Helmets, patriarchy, and the state

Traffic was sparse and the sun was fierce as a blue van pulled up by the footpath just past the MGR Memorial on Chennai’s iconic beachside promenade, Kamarajar Salai.

The van, one of a few ‘mobile courts’ used to dispense speedy justice to those guilty of minor traffic infractions by the Chennai Police, was over two and a half hours late. A sizeable crowd had assembled, clutching papers related to their cases, with a dozen or so police officers marshalling them.

Most of the them, including me, were there for ‘helmet cases’. For several years running, Tamil Nadu had led the country in many of the statistics that measure road accidents and related fatalities. Taking a stern view of this situation, the Madras High Court stepped in and attempted a few quick fixes. One of them was making helmets mandatory for two-wheeler riders.

In truth, helmets had already been mandatory for riders of two-wheelers for about a decade. All the High Court did was put pressure on the cops to enforce the rule strictly and introduce a new system to help them do so. Under the new regime, motorists caught without helmets would have their licenses confiscated and could only get them back after producing a helmet, a bill for said helmet, and the fine amount of 100 rupees at the mobile court. This process, as it turned out, would also involve at least one visit to the police station and constant phone calls to ascertain the exact date of the mobile court hearing and then another day spent waiting for the mobile court to arrive at the appointed spot and call your number. Cops tended not to accept bribes in lieu of licenses since, with the watchful court breathing down their backs, the police high command had instituted weekly quotas for helmet cases.

Instead of penalising violators through a heavy fine, the new system penalised them by forcing them to deal with the stress and anxiety of navigating government machinery. This, as you can probably guess, proved to be a very effective deterrent.

But there was something unusual about the group of people that had gathered at Kamarajar Salai that morning to get their licenses back. All of them were men.

Most public spaces in India are male-dominated, so this didn’t even strike me as unusual until a couple of girls passed by on a scooty, helmet-less, their long tresses gloriously streaming after them, buffeted by the wind. A couple of men next to me, already irritated by the long wait, felt particularly aggrieved by this sight and began to accost a nearby cop about why he didn’t stop them.

“They’re girls,” he replied. “What good will come from catching them?”

The men weren’t satisfied and began to protest the injustice vehemently.

“We did catch a few women when the rule first came into force, but many of them they couldn’t deal with station and court and all,” the cop explained, with an exasperated expression. “They would stand in the mobile court and cry. The judge would yell at us and ask us to take them away. Eventually we just stopped catching them.”

The spot on Kamarajar Salai where the mobile court parks was on my way to work. After that day, I frequently gave it sideways glances while passing by to take a quick gender ratio poll. I never spotted a woman waiting there.

Chandigarh, the only Indian city which legally exempted women from wearing helmets, recently amended the rules to make helmets mandatory for women as well. But received wisdom says that cops across the country are probably still going easy on female violators of the rule — either because the women aren’t equipped to handle the consequences of the violation, or because some misguided understanding of gender leads the cops to think women need special allowances.

It’s hard to pin the blame on any one party in this situation. It is probably true that a lot of Indian women, raised to be meek and agreeable indoor-people, would find it very hard to navigate police stations and courts. And it is understandable that traffic cops, who are trained to deal with people who argue and fight, don’t know the first thing about dealing with a crying woman — they would likely prefer to avoid the headache entirely.

The only real culprit here, as with most gender-related issues, is the overarching patriarchal system that conditions women to be soft and men to be their benevolent protectors (in the best-case scenario).

The state should ideally enforce the rule equally for all, but it is impossible to expect that to happen when the state’s agents on the street have patriarchy drilled into them far more effectively than the law.

Anecdotally, I know of many women who take advantage of this gendered enforcement of traffic rules. This is a weird women’s rights issue because asking for equality would inconvenience many women, although it can be argued that the exemptions probably end up hurting them in the long run (not least by adding to the list that MRA-types brandish to prove that society is in fact, biased against men).

What’s the ideal way out of this cul-de-sac? Beats me. If you have any ideas, leave a comment.