Don’t go alone!
It is late, don’t go out now!
Don’t go out, it is unsafe!
Why go out?
Such anxiety-ridden statements and questions have accosted women many a time when they have decided to step out of the house. Women everywhere, and more so in our country, grow up believing that they are unsafe when in the streets, and they’d better remain within the four walls of the house. The overarching narrative seems to indicate that public spaces are unfriendly, even hostile to women, with each episode of sexual attack on women highlighted by media fuelling paroxysms of anxiety.
When out in public, women ostensibly threaten the ‘honour’ of the family or sometimes the entire community. This over-riding emphasis on ‘sexual safety’ can then be used to deny freedoms of education, employment, movement, friendship with the opposite sex and so on. Concerns about the ‘safety’ of women readily morph into surveillance of women.
Besides, as is well known, women embrace these imposed patriarchal norms in an overwhelming desire to acquire ‘respectability’ and present themselves as ‘good women’. Each time women access public spaces they seemingly incur a ‘risk,’ jeopardising their personal safety but even more, their ‘reputation’. Hence, they continually demonstrate that they are out in the public doing something worthwhile -- working, studying, running errands for the family, etc.
Undeniably, moving out of the private realm to seek education or even health care has, over the last century, become appropriate socially-sanctioned behaviour, especially for upper caste, middle class women. But even today, for most women, travelling outside the home unaccompanied by male kin is permitted only for emergencies or economic reasons. So where does that leave travel as a leisure or pleasure-seeking activity? Does the female traveller exist? Or is she an anomaly?
Travel has been recognised as a deeply transformative as well as educational experience throughout the ages. Since antiquity, the quest for knowledge has been linked to travel – as in the case of Chinese pilgrims coming to the sub-continent, or medieval Arab scholars traversing great distances to learn about the world.
Religious and spiritual quests also hinged on the movement to distant destinations. Most of our bhakti sants walked to far-off lands, singing hymns, preaching and reaching out to the many millions inhabiting this country. Even in modern times, leaders as politically divergent as Mahatma Gandhi and Che Guevara owed their political transformations to travel.
Indeed, travel exposes one to varied experiences and is at once therapeutic and reinvigorating. By the nineteenth century, travel had come to be seen as a value in its own right. The Grand Tour of Europe was the capstone to an affluent young man's education. Travel enhanced a man's economic and political prospects even as it broadened his tastes. But question naturally arises: has this important experience been denied to women across time?
Travel for women has never been part of most patriarchal cultures, unless it functioned to support family goals or was justified for religious pilgrimage or health considerations. In fact unchaperoned travel of single women was a negative reflection on their sense of modesty and propriety.
Yet in our own country, some of our most loved female bhaktins – Akkamahadevi (Karnataka), Mirabai (Rajasthan), Lal Ded (Kashmir) are known to have wandered singing hymns in praise of their beloved gods. Defying convention, these free-spirited women have been rather exceptional and are not the typical models of normative femininity.
On the contrary, a woman like Soorpankha, who freely roamed the jungles and proposed to men, was soundly punished for her boldness. Several examples can be lined up to demonstrate that historically women were disciplined for their supposed transgressions. Independent movement demonstrates a loosening of patriarchal control and has been constantly resisted, now more so with the economic independence of women.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, most Indian languages do not have a word for the female traveller. The traveller is by definition male – paryatak, sailaani and pathik (Hindi), pravasi and yatri (Gujarati and Marathi), pathik (Sanskrit), musafir (Urdu) for example.
Where travel is a gendered concept
The increasing instances of violence against women when in public spaces or those of street sexual harassment can be read as a backlash against the increasingly mobile urban woman. While the emphasis on (sexual) safety has meant ‘night curfews’ or “cellphone surveillance,” it has also inspired a spirited resistance in the form of campaigns like Hollaback! Mumbai or the Action Heroes Project of the Blank Noise campaign, which encourages women to share their experiences of harassment online and eventually assert their right to public spaces. There are other Facebook campaigns, too, such as ‘Freeze the Tease’ and ‘Chappal Maarungi’ initiated by city based college students to protest against street sexual harassment.
These campaigns underline the fact that access to public spaces is deeply gendered and even in a city like Mumbai travel is not an uncontested right. Therefore, some recent academic work argues that reclaiming the right to loiter - purposeless wandering, is feminist assertion and important to laying claim to the city and urban spaces.
Arguably, many women are now seen alone in city malls, the new places of ostentatious consumption, yet the pleasure of the public in that controlled, sanitised space is only an illusion.
Travel more than anything else is about the experience of freedom. Perhaps, this is why some recent popular films have had young women protagonists undertaking voluntary travel as a journey towards self-discovery. If Highway (2014) directed by Imtiaz Ali had the young couple escaping the cruelties of civilization, it also achingly brought one close to the violence that all women encounter within the purportedly safe domestic space. Queen (2014) directed by Vikas Bahlsaw a middle-class woman spunkily repudiating conventional marriage and joyfully embracing her single status after an international trip.
However I would like to qualify that travel here is cautiously distinguished from mainstream, commercialised as well as ‘mass’ tourism, wherein exotic lands and women are consumed in a similar manner.
It is well known that the language and imagery of promotional tourism material privileges the ‘male, heterosexual gaze’ above all other. Not only women, even landscapes, places, are exoticised and sexualised, imbued with feminine attributes, meant to attract and gratify the male gaze. Though tourism is seen as an instrument of development in the third world, it is disproportionately geared towards the pleasure seeking, adventurous, globe-trotting male tourist from the affluent, developed countries.
Most promotional literature produced not only by private agents but even state sponsored promotional literature, portrays women often in remote natural settings or in a serving role, as in hotel and airline advertisements. The feminist organisation “Bailancho Saad” in Goa regularly protests against representation of women in tourist brochures.
Nevertheless, one may counter the argument saying many travel companies now offer packages to the single women traveller, where young and old mommies or even single women are offered jaunts to shopping destinations or tourism hot-spots around the world. And this is a far cry from the customary family package/couple package that is usually assumed tailor-made for the woman traveller. Admittedly, the notion of ‘leisure time’ itself is a relatively new concept for women, and slowly exclusive destinations and amenities are being created for women tourists.
While there is some increase in female travellers, what the male-controlled industry has begun to offer is better ‘protection’ of their female business travellers. Thus, there is greater attention to security in the issuance of keys, better locks, and more attentive service in restaurants. Hair dryers, skirt hangers and bubble baths are also more likely to be included in hotels. That women still feel vulnerable is suggested by their much greater use of room service for meals.
While seemingly these moves are impelled by acts of kowtowing to the market, rather than any inherently radical impulses, one can speculate on the immense latent potential inherent in this activity. Since tourism is a deeply gendered experience and activity, we need to study the extent to which women are shaping tourism, as policy makers, managers, owners, guests, workers and service providers? Travel, almost like education, unleashes uncertain outcomes, and individual women can possibly seize the unspooling paybacks.
To round up, independent travel plays an important part in recovering women’s mobility as well as access to public space. The autonomy that it enables can nudge women to claim other prerogatives. Reiterating the many joys of travel also, somewhere, foregrounds the discourse on inclusion and comfort, rather than ‘safety’ as essential entitlements that women ought to obtain for sure, and soon!
Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade: Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets (New Delhi: Penguin, 2011)
Indra Munshi: “Tourism Processes and Gender Relations Issues for Exploration and Intervention” Economic and Political Weekly October 21, 2006 4461-4468.
Continuing Saga of Marginalisation: A Dossier on Women and Tourism (Bangalore:Equitable Tourism Options, 2000).