11 February 2015

Freedom at Midnight, an Indian Yearning

The peaceful, silent street on a day that I took a walk alone late at night in Indiranagar, Bangalore.

Girls are supposed to be seen, not heard” – I grew up listening my matron in the liberal boarding school I attended repeat this old adage over and over again back in 1994. Girls, she believed, were always to be seriously disciplined, discouraged from speaking up and punished often if they asked questions. One of the many rules the school enforced, I remember, was that we weren’t supposed to roam around campus at night on our own. Anywhere girl students went, an escort — either a staff member or a house warden — would be beside them so that they didn’t “misbehave”.

For several years, throughout high school and university, I found that this strange rule was observed in almost every private hostel for girls or young women. Our college hostel warden urged us to return to the premises by 6 pm. If we returned any later, we would have to pay a fine. At home, my parents would ask us to call if we were going out with friends in the evening. The night, as so many of us knew it, was out of reach. It was a time of day that was a mystery, filled with questions. Every now and then we would hear a story about women who had chains snatched, or were groped or molested on the road. Yet, to many of us, the night held promise of solitude, romance, parties, and long hours spent in reckless abandon.

To me, the darkness evokes mixed emotions. It brings back memories of the night of my first kiss with my childhood sweetheart, when we stood under the lamppost clinging on to each other, our hearts beating wildly against our chests. But it also brings back the intense fear I felt when I was first attacked on my way home in the evening; flashes of light as I was being dragged along the corners of the road by thieves on a motorcycle, thrown in front of a car while they wrenched my belongings away from me. I came home that night, my head bleeding, bruised all over my body. The policeman asked me two days later when I went to complain – “What were you doing out at night alone? Girls shouldn’t be walking alone at night.”

On December 2012, when a young physiotherapy student was brutally gang-raped on a moving bus, there were several voices in the Indian public arena openly asking whether she invited the assault by breaking the rule. Why did she step out at night?  Dr Asha Mirge, a member of the Maharashtra Women’s Commission, asked more than a year after the incident. Mirge famously commented on the Delhi gang rape and the Shakti Mills gang rapes, asking, “Why Nirbhaya, the victim in the infamous Delhi gang rape case in December 2012 should go to movie for a late night show (11 PM), and similarly the photo-journalist in Mumbai go to an isolated place of Shakti Mills at 6 PM?"

Now, after so many years, this sparked a revolution on the ground. It was a silent revolution, not one that was violent and filled with rage. Instead, women across the city were coming together to claim all of the day. They were stepping out to parks, going on picnics, enjoying exploring the city and travelling alone at night. Even better, they were challenging their own stereotypes about men and darkness. The campaign which gently ushered them to do this was called #WhyLoiter, a simple movement started by two young men asking women across India to post a photo of themselves loitering the streets, venturing out any time of the day and enjoying their public spaces. In just a few weeks, nearly two million women responded with photos of them taking on their freedoms; exploring dark alleyways, sleeping in the parks, eating chaat in the streets and climbing mountaintops. A rule had silently been broken.

Walking out alone at night in Bangalore
That night, I stepped out and decided I’d go for a walk alone. It was 11.45 pm and the streets were empty. Even the main road, which was usually lined with groups of twenty-somethings smoking or enjoying a laugh outside a pub, was quiet and dark. At first, I was cautious, ensuring that I stayed on the side of the street lamp all the time. Then, I didn’t care. It took me some time to breathe easy but I did it. It’s a feeling I cannot explain; that sense of lightness I felt when I didn’t turn around every second to look out for strangers, or speeding motorcyclists, or sounds. I just walked, strolling along at the usual pace that helped me relax. Fear, I realized, is often such a heavy and comforting feeling that it wraps women in a tight embrace they cannot break free from. Fear is comforting because it makes you take fewer chances; it feeds on your insecurities to keep you on the straight and narrow road. But freedom is silent, waiting for you to step outside the shadows of doubt.


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