Below an office building in South Bombay, two pre-teen girls were in the throes of a full fledged fight. Girl One had got hold of Girl Two’s matted lice filled hair and was twisting it with the expertise of a seasoned CIA torturer. Girl Two was in the meantime aiming her sharp talons at her attacker’s grimy face in an attempt to draw blood. Much screaming and wailing ensued as these two girls, most likely from the nearby basti had a go at each other for a full fifteen minutes. Parking attendants, shop owners, advertising executives and office goers gawped at them, but no one intervened. No one dared to. Much blood and mayhem later, the two girls limped away like injured dogs and the crowd moved on to the next spectacle of the day.
When I asked a friend who was witness to the incident why he didn’t attempt to stop what was after all a childish spat, he looked at me incredulously and said, “Children, oh no those were twelve year olds with budding breasts and I dared not touch them to tear them apart, lest I be accused of improper sexual conduct.”
I understood his fears. In our rush to find the enemy, we often demonise perfectly harmless men; men who could have been our allies, but have been conditioned through years of hostile female attitude to keep a distance.
Another friend was passing by a crowded Dadar road on a hot summer afternoon. A broken down taxi caused him to halt. Smoke emerged from the black and yellow contraption and it didn’t seem likely it would move anytime soon. The taxi driver rudely evacuated the two female passengers in the backseat. Loaded with multiple bags each, they stood at the side of the road waving frantically. No taxi deigned to stop for them. My friend could have offered them a lift. He had the space in his car. He had all the time in the world. He even had the goodness in his heart. But he didn’t. As he said, “ Those girls were good looking. I didn’t want them to think I had an agenda. And they probably wouldn’t have accepted anyway.”
I have done it too – judged men for the fact that they were men and specifically because they were Indian men. I have never dared hitch a ride in this country or even carpool with male strangers. In movie halls and airplanes, I seek a seat next to a female if possible. I never do this when I am outside the country. When sexy, bellisima and other complimentary adjectives are used for me in the streets of New York or Paris, I smile and answer with a thank you. No stranger of the male persuasion in India has ever compliment me openly. They just don’t dare. They sometimes whistle a romantic film ditty casually as one passes, and maybe we should let them as long as the song in question is not along the lines of tu cheez badi hai mast mast.
Like we teach our children to distinguish between good touch and bad touch, let us teach our women to identify good men and bad men. And in my experience there are many more of the former, but we only remember the latter because they leave scars on our psyches.
Not all rickshaw and taxi drivers are bad. Bombay used to be dotted with taxi drivers that were philosopher cum guides, but alas I haven’t encountered this species in a long time. But all across Jaipur and indeed Rajasthan, I have come across drivers who are knowledgeable about their history and proud of their Rajput heritage, but have left behind their famed agression to become the best brand ambassadors the state could possibly have. The taxi drivers in Bangalore drive spanking clean cars and travel for miles with passengers, finding obscure adresses in a city that continues to grow and change each day. Less and less men help women with unwieldy pieces of luggage on airport conveyor belts, but there are some who still do and I accept their offer with grace. This does not bruise my feminine ego. It is not fragile. I know I am equal to men, but I also recognise I am not the same.
There is one thing I never tire of repeating to my friends who come up with stories of stereotyping and bias that they have to deal with routinely. Men are people too. They have their flaws, but they are not the only ones. Demonising all men for the actions of a few is akin to racism and hate in any form should be condemned. To make our cities safer, we should harness the energies of men who will be on our side. The fight is against harassment, against evil and not all its perpetrators are male. Let us hate the sin, not the sinner and certainly not anyone just because they belong to the same gender as the sinner.
Contributed by Samina Motlekar. She is an advertising film producer and writer based in Bombay. You can read her work on