By the way: Law, women, helmets, and the meaning of headstrong

  • Aarish Chhabra, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 06, 2015 13:27 IST

It is one thing to be headstrong, quite another to take that literally and not bother about how strong your head is actually. And I believed women were increasingly headstrong these days. Not literally.

Now before you — the feisty liberal feminist with English-medium education who secretly/proudly likes Fifty Shades of Grey and loves/hates Deepika Padukone, depending on the lines she is reading — pounce on me for being a misogynistic pig and espousing generalisations, let me clarify what I am trying to say, if it’s not clear to your exceedingly strong head already. I am talking about the basic idea of wearing a helmet when you ride a two-wheeler.

See, there’s this logic and it applies to everyone: Your head is the most important part of your body, is exposed when you are on a two-wheeler, and injury to the head is the leading cause of death in road accidents. I am sure you understand. But the law-enforcement agencies — even in cities like Chandigarh where they do enforce road safety rules at all — apparently do not. So you, too, stop understanding.

Don’t worry; we will come to the male-bashing too, maybe later.

First, examine the law. After all, the law does make protective headgear on two-wheelers mandatory for everyone, except for turbaned Sikhs who cannot wear it due to the logistics of it and who evidently value religion more than life. But women have effectively been enjoying a blanket exemption, only because subsequent rules ensure that in some states it’s optional for Sikh women and in others it is optional for all women. Religious leaders cite tenets to say no sort of headgear other than a turban, or dupatta wrap, is allowed for Sikhs to cover their ‘ kesh ’ or uncut hair.

The danger of hurting sentiments leads to an overcautious approach. That’s understandable for most people. But it’s not that there is no way out of the gender-based mess.

The Chandigarh administration, police and their counterparts at several other places repeatedly cite a Supreme Court order to continue the exemption to women. But there’s a catch as to what the SC order covers. We must notice a key difference between an ‘act’ and the subsequent ‘rules’.

Section 129 of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988, clearly says that every person, except turbaned Sikhs, driving or riding otherwise on a two-wheeler must wear protective headgear.

Subsequent to this, and rather easily amendable, are the Chandigarh Motor Vehicle Rules. Under these, Rule 193 says: Total exemption is given to all women from the requirement of wearing protective headgear while driving/ riding two-wheelers. Why ‘total’? These rules are easily amendable through notifications.

Delhi realised it way back in August. The police there acted after the government changed the particular rule and notified clearly that only Sikh women were exempted. Over 1.2 lakh women have been fined since, though there are some challenges as to how far an ID card can help identify religion. In Chandigarh and elsewhere, there is hardly any talk of such a straightforward legal method and a practical approach.

Don’t be mistaken, though. Women are smart, and we are not talking exceptions here. It’s not that they do not wear any headgear at all while riding two-wheelers.

Across age and religions, they choose to wrap themselves up in layers and layers of dupattas and scarves to guard against the sun and dust. It remains to be studied how many two-wheeler riders die of the sun or dust every year. Reports do, however, underline that most women on twowheelers who died in road accidents in Chandigarh in the past four years were not wearing helmets and received grievous head injuries. Yes, I know the same would be true for men.

So why is this writer not questioning turban-less men who don’t wear helmets despite the law mandating it? Why should he be writing only about women? Why should there be two different sets of rules for women and men, reeking of sexism? Sorry, could you please repeat the last question? Yes, the one about different sets of rules. That’s the point.

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