Earlier this year, schools and universities opened up physically, after a long on and off hiatus during the pandemic, which meant that many students now had to move away and commute to their respective institutes daily. For me, it meant staying in my home city with my family and having an hour-long commute with a combination of public transport, firstly either a bus/auto rickshaw, followed by a metro ride. Being in a women’s college, my newly formed perception of space in my city Delhi was also shaped by being in a feminist space for perhaps the first time in my life, as opposed to my earlier experiences.
For many young women like myself, higher education is the time in one’s life when we are first “allowed” to travel longer distances by ourselves, unaccompanied. At first, I thought travelling without a parent was very liberating as I could run to the bus stop when late, listen to music and use my cellphone without being nagged, while at the same time conflating my situation with female leads in movies venturing out into the world on their own. It felt like I was living my aesthetic dream. This major freedom also means stricter dress codes for some, enforced by common dialogues along the lines of, “It’s not safe to wear this on the bus by yourself” or “You don’t know what may happen in congested spaces” and the like. Our seniors also advised us to wear shrugs and jackets while travelling and to take them off once we are inside the premises.
While on the buses and metro every day, I usually see students and employees heading to their destinations in the morning. People of varied classes, ethnicities, gender and sexualities, all travel together and get a glimpse of each other’s lives, even if for a brief moment. At bus stops of government hospitals, one sees that there is no dearth of diseases, physical ailments, injuries and poverty. Many times, the afflicted travel to and fro for treatment by themselves, unaccompanied.
Women often cradle their toddlers and infants in their arms, sometimes struggling to shush them into silence, even if it may be the time to breastfeed. I often help people with the nitty-gritties of navigation whether it is getting out of the correct metro gate, pointing them towards the right direction or simply reading out the number and destination of the bus for those who cannot read. Like Siddhartha; it took wandering out into the world on my own to realise the extent of others’ suffering to break out of the echo chambers of frivolous concerns of my own class. Perhaps the resulting disillusionment is why my friend’s parents don’t let her take the buses with me even though we have the same route.
Women being able to ride buses free of cost, the presence of police personnel in buses at all times, having separate compartments and seats reserved for women on the metros were all measures that contributed to me being admitted to a college that is on the other side of the city and that I can travel there while being and feeling relatively safe. Conversations with peers unearth the difficulties many of them faced commuting to schools in different towns and cities.
Irrespective of the towns and cities they may hail from, many women face similar issues while travelling. It is common knowledge that many girls drop out of school upon reaching puberty and their education comes to a halt because public spaces are not designed to accommodate their basic needs. But that is not all; lack of public washroom facilities forces many women to consume less water for longer rides, even in scorching hot weather. Even when washrooms may be available, they are unclean and can only be used at the risk of contracting UTIs. Many women struggle with incontinence during pregnancy and post-child birth, making commutes of longer periods along unfavourably planned routes a grievous choice. These basic needs are often met with societal apathy as they are seldom said out loud. On a school trip a few years ago, a male teacher cracked a joke about girls taking up “too much time in the washrooms” when the bus paused at a petrol pump after leaving the school 5-6 hours prior, during which time they had comfortably relieved themselves behind bushes and at the side of the road. Imagine living in a world where entire populations are put under scrutiny for having different biological needs than the sex that has historically been the dominant presence in public spaces.
When I tell neighbours, relatives and other acquaintances about the college I am studying in, I usually receive two remarks; why did I choose a college that is so far off when I could have easily gone to any of the nearby colleges and did my parents force me to go to a women’s college? Although these enquiries may seem ordinary on the surface, they are rather enlightening as to these people’s perception of gender and space. Incidents of families sending/allowing (even encouraging) their sons to relocate to distant locations for education and employment while at the same time denying this opportunity to daughters are commonplace. In a country where debates around merit are rampant, controversial and extremely consequential for politics (as seen in the case of reservations and a thriving coaching industry to crack entrance exams), many women and girls are denied the opportunities they’ve earned because of safety concerns of living in another city by themselves.
Still more interesting is how we have learnt to negotiate with space in a single-sex institution. From hairy arms and legs to being “immodestly” dressed, all is acceptable in a women’s college. We have unconsciously adapted ways of conducting ourselves in public spaces to avoid being sexualized. The gender dynamics of such institutions allow us many respites; from dressing up as characters that are fetishized in popular media (such as goth girls, women anime and superhero figures) at cultural events to not covering a classmate from behind when she bends down to tie her laces, to eating certain food items (such as sucking on fruit chill) without the fear of ogling eyes and lewd comments. Not engaging in such behaviours inside the premises feels like a sigh of relief. Can we ever have more than just these rooms where we don’t hold our breath?