The government gives sops for women like reserved parking, pink toilets, pink seats in city buses – these will not empower women or solve the issue of safety.
The school I moved to for my 11th grade had a ‘golden section’. It was meant for the brightest kids, the ones who had performed exceptionally well in the 10th grade, and were expected to do well in future.
Those familiar with the Indian schooling system will know the importance of grades 10, 11, 12 in an Indian student’s life. The parents, extended family, neighbours, well-wishers – all make it out to be the time that will decide the course of a person’s entire life. Because that’s when you prepare to get into a good college, the college prepares you for a good job, that job gives you a good salary, and that salary decides where you live, who you marry, and whether you live happily ever after. You get the picture?!
The ‘golden section’ was also the golden goose for the school. The state toppers’ list would appear in the local newspapers. The more the students from a school featured on the list, the more the school was in demand. The best teachers taught the ‘golden students’. These were put through batteries of tests throughout the year to prepare them for the college entrance exams.
There was one major problem with our school, though. The boys there were notorious as ‘eve teasers’, especially those who were not in the golden section. They were from the other section called A1 — the ‘vagabonds’, not interested in studies, didn’t care about their future — that’s how even the teachers referred to them. Left to themselves, ‘eve teasing’ was their pastime and no one told them any better.
‘Eve teasing’ — it almost sounds like a biblical poetic term if one didn’t know what it really meant. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as the making of unwanted sexual remarks or advances by a man to a woman in a public place. Wikipedia is more explicit when it explains “Eve teasing is a euphemism used throughout South Asia for public sexual harassment or molestation of women by men”.
A research study further clarifies eve teasing as staring, stalking, passing comments, and inappropriate physical touch. It is a ubiquitous threat for women that often occurs in broad daylight, and can lead the victim to feel unsafe, embarrassed, disgusted, objectified, fearful, and humiliated. It is all of that and worse, hidden in the seemingly playful term — eve teasing.
So there I was. State ranker in the 10th grade, aspiring engineer, joining the golden section of this new school because it was supposedly the best option in my small town world if you are serious about studies. How I spent my two years there is a story for another post. Here I want share a fiasco that took place.
There were about 16 girls and 50 boys in our section. Two of our teachers — the ones who taught Maths and English — were outstanding. They were dedicated to teaching, and covered the course religiously. If you are wondering why this is a big deal, it’s because it was a norm in my town to attend tuitions to cover the syllabus. The same teachers taught better at their private tuitions than in the classroom. And in the class they expected we’d already know everything.
But this wasn’t the case with these two teachers. They taught extremely well, without prejudice. And they also expected us to learn, practice, put in our best. Especially the mathematics teacher. I’ll call him DV Sir. He was a perfectionist. He gave his 100% and he expected 100% from us. He wanted not just the correct answers, but also all the correct methods of solving a problem, the shortest method to arrive at the answer, the neatest way of writing. The “equal to” sign between RHS and LHS had to be written at the same place, line after line. The notebook wasn’t just supposed to have mathematically correctness, but also aesthetical appeal. He was quick to shout, scold and even slap if he saw anyone slacking. DV Sir demanded excellence to the power infinity, nothing less.
One fine day a few months into the session, the class was briefly interrupted and in walked about twenty girls from the A1 section. Later we got to know that the boys of A1 were unruly, undisciplined and made it “difficult” for the girls in the class. So the management had shifted the girls to the golden section where they’d be “safer”. The school authorities must have patted their backs for being so generous in “upgrading” the A1 girls to the privileged section. Simple, isn’t it?
What could have gone wrong in having a bunch of extra girls in the class. Well, almost everything went wrong…for everyone — for the A1 girls, for DV Sir and for the rest of us in the golden section.
The A1 girls were smart but not ambitious like the others in the golden section. They certainly had no intention of being engineers. That wouldn’t have normally mattered. But now they were made to sit in a class full of aspiring engineers, state rankers, fiercely competitive students who took no chances with their studies. They found it difficult to keep pace.
Their presence did not go down well with DV Sir. He was frustrated at having less than competitive students in the class, he felt his 100% was wasted on students who could never catch up. He even started using abusive language towards those girls, mentioning at every step that they did not deserve to be in the golden section. That they were nothing but murtis (idols), dumb dolls. If it was hard for us, the true gold students, to match up to the standards of DV Sir, it was impossible for the A1 girls to even get close to those standards. DV Sir would loose patience at the slightest misstep and shout/hit out.
None of us were spared. Nasty comments about our incompetence became a norm for him. He somehow exercised restrain and didn’t hit the girls. But the boys got it from him.
A particular incident I remember is of him hitting one of my brilliant classmates viciously for a minor mistake. That guy now teaches at a US university after graduating with honours from ivy league kind of colleges in India and abroad. But the memory of that incident still gives me goose bumps. We used to love DV sir’s class, but we started dreading it. I felt sorry for the A1 girls and scared for all of us — not knowing who’d be in the line of fire that day. And I felt sad… very sad for DV Sir and for all of us — because we lost a teacher and a learning opportunity.
So then why did the management take a decision in which no one was the winner? Because they chose to ignore the real problem — the unruly boys of A1. Instead of correcting or punishing the mischief mongers, the school chose the easy way out. The result — everyone suffered except for the trouble maker boys of A1. They continued with their nonsense — in the class and outside, with no fear of punishment from anyone.
