Right to safe, efficient and reliable public transport is key to women’s safety
Efficient, affordable and reliable public transport is a remarkable indicator of development and sign of a successful welfare state. Public transport attains more significance in non-egalitarian, gender-biased societies where safety of women is always at stake. Objectification of women is deeply embedded in the psyche of men in such societies.
Conservative traditions combined with sharp paternalism has culminated in the muzzling of female voices in our society. Girls brought up in an atmosphere of patriarchy, where even speaking loudly is attributed to indecency, and subservience is eulogized, has restricted women from registering their protest and expressing their disenchantment publicly. We in Kashmir used to be proud of the safety of women in public spaces, but it actually was a mirage as women continued to suffer silently from male chauvinism, domestic violence and the Kashmir conflict. The curtains came down and the myths busted when a very young girl in district Kulgam lost the battle for her life after being raped in orchards by three men. A few years back there was an acid attack on a girl in Srinagar. Gang rapes and acid attacks are not a sudden aberration but a culmination of the continued denial of sexual harassment, prejudice against women, and venom spewed by religious leaders against girls where the blame for every calamity is foisted upon the shoulders of women. What has further complicated the problem and aggravated the fear psychosis among women is the Kashmir conflict, which has masked the conflicts within Kashmiri society.
Coming back to public transport, it is pertinent to mention that public transport for girls in Kashmir has become a nightmare. The very experience of travelling has been imbued with anxiety and fear. There would be hardly any girl who has not been subjected to sexual harassment in buses. Such incidents have badly affected the mental health of girls and discouraged them from using public transport. Most importantly, it is one of the primary reasons of the high rate of school/college dropouts. There are thousands of girls who either reduce the frequency of attending colleges/schools or shun it altogether. That makes them more vulnerable to mental health diseases, domestic violence, and deprivation of their right to education and to an independent life.
Here I must mention that our society does not encourage nor does it have any avenues of engaging girls in co-curricular activities. There used to be times when our women folk were doing Rouf in the evenings, singing traditional folk songs, which was one of the few activities they could do together in the public space. Now schools/ colleges are the only remaining places where girls can experience the liberty of expressing themselves. What can be a bigger misfortune for a girl who has been compelled to stay at home due to sexual harassment in a bus or at a public place. Things get worse for girls from marginalised sections of society who cannot afford to go to school/college by any means of transport except the public one.
There has already been a shrinkage in public transport services in Kashmir as people now prefer to travel in their private vehicles or in cabs. What astonishes me is the indifference of civil society and of politicians to even think of public transport. Have you ever seen any manifesto of political parties, be they Left or Right, where they have talked about public transport?
The changing political landscape of Kashmir and evolving sociological changes should not stop women from reclaiming their space and asserting their rights. As they say, for half the earth and half the sky, we shall fight and we shall win. Women need to speak up and fight to become free and equal stakeholders in society.
Shahida Mansoor is a teacher and Irriza Javaid is a student at Kashmir University.