As a woman living in Dhaka, one who doesn’t own a car and needs to use public transport services, I must tell you this. Commuting to and back from work is hell. It’s a war; and I do not say this because I have to travel a really long distance, which frankly, I don’t. It’s only about 11 km. It’s also not the fact that there is no direct transportation service from my home to my workplace, that I have to take 4 different vehicles (3 rikshas and 1 bus) and then walk the last part of the distance. These would have been ordeal enough, if I was not faced with something even more terrifying: The sheer hatred of women.
If I sound like I am exaggerating, bear with me. Three years back, there were basically two kinds of buses running on the streets: the ones for which you had to go to the bus stop, buy and ticket, and wait in a queue, and the second sort, where you just raced across the street and hopped on to the bus while pushing everyone else out of your way. The ones with the tickets, naturally, were a little more civilized, and those were the ones I preferred to opt for. On the rare occasion when the bus was running way behind schedule and I could not afford to keep waiting for it, I would opt for the shove-everyone-out-of-your-way buses. Even those poor excuses of transportation had it in their hearts to show women a little bit of kindness, like slowing the bus to an almost complete halt to allow a woman to board, and reserving nine seats for women, albeit beside the engine in the scorching heat. If my feminist self found this benevolent sexism problematic, it is beyond horrified at what is happening right now.
In the last one year or so, something seems to have flipped. And it all started when the ticket buses disappeared and a new category of “sitting service” buses made its way on to the streets. In the beginning, I like a lot of other women thought this was not a bad initiative. We still have buses we don’t have to physically fight to climb on to. First they told us, we have to pay more than we did for ticket buses, because they only take as many passengers as there are seats. So there’s one for everyone! Yayy! Except, they told us there will be no seats reserved for women. Now wait a minute! Yes, reserving seats for women was definitely a sexist move, but benevolently so. But now, we are paying more (Dare I bring in wage gap?), and the service we are getting in return comes with a “buy a seat and get sexual harassment free” offer. I would take the crammed overheated women’s seats by the engine any day over this.
If you are a woman and have ever been on a bus in Dhaka, you know what I’m talking about. If you are a man and any woman close to you has ever been on a bus in Dhaka, you also know what I’m talking about. If you are a truly blessed individual who has the luxury of not knowing what I’m referring to, allow me to paint you a picture. This one time when I was returning home from work, I hopped on to one of these sitting service buses and the only seats vacant were beside men. So, I took one. He moved out of his seat to let me sit beside the window. If you think that was kind of him, think again. Following my usual commute routine, I settled into my seat, took a book out of my tote, and started reading. Now the man beside me, who had comfortably fit in his own seat for the past few seconds, is now suddenly too big for his seat. His arms cross over to my territory and brush against my arms. Instinctively, I shrink. I move farther toward the window, as best as I can in that tiny congested space. There. That should do it! Except, now his legs seem to be too big for his own space too, and are brushing against mine. I shrink again, and move my leg away from him. That seems to annoy him, so he resorts to staring at whatever bits of me are visible to him, namely my neck, a side of my face and my hands, and also other bits of me that are not quite visible. Imagination would have to suffice for that.
Usually this is something I and almost every other woman would quietly put up with. But then there are days when enough is enough, and we snap. Firstly, they are making us pay an unreasonable amount of money. Secondly, the service we get in return seems to have been tailored for the benefit of men. Because when it comes to catching a bus, the men muscle their way to the door and fill up all the seats, while we stand baffled on the street, not sure whether to participate in the wrestling match and have a fifty fifty shot at boarding the bus, albeit with bruises, or to dodge the unabashed display of toxic masculinity, complete with shoving and elbowing and groping and squeezing, and risk missing the bus altogether. Do you see how this sets the women of Dhaka back by decades?
It is almost as if we are not welcome on the streets anymore. Not that we ever were. But the amount of space that we had painstakingly claimed for ourselves, is being snatched back from us. When I insisted that I won’t let a man sit beside me, because it’s government ordained that at least nine seats be reserved for women, they laughed at me. When I pointed out the sticker on the bus that proclaimed the same, they asked me to shut up. When I repeated myself, they furrowed their brows and raised their voice and asked me what my problem was. I reiterated, my voice broke and I sounded like a broken drum, literally. And they called me “beyadob”, disrespectful, to not let an elderly, but not infirm, man have a seat. I told them they never remembered their age or their victims’ when they wanted to molest someone, and they called me a bitch. This is why women should be kept at home, they said, or else they go out and act like whores, bring disrespect to their families.
Do you see how this sets the women of Dhaka back by decades? Do you see why this is not a safe city for women? And do you see, why now, more than ever, we need to keep fighting for our spaces? Now more than ever, we need to campaign for a safer city for women. We need to campaign for public services that do not solely cater for men. We need to campaign for the society as a whole to NOT feel that only men are entitled to space and voice. That a woman is entitled to those things too. And she can claim them. Yes. She Can.