A video from India went viral a few weeks ago. In the video, a young female passenger, flying alone on a domestic airline, publicly shamed an older male passenger she alleged had groped her several times from the seat behind. It's not uncommon, the groping. Most girls and women have a similar story to tell, though usually it's on a bus or a train or in a crowded market, or at a family function, rather than on a plane, which still has the veneer of security, exclusivity and civility. One would think a person wouldn't be that stupid, that obvious, in a place like this, with nowhere to go. But it happens. What is uncommon is the girl's response. So public, so angry.
I've traveled on many planes recently, for literary events in Mumbai, Chennai, and Jaipur, and for work in Delhi. Most of the time I've been traveling alone. It's a lottery, who you'll sit next to. Most of the time it's a man, and sure, most of the time it's ok, but often enough I feel uncomfortable; I have enough experience of the long vacant stare, the stray arm, the nudging and sniggering between young men. It's tiring, being on guard, always being on some kind of display, being open to judgement for just being. When I left to fly to Kolkata last week I asked to be put next to a woman. And I started to think: wouldn't public travel be perfect if there were no men around? If there were women-only sections. Then one could finally relax.
I was flying to Kolkata that day to speak on a panel at the Book Fair. I checked into the hotel, and was surprised to discover I'd been assigned a room in their EVA section. There are no men in EVA. No male staff, no guests. A week earlier, at a hotel in Jaipur, I was woken at 3 a.m. by several wildly drunken men in the corridor howling for more liquor, screaming about what they wanted to do next. Earlier that night, after midnight, a man with whom I'd had a brief, professional correspondence on Facebook found my room number from reception and came knocking three times. So the EVA section here was wonderful. Every time I stepped in, I felt at peace. I let my guard down.
The panel I was speaking on at the Book Fair was called "The Changing Role of Women in Indian Fiction". It was an all-female panel. When I first agreed, I was told the panel would be called "Breaking Boundaries in Indian Fiction". I didn't say anything about the change; these things happen. But then I looked at the festival program and discovered the Breaking Boundaries session was still happening, only it had been moved to the following day and assigned to four male writers. I couldn't help but think: Ah yes, men get to break boundaries, and women get to talk about women.
As a good human should, I began to imagine different scenarios. Wouldn't it be nice, I thought, to have a couple of men speak on the changing role of women? Would I like to hear what they had to say, or would they only end up dominating the discussion, mansplaining? And then, how nice would it have been to include women in the breaking boundaries panel? How would a mixed Breaking Boundaries panel be different to an all male or all female one? I wondered, with the inclusion of women in whatever capacity, if the discussion would naturally revolve around sex and gender? Would the men and women be at cross purposes? Is it always the first hurdle?
We'll never know. The men spoke about breaking boundaries and we four women spoke about our changing roles. Instead of feeling liberated, instead of breathing freely, I felt hemmed in. We had our world, and men had the entire world. It made me think of the plane again, the train, the EVA section in the hotel. It made me think that, however nice it might be to have our private, peaceful retreat, however pleasant a solution it is to the daily stresses of life, withdrawal is not the answer, and segregation will only diminish us in the end. Public spaces, as with literary spaces, need to be mixed, they need an equal presence. This is why I felt proud of the girl who made a scene on the plane, who refused to be quiet. She wasn't backing away. She knew the world belongs to her as much as anyone else.
Deepti Kapoor is the author of A Bad Character.