Introduction: This is an account of what happened when four of us (all women), decided to go to Goa on a weekend. Our return journey made me realize how much I constantly second-guess myself for my own safety because I am a woman, and how much I have internalized this process.
“Why do you need feminism? Why that word?” “You have all your rights. Why do YOU need to be a feminist?” “Women like us don't need to call ourselves feminists.” “You pseudo-feminist. You don’t have to face half the trouble some other women have to, and you call yourself a feminist?”
Time and again, questions like these get thrown at me. Time and again, people try to convince me that I don’t need feminism. That it is Wrong (yes, with a capital W) to call myself a feminist. Feminism has become another f-word that shouldn’t be uttered out loud.
Today,if you were to ask me why I need feminism,I would tell you this- It is because I have a meek but compelling voice inside my head, which constantly utters second thoughts. My actions are outcomes of constant tussles with this voice. I shall elaborate.
“Let us go to Goa,” suggests one of my roommates. Long weekend, why not. We decide to bundle up our battered work-stressed selves, and start planning. Trains are booked, buses are expensive. “Let’s hitchhike or figure out as we go!”, suggests N. Sounds exciting, until the voice inside my head pipes up. No, what if we get raped/molested on the way? No way. I book the tickets.
Friends suggest we book our stay when we get there. “I have asked four people already,they all say the same thing.” Okay. Fair enough, people seem to have done this already. It is cheaper for us, and you can’t always trust online reviews of places. Wait. Maybe these people travelled with male friends. Will these places have good toilets? I might be menstruating. Let me take down phone numbers of hotels, just in case.
We get to Goa, finally. We find a hotel, close to the beach. N wants to wear a bikini top to the beach. Pretty, and comfortable. What if someone heckles? Very likely. Indian, wearing a bikini. Well,we don’t care. Screw them. Later,at the beach, a group of 18 year olds call her Miss. Sexy and try to ram their car into her. I told you so.
Men are staring, says A. Ignore. Let them judge. We have practised and perfected the art of ignoring.
Men are clicking photographs of bikini clad women on the beach. I hear comments made on us, on other women. I see cameras, phone cameras turning our way too,occasionally. Turn your body. Don’t let them get your face. Warn your roommates. Someone sings a suggestive Bollywood song. Ignore them.Confrontation will lead to ugly defensive fights and eventually labelling you a slut. Attention seeking b***h, they will call you.
Rest of the trip is spent frolicking on the beach, and dodging/tuning out hecklers. She is proud of me. Good job! Tired and rejuvenated by the sunshine and sand, we forget the heckling, the “Happy Holi wink wink!” remarks, and make our way to the Goa-Pune bus.
Chaos.Where’s our bus? Nobody is picking up our calls. The name on the ticket and the names of buses don’t match. Finally, one enterprising ticket checker helps us.Turns out, Christopher travels possibly had a religious epiphany, and sent Mahakali travels instead. Alright. We made it just in time. The cleaner of the bus is visibly annoyed. He looks us up and down, decides he could afford to yell in disrespect. Forty pair of eyes judge us as we walk in, mumbling apologies for not turning up ahead of time. Notice those eyes darting to your legs? Where’s the wrap-on I wanted you to buy? Oops.Rest of the journey will be spent ignoring stares and remarks.
Men are staring, says A. Ignore. Let them judge. We have practised and perfected the art of ignoring. Bus stops at a drive-in hotel. Those eyes again. Ignore this time. Don’t react. Hunger soon shuts her up, and our tired bodies contort themselves back into the rickety bus.
Everyone soon falls into tired slumbers- a bus full of potential contortion artists. A loud bam wakes everyone up, and someone groans about a punctured tire. The painful wait for a replacement bus starts. A group of men station themselves outside our windows, speaking loudly in Tamil. They assume nobody understands their obnoxious remarks, ignorant that yours truly and N speak the language. “Can I ask them to shut up? They are too loud.” True. I cannot sleep, and I desperately want to. But they are a group of men. What if they abuse you, call you names? There are different ways they could make your journey difficult. Let us not mess with strangers.
The replacement bus arrives, and forty adults run towards it, as though the seats would vanish. Everyone is probably occupying the previously allotted seats, I think, following the same serial numbers. We walk in to see a crowded bus, with people occupying any seat they pleased. There are people occupying the seats allotted to us. A woman holding an infant is pleading with a young man for her seat, and he casually remarks, “I wasn’t the first person to change my seat.”His voice progressively gets louder and angrier, and he storms off to the back as I stare in surprise. How easily can you adopt and adapt into someone else’s mistake?
