I’m old enough to do it on my own now.” She puts down her school bag and gives me an angry stare. “Tomorrow; we’ll discuss it tomorrow,” I say, trying to push away this negotiation. For a few weeks now, my 11-yearold daughter has been insisting that she can walk home from the bus-stop every afternoon on her own. The school bus drops her at the end of our busy two-way street filled with parked taxis, tempos, and with a steady rumble of traffic and people. There’s the danger of getting hit by a careless vehicle but there’s also the other fear of my daughter encountering sexual harassment in the street at such an early age.
As one follows media reportage of serious incidents of sexual assault and kidnapping of young women and girls, some barely out of toddlerhood, I cannot shy away from those real possibilities. When my daughter was younger, I thought I was being paranoid about not letting her use the unmanned elevator in our building alone. After she turned 9, I let her do so, initially keeping close watch on the elevator panel. But recently, I read about two separate incidents in Mumbai involving young girls being attacked in their apartment elevators by older men. Maybe my paranoia was not so misplaced.
It’s the unenviable job of parents today to be both protective and paranoid. Still, as a person who writes often on the question of women’s presence and absence in public space, I realise that even as I stumble around parenthood trying to teach my daughters the things that can keep them safe--and this ranges from conversations about the facts of life and issues of consent and choice to practical steps to keep yourself out of harm’s way (taking karate classes, understanding good touch-bad touch, being mindful of strangers but also trusting your instincts with people-known-to-us-but-who-make-us-uncomfortable, being attentive to surroundings when out in public)--I cannot let my fears limit my daughter’s access to the world out there. Often in my research, I have talked to young women who have recounted how harassment by boys at the nukkad meant taking a longer route to the tuition/dance/music class; how being stalked made them drop out of school/ college; how feeling threatened on the street/ bus compels their parents to detain them at home. Ambitions are abbreviated. Goals pruned. Dreams are sacrificed when girls are relentlessly threatened by real and potential violence. For our girls, it’s not just about facing the threat out there, it’s also about facing us, their families. When they step out, as they should, they need the assurance that when they report their fears to us, we will not rebuke them and hold them back. Instead we will make every attempt to protect their freedoms. These freedoms — to study, work, sit in a park, walk the street, make their own choices — have been long fought for. Our parental paranoia cannot be allowed to restrict our daughter’s dreams of independence. We all have to start somewhere. My 11-year-old has started by walking home on her own. Her mother has started by letting go, slowly.
(Sameera Khan is a writer, researcher and coauthor of the book, ‘Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets’.)