I am a frequent metro traveller, I use it to commute everywhere in the NCR. My metro travels have been the source of countless anecdotes in recent times. Thus, unsurprisingly, the moment I thought about penning my thoughts on sexuality and human rights, I could recount some instances from my metro travels that have been significant in shaping as well as embellishing my perspective on this topic.
I was riding the metro from Delhi to Gurgaon at 9pm one night. Seated uneasily in the ‘General compartment’, due to having caught the metro in a hurry, I found it was full of men. However, as time passed, the number of passengers dwindled. There were barely 10-15 of us in the compartment as the metro halted at the Sultanpur Station and in walked an individual dressed in a pink tank-top with lips painted pink and a tattoo adorning their back. Heteronormative society would put this individual in the ‘male’ box given their physique, build and body structure. The moment this individual got onto the metro, I found myself feeling apprehensive about the reactions this would garner amongst my co-passengers. I crossed my fingers and glued my eyes onto the screen of my phone, in a bid to escape what I could predict would follow.
However, it was hard to keep my eyes fixated on the screen as I heard peals of laughter and applause in the vicinity. As I looked up, I saw two middle-aged men seated across each other, laugh out loud. One of them could be heard telling the other, “Dekh, ye chakka, pink pehanke chada hai. Dekh, dekh, sahi hai, entertainment keliye metro mein hi aa jaana chahiye. Saale kahaan kahaan se aa jaatehain. Uski lipstick toh dekh!” (Look, this eunuch, it is wearing pink and travelling on the metro. Look, look! This is good fun; to entertain ourselves, we should just travel on the metro. All kinds of strange people board the metro these days. Just look at its lipstick!”) The other man was guffawing like nobody’s business. My co-passengers did not seem to budge or flinch at this ugly display of bigotry. It seemed like business as usual. I could feel my insides boil in fury as some more offensive remarks were loudly exclaimed and drew more laughter.
Finally, when I could not contain my anger anymore, I called out to the two men and asked them what their problem was. I asked them if they could tell us what their source of unhinged entertainment was and if they could stop making offensive remarks about a fellow passenger and refer to him as “it”. Being censured by a woman, definitely was not taken well by these alpha, masculine men and they, in turn, responded by hurling a few threatening statements and expletives my way. Just as this exchange was taking place, the metro stopped owing to a technical failure. I could feel my heart beating wildly in my chest as the threat to my safety was palpable. The individual who was being subjected to the offensive slants, seemed to mirror my anxiety. As the metro continued to be stuck, I saw this individual press the button in the compartment to talk to the metro driver and urge them to make the train move again, and after this, began pacing hurriedly around the compartment. Finally, the metro moved and fortunately as the next stop was mine, I de-boarded and realised that the harassed individual also de-boarded at this very stop.
This incident shook me up and made me realise the cost one had to bear to simply express their own gender and sexuality in a society which was not tolerant to plural and seemingly transgressive expression. This feeling, of vulnerability, bred purely out of societal intolerance, is not an alien one for me. I have felt this even on days when I have worn a seemingly ‘short’ dress and used make-up in an effort to make myself feel desirable and sexy. The looks cast by strangers on my body, making me feel exposed, violated and dirty, have made me want to cover myself up, using my bag or my hair as shield. I have experienced the same feeling each time I have seen a woman being stared at or talked about in rather uncomfortable and degrading terms upon travelling in the general compartment, despite being accompanied by a male companion. Furthermore, instances of couples holding hands or standing close to each other in the metro or at the metro station invite intrusive, voyeuristic glances by co-passengers, inciting a feeling of violation, discomfort and exposure.
However, the experience of witnessing another individual being openly made prey to horrible insults was a distinctly disturbing incident, one that made me question humanity or the lack thereof in the society in which we reside. The fact that someone could be made to feel less of a human simply because of their desire to express who they are, is absolutely unfathomable and unacceptable to my mind. The vulnerability that gripped me as I listened to the insults and attempted to place myself in the oppressed person’s shoes was an experience so visceral and powerful that I cannot yet put it into words. Not being able to access a public space, because of your gender and sexual identity is an experience I have not had a brush with, but it seems like the most brutal form of degradation that one can be subjected to. It implies taking away someone’s right to be, simply because it does not conform to the conventional, heteronormative imagination.
Each of these instances, particularly the one involving the individual who was dressed in the pink tank-top, have left me feeling fearful, worried and helpless. As a young woman, the fear of being ‘slut shamed’, cat-called, and shown my place by the upholders of patriarchy prevents me from freely and unapologetically being myself in public places like the metro. This emotional experience probably comes from the underlying assumption that, in a public place,my dressing however I want to or applying a beautiful shade of red lip colour or being affectionate with my partner (even on the phone if not in person)is unwelcome, objectionable and liable to receive violent response. This internalised fear is a testament of the violence that I, as just another citizen of this society, have witnessed in my surroundings time and again. While the status quo and the resulting internalised fear may seem like a petty issue to some, I see it as a significant problem. This is because it impedes an individual’s full participation in society and restricts the maximisation of potential for anyone who is non-heteronormative and does not fit into our patriarchal society’s notion of an ideal citizen.
As a young woman, I feel powerless to do much more than get disturbed by this issue, write about it and talk about it with as many people as I can, with the hope that more of us will get disturbed by it and become more accepting of diverse expressions of gender and sexuality. I can only hope that someday, this issue will be of enough significance for even cisgender and heterosexual people so as to make us demand change and be unaccepting of such gross violations of personal integrity and freedom.
Cover Image: Pixabay