OPINION
Post-Bekhauf Azadi March
AWARAGARDI – OUR BIRTHRIGHT
- Kamjaat Singh
AWARAGARDI – OUR BIRTHRIGHT



ON AUGUST 11, Friday, hours before India marks 70 years of its Independence from a regime in which we were not free, women spilled out on the roads in Chandigarh. Just a handful. Some said about 400. 
 
Sadken bhi hamari, Galiyan bhi hamari, Raat bhi hamari, aur Raat ke chand sitare bhi hamare.
 
These were not women and men with stars in their eyes. These were real people. People who knew one march changes little. People who realise regimes have the skin of a rhinoceros. They have children – sons and daughters. They have wives and husbands. They have friends – men, women and transgenders. 
 
They were not out to fool anyone, least of all themselves. They were stressing their right to walk, irrespective of the exact position of the sun.
 
They were underlining a simple fact: we are a free country. Our men are free. Our women are free, subject to certain conditions. 
 
Freedom means different things to different women. To a young girl, it may mean a chance to study further. To another, it may mean having the choice to get admission to a different college and live in a hostel. To yet another, it may mean a chance to opt for a late evening job. For a young woman, it may mean the right not to marry and be on her own. To her neighbour, it may mean not having to explain why she plans to divorce her husband. To a call centre employee, it may mean the right to ride her own Scooty on her way back, and be sure of her safety. To some, it may mean not being excluded from key financial decisions just because she is a 'mere housewife.' 
 
They knew that even the simple act of being out during the dark hours is seen as an act of subversion. And they knew it is time for our women to send clear signals: we will be subversive. We will reclaim the street. WE WILL LOITER. 
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 If in a city, a woman cannot be out there in the street at night, it is not a city in a free country. If asked what is she doing there, answers, 'Just having some fun', and has a lesser chance of being safe, it is not a city that guarantees freedom for all.
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In any democracy, a key test is if one can loiter around without purpose. In most parts of our villages, towns and cities, men can. Women need to have a purpose. Their access to public places is conditional. If you are out late at night, you better be going home, or to a chemist shop, or to see someone at the hospital, or you missed a bus, or you have been beaten by your husband and turned out of your home. There has to be a cogent explanation - or you are declaring that you are available. For male gaze, if you are lucky; for stalking, if you are not; or for rape, if you are really, really godforsaken.

Bekhauf Azadi March was an argument to stress women's right to loiter - without having to explain, without really even having a purpose. As a woman, my purpose might be very simple: to loiter. You assured me I can, when you told me 70 years back that we are a free country now. It is time to test our freedoms.

If in a city, a woman cannot be out there in the street at night, it is not a city in a free country. If asked what is she doing there, answers, 'Just having some fun', and has a lesser chance of being safe, it is not a city that guarantees freedom for all.

In their remarkable book, "Why Loiter?”, in which researchers Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade dwell upon the risks that women face even in Mumbai, they pose some extremely pertinent questions: "Who’s having fun? Can girls really have fun? Do Muslim girls have less fun? Do rich girls have more fun? How do slum girls have fun?"
 
Also, one that might threaten the weak hearted, but must be asked if the Bekhauf Azadi March has to mean anything: "Can girls buy fun?” 
 
By deciding to walk on the streets of Chandigarh, the women and men stressed the notion of feminism of inclusion. The crowd that makes up 'people' cannot not have women. 

On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, bus driver James F. Blake was just doing his routine job when he asked the black woman to move towards the rear of the vehicle. Rosa Parks was just going home. And she was tired of giving in. That day, she refused to give in. So something else had to give in. A bus ride triggered a revolution.

You don't always need to march for a revolution. Sometimes you only need to be riding a bus, and refusing to give up a seat. Sometimes, you just need to take a stroll. 
 
Just be out there. After sunset. 
 
Your reason? There's a road outside, and you feel like having a walk. Swinging around in your car. Besides, on the way, you can test 70 years of azadi. Bekhauf. Loiter. Awaragardi. My birthright. Get  it clear, for once and all. Things have changed. No Nirbhaya, no Damini. No Gudiya. Varnika Kundu. DJ. Out on the road. Driving. And fighting back. Reclaiming the street. YOU HAVE A PROBLEM? GOOD. That was the general idea, in any case.
 
*(Kamjaat Singh is an academic activist who also dabbles in journalism and writes under this pseudonym. The author, whose interests encompass politics, media, communication, academics, law, cinema etc., writes frequently for Punjab Today, and can be reached at kamjaatsingh@gmail.com. An earlier version of this piece was published hours before the Bekhauf Azadi March. – Ed.)
 
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