Rosalyn D'Mello: No getting away from misogyny
The world's misogyny is never clearer than during travel, when women are shamed for their clothes, behaviour or even claiming their space
On the flight to Dhaka, within minutes, I found myself having to fight the armrest war. Yes. I’m talking about the phenomenon we call manspreading
Travelling is always an act of surrender, especially when you're journeying towards cities whose tongues are alien to you. I have never had the distinction of being a polyglot. Sometimes certain languages feel familiar, like they're sitting at the tip of your tongue, except your brain is unable to compute either the vocabulary or the grammar. The one thing that is constant, however relatively it may manifest, is the patriarchal mode of verbal and non-verbal discourse that follows you wherever you go.
I boarded my terribly crowded Jet Airways flight to Dhaka on Tuesday, for instance, and because of the complete dearth of space in the overhead luggage compartments, had to stack my backpack and my handbag on top of each other, upon which I piled on my bottle of Jack Daniel's (Bangladesh is a dry country). There wasn't even the illusion of leg space. Within minutes, I found myself having to fight the armrest war. Yes. I'm talking about the phenomenon we call manspreading. The guy seated next to me kept, consciously or unconsciously, invading my space with his protruding arm. I spent the next ten minutes trying to decipher whether his movements were deliberate or innocent. Finally, I politely asked him to respect my space. They always look at you with disbelief, a sort of light gasp. So many men just don't consider that women are as entitled to space as them.
A month before, when I was travelling to Jaipur on the Ajmer Shatabdi, I'd had a similar encounter. The person next to me, a man, kept moving his arm so that I was constantly in a position of having to defend my torso from his potentially jabbing elbow. I tried to distract myself from this micro aggression by posting about my predicament on Facebook. I was shocked by the volume of comments I received within a short span from many women who had had similar experiences. When network abandoned my phone, I tried to fall asleep, resting my head against the window. Then I woke up to a clear nudge near my rib cage. The man next to me had decided it was proper to wake me up to accept my breakfast tray by shoving his elbow at me. At first, still groggy from sleep, I was unsure whether he'd actually really dared to make such a violent gesture. But as I grew more conscious, I knew he had indeed done so. I was furious. The next time his arm came within my space, I let him have it. His body language made it clear to everyone in the compartment that I was being a silly, ridiculous woman, making too much of nothing. His reaction was the same as the man I yelled at after he grabbed my ass just as I entered a train to Kochi from Goa — a refusal to be shamed by strategically making the woman in question seem like a raving lunatic.
Yesterday, in Dhaka (where spotting women on the streets is akin to trying to find a tiger in Ranthambore) after a quick meal of beef kebabs and mutton curry at a very local joint, my travelling companion discouraged me from taking out my wallet to pay. "But you paid for last night's dinner," I told him. "Can you just play the part of the subordinate while we're here?" he asked me. "It doesn't come naturally to me at all," I replied.
I respect all religions and I respect people's faith, but I must confess that feeling obligated to dress or behave a certain way so as not to offend the patriarchy (because most religions function on its principles, forcing women into subservient roles) more often than not puts me at odds with my feminist beliefs. Yet, not having the language with which to express these said beliefs in territories to which you do not belong compels you to navigate with caution.
Then you realise that even back home, especially in Delhi, you're always dressing down, always covering your sleeveless blouse with a scarf when you travel, always ensuring your body is not inviting any unwanted gazes. Then you are perplexed that it does anyway, even if you've faithfully followed all the alleged rules.
Shouldn't that be proof enough that we live in a world diseased by misogyny and double standards? Will we ever reach such a stage of evolution where we, as women, can wear our truth? Dress purely for ourselves, and not to deceive, distract, or seduce (depending on the circumstance) the prowling eyes of men, or the disapproving glances of women who are obedient patriarchal subjects, easily swayed by the veiled oppressiveness of male-dominated religions. When will what we wear, whether a dress, a veil, a burkha, or a parda, be the consequence of our personal, private choices, and not the supposed diktats of conservatism, which is patriarchy's greatest disguise? Will there ever come a time when women don't have to fight for our right to public or private space, both of which we are equally deserving?
Deliberating on the life and times of Everywoman, Rosalyn D'Mello is a reputable art critic and the author of A Handbook For My Lover. She tweets @RosaParx. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org
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