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July 21, 2013

women only …



Every train on the Delhi subway has a car that is reserved for women only. A couple of days ago I took the Delhi subway for the first time. I stood on the platform, underneath a pink sign with swirly type announcing the entrance to the Women’s only section, and waited for the train to arrive. When it did I stepped in to a really comfortable environment that was air conditioned and roomy and with lots of women laughing and talking without any discernable restraint. It was a pleasant ride.

At one of the stops on my subway journey a man was just about to enter when he realized it was the women’s only section of the train. He stood at the entrance for a while looking up and down the car, I presume contemplating whether to take his chances and enter. The women inside the train turned to look at him gauging his movements. At the last minute he decided against entering and ran to the part of the train that accommodated both men and women.

I started to think about this voluntary gender segregation and what it says about the politics of gender and patriarchy in Delhi. Using the subway as an allegory, I don’t think that the separation of the sexes is a useful tool to mitigate the imbalance that patriarchal systems cause, nor do I think that here it is intended to do that. I do think, in the case of the subway, its intention is to create a space for women to travel without the ogling, teasing, groping of lascivious men. But this I believe just reinforces the tenets of patriarchy and I also believe it condescends to not only women but to men as well. It presumes that men, in the unrestricted company of women, cannot control an impulse to violate. When men are faced with a society that presumes this behaviour of them as a default and organizes itself around mitigating it, this same society is paradoxically supporting (or encouraging?) the same behaviour. It does not give men a chance.

2Additionally, the section for women on the subway train is only one car of the whole train. It is at the back or the front of the train depending on which direction the train is going. This voluntary segregation asks of women to separate themselves; in doing so it places the burden of men’s behaviour on the women. As mentioned, the segregation is voluntary, if women choose to ride in other cars on the train and they are violated in someway, the blame would be placed on them because they opted to ride the subway in a section that included men when one has been provided for women only. It therefore punishes women for the bad behaviour of men.

A large part of India is patriarchal. The patriarchal system is supported by culture and by society. It is also for a large part internalized and perpetuated by both men and women. And it is in this patriarchal system that the gender imbalance is located. Other added complexities are the classifications that work in tandem with patriarchy; these are class, caste and religion. All of these Nupur and I need to take into consideration when producing our project. If looked at as a matrix with the social classifications (including age and geography) on a horizontal plane and the gender classifications on the vertical, each point on the matrix requires a different intervention. Daunting!

So after some thought, advise and analysis, we have tentatively narrowed down our entry points for the project to:

  • The male voice – men speaking to men; the expectations and effects of patriarchy on the man;
  • Sexuality education – addressing the gaps in sexuality education. For instance responding to the lack of communication between intimate partners. As an aside, we had a meeting with an amazing organization called TARSHI, they told us  as an example that in Hindi there isn’t a word for breasts that is not vulgar, therefore it is difficult for a woman to say tell her sexual partner that she would like him to touch her breasts because a polite way of saying it doesn’t exist. Additionally, even if she could and iassuming her partner is male, he would see her request as an assault on his masculinity;
  • Disseminating women’s rights – Laws have been amended since the 16 December incident; and women have many rights (ie the right to free legal counsel etc) but the majority of women don’t know what they are.

Additionally, we are interested in exploring the idea that because of the stringent mores around behaviour, people are living double lives – the one that they have at home and the one that they have with their friends.


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