(I wrote this for Jagori and Gauri Gill’s Transportraits, an exhibition on women and mobility in the city. It’s somewhere between a rant and a cross letter to the editor.
And two brilliant examples of what the exhibition had to offer:
Blank Noise’s Step By Step Guide To Unapologetic Walking
Amruta Patil’s Navigation, Safe Passage.)
Getting around your city: a user’s guide
1) Weapons: Chili-water in a spray bottle, a shard of glass, a paper cutter, a knife, stiletto heels, pepper spray in the special we’re-sensitive-to-women shade of pink, a razor blade, anything that can be used as a baton, a club, a stick. No whistles; most Indian women are aware that whistles, like cries for help, will attract no attention and will be ignored by passers-by, should you be in actual need of help. Most of the women who carry weapons, with the exception of a few who have trained themselves, some sex workers, and others in dangerous, precarious jobs, do not know how to use them. We carry them anyway; like good-luck charms or pictures of your favourite gods and goddesses, these are talismanic, meant to ward off evil.
2) A spare man: This might be a husband, a boyfriend, a brother, a father, a grandfather, any male child over a certain indefinable age (toddlers and babies do not work), a colleague, your doctor, or a random stranger you’re careful to match your steps with so that other men might think you’re with him. A spare man is more useful than a weapon, if harder to pack into your handbag, because he signals to other men that you are already someone’s property. The downside of carrying a spare man is that you may have to talk to him, or that he may start to believe that you are, indeed, his property, but as a charm to ward off other men, he is invaluable. One spare man, however, is of limited use against groups, gangs and mobs.
3) A watch: This will let you know when you are out at the wrong time. The wrong time is usually any time between dawn and the very late night hours that you are accosted, assailed, abused or attacked by a man or men. If you are out at that time, whether it was for your morning walk or you were coming back from a late business dinner or you were shutting down your pavement stall at five in the evening, it will, whatever the hour of the day, automatically be the wrong time, and you should have known better. (See “Clothes”, below.)
4) Clothes: Anything you are wearing at the time of an actual assault, or that invites comment from men, is not appropriate clothing by definition. If what you are wearing is a tank top, a spaghetti string blouse, a short skirt or jeans, you will make the cultural police in your city very happy, because they can point to the fact that your Western values are responsible for corrupting innocent, helpless men, and instigating them to attack, assault or rape you. If what you are wearing is a sari, a salwar kameez or a loose, all-encompassing sack, then it signifies that you deliberately went out on the streets aware of your potential to attract the wrong kind of male attention, and your clothes are a feeble attempt to cover up your wrong-doing. If you are wearing a burkha and this contributes to your sense of safety on the street, a ban can be organized in short order so that you can experience your fair share of assault and humiliation.
5) Transport: In most cities, the lighting at night has been carefully arranged to ensure that there will be no safe areas, especially around major transit points such as railway stations, metro stations and taxi stands. This is for your convenience. Most auto drivers will not offer safe transport, and many may also try to cheat you. This is so that you do not develop a false sense of security and comfort while negotiating the roads. Most taxis are safe, except for the ones that are not—if your corpse is not found in a drain before the end of your journey, you are in a safe taxi.
Most trains are safe, except for the ones that carry passengers who have no respect for women, which would leave you with the toy train to Darjeeling. The toy train is a very safe train, and you will enjoy Darjeeling greatly. Most buses are meant for the exclusive use of men, and while this will not be explicably stated, you will be made aware of the inconvenience you’re putting male passengers to at all times of your journey, during which they will lean on you, breathe on you, sing to you, fondle your breasts and attempt to molest and/or rape you. All other forms of transport, except for the footpaths, the roads and any stray rivers you may encounter, are absolutely safe for women.
6) Foreign women: All foreign women, including those from the North-Eastern states of India, should be aware of their moral looseness and willingness to be available to all men at all times. If you are a foreign woman and you are not aware of this, the men on the streets of your city of choice will be happy to remind you, several times an hour.
Please enjoy getting around your city. For your safety, we recommend that you travel as a man. If you must travel as a woman, we recommend that you stay indoors at all times. If you insist, after all this, on stepping out of your home, we do apologise for any inconvenience in the form of threats, harassment, rape, assault, violence, humiliation and murder that you almost certainly will encounter.