By Taruni Kumar
I always wanted an aunty like Kirron Kher of the movies. I thought that if Kirron Kher was my aunty, I’d have plenty of laughs. Who could resist her exuberant, effusive personality?
But now it seems that I shouldn’t have wished that hard. Because if Kirron Kher of real life was your aunty, you’d probably also get plenty of advice as a woman about how to keep yourself safe in the big, bad, man-infested world out there. And it seems some of that advice would be to remove yourself from situations where you’d come in contact with a man. So, anywhere at all at any time of the day or night mostly. Wait, Kirron, my aunties have got that stuff covered.
What are we talking about? Well, Member of Parliament Kirron Kher has issued an advisory to all ‘young girls’. She’s said that the 22-year-old woman, who was allegedly gangraped by an auto driver and his two accomplices in Chandigarh on 17 November, should never have boarded the autorickshaw in the first place. She said that when the woman saw that there were three men sitting in the auto already, she should have had the ‘samajhdaari’ to not have sat down.
The woman, originally from Dehradun, had boarded the autorickshaw to return to her paying guest accommodation in Mohali after attending a stenography class. Instead of taking her to Mohali, however, the trio took her to a secluded forest area where they allegedly raped her.
Sounds horrific, right? Well, if you have an aunty like Kirron Kher, and she says “Oh god, that’s awful. But why did she get into the auto in the first place?”, you’d look up at her, now doubly horrified. In response, she’ll probably tell you, in as well-meaning a way as possible, “I can’t control everybody but I can tell my own baccha to be safe, na?”
Let’s get something straight. There have been times I’ve hailed an auto, seen more than one man in it and declined to board. But there have also been times when I’ve been in a hurry, asked if it’s a shared auto and just gone with it. It isn’t that I’m arguing that women cannot have these considerations. I’m merely arguing that the expectation that women must have these considerations is flawed. It follows the same line of thought as not crossing the road because you’re afraid of being run over by a car. Just that in the engendered world in which we live, it seems men are more likely to prove more dangerous than a car.
That line of reasoning from your well-meaning aunty or, often enough, uncle places the onus on you to be safe. It brings with it a realisation that if you get in trouble somewhere in the place you live, study and work in, you’ll be asked why you were in a specific area in the first place. For the sake of “your own good”, every piece of clothing you wear will be scrutinised before you leave the house. And all this will happen as part of a genuine belief that to keep you safe they must make sure you’re constantly restricting where you go, what you wear, who you’re with and what time you’re out. “Beta, apni izzat, apne haath mein hi hoti hai.”
Kher insisted that she said all this “to protect the girls.” She added that while it was necessary that people educate their boys to prevent crimes such as these, it is also necessary that girls should be alert and aware.
Sound familiar? Well, if you’re a woman, it probably will. Every Indian woman usually has dozens of well-meaning but imposing aunties and uncles, or parents for that matter, who feel that telling them “to be safe” is part of their mandatory caregiving duties.
But, let’s go back to the situation in which the woman boarded the auto in Chandigarh. It was around 7.45 pm. Not too late even by well-meaning aunty standards. The Indian Express reports that there is no bus service from Sector 37 to Mohali at that hour. It adds that public transport in Chandigarh is negligible and the few buses that do run, reduce at night. In such a situation, what would well-meaning aunty suggest the woman have done? Not go for her classes? Call Punjab Wedding Cars and book a Chrysler 300C Stretch Limousine? Wait for another auto? Let’s not forget, the auto driver is one of the alleged rapists as well.
Another issue is the way Aunty Kirron wants us to to look at men. We should assume all male strangers are a threat unless proved otherwise. Goes against the #NotAllMen grain, doesn’t it? Yet, our uncles also feel no qualms in telling us to beware of the ladke log. But let’s take into account that most public spaces, especially in India, are dominated by men. How is a woman to navigate the world without coming into contact with them? Or is she meant to just not navigate the world at all, then?
Kher went on to mention her own experience as a young woman in Mumbai. She said that she would share the licence plate of the taxi she was traveling in with a friend or companion in an attempt to ensure her safety. We’ve all heard our parents tell us, “beta, auto ka number message kar dena.” But that isn’t an assurance of any kind, is it? It’s not as if licence plates can be tracked via GPS by someone who constantly watches where the taxi is taking you – unless you’re always Ubering everywhere. And Uber is the best example of how GPS hasn’t been an effective deterrent to sexual harassment and rape.
A lot of this advice seems to stem from a feeling of ‘it didn’t happen to me, so do what I did to make sure it doesn’t happen to you’. But Ms Kher, that would mean that every woman who did face rape or assault or sexual harassment put herself in that situation, no? I believe there’s a phrase for that. It begins with victim and ends with blaming.
If you have an aunty like Kirron Kher, you expend a lot of your oxygen in exasperated sighs as you tried to explain that your being out at a certain time and in a certain place is unavoidable because your work takes you there. Would your aunty give the same advice to your brother? “Of course, beta,” she’d say. “Usko bhi toh robbery ka darr rehta hai na?” But it’s not the same thing, aunty, you’d say. To no avail.
If you have an aunty like Kirron Kher, you’d spend a lot of time explaining to her that her well-meaning, genuinely heartfelt pleas to “take care” just add to the anxiety you face as you wade through a world full of men who you’re expected to see as dangerous. Men who don’t need to look at themselves thrice in the mirror wondering if what they’re wearing is appropriate for the gallis and roads they have to traverse that day. Men who don’t need to think twice about, “how will you get there? Public transport isn’t safe, beta.” Men who don’t need to worry worry about, “time se ghar aa jaana please? All sorts of bad elements come out at night.”
Kher was also asked why there wasn’t a Women’s Commission in Chandigarh. Her answer was that the city had a woman MP, a woman mayor and a woman SSP, so there was no need for a Mahila Ayog. “I am there, she said. Women can come to me.” Sigh.
Co-published with Firstpost