24 hours, granted
"Okay! Let's do this."
I sighed and clutched the straps of my signature backpack a little tighter as the No. 28 hasted my way in a zigzag line, threatening to kill me and four others. It is Dhaka after all. The kick one gets at the end of every other day for winning the 'alive for another day' lottery somehow feels the same as winning 50,000 taka.
So, there we were, trying to ride the bus from Mohammadpur to Uttara—a daily occurrence for me that comes with the subtle prayer that I don't get mauled or groped trying to get on the bus. It could come from anyone, one could get inappropriately touched by the kind-looking middle-aged uncle in glasses or a punjabi and lungi-wearing old man with henna-coloured beard. Today, though, after a fight through the gate, I managed to get a 'ladies seat'.
The woman to my left was in her late 20s, I'd assume, in a long olive georgette gown with an emerald-coloured scarf wrapped around her head. She was wearing a pair of glasses that seemingly had no frame. But she caught me glaring at the giant emerald ring on her left hand just as I was studying her. I felt concerned. One careless move and her precious ring would be snatched, stolen, or mugged in the "wonderland" called Dhaka.
Their faces told me one thing: these women did not get called into their male bosses' office five times a day to get the same briefing men got only once. I assumed they were not asked for favours to get a promotion or told that they were too inexperienced for the role for which they were applying. I could actually enter the public washrooms. No dangerous-looking man was sitting near the entrance making revolting gestures with his hands.
Wait, was it me that she's smiling at? I quickly turned my head the other way and looked outside through the rusty, broken window, still feeling her eyes on me. It was getting awkward with every passing second.
But I persisted.
My attempts were slowly working, I guess…she wasn't looking at me anymore.
"It's time you wake up, Aava. We are here."
I woke up to a sweet voice flooding my ears. I opened my eyes and the woman beside me was smiling at me as a mother smiles at her child. It's Uttara already? But how does she know where I am supposed to get down?
And how does she know my name?!
Suddenly, I felt as though a bucket of cold water was being poured down my back. The bus was no longer the one I had gotten into. It was cleaner, more comfortable and somewhat chilly. The interior was all white, the glass windows too clean to even be visible and the oddest part was, there were no men in the vehicle. I got up from my seat, rubbing my eyes with one hand and clutching the seat as hard as possible with the other. The woman with the emerald ring was standing at the gate, smiling gently at me.
"Do you feel well?" she asked.
"Where am I? Where are you taking me? Let me go or else I will scream!" I shouted in fear, and I could feel the anger in my voice rising. But I don't think it came out that way. It came out more like a gentle breath, like a request more than a threat.
"Calm down, Aava. You are more than safe here."
"This feels like a case of kidnapping. How am I safe here?"
"Just wait a while and you'll see for yourself", she told me as I fell in my seat, which I suddenly realised felt like leather. Since when do local buses have leather seats?
I held my breath till the next stop arrived, the pounding of my heart slowing as we finally got off. I still didn't know her name but that was the last of my worries. I searched for beggars, creeps, and dirt, but mostly, I was looking for people from the opposite gender. I could not find one, despite trying to adjust my eyes to the point of them not existing.
"Where are the men?" I could no longer try to figure it out by myself.
"It's your 24 hours. 24 hours of no men in Dhaka. You can do whatever you want. You wished for it. Remember?"
I did remember. I remembered the helpless night when I was groped near the rail crossing amid 20 people. I remember going home with a bruise on my chest. I remember thinking, what if this city didn't have any men at all? Would it stop functioning?
"Nope, it still works. It works perfectly. Sometimes better", she said, reading my thoughts.
I walked with her amid women laughing and walking on the streets without a care.
"Tell me Aava, what would you do in a Dhaka that had no men?"
I was unsure of how to respond. I stayed silent and breathed in the fresh air.
"Why did you wish for it anyway?"
I had answers this time. Elaborate ones. But I shot back a question instead: "Whenever you are out here, what is your biggest fear?"
She was puzzled, "Quite frankly, nothing. Fear is the most foreign of feelings in this land."
"In Dhaka, things are very different. Whenever I am walking down a street or a narrow alley alone, I am afraid of men. I fear for my body. I fear that every second it is under the threat of being exploited, tortured, or raped.
Every second, I have to protect, not just my money or my belongings, but my entire body."
She stared back at me.
"Do you have to dress a certain way out here?" I asked.
"No, everyone wears what they want to. I wear the hijab and abaya, and my friends wear what they wish. Why would there be barriers as to who wears what?" She was more confused this time.
I felt like laughing. "Well, we have to care for the male gaze in the streets, the judgemental eyes of everyone fostering patriarchy. They look at us like a stalker does its prey, making you feel like you're without any fabric, rendering what you are wearing pointless."
She fell silent. I was saddened by my gentle guide's disappointment of not being able to relate to me. But how I wanted to trade places with her!
I decided to live through this dream alone for a while. Nothing there resembled the Dhaka I knew but the places were named the same. I spent the whole day running on the roads near Ramna park. Riding a bicycle alone through the narrow alleys of Mohammadpur without the fear of anyone jumping out at me from the corners. Peeking inside an office building in Gulshan, rejoicing at how it would look with all women employees. Their faces told me one thing: these women did not get called into their male bosses' office five times a day to get the same briefing men got only once. I assumed they were not asked for favours to get a promotion or told that they were too inexperienced for the role for which they were applying. I could actually enter the public washrooms. No dangerous-looking man was sitting near the entrance making revolting gestures with his hands. There were vending machines of free sanitary napkins at every corner, that too, free of cost!
My reaction to everything "normal" in that place puzzled the lady in green but she never asked me anything else. She just wished me a happy night and said that she would pick me up at dawn. I lay down in the middle of the road. It felt surreal, looking up at the stars at night for the first time outside home, all alone, at the heart of an unidentified copy of my overcrowded Dhaka city.
I had been out before, but not alone. There would always be a male chaperone protecting us from, well, other men.
Tahseen Nower Prachi is a writer and contributor. Follow @_purbo_ on Instagram and read her microtales in The Minute Chronicles on Facebook.