together goes much beyond the simplistic notion of 'the rebellion of youth'. 

It wasn't mere coincidence that almost ten years back when the Hindi film industry decided to make a commercial film (Salaam Namaste) with a live-in couple, they placed the story in Australia to maintain the purity of the usual Bollywood romance genre. By not situating the pair in India, they could concentrate on their mutual relationship and not deal with messy societal influences (a bit of which was later done in the more recent Shuddh Desi Romance). 

Contrary to popular belief, live-ins are not devoid of work but confer much more responsibility upon both the partners since in many ways they are on their own. In such circumstances, it is best to appraise oneself of the socio-economic-legal aspects (like the guidelines for when the relationship would be seen as being in the nature of marriage to be covered under the 2005 Act), and go in prepared.


First published in Quartz, 28 November 2014.




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