"Look at that. A girl smoking! A girl should not be smoking cigarettes."
After watching a play at the Kamani Auditorium in Delhi, I was leaving on an auto rickshaw towards CP. It is the heart of the capital region - fashion, cultural, business & political nerve center. And the navigators of this nerve center - the auto wallahs, the cabbies - are largely migrants, who bring with them the medieval India's twisted ideas of morality. Its amazing how far apart the worlds of the navigator and his customers are. (though not necessarily from different moral molds.)
On the way to CP, we crossed a couple of college students and among them was a girl who was smoking a cigarette. Upon seeing her, a spontaneous statement came out loudly from my auto driver's mouth. The first statement uttered in the journey so far. He sees a girl smoking and out pops a strong moral statement that he felt strongly about.
"A girl should not be smoking cigarettes."
I asked him if he smokes. He says yes. But he defends it, "Mard cigarette pi sakte hain." (Men can smoke)
I ask him why does he feel that? I say that he has no right to judge others. He mumbles an unenthusiastic 'yes'.
I travel often. And when I do, I often converse with the drivers. I am not that talkative to start conversations. Almost, most of the conversations start with the driver's observation about a girl on the street he feels is 'indecent'. (well, drivers in city. Never heard a driver complain like this in villages) When I am travelling alone, it is as if he must say something about women he sees on streets. It is as if an unresolved complaint that bugs him incessantly. His release is not possible with female fares. But when he gets a man alone as a fare, he will never let go of the opportunity to raise a complaining voice about 'aajkal ki auratein' (today's women).
The one common thing that binds the navigators across the breadth of modern India is their hatred towards independent women. At most, their moral code of being helpful and respectful stops them from acting on the impulse. However more often than not, I have heard far too many drivers react strongly to the presence of independent women in public spaces. And they feel the urge to object the presence of a woman on the street. ALWAYS.
"Dekho Kaise kapde pehenti hai. aur fir bolegi ke log chedte hain." (Look how they wear clothes. and then they complain.)
"Maa Baap kya soch rahe honge, aur ye aiyaashi kar rahi hai" (What would her parents be thinking, and see her how she is indulging in debauchery)
Being out smoking is a proof enough for them about women's 'loose character'. Some drivers have even pointed out to women who work late hours as whores - 'muze patah hai.. asli kaam toh koi aur hai. idhar khadi rahegi aur koi leke jayega.' (I know. their real work is different. She will stand here and get picked up by some man.)
They represent a perverse moral force that is very successful in India. A very dear American friend of mine, recently noticed something about the Indian streets that I was completely unaware of. There are very very few women on Indian streets, very unlike Vietnam or Finland - the two countries I have been to.
On our recent trip through Agra & Jaipur we found ourselves searching for women on the city streets through our bus/ cab window. Where did all the women go?
I was stunned by the fact that I never noticed it before. That it did not bother me before. It should have. It should bother us. We need more women 'manning' the shops/ businesses - out and about, freely. We need women mechanics, technicians, cab drivers, engineers, marketers, police, politicians and so on.
It's not just the cabbies who feel threatened by the independent women. It is the whole of medieval India that includes some of our relatives, our friends, our colleagues, our government and certainly our police force.
The social media was awash with revenge fantasies after the recent gruesome rape in Delhi. I will like to share my revenge fantasy. My fantasy is to take all the people who subscribe to patriarchal value system by the ear to classrooms. Then they should be made to take a full sex-ed course followed by locking up random strangers from opposite sex in a confessional in each other's clothes - men in kurta pyjama/ skirt, women in (mostly bad fashion) shirt-pant combo.