CHENNAI: Earlier this month, when Greeshma Kuthar tweeted about being subjected to slut-shaming by the watchman at her apartment (and perhaps a few fellow residents), there was no reason to be surprised. Too few people, especially in her part of the Twitterverse, are labouring under the delusion of having achieved feminism for all or even just basic decency for them to go “Really?!” at the news. Greeshma herself wasn’t. For a single woman living alone in the city, she wrote “Chennai la expected this moral policing…” Fair enough; this is the city that wanted a 47-year-old journalist to get married to be able to rent a house closer to work. At Greeshma’s apartment, the watchman had been telling tenants about her ‘activities’, giving them information about who had been visiting, for nearly five months. Well, Greeshma didn’t hear about any of this until the watchman was fired, thanks to the behind-the-scenes support of her neighbourhood “Madurai akka”. “Another tenant, a Madurai lady orchestrated this coup and subsequent firing. VAZHGA LADEEZZHOOD”, read the tweet.
Bold & bitter realities
Such a turn of events had the Twitterati cheering for the kind stranger and her quiet feminist campaign. Needless to say, not every woman in social distress gets her guardian akka or aunty. It’s been ten years and Sonia Arunkumar has made peace with the fact that there was no one coming to her rescue. With her husband in a different city, it’s just she and her son living in the apartment they own. Knowing very well that male visitors would draw unwanted and unwarranted attention, she makes it a point to not entertain them at home. “Even if my cousins want to visit, I meet them at a coffee shop nearby. When someone from work is dropping me back home, I get off at a distance and walk the last stretch. When people notice what you do, when you leave to work, you automatically worry about what might come up around these things too; even though you shouldn’t have to. We are being bold and vocal on social media but day-to-day life la, ithukellam bayanthu dhan vazha vendiyatha iruku (but in reality, we live in fear),” she says.
While Sonia didn’t have anyone actively getting in her way, not every neighbour or the dreaded association secretary stays that way. In the house that Angeline had lived while working in Chennai, her house owner had been quite accommodating. There were no questions asked as long as the rent was paid on time and she and her fellow roommates didn’t cause much disturbance to other residents. But, things took a turn for the worse when a new tenant moved into the building and became the secretary for the six houses there. “We used to work in the night, falling asleep just before dawn. But this man would be banging on the door at 7 am, complaining about the garbage or the cats or a car parked in front of the gate that wasn’t even ours. It was extremely annoying but we put up with it. But one night, when my roommate and I decided to go to the terrace before bed (we like staying there till sunrise sometimes), we found that the gate to it had been locked. The man had decided that no one can use the terrace past 9 pm,” she recounts. It was much later that she found that it was after he found evidence of them smoking — with/without male friends. All their protests were in vain; they eventually gave up, only comforted by the fact that they were moving elsewhere soon.
Others’ moral business
But not everyone has that luxury. Ramani* was forced to find a house to rent after being kicked out of her home by her brother. She got lucky, found a house she could share with two girls. That relief, however, was short-lived. “Her building watchman complained to the apartment secretary that the girls keep getting visitors and they’re staying over. The secretary made it sound even worse as if they were running a brothel and complained to the house-owner. The house-owner called them and chastised them over it. Told them they can’t have over male visitors and that if they do, they’ll have to look for another house. And the thing is the people who stayed over were just friends. But the owner wouldn’t hear a word of it. She was like ‘no boys. The neighbours see them walking and they will think bad of me if I let it happen.’ The girls have no choice but to lie low; they just settled down,” explains Apoorva Mohan, who helped Ramani through the house-hunting process.
Such censure doesn’t stop with house-owners and apartment association members; sometimes, it’s the cops who take up the mantle. Aishwarya Iyer had just returned home — to a PG accommodation she shared with four other girls — from work at 2 am. Having had a dismal dinner, she decided she will go out for ice-cream with her older cousin, who happened to be in the neighbourhood. He drove by, picked her up and the ice-cream was had. When he dropped her back home, around 3.30 am, they decided to sit in the car and finish the conversation they were having. The policeman in the patrol van that was passing by decided it was not appropriate for the young people to be doing. He stopped by the open window to ask for what was happening. A simple explanation didn’t suffice; it only brought on a rant about how it was single women who are the cause of trouble, doing things they wouldn’t dare do if the parents were around. Furnishing the office ID card to prove the odd hours of her work schedule didn’t help either. The man moved on to question if she was appropriately dressed for work. (She was wearing a dress). They were eventually let go only after plenty of pleading from the cousin.
Meddling with misogyny
Stories like this, and much worse, are aplenty. People in apartment complexes take it as their duty to police the young people ‘under their watch’; especially young female people. A girl seen meeting a boy in the building is written off as promiscuous. A woman, however old, found smoking becomes a subject of concern. It can get much worse for single mothers; even more when she is suspected to be dating. Amid all this, it is stories like Greeshma’s that offer hope, despite its Urban Legend status. That, and people like Pratheeba and her mother. When Avira* moved into the second floor of Pratheeba’s house (her family occupied the first floor, while another family was renting the ground floor portion), all had been discussed upfront — Avira has her parents and very large, extended family in the same city and so is likely to have many visitors; her work schedule can get crazy and so she could be coming and leaving at all times of the day and night. Pratheeba’s mother didn’t mind at all. But, apparently, the ground floor aunty was not without objections. After all, women tend to be the earnest torchbearers of such misogyny and casual sexism that make up the cornerstones of our cherished patriarchal set-up.
Soon enough, she had complained to Pratheeba’s mother about the men visiting Avira and, as a side note, the way the latter dressed. All Avira got from this incident was a warning to not entertain such questions from the woman downstairs. Thanks to Pratheeba, her mother was proving to be an exception in the world of ground-floor aunties. “My mother was the least bothered about her (Avira’s) clothes. But, about the guys visiting, I convinced her that she should not be bothered by it. My mother is still not as liberal as I would like her to be. But, I am hoping she will get there some day,” she shares. If one woman can learn to unlearn her prejudice and allow for peaceful coexistence, perhaps there’s hope for others too.
We are watching
When Haritha was out looking for a house, one prospective landlord demanded regular visits from her parents to qualify; as a means to keep a tab on her activities.