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Friday, November 4, 2011

Back of the Bus

Every country has its problems. In India, the men sit at the back of the bus and the women sit at the front. Segregation brought on by imbalance rather than hatred.

In every country I've traveled to and lived in, people sit where they want to on the bus. Yet in my own beloved India, there is a rule - both sign-boarded and unspoken - that women should sit at the front of the bus and men should stand or sit at the back. They are kept apart by years of social injustice and ancient social retardation. I know why it happens but that's not what bothers me. It it merely a symptom of a much larger problem.

I will skip the 'India is a country of contrasts, ever-changing and rapidly rising' soundbite. India is what it is and I don't want to make any excuses for the sad, subtle signs of social inequalities that exist between men and women. But for a few in urban centres, woman are still second-class citizens. This is the stark reality and it saddens me. Why do women sit at the front? To be rid of the menace that is the uneducated Indian man. He in turn is robbed of the sight of a woman who is every bit his equal and simply does not know how to interact with her. He glares, he touches, he stamps his dominance and she is left wondering what her place on the bus is, never mind her place in the world. It's a vicious cycle that plays out everyday in every bus, train, office, pedestrian walkway and household.

Boys and preferred to girls; female infanticide is still rife. It must be noted, that this exists more in rural areas but preferential treatment towards men manifests itself in many ways in our bustling cities too. Traditionally, the woman is meant to stay at home. She is meant to cook, clean and take care of the children. She has seldom left her prison until now. I left India in 2008. When I came back, something struck me that I had never cottoned on to before: there were so few women walking Indian streets. There were no women driving buses or cars. There were no women serving dosas and idlis at my local breakfast joint. I am exaggerating, of course. But when I see what happens to your average woman when she ventures out into the hot, dusty world, I understand why she feels uncomfortable and unwanted.

Women walk timidly for the most part, trying their best to shield themselves from the glares of all the men that surround them. And God forbid she wants to wear clothes that show her beauty. The level of ogling steps up a gear and is served with a side of intimidation and even the occasional approach. There is a severe imbalance that must be righted. Men have not been exposed to an independent woman, who not just free but happy to go about her daily business and engage with society as a fully recognised, functioning member. It must be righted in my life time.

The change, inevitable as it always was, has begun. Slowly though. Like everything in India: slowly and with more snags than are necessary. Education and equal employment are bringing the number of women in our streets, schools and offices gradually up to a respectable level. But it is still not safe for a woman to go home alone at night or particularly comfortable for her to walk along a busy street on her own. I've experienced it with my sister and my female friends. They go by car. A car with tinted windows.

To give you a sense of the deep-rooted status-quo, I will tell you what happened during a family holiday once. We were at a wedding and so we were all dressed up and my sister was made-up. We left the hotel to go across the street and have lunch. We were in a small town in the hills. As we crossed in a group of 10, my sister accidentally walked a little on ahead of us as the rest of us turned left to go to the restaurant. She was still in plain sight - not more than 10 yards ahead of us. But now, she was surrounded by a group of school/college boys who were on their way home, going on another direction. They didn't sneer, ogle or even notice her presence in their midst. My grandmother screamed and my father turned to see what had happened. Now they noticed. My sister turned sheepishly and walked the 10 yards back to us outside the restaurant. My father gave my grandmother an irritated look. Later in the restaurant she said, "those boys have never seen a girl like her".

Why had she screamed? What did she think was going to happen? Was my poor sister now out of our reach forever, because she had ventured 10 yards in her own country? It belied such a divide in thinking. My grandmother felt she was in some sort of danger because she was no longer in the shelter of our convoy. Why did my grandmother scream?

In Bangalore, the police will stop your car if you are driving with a woman (dressed in 'Western' clothes - whatever that is supposed to mean) after 11pm. They feel it is their job to poke their corrupt noses into our personal space and more worryingly, they feel it is their role to protect women from the dangers of the night. The rape statistics in Bangalore - and across many cities in India - are alarming. It my opinion, it is the years of yearning for intimacy and sexual interaction an average unmarried Indian man experiences, that finally overflow into the inhuman act of rape.

I remember taking an inter-city bus between Bangalore and Goa. There were 26 men and 2 women on it (I could end this anecdote here). Each passenger had booked his/her ticket online, for Rs 600 (GBP 7.00, USD 12.00) which is quite a high price for a bus ticket in a country of buses. The two women's seats were on opposite sides of the bus. After everyone had settled down, the conductor asked whether they would like to be seated next to each other rather than a male-stranger and they agreed instantly. What? Does this happen elsewhere? Can a man not leave a woman alone for 8 hours? Can a woman not feel safe sat in a relatively up-market air-conditioned coach? Can the two not engage in a simple, human conversation to make what would be an otherwise unbearable, bumpy bus journey any less painful?

Go to an Indian nightclub. Apart from the few ones which apply the 'couples only' rule strictly and let women enter free, their numbers are unbelievably skewed in favour of men. Groups of single men who will stand at the bar or dance in a circle. In the 'West', groups of girls, guys and both will queue outside a nightclub to have a good time. A girl will have a drink in the knowledge that baring an anomaly, she will be safe at the end of night. She is free to make her own choices and not be shipped off home in a friend's car when the night is over. She can stay out, she can meet someone. She can live her life the way she wants. It is not like that in India. Only a tiny percentage of women have this freedom.

And so women sit in the front of the bus when they go to work in the morning. I don't know whether they made this rule but they and the bus conductor stick to it. There is a women's-only compartment in the trains in Bombay. In England everyone rides on the tube together and it gets just as crowded. You get out a book or plug in your earphones and simply get on with it.

Even when some (and I stress, some - but if you're Indian, you know the ones I mean). Indian men go abroad, the first thing they say is, "Oooh dude the white girls here are so hot man. So much better than India." What nonsense. There are beautiful women everywhere. Maybe Indian culture has something to do with this widespread misconception. If there were more women on India's streets, men would get used to their presence and stop treating them like circus attractions.

In the state of Haryana last year, a courageous woman broke the shackles of centuries of traditional silence and went to the police to report that she had been raped by her husband. The police constable raped her again at the station in one of the prison cells and told her to go home. There are good people in the world. There are good men and bold women in India. But stories like that make me wonder if we as a nation can ever evolve into civil beings.

Men are starved of the sight and the touch of a woman. Women are caught between the gears of social change. Hopefully the motor of education will condemn this vicious cycle to the past. Please.

And after saying all this, I probably wouldn't let my daughter walk around a city at night without a man accompanying her. Am I part of the problem?