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No country for young women (and men in love)
Ahead of Valentine's Day, a writer wonders at the almost atavistic need to separate the sexes in our cities.
Every overt public display of affection I see on Mumbai's streets adds a minute to my life. Every instance of the holding of hands, the intertwining of fingers, a big, warm hug, a weary head resting on a shoulder, a quick peck on the cheek or an unexpected caress warms the cockles of my heart. These displays are quick and momentary but bring delight like the chance spotting of a bright red flower blossoming in a grey, dystopian landscape. Love comes, as the Rolling Stones sing, at the speed of light. These brief flashes energize and comfort me that all is well with the world.
Now consider our universal reaction to a canine couple doing that which they are prone to, willfully disregarding the sensitive space that is our public realm. Crowds gather with the singular aim of interrupting coitus. We can't abide sex in any situation even if it is an animal doing it. Slippers are slung, brickbats fly, even chilli powder is procured, all with an aim to separate those parts conjoint in communion. Vast cheers go up at the successful delinking as each hapless animal scurries away. No individual participates in such behaviour. It is always a mob.
There seems to be an almost atavistic need to separate the sexes in our city. Recently a friend told me of a visit to a temple with his wife. After the ritual darshan they emerged from the sanctum into the sunlight and sat for a moment on the parapet outside. They were immediately accosted by the temple administrators and asked to leave. My friend argued but to no avail, they left with a bad taste in the mouth. We seem to have a problem even with a public display of sitting-down.
When the spark of affection is ignited in a public space, it is almost certain that this is because the female has asserted or at least consented to show or receive love. Agency has been exercised. Patriarchical mores have been resisted. The public space has been made more equitable. And that, of course, cannot be tolerated.
There is little to separate the looney-fringe nutters who violently break up couples quietly sitting in restaurants and pubs and the recent 'Ched-chad Virodhi Pathak', a posse of 15 plainclothesmen of the Thane police who were mandated to round up couples and even single women in the outdoors in order to, presumably, prevent them from being accosted by 'Romeos and molesters'. They were authorised to fine couples, or to book them under section 110 of the Bombay Police Act for 'causing public nuisance' just for being present, and worst of all, to give these 'suspicious elements' long moralising lectures about their loose and wayward behaviour not in keeping with Indian culture. With blithe nonchalance, the senior inspectors aim to bring down crime by ensuring that 'no one should be found in corners and isolated places unnecessarily even in the day time'.
Both the lumpen louts and the up-keepers of the law approach their targets like those rabidly intent on separating copulating dogs. Both assert a moral righteousness that allows them to violently accost men and women seen together in the city, for the preservation of Indian culture and Indian values. Even the Commissioner of Police in Mumbai remarked at a meeting on women's safety that he favoured moral education to sex education. He believed (really!) that women in countries where sex education is taught are more prone to instances of sexual assault.
No doubt, the Police Commissioner is well versed in a subject called 'Moral Science' that we were all taught at school. This oxymoronic subject was a weekly series of sleep-inducing homilies about how we should behave. Here we learnt how we should all conform for our own good, that each one of us had our roles to play, that we were defined by our upbringing, and our rectitude consisted in adhering to these very circumstances. Boys should be good boys. Girls should be good girls. Typically, the science of this morality is particularly focused on keeping women in their place, which is off the streets.
In our indoctrinated and patriarchic milieu, there is little space for a woman to exercise agency. Even the ordinance recently signed by the President making tougher the penalties against sexual assault do not explicitly give complete autonomy to an Indian woman over her own body. There are always occasions, and exceptions where a woman is dependent on others. Little surprise then, that a police force, from the very top down to the beat cop immersed in such values can only keep the peace by clearing the streets. Of women.
We don't need any moral education. Instead, there is an urgent need for creating a contemporary cultural awareness in all those in executive power, and at every level of governance, imparting in them a reformed world view not rooted in labels and stereotypes. They need to learn how to champion diversity, protect the autonomy of the individual and loudly deride those who would keep us in our place. So here is my humble proposal: Each morning, before being let loose on the citizens at large, the following lines should be repeated in place of their morning prayer, along with a cup of chai (and with increasing levels of sincerity): 'A woman may be seen in the open without reason. It is alright if she is alone, or with someone of either sex. It is my job to ensure that she continues to do whatever it is she wants to do. Anyone sitting (or existing) in the open is not a public nuisance. If I see anyone displaying affection I must remember that I too am the product of such acts. ' And in every police station, I propose there should be a large poster with the very recent image of the Leader of the Opposition warmly embracing the President of our largest Opposition Party, with the bold caption: 'KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON'.
(The writer teaches architecture in Mumbai and writes on urban issues)
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