May 2016: Why the infantalisation of adult women by their families must stop.
At a recent sundowner, I met a woman who said she wouldn’t come to the afterparty because “I have the Cinderella problem, you know… I have to be home by 12.” “Why?!” I asked, astounded—I haven’t met someone with a curfew since I can remember, and I had gathered from our conversation thus far that she was a 38-year-old businesswoman. “Parents,” she said (single/divorced, it never came up).
There are several reasons children are given curfews. For boys and girls, the primary one is safety—dark things lurk in the shadows of the night. With teenagers, parents are also worried about the things they get up to, though someone I know once retorted to his father, “It’s not like we can’t have sex in the day, you know.”
From teenage, one notices a strong bifurcation, where the boys’ curfews are much later than the girls’, even between siblings. Why, though? Socioculturally, boys experiment with alcohol, drugs, porn, sex and drugs, and start driving earlier than girls do; ergo, it is safe to assume that the things they’re getting up to are ‘worse’ than the girls. Alongside the sexual safety aspect, another thing has changed here—here’s where The Big R, Reputation, raises its head for girls.
And it apparently stays that way, until the woman is married, whether or not she lives with her parents. I’ve heard many generations of my girl students from out of town (in Mumbai for a post grad course, around 22-23 years old) tell me how their parents call to ensure they’re home at night. A 30-year-old friend from the North East describes how her mother uses FaceTime or insists on receiving a WhatsApp location. (Every one of them ends up telling their parents the most creative lies, just FYI. As do the boys.)
For a moment, let’s consider—and dismiss—the sexual safety aspect for adult women. Acquaintance rape (by a man you know) and custodial rape (by a man with higher status, such as a landlord, policeman or employer), which are common in India, are as likely in the day as in the night. Assuming a woman is with people she trusts, her passage home late at night is safe enough in most Indian metros. I take my safety in the trains, cabs and autos of Mumbai for granted; even in Delhi, radio cabs and safety apps mean women no longer need a male escort home, as we did when I lived there. No drunk driving either, great.
The bottom line, methinks, is that families fear the nefarious nocturnal activities of their daughters—and the reputation they engender. This infantalisation of women, their wills bent at the altar of patriarchy norms and safety, makes curfew a feminist issue.
Parents: trust your kids, set them free, and know that what’s fair for your sons is fair for your daughters. Women: push the boundaries. Stay out at night, reclaim our streets, play a part in making that the new normal. The personal is, after all, political.
An edited version of this article appeared on iDiva in May 2016.