As part of International Anti-Street Harassment week 2018 we are featuring a piece written by WICI’s very own Miranda Sculthorp outlining her personal experience with harassment in India, where she currently resides.
Who Would Believe Me? A Rickshaw Ride in Bangalore
By Miranda Sculthorp (April 9, 2018)
About the author: Miranda Sculthorp is a Master’s of Urban Planning student at McGill University, currently based in Bangalore, India
When I was getting ready to move to India, many of my friends and family filled me with precautions. Don’t go out alone at night. Don’t show too much skin. Don’t attract too much attention. I knew that these sentiments were rooted in the way that the media portrays India, a place where marital abuse and rape appears to be commonplace. I took these messages, accepted them with gratitude, and filed them away neatly – because I knew that the kinds of assault that they feared I would face were not likely to happen to me (and I was right). The reality of gender-based violence and discrimination I faced was much more complex and understated — the kind of reality that the media and my family tend to miss. However, it’s an important reality to tell, not only to give to space to those that face discrimination and go unheard, but also because these realities remind us that our environments – our cities – are still shaped by deep inequalities. And this needs to change. Let me explain.
It was a typical afternoon for me in Bangalore. It was a hot and noisy. I was sweating, standing in the middle of a 6 lane-speedway, trying to hail a rickshaw to get me to the metro station. It was already 4 o’clock, and I was late for my appointment. When a rickshaw pulled up, saving me from my rather precarious situation, I went through my routine quickly: I told the driver where I wanted to go and asked him how much it would cost. Jayaprakash Nagar Metro Station, 100 rupees. I jumped in.
As quickly as I had gotten into the back of the cab, it happened. The driver leaned over the back of the seat, and grabbed the top of my leg. At first, I didn’t process what had occurred. I was so focused on getting in the cab, and was extremely relieved to be off the noisy road – was I imagining it? Did that actually happen? Maybe it was an accident. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, I thought to myself, plus I don’t have time to deal with something like this right now. I pushed it from my mind and tried to enjoy the rest of the ride.
The driver, though, had something else in mind. He looked up in his rear-view mirror and smiled to me. Again, I thought to myself, smiling isn’t an offense. No need to get all flustered. I looked away, hoping that in directing my eyes outside to the scenery, his attention would also fade. It didn’t. For the rest of the ride, while driving and during stoplights, he turned around to look directly my body, letting his eyes linger on the parts he found most interesting. I was uncomfortable. I wanted it to stop. I wanted to get out of the car, but I realized I didn’t have much choice. We were on a busy road. Get out now, and I would probably be hit by a motorcycle. I decided to stick it out.
I was paralyzed by fear, and yet there was still a part of me that doubted how I felt – maybe this was all a misunderstanding? Cultural differences? Then, when he asked me for my name, and for sex, the message became all too clear. I wanted to scream. But if I did, who would listen? Who would believe me? My eyes scanned the side of the road, to see if there was any sign of help. But along the road, the only figures that I saw were male. Much of space the makes up India’s public realm – the sides of roads, street corners, alleyways – are not for women. It is not acceptable for a woman to socialize or congregate in these areas, in the same way that it is welcome for men. Not only does this exclude women from taking part in civic life, it increases women’s actual and perceived fear as they move around the city in their daily lives.
On that day, my fear was real. The lack of women around me, their missing presence in India’s public spaces, actually perpetuated my experience of harassment. If there had been other women around, I would have called for their help, because I knew that they would believe me. Instead, I waited out the rest of the ride – terrified – and bolted from the cab at the first possible moment.
This is the experience that my parents, the media, and my education had not prepared me for – it happened in broad daylight, completely unprovoked and unexpected. It left me shocked, speechless, and doubting my own sanity. These are the kinds of slights that women experience every day in India, and in every city of the world. These stories go unnoticed, but that doesn’t mean that they are unimportant.
That’s because these acts of harassment, however small, make women and vulnerable groups feel unsafe in their cities, which in turn impacts everything from their freedom of movement, to the range of education or income-earning opportunities available to them. For instance, I came to realize that the perception of fear factors into my actions and choices every time I leave the house. When I walk past a group of men unaccompanied – either in India or back home in Canada – I am always just a little uneasy. I make sure to walk quickly, with firm and decisive movements, to show that I am confident. The message that I want to send: I am not an easy target. I create a mindset that is defensive, ready to protect myself if needed – how many women do the same to get through their day? How do these instances affect not only the way the women think, but also where they go and what they do?
Until our public spaces, and our cities, are designed to provide for equal opportunity between sexes, women, girls, and marginalized groups will continue to be burdened by the deep inequalities that currently characterize India’s public space.
I ran up the stairs to the metro station, creating as much distance as possible between me and the cab driver. As I got to my platform, I already found myself thinking of some of the ways that we can make cities safer and more inclusive for women and girls. I looked up and noticed the sign for “ladies only boarding” that creates a separate entrance for women on all of Bangalore’s metro trains. Usually, I refuse to take these entrances – why should my only option for boarding be the entrance at the end of the train? Why should I be relegated to last place? And yet, today I was grateful to see all the women sitting together in that last cart. Today, I needed their presence. I jumped in. After all, I was late.