|HER WORLD||Sunday, September 22, 2002, Chandigarh, India|
Off the beaten track
EVEN though in the 21st century a woman is seen as independent and strong and has tremendous confidence and control over her destiny, she continues to live under the shadow of threatened attack. For all her toughness, she remains afraid to walk down a dark street on her own. Take the example of Sudha who had gone out for a party at night. While she was driving back, she saw another car chasing hers. If she slowed down, so did the driver who was following her. She got down ostensibly to make a call from an STD booth but she called her mother at home to inform her that she was being followed. Very soon a police gypsy zoomed in at the spot Sudha was driving through and the stalker sped off, fearing possible police intervention. Neither many women can have and demonstrate presence of mind in the manner that Sudha did nor can their reflexes be so quick.
For most women it’s highly unlikely to suffer a violent assault, yet there are women who are attacked. And so this possibility haunts women, making it imperative for them to take preventive steps. More so in the case of women who are unaccompanied, prevention is the key to self-protection.
The first step towards an effective programme for self-protection is to learn to be assertive and self-reliant in everyday life — the ability to act assertively when confronted with a situation you do not like. Most attackers (whether purse- snatchers or bottom pinchers) are opportunists who don’t want to cause you any trouble; their greatest advantage is the element of surprise and the resultant freezing or passive response they expect from the victim. If you disprove that model of behaviour, you will surprise them and gain an advantage. Their priority may now shift from attack to escape — they don’t want trouble.
The vast majority of men who prey upon women are looking for an easy target, and will back off if their intended victim becomes assertive and troublesome.
In this context, assertive body language tends to discourage attacks. This means an erect, relaxed posture (no slouching), confident walking (no apologetic shuffle), open eye contact (no shifty, nervous glances), firm voice (no uncertain voice or mumbling), relaxed hand movements (no clenching of hands or fiddling with hair), and keeping a comfortable distance between yourself and the other person (not allowing the other person to come too close).
By adopting an assertive posture and attitude, you are telling the world that you are someone to be reckoned with. You are someone with your own mind, and you will stand up for yourself. In short, you are someone who doesn’t fit anybody’s idea of a victim. The eventual aim is to carry on a free and independent existence, confident that you have taken steps to protect yourself.
Here are a few general suggestions for persons in Sudha’s position to think of. Of course, specific situations would call for specific steps.
The effectiveness of all these tactics relies on consistently maintaining a high level of awareness whenever you are in a potentially dangerous situation, and on consistently thinking about your self-protection.
Many a woman driving alone
in a car can feel unsafe, at least uneasy, even in big cities. And women
resent it. They have acquired cars with a good deal of sacrifice, often
after a long wait. They want the independence their cars afford them —
to get them to work, to the shops, and hopefully allow them to go out at
night without fear. When they find this mobility jeopardised by people
who threaten their safety, it makes them mad with rage.
THE battle of the sexes is as old as history itself, with each side firing its salvos for victory periodically, as though men and women could never engage in meaningful and (or) constructive interaction. While writing this piece, there is an uneasy awareness of the flak it might invite. One even might be branded as retrogressive and anti-feminist. Nevertheless, years of experience tell me that men have not been or always are, the incorrigible brutes that they are often made out to be just as women are not always angles.
There is no denying the alarming prevalence of crimes against women, which have been swept under the wraps or sieved out, as extraneous or irrelevant to sanitised accounts of universalistic histories. Yet there are many ways in which we can bring about a slow but sure awareness within our homes, through small acts of resistance. These acts should neither be negated nor undermined. They can become an effective means for the creation of mutually conducive spaces.
Although feminist scholarship and debates have made women more cognisant of their marginality by providing some of the most comprehensive and enduring frameworks for understanding the complex operations of patriarchal hegemony, its theoretical premises remain largely confined to elitist notions of liberation. This, more often than not, blurs our perceptions of its practical and darker underside. In our desire for freedom and justice then, advertently or unwittingly, we often tend to transgress, imbibe or adopt those very positions of patriarchy that we militate against.
Unfortunately, in its extreme form this could even take on the colubration of a tooth-for-a-tooth policy, which could further complicate matters. Since men and women are mutually involved in the business of living meaningful lives, it is important for us to understand that theoretical viability is not always in tandem with its application and implementation. By way of illustration, the very idea of female bonding, which inherently contains the implication of building defenses and fortifications against a sworn adversary, is dichotomous with our search for a potentially enriching male companionship.
Again, our penchant for freedom has resulted in generating a curiously orchestrated and increasingly dangerous breed of competitive sophistication and aggression not only between the sexes but also within peer and same sex groups, which further adds to the existing complexity of gender issues. Aggressive self-promotional and marketing strategies have exposed a disturbing cult of selfhood, both within and outside the family.
Consequently, what started out as a well justified struggle for equity and freedom, now seems to be teetering recklessly towards an unresolvable gender war, wherein battle lines have been firmly drawn so much as to say: aaj dekhna hai, kisme kitna hai dum. With falling thresholds of tolerance and rising quotients of aggression, the new mantra lies in brawn and material power. Ironically enough, today progress is conceived in terms of leaving behind a conservative (read boringly crass and middle class) life of relatively settled serenity, to a future of anarchic uncertainty. The complex subtleties of gradual, but enduring change seem to be lost on a generation caught up in jet lags, star wars and microchips.
