Claiming Our Space Which Was Rightfully Ours

Saturdays With Shivani

Early this week when the beaches opened in Hong Kong, we packed our stuff and headed there. While my daughter chased the waves and husband gazed at her from a distance, the postprandial haze took over me and I grabbed a snooze on the mat nearby. It was a small nap and a very refreshing one; my first on a crowded beach. Last year before the pandemic, I had done a similar thing in a public park. We had a small picnic and lazed under the balmy winter sun. I can still feel its warmth on my face and that’s probably my last pre-pandemic outdoor memory.

Before you second guess, this isn’t about the pandemic but about me making an attempt to lay my claim on public spaces; something that I could never do in India. I don’t know how many women/ girls may agree with me but I for one could never think of lying on a mat, let alone sleep in a public place with strangers around.

When my sister and I were little, our parents would take us to Janmashtami and Diwali fairs which stopped abruptly. When we would badger our mother, she would be reluctant, sometimes make an excuse and we ended up not going ever again. I had all but forgotten about them until years later, I overheard my mom telling someone that those crowds made her uncomfortable. She wanted to protect her innocent girls from the inappropriate touch as long as she could.

I grew up at a time where our teachers and seniors would warn us not to walk too close to the handrails on the staircase because boys would be looking up in the hope of getting a view under the skirts of unsuspecting girls and mind you, I was studying in one of the good schools of Delhi not some mofussil town.

In medical school, we would instinctively arrange our dupattas beneath our aprons before we examined the patients in our clinical rounds. Why? Because by then we were acutely aware of the male gaze. It could be our batchmates’, our teachers’, our senior residents’ or even our patients’ but we knew that lecherous gaze well. Since I felt hot with the dupatta, I ditched it for Chinese collars and high necks. Till today I cannot bring myself to wear low cut dresses.

For someone who is so scarred by the male gaze, can you imagine how liberated I felt with a simple act of relaxing on a beach or at a park. I have often asked this question and I repeat it again, why no one asked the boys to move away from the handrails or not to look up with a voyeur’s intent. Why didn’t anyone teach those professors or those batchmates or the patients not to ogle?

Why have we normalized it to the extent that we no longer feel what’s amiss till we accidentally discover the pleasures like I did, in a foreign land where I instinctively knew that no one cares?

Not that attempts are not made in India to claim public spaces. When I was there, I remember night marathons were organized in Mumbai to create a buzz around women feeling safer in the dark but such attempts are few and far apart. They are not sustainable either. For the rest of the time, women and girls are left to fend for themselves not just at night but in broad daylight as well. We are forever watching our back or averting our gaze when we spot someone eyeing us. On the off chance if we make a noise, we have no proof and most often the people around placate us into silencing ourselves. Gradually we just embrace that silence like a shroud.

I am a mother of a young girl now and if I was still in India, I would have hated myself while curtailing her movements or asking her to ditch those shorts and tees because there are perverts around whom I can’t control. That’s what most of us do— exercise control where we can.

I often attempt at giving solutions but today I only have uncomfortable questions. Why are we denied such simple pleasures? Why are men not banned from public spaces? Until they learn and mend their ways, why are they not locked up in their homes so girls can be free to claim what was rightfully theirs- public spaces?

  –Dr. Shivani Salil

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