By Neha Rajan
On some nights, I like to sit by my open bedroom window and gaze outside, watching the plants in our garden sway strangely to the tune of the Sufi song I play on loop. Beyond our little garden is a view of the street which takes on a certain beauty at night, wearing the warm yellow streetlight. After all, doesn’t the night extend romance to everything?
One such night, as I slipped into the inertia that solitude gifts me, I was startled out of it when I spotted a middle-aged man walk past on the road. Within seconds, my heart was racing. Unconsciously, I hoped he wouldn't notice me. It took a while after he passed for me to return to normalcy. When I eventually did, I began to grasp the bizarreness of the incident. I was inside my house, behind locked doors, in a supposedly safe place. He was outside, alone on an empty street in the dead of the night. In comparison to him, I should be the one who is sure of safety. Yet, I was scared.
The Sacrifice for Safety
Women’s safety has for long been defined by the boundaries within which it exists. Safety as contained to the house, to the family, to the men of a specific class and caste. The appalling occurrences of sexual violence within these very havens of ‘safety’ should have nullified the borders. Yet we adamantly clutch the idea of imaginary spaces which promise safety to women and others which do not. The night falls in the latter, the “unsafe”. Though a time, it has been fashioned into a space in daily narratives – a vast field where risks lurk.
Sunset marks the beginning of the confines. Stepping beyond it into the night is to invite trouble. But not for all. The warden of the girls’ hostel announces curfew hours earlier than that of the boys’ hostel. Parents assert different deadlines to their children – the beti must be home by 8 pm, the beta may come at 11 pm (after ensuring the girls of his friend's group reach home safely).
The night carries on its shoulders the burden of hostility as the result of our misplaced sense of fear. But the night is not inherently unsafe. By locating threats in spaces and in time, we effectively hide the real site of danger – the minds of men shaped by the machines of misogyny.
We hide our anxiety of assault under the blanket of obscurity that the night so generously offers. The night swells with our imaginations of an adventure gone horribly wrong while the real culprit, patriarchy, walks away unspoken of at sunset and undetected in daylight. The reasons behind sexual violence are complex, the layers are many. We find it tiresome to discuss these, so the darkness of the night becomes our scapegoat, diluting its beauty by taking on the image of danger.
Women are denied access to the night, a socially enforced boundary that morphs into a self-denial that chooses safety over the possibility of becoming a victim of a crime. This denial is, in essence, a deprivation of experience. Women must forgo the freedom to explore, the desire to wander, the search for solitude. Recently, in what seemed like the response to a rape case, the University of Mysore issued an order prohibiting women students from venturing outside the campus after 6 pm. Fortunately, it was soon withdrawn following protests. But I wonder – if the concern was the violation of women’s safety by men, shouldn’t the curfew be applicable to the latter? Incidents like these indicate that even no-action, or not doing certain things is expected to be borne by women.
Deprivation is never neutral, and it is certainly not blunt. Carrying with it sharp pains of exclusion, I am aware of how my relationship with the night has swallowed the effects of self-denial, birthing both yearning and fear. Yearning looks like soaking in the midnight breeze through an open bedroom window, trying to imagine what the night would feel like if the iron bars weren’t separating me from it. Fear appears as a rising pulse and thoughts of peril at the sight of a man walking past this window as I stare at the midnight street.
Invisible little side-effects
Deprivation implies the existence of a contrast: privilege.
Taking solitary walks at night is a dream I am not sure I (or any woman) will ever be able to fulfil with a sense of security and confidence. At the same time, men enjoy the privilege of experiencing the night in its entire glory, devoid of a pounding heart that continually anticipates assault. In many conversations I shared with my male friends, I realised that this privilege goes unnoticed by them. “Wow, you're so lucky to be able to walk around your neighbourhood now”, I told one of my aforementioned friends when he said he was on his ‘midnight walk’. “Why don't you?”, he asked, unthinkingly. Cis men are not oblivious to the fact that the world is unsafe for women but they do not realise the small ways in which the fear for one's safety rears its head. What is romanticised freedom for men is the imagination of one’s own abuse for women. The experience feels universal, and many women share stories of it being so. When civil rights activist Danielle Muscato tweeted “What would you do if all men had a 9 pm curfew?”, thousands of women replied in the comments that they’d simply go for a walk at night. And of course, for every woman that replied, there was a man who didn’t even know that he was a barrier to the freedom of the night.
When I was walking with another friend through a suspicious-looking neighbourhood one night, I wondered aloud if this was a safe route to take. “What exactly do you mean by safe?”, he asked naively. To women, the answers to questions like “why not?” and “what are you afraid of?” are secondary because the fear is internalised. When a child innocently asks us why they shouldn’t touch a flame, we falter for a second, not because we do not know the reasons but because we have accepted them so fully that there is no need to remember them. Children ask because they do not know the pain of being burnt by a flame. But we know, so we are wary of flames even if we forget the chemistry lessons on heat and fire. Likewise, men ask because they do not know the feeling of constantly dreading an attack. But women know, so we are wary of people and places even if we forget the statistics of sexual offences.
Violence against women is not buried in pockets of deserted alleys and dark nights. It is an immediate reality. We awaken to it only when news headlines broadcast gruesome details of rapes and murders of women who ventured beyond the boundaries sanctioned by society. But violence, like safety, also hides in what it prohibits. Its ripples reach far, as the small ways in which women are starved of experiences, as the many ways in which women must anticipate crime and nurture fear.
The night being frightening and forbidden is representative of the larger conditions under which women exist, as victims of curiosity, as hands reaching for a can of pepper spray at the sound of footsteps on a deserted lane. As both afraid and envious of the man walking without a second thought on the streets at one a.m., watching him from behind the self-enforced boundaries of a window while managing a racing pulse. We cannot overlook these signs because they demonstrate how deeply our social settings have damaged women’s daily lives.
As long as the night takes the blame for danger, conversations around gender-based violence will stay masked by post-sunset curfews and ‘text me when you get home’ messages. But one must hope. Perhaps a time will come when I shall be able to listen to kun faya kun under the open night sky, breathing in the crisp cool air as I take a stroll outside, fulfilling my yearning without a smidge of fear. Even if a man walks by.
About the author
Neha Rajan is a student of literature from Bangalore, India. She loves sunlit afternoons, philosophical musings, and cuddling animals. When not distracted by these, she writes. You can find her hesitantly shared writing on Instagram - @nehaha.rajan
This article is part of a collaboration between TheLipstickPolitico x Pen In the Door by Gurmeher Kaur.