Last month, I travelled to the romantic capital of the world – Paris. Over a week’s time, I walked multiple alleys and cobblestoned streets of the city, catching glimpses of outdoor Parisian life from close quarters. Coming from the Asian continent, a memorable part of my experience was enjoying the unassuming, almost taken-for-granted ‘air of liberation’ that Parisian women breathe. Seeing Parisian picnics in gardens all over the city, observing groups of young girls and families sitting on the banks of river Seine, and watching women reading and enjoying croissants and black coffee in cafes at every nook and corner of the streets, I found the environment quite enabling. There were glimpses of what a gender-agnostic society may look like. I had more than one experience to illustrate this.
As I soaked in the sunset views in Montmartre, I saw a cheerful woman at a pub enjoying a beer with her young baby on her back. She was unwinding with her friends, dancing, laughing, and off and on, her friends petted her baby’s cheeks. She was ‘free’ – free of the truckloads of judgment that haunt most women in Indian societies around what ‘motherly’ behaviour looks like. Indulging in alcohol, bars, noise, outdoors, and chatter after delivering a baby!? Are you kidding me!
While walking across the Pont Neuf Bridge in the city, I saw a lady in a bright red knee-length dress, riding a cycle, pedalling away to her destination. It was a pretty sight. Delightfully refreshing. Again, she was ‘free’ – completely unconcerned about the ‘gap’ between her legs that dare invite the attention of the ‘oh so prying’ male eyes.
On another evening, at Le Marche departmental store at Saint-Germain, an immaculately dressed elderly woman, well above 70, caught my attention. She was shopping, independently, almost as a matter of fact, getting on with usual activities of life. There wasn’t an iota of awareness of ‘old age’ and all the imaginary helplessness that comes along with it. Her body language was as confident and ‘in control’ as that of a youngster. More often than not, old age burdens the mind more than the body right? In Indian societies, it is quite uncommon to see elderly women who are physically and mentally strong such that they manage their lives without becoming dependent, or rather ‘believing’ themselves to be dependent.
All through the city at all times of the day, I marvelled at girls on segways and skateboards speeding along bike lanes, enjoying public spaces, like no one’s watching. They were ‘out there’, in the open, living it up, free-spirited and ‘safe’! Sometimes I felt like an idiot noticing something as ‘irrelevant’ as the gender of a person on a skateboard that sped past me! Living in India has made me overly gender conscious and the entire baggage that comes with it. In a society replete with moral policemen and elected guardians who shackle us with unwritten guidelines on what and how women should dress, drink, or speak, my mind took a while to recognize the obvious – that skateboarding demands posture, balance and strength – clearly gender agnostic qualities of the human body!
One of my most memorable days was the time I spent at the landmark bookstore Shakespeare & Co. and its adjoining, utterly delightful café. I was so impressed to see a section ‘Feminist books for kids.’ Wow! While most societies are struggling to manage the convenient ‘abuse’ of this term and trying to extend its applicability on men as much as women, it is heartening to see that the Parisian society is willingly exposing its young impressionable minds to the philosophy of feminism via storybooks.
These matter of fact experiences are a rude reminder of how long a road we have to travel to enjoy that level of liberation. When our struggles are no longer about managing what time we need to start back home post sundown to ensure our ‘safety’. When we can simply ‘live’ life and choose to enjoy public spaces in a way that is as natural and non-judgmental as the sun rising from the East every morning. Thankfully, this aspiration is not a mirage. I believe that we’ll get there – someday. The ‘Why Loiter’ movement is a significant step in that direction, asserting women’s right to have fun and simply loiter in public spaces at any hour. One step at a time.
This article was published at Spark.