India has been tagged as a perilious place for women. Many have vehemently argued against this. I have been a believer of India as a safe country for women. One may question what gives me the authority to advocate this thought.
In my defense, I have travelled over 3,300 kms across 7 states of India in public buses (except five times when there were no buses along the route or when they refused to take off). It took me 35 days, four pairs of clothes, innumerable good-hearted people and ZERO peppersprays to finish this journey. I returned perfectly safe.
Since I finished this journey one and a half years back, I have been trying to change mindsets. My fondest memory of safe women is a scene in a train compartment.
I was 13 days into my journey. Given that there were no direct buses from Ratnagiri to Mumbai, I decided to cover this stretch by train. I had to wait for three hours at the station. Three young boys running a Chai-Pakoda shop kept me company sharing stories about them quitting education, running away from home and regretting the decision.
Three women from the midst of nowhere came and started talking to me about well, my attention-seeker backpack. They thought I represented India in sports (wish that was true) and I was travelling to play. Since their destination was also the same, they asked me to join them.
The train arrived and I boarded with the ladies. It was the first time ever that I was travelling in a ‘Ladies Compartment’ in a train. What I saw made me smile and wonder.
These ladies were a different breed in that compartment. Solo travellers slept fearlessly with their faces covered with dupattas and towels, nostrils flaring and mouths wide open. Older travellers parked themselves wherever they could – two of them squeezed themselves between my feet. Some stood at the open door gazing outside, unfettered by the strong winds. Some sang and a little girl, with two front tooth missing, danced like she was in a party. Everyone else cheered and clapped for her like they were in a party. Strangers spoke, made each other laugh, brought each other chai and samosa. Some fought when their request to make space on a two seater which was already occupied by five wasn’t met. Indeed women in a ‘Ladies Dabba’ of a local train were the happiest.
This compartment felt like the most liberating space for women in our country. In that moment I was too busy making mental and actual notes, having gup-shup, capturing moments and creating memories for myself.
Though, much later, this experience raised questions in my head when I read a piece on how women negotiate public spaces in India. Images after images and memories after memories crossed my mind about the ways in which I have negotiated spaces because of perceptions of threat and a strong sense of unease.
Perceptions of threat have forced me to follow rules and advise other girls about using public spaces cautiously. To wait at a bus stop and not any other place is a common strategy to stay safe that most Indian women will swear by. Like the article says, we strategise everyday – carrying sharp objects like keys and pepper sprays, saving quick dial numbers on our phones, walking faster or not walking at all after sun-down, rolling our windows up while driving through dark lanes. I even switch from English songs to Hindi or a regional one while driving past streets that are not well-lit. The list is never-ending.
I proudly admit that I was safe throughout my 3,300 kms journey (no weapons used). But I also confess that I was vigilant all the time. I could not afford a moment of negligence. My trip plan included reading up on safety tips for solo women travellers in India. I was prepared for the worst and ready to walk away from any space/ conversation without giving rise to a conflict situation. The spaces I went to were safe – nothing unpleasant really happened. But are safe spaces equally liberating? I now wonder if there are any other liberating spaces in our country other than the ladies compartments in the trains.
The answer is a clear no. The attempt must be to create such spaces. Why loiter, the beautiful initiative, has created ripples since inception and it continues to do so. To take things a step further, to empower women using digital media to its best advantage, to stand up against violence and deep rooted gender bias, Srishti Bakshi will walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. If you want to jon hands in this initiative, click here.