by Sharon Fernandes
"Don’t bare legs in India". There are few headlines that make you gag on your day's first coffee and I wanted to shake my head at how ludicrous this piece of news sounds. Manila-based multilateral agency Asian Development Bank (ADB), which is hosting its annual meeting in Greater Noida, highlighted that baring legs or wearing short dresses is a strict no-no, among other list of guidelines to over 4,000 delegates from nearly 67 countries who will be staying in hotels in Noida, Greater Noida and Delhi. But deep down or rather high up at the hem of things, it rings true.
I spent an afternoon yesterday at a popular up market South Delhi mall, and watched 15-year-old girls rocking hot pants and cool white linen shirts with all the right accessories and flip flops in bright neons. I watched a dad help his teenage daughter decide on a short dress. Almost every woman flitting from the Mango to the Clinique and MAC store was in a short skirt, a light summer dress or shorts. There was no fidgeting, no stares, no double takes.
But once we were past the exit points of the mall it all changed. These carefree teenagers were chaperoned into waiting BMWs and Mercs. The dad was now asking his daughter to wait in the lobby while he went down to the parking and got the car "out front". The guards at the mall were eyeing and looking out for any "potential starers", service boys or parking attendants to be shooed away.
I walked out of the mall to find an autorickshaw and saw a group of girls were enjoying ice creams from the takeaway counter on the side of the mall. As soon as the girls noticed the drivers, valets and other young men at the paan shop nearby they instinctively pulled down on their shorts, as if expecting them to stretch like chewing gum. The girls continued their giggly conversations, but you could see them getting twitchy at the glares.
This is just like watching a girl at a bus stop in other parts of Delhi like Janakpuri or Sahadra, swiftly adjusting her scarf to protect her cleavage from the sun and unwanted gazes, or the woman who wraps her saree twice over her head and shoulder to almost hide herself, or give an air of someone not to be messed with, in a busy market.
Women in Delhi love dressing up. Take a trip down to Khan Market, you'll see the latest trends on women who look like magazine models themselves. But they all seem to be comfortable only in certain parts of the market, and once that "lakshman rekha" of sorts, an invisible line that most of us women immediately seem to draw between safe and unsafe places, comes into place.
It is a grid visible only to women, especially in Delhi. You will not get into the metro in a short skirt during rush hour. You can only stand without your peripheral vision on high alert, at the pink end of metro platform, the "ladies" section. Delhi could have a separate map with sections like the malls, Khan Market, Green Park Market, Hauz Khas village, Meherchand market etc. as areas marked out as safe communal spaces where women can wear what their counterparts in other sunny western countries would wear around town. The colleges are safe grounds too, but this is because of the safety in numbers and the watchful eyes of the administrators.
No one is going to rape you or bite you if you wear shorts in the city in a public space, (at least we hope so) but the lustful once-overs can leave even the most liberal woman running to find a dupatta. It is not easy to be a girl in this city. You have to think ten steps ahead: Is it safe to walk down this subway? Should I go alone in a cab from the taxi stand after 8 pm? Should I ask the auto driver not to stare at me from the rearview mirrors that have suggestive lips stuck on them?
Am I over-reacting if I tell the man standing behind me in the crowded metro to keep his distance? Why is it difficult for a girl to just walk around in this city, even during the day? There is a lot on a woman's mind even when she is just thinking of hanging out with her friends in a community space. So much for the young independent woman of today. The Asian Development Bank just stated what we don't want to admit. In most of Delhi she has to keep her legs covered.