It was the beginning of a new day and it had had an early start. I had to travel to Panipat for a field visit from Delhi to get a better sense of Breakthrough’s work on ground. While I have travelled through the state of Haryana, this was my first visit to a place in the state. As I recall the day trip today, there are instances from the day which I realise have been etched into my memory.
It was a beautiful early morning drive from Delhi towards Haryana. We crossed Sonipat where I could spot some of the premier educational institutions of this country, one being a law school and one being a liberal arts university. Our first stop was a dhaba where my colleague and I ate the famous paranthas with dollops of makkhan. As soon as we got back into our car to drive towards our destination, I suddenly became very aware about the fact that I had spent the last half an hour in Murthal. The memory of reading and watching news about how women had been molested and raped at these dhabas and roads brought back a sense of eeriness. An eeriness you could not just drive by.
As the thought of what had happened in Murthal a few month back dawned upon me I also thought about how only a few minutes back I was standing with a man on a roadside, while he smoked. It was only a few minutes back that my colleague who had recently moved from Mumbai to Delhi asked me if I felt odd in certain spaces in North India. While for me, the oddness of being in a certain space stemmed from being a woman, for him it was being in a hyper masculinised space. I was standing with a man who was smoking, on a roadside in Murthal, a ground where women had been raped for daring to be in a public space where men were waging wars. I was occupying an equal, comfortable space with an individual belonging to the opposite sex.
We reached Panipat on time as planned. We were supposed to spend the day at S.D (P.G.) College. A college not very far from some of the premier education institutes I had spotted on my way to Panipat. Let me describe to you what I saw as I entered the college. I saw a college space, filled with students. As I took a few more steps, I realised I was outnumbered by the men around me. There were groups of men all around. In the park. In the canteen. In the supposed ‘common space’. It is only after moving a little more ahead, that, I realised that I had not been outnumbered by men. The reality was that when I entered the college, I was standing in an area which was surrounded by building which were all boys spaces. The boys wing, an all boys canteen amongst others. When I saw other women around me, it was when I was standing in the vicinity of the girls wing. I had not been outnumbered. I was just standing in a space where I was not supposed to belong.
I was on campus of a co-educational college. I had both girls and boys around me. But in defined spaces. My next stop was the auditorium where the open discussion was being organised. The girls sat in the front rows. Apart from the Breakthrough volunteers, all the boys sat behind. A clear distinction between where boys and girls sat. Was it a choice made by the students themselves? Or was it a setting put in place by the authorities?
The open discussion was on the theme of gender based segregation and sexual harassment. The response from the students was an inspiring one. They were asking questions. And they, wanted answers. The fact that they were questioning certain notions which have been deeply ingrained in our psyche was a reaffirmation to our efforts for initiating conversations around gender inclusive safer spaces.
After a whole day of being a part of a campaign In Haryana to make spaces gender inclusive and safer, the day ended and I travelled back to Delhi writing a blog post about gender segregation in religious spaces. Gender based segregation is all around us. Segregated spaces which sharpen notions of masculinity and femininity, rigid gender roles, spaces which isolate, spaces which hinder conversations and spaces which construct a fellow individual as the absolute opposite of what we are; also establishing a power equation where one is the superior, more powerful and the other is the inferior weak one.
What happened in Murthal with several women was a product of this masculinity nurtured in segregated spaces. But when, there are spaces available where you can interact with people, know their experiences, their stories, you learn to coexist, respect their boundaries and be empathetic. We need these spaces. We need to stop finding breeding ground for patriarchy in the name of ‘protecting’ women. We need to build safe spaces where a woman can stand with a man on a roadside and have a conversation without any fear. And most importantly, we need common grounds to find those common grounds.