A Public Space
I have no issues with airport body scanners
or with any such checks
for the invasive eyes of men
undress me every day,
for the breach of my privacy
happens as often as I step outside,
as if accessing public space
makes a woman a public property,
like she’s been put on exhibition
for the public gaze
with a banner hanging that reads:
Up for grabs!
Yes! Up for grabs!
Up for pinching!
Up for fingering!
Up for harassment!
Up for molestation!
Surrounded by a sea of people,
daily, my privacy
gets invaded intrusively.
No, airport body scanners
don’t bother me.
- Prerna Bakshi
(Originally published in Linden Avenue Literary Journal)
When I first wrote that poem I didn’t know that a few months down the line, I would be looking back at it in prophetic awe. Recently, a woman at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport was harassed by an immigration officer who asked her some very inappropriate and intrusive questions and later stalked her. As soon as I came across the news, I felt emotionally disturbed. It brought back some very bad memories. I was upset. Shocked. And couldn’t believe it was happening all over again. I knew I had to reach out to the woman in question somehow. Someway. Just to let her know I was sorry for what she had to go through. What a horror it must have been. And just that I could understand what it must have felt like. August 12, 2014 – I too was at the receiving end of it. Just like her, I too was leaving for Hong Kong when this incident happened.
I had recently moved to Macao and was visiting India to see my family with my partner. After spending a couple of months, sadly, it was time to leave. On a very emotional note, I saw off my family and proceeded towards the main entrance of the airport. I got my boarding pass and walked towards the immigration counter. It was there where the harassment began. Unaware of the fact that my partner was traveling with me and was standing in the other queue, the officer began asking the following ‘questions’.
“Where are you going?”
“What do you do in Hong Kong? In Macao?”
“How long will you be staying there?”
“Where will you be staying? In a hotel? By yourself?”
The questions kept coming like bullets. With each passing minute, what seemed like an eternity, it was getting harder and harder to stand there with his lewd gaze and highly judgmental tone, answering questions which as the time went on became more and more personal, intrusive and inappropriate. Increasingly agitated, I was being pushed to the verge of tears. I tried to maintain a straight face but the questions kept coming. This time with increased intensity.
“Why are you traveling alone?”
[I pointed to the other queue where my partner was standing and said I was not. But he probably didn’t see him till then.]
“What is his relationship with you?”
[I explained we were married.]
“If you’re indeed married then why does it not say on your passport?”
[I explained it was made a long ago. I kept assuring him that I was indeed married (though I thought it was completely irrelevant whether I was or not or whether I was traveling alone or with a group of guys – it was none of his business) but he wasn’t having any of that, and kept asking the date we were married and other details. I tried to tell him that no official in any airport has ever asked me this before.]
*He points to the passport again* “Madam, how do I believe what you’re saying is true? If you’re married, why does it not say on your passport?”
[This was getting ridiculous I thought. So I replied back snarkly: “Oh well. Next time I’m travelling, I’d make sure to carry my marriage certificate everywhere I go.” At this point he gets upset.]
“These things are important. Otherwise how can I tell you’re not just traveling to Hong Kong to engage in those activities? Many girls do that.”
[Just then another man lined up in a queue next to me. I was visibly upset at this moment. He probably felt compelled to speak seeing what was taking place around him. So for a moment, I thought he was going to speak up on how the officer was behaving except he only joined in the conversation to agree with him. He pointed to his or his wife’s passport and showed the ‘name of the spouse’ category and how they had it all filled and all figured out. I felt disappointed and didn’t know what to say.]
*The officer then uses the man’s example to reemphasis his point and the relevance of the ‘name of the spouse’ category.*
[The constant jibes at my ‘character’, the barrage of invasive questions, the judgmental gaze and the tone left me feeling emotionally distraught, disturbed and stressed. I just wanted to leave immediately, and get to the other side so I could share what just took place with my partner. So I told the officer I’d be mindful of that ‘fact’ he shared with me in the future.]
*He asks me where my partner is.*
“Where is he?”
[I pointed towards him. They both shared a look. By this time my partner had already been cleared by the other counter, was standing there waiting and wondering what was possibly taking me so long. Upon seeing my partner, the officer who had been reluctant to leave me till then, immediately let me go.]
When I heard the recent news that this had happened to another woman too, I immediately talked to some comrades who advised me to write about this incident either anonymously or publicly. I chose the latter. In a patriarchal society, the burden of proof to determine whether sexual harassment really occurred, frustratingly and unjustifiably almost always falls on the woman and seeing as no substantial action has been taken against the accused (conflicting reports are emerging on this issue), I felt it was pivotal to speak out. To speak out against the sexism, misogyny, slut shaming and sexual harassment that we are subjected to both in the private and public sphere. Hence my decision for going public. This incident raised a few points for consideration:
a) Why must a passport specify details like name of the father/mother/spouse at all?
There are plenty of countries around the world that do not include family details or the marital status of the passport holder, Australia being one among many. Australian passports, for instance, do not mention the name of the parent(s) or of the spouse at all. The passport represents strictly the identity of the holder and the holder alone.
In the case of women (as in my case for instance), it is precisely this ‘marital status’ detail (once left blank) that can be used against women to slut shame them when traveling alone or while accompanying people when not married. Additionally, it reinforces the patriarchal notion that women are the ‘property’ of either their husband or father. To have that on one’s passport, when a passport is regarded as one of the most fundamental proofs of identity that an individual can possess, one that is issued by the state, what message does it send? At what point does a woman cease to be, or be seen as, ‘property’ that belongs to a man? At what point is she seen as a complete, whole, and autonomous human being?
Furthermore, these family details can just as easily be used to profile people, especially minorities, the marginalised and those the state machinery wishes to keep tabs on.
b) Why must a woman traveling alone be seen as an ‘anomaly’? Why must this invite a flurry of unnecessary questions being levelled against them? Why must this become a ground for sexual harassment/violence itself?
Behind this lies the public/private sphere dichotomy dictating that the public sphere belongs to men and the private sphere to women. One of the most glaring examples of this were seen just recently when suddenly the internet was rife with this sexist billboard advertisement by Indigo Airlines (from a couple of years ago).
The fact that this man in question is a government representative and is responsible for sexually harassing women while performing his job with relative ease is unfortunate and astonishing to say the least. Looking back at the poem I wrote: airport body scanners don’t bother me, but sexual harassers masquerading as immigration officers at the airports, certainly do.