The Grown Girl
“The world is a dangerous place for little girls. Besides, little girls are more fragile, more delicate, more brittle than little boys. ‘Watch out, be careful, watch.’ ‘Don’t climb trees, don’t dirty your dress, don’t accept lifts from strange men. Listen but don’t learn, you won’t need it.’ And so the snail’s antennae grow, watching for this, looking for that, the underneath of things. The threat. And so she wastes so much of her energy, seeking to break those circuits, to push up the millions of tiny thumbs that have tried to quelch energy and creativity and strength and self-confidence; that have so effectively caused her to build fences against possibility, daring; that have so effectively kept her imprisoned inside her notions of self-worthlessness.”
― Robyn Davidson, Tracks: One Woman’s Journey Across 1,700 Miles of Australian Outback.
Never have I been more aware of being a woman than when I travel alone. It begins with which train or flight to take, what time does it start and what time does it reach, which always has to be much after sunrise and much before sunset. If that’s not an option, a whole lot of logistical coordination and planning becomes necesssary.
My parents were non-discriminatory. No matter how much the world used every opportunity to point the differences between me and my brother, they never made me feel I am less because I am a girl. They didn’t tell the others off, perhaps realising the futility of it and being mild mannered, but they did not change their ways of treating their two children, and all other boys and girls, the same.
The first time I realised I was differently vulnerable was when one late evening, my mother and I took a cycle rickshaw to a wedding. There were stretches on that road which were not lit, empty and unknown. I was loving the quiet and excited to be at a wedding. At the most my fear was what if there are thieves! But as soon as we reached, I heard my mother tell someone, sighing in relief, how scared she was since she was with me, that am a grown girl now.
Since then, the grown girl concept made an appearance all the time, almost in all occasions and all decisions that required me to be on my own. Travelling to Bombay to study, unearthly hours of the trains, someone to drop and someone to pick. All the usual unsolicited advice and suggestions, someone should accompany her. How many times one heard it’s a bad world outside?
What makes the outside world bad? Who does it? And how is the inside world? Is it better or is it worse?
One time when I was abroad in a university town and truly enjoyed staying at the library till way past mid night, walking back alone in the rain and chill, listening to music, thinking how much I would miss this back home. A woman acquaintance had said “you won’t need to be in a library till 2 am back home!”
She perhaps meant well. But that certainly is not the point.
We are so overwhelmed by the possibility of assault, that we are not even able to imagine what it would be like…to be able to walk a forest alone, walk a city alone, travel the world alone…just the possibility, the option, the choice!
I have worked in the development sector all my life. It gives me many opportunities to travel to interior areas of our country. I love it. But the grown girl concept is always there. Not just at the back of our heads, but at the front, all-over actually. There are very few hotels in these remote areas so we have to take what we get. Even in cities, we are so fund crunched and so little money to cover overheads that we end up staying in cheap hotels. I have never wanted fancy, but what I have realised over the years of travel, is cheap also means cheap fixtures, the latch is of poor quality, the windows without railings or panes, bathrooms with an open square for ventilator. Unsafe unsafe scream the grown girl. So many of my women colleagues and friends have shared our notes on how we have pushed chairs and sofas and our suitcases all piled against the door and have spent sleepless nights when on our own. Taxi rides, auto rides, taking a bus in the night with a man in the next seat, tell us about it! Safety pins, red chilli powder, pepper spray or even a kitchen knife…and all kind of “real” travel tips!
This fear that we have to live with is a creation and responsibility of every one.
So this women’s day, can we even attempt to visualize a world of true freedom for women, freedom from this fear!
Not many years ago, when I lived in Bangalore, a front page picture of a man laying down with his backpack for pillow and reading a book at Lalbagh made me so wishful! The caption said something about it being beautiful weather outside.
A book and a backpack for a pillow and a grass bed, to look at trees and clouds when I look up. I want that. In this life.
Many women whether by choice, by situation, by circumstances, are single or live and travel alone. Whether we make do with it or we enjoy it, is up to us…but for us to be free of fear and pursue ourselves to the fullest, in this one life…is the real challenge for the rest of the world. Not your hand outs, not your discounts, not diamonds, not the ice-bucket challenge…we want this freedom from fear.
The fear that is created by all of you.
A walk in the rain, a walk in a beautiful dense and aged forest is all I ask.
A walk without fear.