“Yes! I also missed a lot of trains. But in those days I was a man. In fact, I’m still a man. But you are a girl. A girl alone is like an open locker.”
As I was watching the recent film Jab We Met on an international flight, the above dialogue resonated with me profoundly. There I was, ‘an open locker,’ crossing continents on my own, and hopping from one major city to the next. Over the course of my long travels, I would reflect time and again on how much I appreciated being able to venture unaccompanied from destination to destination.
Sure, it was tough to manage all the stuff that I was lugging around with me; I had to rely on the kindness of strangers to watch my bags while I when to the loo, or to explain the system of fares for the public transportation, or to redirect me when I’d lost my way. Obviously I had some help from other people, but by and large I held the responsibility for myself, that I would get to my train or bus on time and eventually reach my destination. No one else to escort, protect or even ward off evil.
But in India, I rarely venture out of my house on my own, let alone travel across the country. On my first trip here, I had some hope that I could do so. Yet I quickly came to feel that this would not be possible — there were too many risks involved. My confidence in solo voyages, regardless of whether they’re long or short, has steadily dwindled. Sure, I’ll manage the odd auto rickshaw ride, even sometimes late at night — forget Cinderella, I’m talking about 10:30 pm! Otherwise, I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve bought into the fear factor and simply stay put most of the time.
I have toyed with the idea of getting a bicycle. In Jaipur I have seen just one woman riding a bicycle, and that too only a few days back. I realise that in other parts of India, women do ride bicycles and I’d love to hear some stories from you about that. In Tamil Nadu, a development initiative in Pudukkottai has been working to give women access to bicycles, which in turn promotes their empowerment. As quoted from a World Bank study:
…the author states that the primary impact of learning to cycle on women’s lives is their perception of independence in terms of their roles in the household and community; productive, reproductive and community managing roles. The second and related impact has been in terms of improvement in both their self confidence and self-esteem.
The International Bike Fund also writes:
These days Pudukottai women sing “we have learnt to cycle, brother/ and with it, we have turned the wheel of our lives, brother”.
Clearly, bicycle riding has implications, physical and emotional. More than just serving as a means to an end, the bicycle itself is a symbol of power — which is why I imagine that most women simply do not have access to them.
Unfortunately, I’m not gutsy enough to ride a scooter, though it seems the vehicle of choice for the majority of middle class young women. Happily, some women have even taken up riding motorbikes. My husband’s cousin, who has been riding since a young age, got second place in a race in Chennai. Perhaps she’s inspired by the story of Chennai’s Alisha Abdullah, who according to NDTV is India’s only female bike racer.
While cases of female bikers may now be the exception rather than the rule, it seems the wheel of change is turning. At least among the middle class, Indian women are increasingly getting access to their own set of wheels, and with it a sense of empowerment. Who knows, maybe one day we’ll take over the roads!