A lack of respect for women is a cultural issue, not just a ‘Delhi problem’, says Gul Panag, who’s lived in the capital and was once molested in the middle of a marathon here
You went on record a couple of years ago to say that a woman can’t be out on Delhi roads without feeling unsafe. Do you still believe that’s the case?
First of all, I want to highlight the fact that I am from Delhi. I am not an outsider who is visiting the city from Mumbai. The perception that Delhi is unsafe is what every girl from the capital carries. We all walk with our hands crossed in front of us when we have to travel in a DTC bus. We don’t venture out after dark. Maybe Mumbai gives you a sense of safety in some places, but not everywhere. What is important to understand is that instances are not on the rise – it’s that there is better reporting (of them) now. And I am glad that the media is picking up all of this news as it’s a burning issue that our representatives should address.
After the New York catcalling video went viral, the same concept was replicated in Mumbai and Delhi. While in the Mumbai video, the woman was not harassed, the woman in the Delhi video was constantly stared at, whistled at and also touched. That aligns with what you said about Delhi being unsafe for women. What would you like to say about that?
I fundamentally hold my ground on the fact that I have rarely met girls who have not been touched inappropriately in crowded places. Why do these things happen in crowded places? That’s because in crowded places, it is very tough to nail the culprit and I feel that the solution is greater CCTV coverage of each place. Men who are doing this should know they can’t get away with it. We live in a very patriarchal and misogynistic society, where it’s okay to say whatever you feel like to a woman. There has to be more awareness through the media, and men need to know that they will be punished if they behave inappropriately It’s a cultural issue and I would like to state on record that it’s not about Delhi at all. Boys grow up believing that it is okay to catcall at girls. I have a theory for why Mumbai is safer. When you see a lot of a thing, you get sensitized to it. I am sure the first bunch of women, who decided to step out in shorts, did attract a fair share of attention even in Mumbai. So today, when women say that they can dress however they want in that city, it’s because others before them have gone ahead and blazed that path for them. Let me give you an example – when we see an elephant on Indian roads, we are taken aback, but we are Indians and we have seen it before. On the other hand, when a foreigner sees it, he is amazed and looks at it with wonder. So it’s not that people in Mumbai especially like women dressed unconventionally, but since they are used to seeing them, they’ve stopped reacting. I am a Delhi girl and I don’t like this whole Delhi vs Mumbai comparison. But unfortunately, very few women can be encountered walking fearlessly on Delhi roads in broad daylight as opposed to those in Mumbai.
Serena Williams and Venus Williams were criticized by this commentator as being too ‘masculine’ and ‘unfeminine’, but there were many others who contested that opinion. As a fitness enthusiast, which side of the fence are you on?
Serena and Venus do not conform to the general stereotype of women. I have always been against gender stereotypes. Those two together are the most successful tennis duo ever. Whenever there is someone who challenges a stereotype, they will be controversial. If you fit the mould of how people want you to look, behave, talk and walk, you’ll be fine. But the moment you step out of the confines of that stereotypical box, they will have problems with you. Serena and Venus have built those arms and legs because they want power in their strokes. I’ve interacted with so many athletes, specially the Salgado sisters (Brazilian beach volleyball professionals Maria Clara and Carolina Salgado), who are so strong and pump so much iron. They regularly bench press around 100 pounds and they have no muscles to show for it. As a beach volleyball athlete, you have to be agile and nimble. They don’t want power in their game, unlike a tennis player.
Have you come across women who are afraid of developing a muscular frame from exercise?
I do so much fitness counselling. Too many women out there have a problem due to misinformation. It is very difficult for women to develop those muscles. That’s because female bodies don’t have that kind of a disposition. You will have to be a professional athlete and then work hard to develop them. The fitness space in India is just starting out right now and there is so much misinformation. I want to tell all the women out there that they will not develop muscles just like that!
Will you be coming back to Delhi to campaign for the Aam Aadmi Party?
Of course I will. Our campaign will be in full swing. Ultimately, people have to decide who they want, and they are the wisest. We respect the public’s opinion to have chosen the BJP. We do hope that they will use the mandate that has been given to them with great responsibility and bring about the far-reaching reforms we’ve all been waiting for. At the same, we are all in it for a very healthy competition.