We seem to have forgotten the value of meaningful dialogue even in our day to day lives and seem to be amnesic to the fact that the most profound revolutions have been brought about through quiet, resolute action. Strident and firebrand stances and activities have seldom had the desired effect. A strident approach, in actual manner of practice, leads conversely to further ghettoising and confinement as curious members of a special interest group.
This attitude prevents changes we might have aspired for. In our concern for women and for a more humane society, we should perceive ourselves therefore, in more socially challenging and responsible roles. By making emotional and intellectual assertions that question existing power structures with the intention of building positive structures on the negative foundations we have inherited, we can ensure our position as town planners and not merely as master demolishers.
The idea is to move away from notions
of women as figures of exploitation and victimisation and look, instead,
for more challenging representations of women. Most of as cannot and do
not desire either to wish away a larger and equally significant part of
our population or retreat into some separatist commune for the rest of
our lives. The attempt should be to strive as much for awakening a sense
of justice and concern for all manners of oppressed groups. We should
strike a tenuous balance between tradition and scepticism, between
collective responsibility and individual choice. A slow but increasingly
progressive movement towards personal and social triumphs would then
mark the result.
Off the beaten track
A row of buses stand ready for departure with the conductor of each calling out the destination, creating quite a din that is characteristic of all bus stands. But above the noise is heard clear and strong a woman’s voice. Armed with a conductor’s bag, she stands by her bus; the woman in the driver’s seat revs up the engine, waiting for the whistle from the door checker. At a glance, it is only the attire that makes them different from their male counterparts, and so it is at closer inspection too.
These are only three of the 13 women who form the Women’s Transport Co-operative Society, Thrissur, Kerala, the first ever all-woman transport company in India. Formed in 1998, it was conceptualised by the Thrissur District Panchayat during 1997-98. By March 1999, it had taken up 13 apprentices — three as drivers and 10 as conductors. The team was out on the roads with two buses in November the same year. The only difference the three-years have made is the increasing amount of confidence in the women.
The two limited-stop buses run along the Kodungallur-Thiruvilvamala (towns within Thrissur district) route. Starting at six ‘o’ clock in the morning, they run three trips each along this route. The president of the Society, Fathima Abdulkhader, talks with pride about "our girls". It was during her term as the District Panchayat President that the project was launched. "We did not have a model to follow, we ourselves were setting up one," she says, adding that over the years, the society has learnt a few lessons too.
The society is a result of the role of the People’s Planning Programme in the area of women’s development under the programme, 10 per cent of the plan outlay of every local body is kept aside for development projects for women. Under this facility, the panchayat gave a grant of Rs 25 lakh to the society, with which it was able to buy the two buses.
Fathima says that there is also a training school for women masons in the district, where, at present, women from other states also come and stay for training. This centre was also launched during 1997-98. To date, about 10,000 women have been trained in masonry here, says Fathima. She goes on to explain that though traditional women mix cement and help carry it up the different storeys of a building, when it comes to putting the bricks together, it is forbidden territory. "We have broken that norm. Our women masons are just as competent as the men," she adds with a triumphant smile.
Involvement in public transport was hitherto totally alien to women. Completely monopolised by men till recently, the aim of the society was to introduce to women this new and so far unexplored realm. "To make a woman realise her worth, what she is capable of doing — that is what we wanted," says Fathima.
To Misriya, one of the drivers, driving a bus did not come as a challenge. "It was not to prove anything. nor was it a test of power. It was something new and I felt I would be able to do it well," she says with a smile. She recalls that it was her father who helped her learn driving. For conductor Sreekumari, the only regret is that she is unable to spend much time with her children. "I leave home early in the morning and get back very late. My family hardly gets to see me," she says.
How have the men in this field handled the entry of women into their territory? "They have been quite cooperative," says Sreekumari. "It is only on the road that there is some shouting. But then it is not because we are women — everyone shouts at everyone when there is a traffic jam! Misriya shares this opinion as she says that it is one in a hundred people that they ever run into a problem. "Incidents like that are not restricted to this field," she adds.
The society is currently training two more women as drivers as it is difficult to manage with only three. With only one person as stand-by to relieve the drivers of both buses, they have also had to hire a male driver.
The secretary of the society, A.C. Satidevi, says that the buses are now running on a no-loss, no-profit basis. "We are not looking for a profit through this anyway," She adds. The pay of employees depends on the number of shifts they work on and a driver can earn up to Rs 5000 a month, explains Satidevi.
The society has also started a driving school of its own, providing training to drive two-wheelers, autorickshaws and cars. In time, they hope to have classes for driving heavy vehicles too at the school.
What does the future hold? Fathima says that the society intends to extend the bus service soon. However, it has been decided to buy only mini buses since the tax on the bigger ones is costing too much. The fact that the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation invited applications from women for the post of conductor proved that the society has made its point — that women are competent enough for "tough" jobs as this.
The buses ply the roads on the wings of the grit and determination of its drivers. For the crew, it is not merely a means of livelihood, it is also the means of telling the world that they are capable of breaking barriers, that it is time they are given their due respect.