Monday, March 11, 2013

Traveling in the Pink Zone of Female Empowerment

Picture Courtesy:

 It is often said about women in India, and of Delhi in general, that the nation they inhabit is not safe enough for them. The usual way of categorizing and stereotyping Indian women is to consider them as weak and inferior to their male counterparts. Such popularly held and superannuated ideas about Indian women are apt to undergo a metamorphosis if one enters the hallowed portals of the ladies’ compartments in the Delhi metro trains, for here one is sure to encounter a series of young empowered females whose very presence and behavior in that no-man’s zone will assure him/her that indeed the Indian society, despite the innumerable arrows it hurls at its women citizens, has succumbed to the fluxion of change.

Take a jolly ride in the ladies’ compartment of the Delhi metro sometime and you’ll get a vision of New-India. Here you’ll meet students, book-worms holding popular texts, out-of-coffee-house female-intellectuals discussing books or burning social issues with friends, professionals, engineers, doctor, social workers in baggy trousers and loose fitting kurtas—together they will strike you as myriad as the travelers in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You can read their aurora-borealic eyes and decipher the layers of dreams that dwell within. They hold snazzy gadgets, wear revealing clothes, and display badges of matrimony like chuda and sindoor along with cool anklets or tattoos. They are a fusion of the old and the new living in perfect harmony. They are assertive too; let a man walk into the ladies’ zone and you will find one or two of the ladies’ raise their eyebrows first and regard him with marked annoyance and then they will raise their voice, “Bhaiya, yeh ladies compartment hai!” (Brother, this is the ladies’ compartment).

As a daily commuter in the Delhi metro I have ample opportunities everyday to study the female representatives of ‘Incredible India’. They strike me as the amazons of a future India silently professing the radical view that they don’t want be stereotyped, assaulted or raped. Their words, far from being a kind of gnat-fritinancy, come to me as the perfumed speech of the New-Women. They always have something to say, they have their own opinions and they speak it without abashment either into their phones or with their friends. Once I heard a woman swear profusely and even though several inhabitants of the compartment looked askance at her, she continued in her jocular-swearing mode till she disembarked from the compartment. This assures you that in real life women do swear at times, just like men; that we are no more the gentle-speaking ladies of the home who think twice before uttering a swear word.

In general compartments you’ll often see men sitting in seats reserved for ladies while women stand without protest waiting for the men to vacate their seats. Most times, they never get-up and if you tell them to, they will ask you to board the ladies’ compartment. “Ladies’ compartment main jaiyeh; metro ne aap logo ko ek compartment de dia to general main seat kiyu chaiye?” (Why don’t you go to the ladies compartment; the metro officials have provided you with a whole compartment, why don’t you go there.) Such a situation seldom arises in our ladies’ compartments. One time a group of men entered the ladies’ coach I was traveling in and one of the commuters who I took to be a social worker approached them and asked them if they entered the compartment by mistake or if they did it consciously. They ignored her and continued laughing among themselves. The other women regarded her without protest. When the next station came the woman called out to one of the guards who waited at the station and said we were having a little problem in the compartment. The guard came into the compartment and literally shoved the befuddled mis-commuters into the next general compartment. Subsequently, most of the women in the compartment raised their voices in vehemently rebuking the guys; and few of the men in the next compartment joined in too. I felt proud that day and empowered as well. Later when I found the woman alighting in the same station as myself, I approached her to congratulate her for her vociferousness. She smiled and said the next time I saw something like that she hoped I would protest; “We must protect our own space,” she said.
To me the metro-trains are the microcosms of the nation I live in and the women travelling in them representatives of the female sex inhabiting our country; their behavior, their manner of speech, their attitude throws light on the general condition of women in our country. These days I mostly avoid the general compartments and opt for the ladies coach for the time I spent therein convinces me that despite the allegations of unassertiveness, the modern educated women of women are as cosmopolitan in their ways as the members of her sex in the Western countries. The sight of many of these women assures me that our generation and the future ones are more conscious of their rights and their freedom. And even though the cynic in me tells me that may be I am erroneous in considering the ladies’ compartment of a metro train, a Potemkin village, as a reflection of real-India peopled with real-Indian women, I cannot but question myself what real-India means and why these educated women armed with cool-gadgets and carrying expensive accessories are not females of real-India, whatever that is? The only answer I get is that they do not fall into closed-celled binary categories; their social personas beaming with specs of feminism are anything but weak and inferior; we cannot categorize them. What fascinates me most is the ability of the women to silently inspire; I often feel inspired by their bibliophilia, their sense of fashion, their choice of words. Isn’t this how one woman ought to inspire another? And all it takes to encourage inspiration is to put a lot of diverse females in compartment embedded in the serpentine body of a metro-rail!

In conclusion I wish to say that Alice Walker was right when she said in her essay In Search of our Mothers' Gardens when talking about ordinary women feeding their creative urges: “The answer is so Simple that many of us have spent years discovering it. We have constantly looked high, when we should have looked high-and low.” Indeed when it comes to female empowerment in India we too casually disregard our pedestrian sisters who despite being homemakers encourage their daughters to pursue their careers, women who in their daily lives try to bring in positive change in their society by allowing their daughters to speak in familial discussions—may be the handful of women I see everyday are those extraordinary females who have empowered mothers or sisters and who in their lives knowingly or unknowingly disperse creative auras that inspire other women to think-out-of –the box. In this sense they are indeed real-women, the positively real female citizens that India should be proud of.

Here is a poem I wrote after one of my daily commutes in the Delhi metro:

The Train
The train lurches its way to a known destination
Outside islands-neighborhoods appear and disappear
The train stops at one station
 And then at another
As if to judge the aspect of the defeated contenders--the island-neighborhood
Inside the train a sea of
gadget holding women tapping their
toes to inaudible music.
And in their middle there I sit
Just another face
thinking of the train and myself
on my way back home

Readers' Response:

Nisha Rana, a poet and a teacher posted his comment on my Facebook page, and I cannot but share it with you all.:

" I can't speak for other women/girls, but travelling via metro in the well guarded, safe territory of the women's compartment has actually made me lesser comfortable in travelling alongside men in the general compartments than I was prior to this reservation. it reminds me of a protective father who has kept his daughter away from any kind of trouble that the society might have to offer. And when the daughter enters the outside world without her daddy being there to rescue her if the need may arise, she is completely clueless. But it is okay. am sure the daughter will make mistakes and learn from them 
We are at the first stage of empowerment where we have to provide women with a special treatment to help them come shoulder to shoulder with men. though I sincerely wish for the day to come when women will not be treated any differently than men,well at least not treated as inferior on the basis of those differences that cannot be ignored. I wish for the day when the endangered species will not need to stay within the boundaries of a wildlife sanctuary to be able to walk freely."