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The recent BHU protests make this author cheer them, but also reflect on her own grim experiences with patriarchy in the city.
Varanasi, the city I was born in gave me some good memories for the first few years of my life. During summer vacations, I would happily stroll in the city with my grandparents. Everything you hear about, from the Ghats to the narrow lanes was a lot of fun until a certain age. The fun of walking on the Ghats, especially Assi, meandering around Banaras Hindu University campus, and bhaang filled holi makes one feel tempted to visit the place.
What if I say that this is a mostly male narrative and there are many female narratives which we have failed to hear or rather ignored over the years? The toxic masculinity gets frightened out of its wits when the female narrative presents a perspective previously unheard of.
I am elated to see the kind of protest that is happening on the university campus by the students of the university. Sixteen years back, as a teenager, I used to race my cycle through the Banaras Hindu University campus to reach my school on time. Since I enjoyed cycling, I would always want to beat my own record and take many serpentine turns to reach my destination as fast as I could. I would sometimes sing along when my bicycle sped up.
It was one such afternoon in June when I was trying to do the same tricks just outside the university campus in Lanka. A child at heart and a racer in attitude, my bicycle was almost flying. Suddenly I heard an obnoxious and deafening honking, and a hand pinched my breast hard. I shuddered and fell on the road. By the time I gathered myself, the men on the bike were far. One of them turned his face and gave me a smile with his pan coated teeth. He abused me with some swear words and advised me to ride slow. ‘Ride slow’ – this is what the ossified patriarchal norms have taught women for ages. In the past sixteen years, after finishing several cyclathons I know I have taken revenge on that man who advised me, ‘ride slow’. For the love of womanhood, the universe and god, and cycling I would do anything but ride slow. Chase me if you can.
Years later, I visited the city with my partner and showed him the sprawling campus where my bicycle would fly, back then before that incident happened. With a male chaperon walking beside me, I expected the visit to be pleasant. I was wrong. A young boy again used the same swear word to abuse me which I had heard on the campus several years back. One and a half decades hence, I was again taken back to the same unpleasantness.
Those two years in the city which I spent very close to the university campus were extremely depressing. The patriarchy soaked city tried its best to convince me to internalise patriarchy. No wonder, I did not have the slightest doubt about leaving the city after finishing school.
While the city was always festive in the name of one god or the other for 365 days a year, no god could save me from such repeated ‘eve-teasing’ incidents. The worst was when men and women would normalize such events. The incident I have mentioned here happened on a sultry afternoon on a road full of people. None of them came to help me get up. When I spoke about it to several of my friends at school, some of them actually chuckled. One friend (a local living in the city for a good number of years) advised me that I should always ride in a group of girls and should not try to be ‘over smart’. The other told me how she drove her Scooty very fast when a group of men chased her the previous evening. They gave me the example of a men’s hostel in the university, where men used to try throwing their underwear on women or pulling their dupattas. At that age, we did not know who to talk to about it. There were no helplines in the university for women. Every time we wanted to discuss these issues, we were told that we should be careful because ‘Men will be men’.
May be when the phrase ‘Men will be men’ came up, women did not pay taxes to walk on the road. May be our culture had degraded to the point where only women were expected to carry the burden of goodness and morality. This is the time to erase such phrases. As I hear the news of student protests on the campus, my heart is elated. I congratulate them and wish their parents also join them in the protests. That sixteen-year-old girl who gathered herself on the road that day is riding the bicycle fast, singing at the top of her voice and says, catch me if you can. Patriarchy is abnormal, feminism is normal.
Top image credits Christopher Dombres, used via Flickr under a Creative Commons license 1.0
First published here.