I recall the first moment by mother made me conscious of being a girl in public. I was all of 14 years when my mother and I decided to go shopping to Jayalakshmi. As we didn’t have our a private mode of transport, we had to take the most convenient and cheapest mode available – the good ol’ private bus. I was wearing a t-shirt and a cute lil’ skirt that covered my knees (because the length of my skirt was a measure of my ‘culture’). As I entered the bus, I found a seat for myself, sat comfortably, legs spread wide apart but in a manner that didn’t show my underwear. But, my comfort didn’t matter. The society’s comfort mattered more. My mother, whispered into my ear, “Edi penne, sit with your legs crossed!”.
That was the very first time I realised that women couldn’t sit with their legs spread apart, even though it was the most comfortable way to sit, only because it wasn’t womanly enough. Men, on the other hand, could sit in any manner they wanted. In fact, there’s a word for it too – manspreading. No bloody soul would question their action, just saying. Some would call it public etiquette. But, it wasn’t. It was dominance. This very thought engulfed my mind every time I sat somewhere in public.
When I left Kerala to pursue my education, I decided I would never do what my mother told me that day. I was determined to prove her thinking wrong because I knew, deep down, that my comfort mattered more than what other people thought. Over the years, I never sat with my legs crossed while travelling in public. Even though eyes ogled at me, I didn’t bat an eyelid because I wasn’t going to let them decide the way I sat. I’d admit though, on occasions, I would sit crossed legs, but only when my body permitted it. When you think about it, it may sound trivial that women are expected to sit crossed legged while men, spread apart. But, at the bottom of it all, it is the notion that men have the ‘right’ to occupy more space, both in private and public places’. It’s a right that’s not written in any constitution. It’s a right that patriarchy has set, and that has been passed on from one generation to another.
You’ll see this played out everywhere, not only in the way men and women are assumed to sit. Let’s take the case of a family of four, which includes a father, mother, daughter, and son. They’re on their way to visit a place. Their driver comes to pick them up. Who do you think gets to sit in the front seat? The father, of course. The rest of the family has no other choice but to sit in the back of the car, all cramped up, while the father enjoys the luxury of sitting right next to the AC, all relaxed and stretched out. It’s because of years of conditioning that allows for such things to happen, and we let it be without questioning it.
The sad part though, is that many men think it’s their right. Some women, on the other hand, feel like they have to be apologetic for occupying space that they also have the right to claim. It’s a space issue; one that needs to be talked about. This may seem pointless to a person who thinks it isn’t a concerning issue, but then again, that very thought comes from a place of privilege. Women need to fight back because they too have a claim to public spaces. They too have the right to feel comfortable in their own actions and not do it based on societal norms. So no, we’re not going to sit with our legs crossed because of some age-old etiquette. We are, however, going to sit in a manner that makes us feel comfortable. Period!