The Occupation is a campaign designed to promote the occupation of ideas and spaces by women. In chapter 4, Hiya Harinandini asks five desi women what getting behind the wheel means to them.
When the year began, in Saudi Arabia, women still couldn’t drive. Finally, however, the ban on female drivers has been lifted. With it, the narrative of reform sits smug behind the wheel. While the uncomfortable question must be asked – how authentic is the move when Saudi women rights activists still languish behind bars or remain in exile for campaigning for this very move – we must also celebrate everything it heralds. Driving might just be a means to get around, but for women, it affords freedom and mobility in a misogynistic world. Five aam women tell us how steering shifts their gears:
BOBITA HAZARIKA (50)
A working wife, mother and sole confidante of a delusional, senile father
“As a working woman, driving around the city makes me feel socially secure. It allows me to commit to greater responsibility and in a way, agency, as far as running my household is concerned. Not having to be dependent on any traditional male figure for my movement and business is the most liberating feeling ever. I love and value the ability to share responsibility with my husband. That’s the good part. What still hurts – after almost 15 years of driving in both small and big cities – is that the sight of a woman behind the wheel is an invitation for harassment. I have seen men, both old and young, sneering and clicking their tongues in mockery when I am trying to pull my car out of the parking lot. Sometimes, they intentionally block my path or cross the road in the midst of chaotic traffic right in front of my car with a sly leer just to stroke their ego and seek some vile pleasure in my frustration. It’s a struggle, but definitely one I rise above a little more every day.”
TANAVI CHOWDHURY (20)
A college student and a budding driver in her hometown Guwahati
“I come from a city where the ratio of girls to boys behind the wheel is about 1:20. There’s a stark discrepancy between men and women as far as even availing the opportunity to learn driving is concerned. It wasn’t easy for me to foray in the space myself, with even my teacher constantly discouraging (how ironic, right?). My father would sometimes disapprove of me venturing out to practise early in the morning. But my mom pushed me every single day. I think a lot of her persistence was driven by her inability to learn driving herself, owing to familial constraints. Today, when I drive my brothers around town, it gives me a feeling of great accomplishment, considering some of my older male cousins don’t know how to drive. I am proud of my efforts in a space that constantly oppresses its women. On the road, I see many men who drive rashly and don’t assume responsibility for anyone’s safety and yet have the audacity to catcall women who respect traffic rules and mind their own business. I am glad that with more women learning to drive and taking control of the wheel, not only will they transgress their ‘assigned’ role but also bust the “women are bad drivers” myth, real soon and real hard.”
MANASWITA KAKKAR (19)
Fresh out of driving school
“It’s a life skill, of course. But driving also gives me a sense of winged freedom. I don’t have to wait around for anyone to take me places or depend on relatives for a lift just so I can beat the horrid Delhi heat. What motivated me to join a driving school not long ago was my frustration at the way my movement was restricted because I didn’t know how to drive. Today, I’ve realised that driving is not as easy as it looks. You have to focus on different mirrors and remember to handle a thousand different controls even before making a single move. Bus and truck drivers don’t give a damn about the existence, let alone safety, of smaller vehicles. They drive as if the road was just made for them to trample over us puny mortals. Considering I haven’t yet ventured out alone with the car onto busy territory, harassment is not something I am not familiar with but I am sure it’s just a matter of time, isn’t it? Society builds stigma around the act of women who drive, out of fear of what she might do if she takes control of her needs and desires. But hey, what better way to crush patriarchy, than with four wheels at a time?”
JAYASHREE SAIKIA (66)
Retired school principal, mother and grandmother
“I started learning when I was in college, which must have been roughly 1971 or 72. Given the time, I was outrageously young and of course, a woman. My first driving stint was casual, confined to taking the family car out with my father once in two weeks, and did not bear any consequences. It was only after marriage that I formed a firm acquaintance with the wheel, supported by my husband. But when I was decently trained my husband started discouraging me from venturing out alone. I had a moment of clarity when, a female colleague who was driving in to work at the college we were at, said, “We are educated, smart, working women. What’s stopping us?” That was it. I started sneaking out in the afternoons to practise and eventually confronted my husband about it. Today it has been 30 years since I started driving. Now that I am retired, I just do short distances for errands and such. It’s a time that belongs to me and only me. In that moment, I feel as if that’s all I’ve been looking for all my life”.
YASMIN HUSSAIN (26)
Resident of Mumbai, still gushing over her month-old Alto (her first big buy out of her own pay check)
“I come from a very conservative family and all my life, I’ve seen women in our community being constantly held back from venturing out and occupying public spaces. I enrolled myself into driving school against the approval of my parents and my first few stints on the road were mainly with my friends who owned cars. I was tired of being dependant and of overhearing uncles on the streets gathering to laugh at women for existing. Now that I have a job and have moved out of home, I have realised how powerful fending for myself makes me feel, as hard as it is every single day. You know how they say driving is a basic skill and it’s no big deal if women do it as much as men? Well, I think it is. It is because time and again, everything a woman ‘can’ do is weighed down and altogether erased by everything she ‘shouldn’t’. Driving around my own city establishes my place in it. It’s a way in which women are beginning to claim their rightful space in public. I get sneered at a lot, even stalked to the extent that I come back home shaking. But I don’t let it hold me back anymore.”
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