Rosalyn D'Mello: Men, it's not your call to take

Whether in a village in Gujarat or elsewhere, what gives men the right to decide whether it’s okay for a woman to own or use a phone?

Yesterday, while I was on an important call via Facebook Messenger with a Dhaka-based photographer, my phone kept buzzing insistently. It was a close friend who lives in my neighbourhood who was trying to get in touch. I cancelled thrice, thinking I’d return her call the instant I got free, which I eventually did, just as my upstairs’ neighbour rang the bell. She wanted to take back the fan she’d left in my storeroom when winter had set in last year. My friend sounded frantic. She’d gone for a run to the big park that connects our colony with Nehru Place and the ISKCON temple. A creep began to follow her and started to make perverse conversation. 

A woman talks on her cell phone while crossing a road near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai
A woman talks on her cell phone while crossing a road near Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus in Mumbai

She threatened to call for help. That’s when she began dialling my number. When I didn’t pick up, she tried calling my upstairs’ neighbour, but since she was on her way to my apartment to take back her fan, she’d left her phone unattended. “You should have just acted like you were speaking to one of us,” I told my friend. “That’s what I finally did,” she said. A male passer-by had noticed her distress and had offered to escort her to the park’s exit so she could return safely to the colony.

In the absence of pepper spray, her mobile phone served as a good enough deterrent. The creep in question was at least slightly perturbed by the fact that she could easily seek help, perhaps even WhatsApp her coordinates or take a video of him as evidence. The incident reminded me of an evening in Mumbai when I was returning from a restaurant in Bandra in an auto. As I was crossing Bandra-Kurla Complex to get home, a guy on a motorbike began to not just follow me but ride parallel, so he could make conversation. I was justifiably scared, but I had my wits about me. I made a mental note of his licence plate number and immediately called the police and recited the digits. He overheard me, got suitably paranoid and finally disappeared into a lane. I told the woman on the line that he had vanished. She said to call back if he dared to return.

It occurred to me a few days ago that my friend and I are among many women privileged enough to afford a phone, even though I prefer to think of it more as an essential utility rather than a luxury. Over the last couple of years, technology has vastly improved the quality of women’s lifestyles. I never imagined when I moved to Delhi in 2010 that the time would come when I wouldn’t have to depend on someone to drop me back home after a concert or an art opening or a house party.

I love the freedom that taxi apps provide. I love being able to travel independently and to be able to work on the go, to use my smart phone to send e-mails, engage with social media, and take photographs of whatever I deem relevant.

Technology is a democratizing force. I suppose that’s precisely why certain village elders in parts of Gujarat have decided to enforce a ban disallowing unmarried women and schoolgirls from owning or carrying cell phones on their person. It comes as no surprise, this embargo. It is yet another instance of patriarchy rearing its despicable head by denying women access to a possibly empowering tool. Deeming mobile phones as a “nuisance to society”, the Mehsana district council’s president, Ranjit Singh Thakor, believes “girls don’t study properly if they have mobile phones, and they can get into all sorts of bad situations.” His advice? “Let them study, get married, then they can get their own phones. Until then, they can use their father’s phones at home, if necessary.” Thakor tried to project himself as progressive by conceding that girl students in university were permitted to use mobile phones, “considering they rely on them for their studies.” However, an unmarried woman found using a mobile phone could incur a fine of Rs 2,100, the cost of a decent smartphone, while informants would be rewarded Rs 200.

This repressive diktat appallingly rejects women’s rights as consumers. What gives men the right to decide and adjudicate what constitutes women’s best interests? Some reports have cited this measure as being corrective in the same way as the malaise of alcohol consumption by men, a problem that isn’t new to Gujarat. I fail to see the connection. Taking away women’s phone privileges feels like a ploy meant to disempower women, to treat them as a category that is in need of male protection, to keep them from being in contact with anyone deemed undesirable, and to reinforce the institution of marriage as one that magically settles a woman, never mind that her husband may be an abusive alcoholic lout. It is yet another example of state-sanctioned inequality against women.

Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D’Mello is a reputed art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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