The four of us struggle to find seats, and refuse to sit. The cleaner comes in, as per our request. “This a 45 seater Ma’am, there are 48 of you.” Men push me, to make their way to the back. I voice my refusal. Why isn’t anyone else expressing their annoyance? Forty adults in the bus, and barely seven of us calling for common sense.
“Fine, what happens to the fourth person? We have four tickets and three seats now.”“Driver ke saath cabin mein aa jaayiye!” (You can travel in the cabin with the driver). Alright. My brain mumbles a yes, and I am ready to grab my bags, when she wakes up. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Cabin in the front with the driver and three strangers? NO. If you get groped/molested/raped/abused, you will be called a slut. Your clothes will validate it too. She wins, again. I refuse, take up a seat with another woman, and sit down.
“Why aren’t people in their seats? Please ask them to go back to their allotted seats.” “Ma’am, aap log hi settle karo, humein nahi pata,” the cleaner promptly replies. (Ma’am, you figure that out yourself, I don’t know) “Fine, what happens to the fourth person? We have four tickets and three seats now.”“Driver ke saath cabin mein aa jaayiye!” (You can travel in the cabin with the driver). Alright. My brain mumbles a yes, and I am ready to grab my bags, when she wakes up. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Cabin in the front with the driver and three strangers? NO. If you get groped/molested/raped/abused, you will be called a slut. Your clothes will validate it too. She wins, again. I refuse, take up a seat with another woman, and sit down. The men outside our window are now behind me, being obnoxiously loud again. They snigger at my meekness. It’s okay. Safety first. Ego can wait. A and N struggle to put their heavy rucksacks on the overhead shelves. One of the men remarks in Tamil, “Somebody ask these girls to shut up and sit down!” Giggles and sneers follow, along with loud laughter. Very funny, of course. By passing a veiled comment snidely, you have proven your machismo.
She wants to pipe up, but instead I turn and scream, “I perfectly understand Tamil.Please stop commenting.” “Huh?!” “Yeah, please just stop.” Someone repeats my remarks in Tamil, along with a muffled “They speak Tamil.” Even she has had enough now, for second thoughts are replaced with the oh-so-familiar feelings of anguish, exasperation and disgust. Around me, the obnoxious men have gone to sleep. Am I the only person sleeplessly pondering questions of self-respect? How do you have any amount of self-respect left,after having caused anguish? For anybody who asks me why I need feminism, this is my reply.
I need feminism because I live in a world where all my actions are governed by second thoughts. Second thoughts that have perfectly internalized sexism.
I need feminism because fear for my own safety has become second nature to me.
I need feminism because if anything happens to me,it is because of my clothes, it is because of my face, it is because of MY actions, it is because I was reckless.
I need feminism because consistently, people tell me sexism is no longer a problem-that women are equal now. That because I was an “equal woman”, I had no right to talk about sexism. That every day, I had to take disrespect flung at me, in whichever form, and shut up. That if I dared to speak up, I would be called pretentious, phony, bitchy.
I need feminism because I am tired. I am tired of fear, disrespect, being judged, being called names,of having to learn to tune out and ignore these.
I need feminism because character depends on one’s actions, not on one’s clothes.
I need feminism because everyone deserves to be respected, and sexism needs to be called out.
I need feminism because as a woman with “equal rights”, I shouldn’t have to explain why I am a feminist.
I need feminism because I shouldn’t be spending sleepless nights in anger, while perpetrators of sexism sleep peacefully elsewhere.
I need feminism because I don’t deserve being called one of “those girls”. I need feminism because I shouldn’t have to write three pages on this.
I need feminism because clearly, the society is facing a crisis, where women’s lives are unfairly fraught with disadvantages of varied nature. If you could fix that and then tell me I don’t need feminism, I would gladly agree.
Disclaimer: I don’t mean, in any way, to sound misandrist. If I have come across that way, I sincerely apologize. There is no intention of portraying any one category of people in bad light. Whenever I have used the terms people/society, I have meant both women and men. While much anger has been vented out in this piece, I also fully am grateful to all the good people I have met.
Rekha Kamath is a Teach For India 2013 Fellow. She teaches 46 second graders in a corporation school in Pimpri-Chinchwad, Pune.