Sudhakar, a Mumbai taxi driver I’ve known forever, asked me what career his third son should pursue (his other two sons opted for law and fire extinguisher salesman). Banker, I said. It’s still easy money in India. Banks are expanding their networks everywhere. In August, HDFC Bank announced excitedly that it had opened its first branch in Leh, 10,500ft above sea level. The bank said it would add 600 new branches during the current fiscal.
But I was more interested in knowing what Sudhakar’s daughter was doing. Oh, she stopped studying after class X, he said. Why? She felt scared to go to college, he said. Groups of jobless young men hung outside the neighbourhood college in their Uttar Pradesh town and harassed the women. We’ve tried to convince her, but she just refuses to step out (of course he blamed it on Muslims and lower castes, but we all know that Indian men of all castes, classes and religions stand united in their harassment of women).
Coincidentally, the issue raised by my discussion with Sudhakar had just been deliberated by VAWMonth (Violence Against Women Awareness Month), an exhaustive, month-long blogger initiative on Twitter. These are some of the points that #VAWAM highlighted: 1) Until a few years ago, women who left home after puberty to educate themselves routinely faced danger in Afghanistan where acid attacks on schoolgirls were a common phenomenon. 2) In January this year, Bangladesh said the phrase “eve-teasing” was a euphemism to describe sexual harassment and one that trivialized a serious crime. The court said all “eve teasing”—physical and electronic stalking too—must be considered sexual harassment. 3) Sexual abuse is rampant in our schools.
Sorry syllabus: So many girls battle hygiene and safety issues to get an education. Photo Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Many girls in that vast swathe of Other India drop out of school after puberty because of the lack of toilets and sanitary napkins. Obviously India doesn’t think girls are important enough to provide for their basic public space needs.
A colleague who travelled to Salola village in Haryana for last week’s brilliant Mint Lounge Diwali issue found that while the old reasons to diss girl children such as a hefty dowry remain, among the newer reasons cited to skip the whole baby girl experience are, ironically, the rise of violence against women and concern among parents about whether they will be able to protect their daughter’s chastity.
Women have always negotiated our male-dominated public spaces with trepidation. In their 2011 book Why Loiter? authors Sameera Khan, Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade argued that even in a city like Mumbai—where students and working women zip around with relative ease—it was difficult for women to access public spaces for pleasure, just to hang out.
Of course it’s easier for women to unite and reclaim their right to public spaces in halfway egalitarian Mumbai. Hollaback! Mumbai, a global movement dedicated to ending street harassment—“one of the most pervasive forms of gender-based violence and one of the least legislated against”—encourages women to share their street experiences online. The city’s college students are doing their bit too—go visit the Facebook pages of Freeze the Tease and Chappal Maarungi, both began in response to class assignments.
I know it’s very defeatist but I can’t help thinking that all these brilliant urban initiatives won’t help Sudhakar’s daughter be brave/foolish enough to get an education.
You can write to me firstname.lastname@example.org