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We Women Have To Be 'Practical', Don't We?

What is the intersection of liberty and practicality?

11/01/2017 6:01 PM IST | Updated 12/01/2017 10:23 AM IST
Yiu Yu Hoi

Intersections are always the most crowded. Streams of people flowing from crossing streets spill out and fill the square. Intersections are also where women feel the safest. They believe that the crowd will be their cover and their shield.

The horrifying mass molestation on the streets of Bengaluru proved otherwise, where on the night of New Year's Eve, hordes of men assaulted women as the crowds and the police looked on, playing the part of guilty bystanders. Reactions of rage, of sorrow, of shame poured in from every corner of the internet and some of these reactions were as infuriating as the incident, notably the #NotAllMen trending on social media websites.

Where does practicality end and oppression begin? Where do the two meet, if at all? How do I choose between the two? Why should I choose between the two?

Another reaction that provoked outrage, and rightfully so, was that of state Home Minister G Parameshwara who pointed fingers at the victims. Like most women, I have ceased to expect anything but ignorant, sexist remarks from the authorities. But what has surprised me is that convinced by the hopeless permanence of the situation, we women advocate precautions that limit our movement in exasperating ways.

Don't stay out late. Don't take a cab alone at night. Don't attract unwanted attention to yourself. Don't wear skirts if you are using public transport. Don't talk to strangers. There are so many ways to refute these arguments, the most primary one being that if men change their mindsets, women won't have to change their ways. The reply I receive is a derisive laugh. "You live in utopia," they tell me, "this is the real world and you need to be practical not idealistic." Practical, not liberal. But where does practicality end and oppression begin? Where does liberalism end and idealism begin? Where do the two meet, if at all? How do I choose between the two? Why should I choose between the two?

As the conflict plays out in my mind, I remember the uproar over a nail polish, created by four undergraduate students at North Carolina State University, which was supposed to identity date rape drugs in women's drinks by changing colour. The students said that they all knew someone who had been through the terrible experience of date rape and wanted to find a way to prevent the crime. They wanted to help, but they received backlash from rape prevention activists, who pointed out that products like the nail polish could fuel victim blaming by putting the onus of preventing rape on the victim. Women should not have to live in such a world. It did not help the nail polish's case that all four of its creators were male.

Open-minded supporters of equality between the sexes [are] reduced to hovering and panicking. Fear. That's the intersection of practicality and liberty.

But millions of women in India, and across the globe, do live in such a world. Every time we progress, slowly inching towards equal rights and status for women, an incident like Bengaluru pulls us back in front of a mirror where we can see the dark monstrosity of patriarchy laugh at our foolish hope. For every incident that comes into the public's eye, hundreds and thousands go unnoticed, unreported and unpunished. Our society does not need progress, it needs transformation. When you battle the Hydra, you have to cut off all its heads at once.

Perhaps such transformation is a long way off. What happens until then?

"Keep yourself safe," my parents would tell me. It is what any parent would tell their daughter. This is no cage of rules, but the shadow of fear. As much as they believe in freedom of movement and space for women, the sickening anxiety grips them that maybe someday, it could be their own child. "Go out, but don't come home by yourself." "Go out, but call me if your friend can't give you a ride." "Call me when you reach home," my friend tells me as she drops me off right below my building. "Doesn't matter if it's the other way, I'll drop you home," says a friend as he hails a cab for us. Open-minded supporters of equality between the sexes, reduced to hovering and panicking.

Fear. That's the intersection of practicality and liberty.

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