Why did the school management turned a blind eye to the real problem and come up with a workaround that served no good? It didn’t help anyone — not the teachers, not the students. And certainly not the A1 girls who were made to feel misfits everyday for no fault of theirs. How humiliating it must have been for them to attend school everyday! They would have done something decent with their lives, whatever it is they wanted to do other than be engineers. But the school failed to provide them with basic dignity and the safety of attending school without being harassed. And the management tried to hide its failure behind a superfluous fix. I call this the golden section fiasco.
These days I am frequently reminded of the golden section fiasco because of the quick fixes I see dished around. These are fixes by policy makers and government who appear to be as hapless, if not worse, than the school authorities. They come up with rules meant to help women but which are nothing but superfluous fixes that change nothing. These are sops — concessions given to pacify or quieten, not to solve a problem.
One such sop that has been recently given is the provision of Reserved Parking for women on Brigade Road. Brigade road is one of the busiest commercial areas of Bangalore. It has 85 pay and park slots to cater to thousands who throng that place. Recently BBMP (the civic administration body in Bangalore) reserved 10 of those dedicated parking slots for cars driven by women.
The Mayor of Bangalore called the initiative as a step forward in ensuring women’s safety. Apparently he thinks that the 10 women who (might!) use those slots will be safe from harassment which they otherwise would have faced if they had to walk back to their vehicles parked far away.
Where does that leave the women who do not park in those 10 slots and still have to walk a long way?
Does providing reserved parking absolve the government from ensuring safety?
What about those who really could have benefitted from a reserved parking — those with mobility issues, pregnant women, senior citizens?
To put such a rule into practice, a guard will have to check and stop men from parking in the slots reserved for women. That’s creating employment for doing work that serves no purpose. Shouldn’t the authorities have focussed on strengthening and building safety measures in the city instead?
Why is a woman driver’s need for parking space more than that of a man who might be there for an equally important business?
Did the BBMP/Policy makers/Mayor survey the women who frequent Brigade road to understand what made them feel unsafe before doling out sops like reserved parking?
Ironically, Brigade road is the same place that was in the news just as the year 2017 dawned. It was the venue of mass molestation of women on the New Year’s Eve despite the presence of 1500 cops. Not one offender was arrested. In the 10 months since that incident, I wonder what had changed to make the BBMP and Mayor et al believe that the 10 reserved parking slots can do for women’s safety what 1500 cops, who were said to be present at Brigade Road on that New Year Eve, could not do.
But no, instead of providing answers and solutions we have the local authorities falling over themselves to score brownie points for reserving 10 parking slots for women as though they hit a jackpot for woman safety and promising to extend the reservation to other busy areas of the city.
There are more examples of such concessions extended to women in the name of their safety, security or empowerment. The Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation (BMTC) has decided that all seats reserved for women on BMTC buses will be painted in pink. They think this will deter the men from occupying those seats — something which the written word and verbal duels have not achieved in so many years. At least someone gets the contract to paint the seats!
We have a pathetic record of punishing offenders. There is no deterrent for people to not commit crimes against women — whether it is eve teasing, stalking, molesting or even rape. The highly publicised, much debated Nirbhaya gang rape case took almost five years to come to conclusion. And even then, the juvenile who was the most savage of the rapists is a free man today, out on the streets. Never mind that he is the one who inserted an iron rod inside a 23 year old girl, took out her intestines and threw the bloody mess out on the road. She died a painful death, he lives a free man somewhere among us.
Women’s safety on Brigade Road is something that mainstream media might have woken up to on the New Year Day of 2017. But as this candid first person account shows, it is not new. Harassment is rampant in India and not just on Brigade Road. One has be delusional to think that half-baked, pink painted measures will make things better.
When policy makers come up with sops to patronize women, they undermine the cause of women empowerment. They fail to realize, that what the women have achieved throughout history is not through sops, but through grit, courage and talent. What they need are not crutches, but wind beneath their wings. Their success needs to be celebrated, the possibilities need to be highlighted.
There are some glaring examples to prove this. The Phogat sisters and Sakshi Malik, who won medals for India in Wrestling, come from Haryana, a state that is notorious for the way women are treated there. The Phogat sisters didn’t win because of sops. They won because they found a champion in their father who trained and encouraged them. They won because they found not just competitors, but also co-trainers in the male dominated wrestling schools of Haryana.
For a very long time, women who wanted to pursue a career were advised to go for teaching (in schools) or in banking jobs in India. It was meant to give them shorter, well-defined working hours and more holidays, and hence more time for the family. Most other careers were considered “difficult” for women to manage along with family.
This push towards banking started in the generation of the women working in the 70s and 80s. When the well meaning sympathisers had suggested that if at all women need to work outside home, it should be in banking and teaching, they wouldn’t have imagined that one day so many of those women would be heading their organizations, and will make for an intriguing case study on why so many Indian banks are led by women.
Women from that era today head the largest financial institutions in India and are acknowledged as the most business savvy leaders in the industry. In the process, they have also defied another stereotype that women are not good with numbers. No sops there, none at all. Simply good working conditions that ensured that these women sustained and grew through the years to rise up the ranks.
The hunger to excel doesn’t need a sop served on a platter. Just the promise of safety and dignity of life is required.
Sops don’t work, they never have. At best they antagonise even the most firm believers of equality — like the golden section fiasco frustrated a well-meaning teacher like DV Sir. Until the law makers and enforcers don’t have the will and the spine to punish offenders and give justice to victims, until they show the grit to look at a problem in the eye and find a fix, we all will continue endure ridiculous sops such as reserved parking that solve nothing — all in the name of women empowerment.
Published here earlier.
Image source: Flickr
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