“ If freedom in society is to be equated with freedom to pee, then women are the least free of all.” –Mustansir Dalvi
I despise men on bikes. I despise the strength they boast of while driving this heavy vehicle, I despise the sound its engine makes–as if it’s the only thing in the entire world. I despise the callousness with which they sideline, or worse, pose a threat to female pedestrians.
Everyone loves the flâneur, Baudelaire’s ultimate symbol of modernity. As long as there have been cities, there have been flâneurs. They are defined by their customary strolling and looking, by their idleness and observational bent of mind. A flâneur reads the city as one reads a text and in turn, creates a text of his own. It is, however, difficult to think of a cultural figure of the flâneuse, a woman walker who is as openly reclaiming and engaging with the city as the flâneur.
I walk a lot. Sometimes for hours. For me, going outwards is a way of going inwards; an everyday trip I take where every distraction is worthy of attention. I find gardens and colonies repetitive and unexciting but streets never end for me because there is always a different route I can take, always a hidden alleyway I will end up in. The city I receive while I walk is very different from the city I experience through other locomotion. I am transformed into a spectator, a drifter who is going where inspiration leads her, a person acting on fate and agency. But when most women you meet on the streets have a tale or two of some kind of harassment, my supposed sense of agency seems more and more like an exercise in recklessness and courage. This ultimate symbol of modernity that Baudelaire was describing is, like always, a privilege accorded only to men; for women it exists as a fraught proposition.
Aimless loitering delivers to you the possibility of pleasure that does not cost anything; a combination of both agency and desire. It is this act of carving out a public space for oneself that women cannot access because it is considered both frivolous and disruptive. Women seldom get out of the house on an aimless promenade. They must always be walking towards a destination. Every step is carefully premeditated but also deeply transgressive. Imagine street corners full of women sitting around, discussing politics with their legs stretched out, and casually strolling. I have seen men do that. And when I come across them, I instinctively drop my gaze and pass them with my head lowered. I can feel them stare, almost as if they are questioning my presence in the space they ‘own’.
I can never walk like a man: with remarkable indifference while taking up space wherever I go. It is not a relaxed proposition for me.I am perpetually worried—is the neck of my top too low, are my breasts moving a lot, is there a bike ready to knock me down, are the neighbours noticing me too much? When I was returning from a walk, I saw a dog sitting by the side of the street. I was thinking of turning around when I spotted a man walking in front of me. He looked comfortable in the way only men can be comfortable. The dog did not bark and bowed its head but glowered at me, stood up, and barked a second later when I passed. It must have sensed the fear in my body. The fear that is omnipresent, despite how safe the surroundings may appear.
French theorist Michel de Certeau proposed a theory of the city that was against the ideals of how urban planners and managers sought to construct it. He considered city walls, fences, gates, or even borders as examples of strategies of control. For him, walking in the city was a way of going against the totalising mapping of the city. Walking has its own rhetoric as people move and write their own urban space that renders the order given to cities by the planners dispensable. What am I writing when I am walking? My every step spells out fear and restlessness. I am not resisting anything as Certeau would have liked to believe. I will not call my fear resistance.
I was ten when I first experienced sexual harassment on the streets. A man was constantly touching my butt from behind in a crowded market. My grandmother was walking in front of me. I was terrified. I had the knowledge that something terrible was happening, but no language for it, no heart to scream it out. I was sweating profusely and tried several times to call out to my grandmother. For five minutes straight, that stranger touched my butt and for five minutes straight, I let him. Over the years, several incidents of harassment occurred and I got used to them all, like a woman does. From men on bikes who laugh like hyenas as they zoom past to cars that follow you, or even strangers who cat-call you and comment on your appearance.
I am 22. Now, I have the knowledge when something terrible is going to happen and I also have the language for it. But I still lack the confidence to scream. It feels strange to exist in a state of both progress and regress, power and powerlessness. It was on one of my walks that I sensed a bike approaching me from behind. There were two men and they kept getting closer. I couldn’t understand why, until one of them put his hand out and casually touched my breast. They then rode away without stopping. I went home in a state of shock, did not tell anyone, fell asleep and woke up to a new day.
In 1831, George Sand had to dress as a boy to experience Paris, to give herself the freedom she would otherwise not get being a woman:
“So I had made for myself a redingote‐guérite in heavy grey cloth, pants and vest to match. With a grey hat and large woollen cravat, I was a perfect first‐year student. I can’t express the pleasure my boots gave me: I would gladly have slept with them, as my brother did in his young age, when he got his first pair.
With those little iron‐shod heels, I was solid on the pavement. I flew from one end of Paris to the other. It seemed to me that I could go round the world. And then, my clothes feared nothing. I ran out in every kind of weather, I came home at every sort of hour, I sat in the pit at the theatre. No one paid attention to me, and no one guessed at my disguise… No one knew me, no one looked at me, no one found fault with me; I was an atom lost in that immense crowd.”
She had to disguise as a flâneur since she could not adopt the role of a flâneuse. Women have to plan and strategise before stepping out of the house– every step taken with serious consideration, every direction deeply thought out. A quest for pleasure might always come at the cost of societal violence. Maybe instead of trying to fit into the masculine notion of flâneur, women walkers must redefine the concept. They are engaging with the world through off-routes, dark corners, and hidden passages. They are finding spaces no one discovers. But then I am struck by a dark feeling. A flâneur is defined by his ability to blend into the crowd–he is invisible and yet his eyes are watching everything. Then, doesn’t every space that women go to have his shadow? Maybe he is watching women. Maybe he is making a girl uncomfortable as she walks on to a street. Maybe the flâneur is not another symbol of modernity, but a representation of everything that has gone wrong with modern life.
Shanna is pursuing her Masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In her free time, she is either deconstructing a film or listening to Taylor Swift.