by Sneha Bhagwat
Making his Spaces Ours.
My work keeps me out late.
I like to walk alone on the streets on lonesome nights.
I like to travel alone to strange, far off lands;
I am a woman and I wonder what it would be like to reclaim my space.
Gender, an insidious, omnipresent social construct has created unnatural distinctions, solidifying its hierarchy by naturalising these distinctions in our daily lives. One of the most veiled yet effective places where the gender binary can be seen having a huge effect on our lives is that of space. The spaces than one has access to change dramatically depending on one’s gender, and by access I do not mean the right to simply go to a certain place but the right to access a place without any judgement or fear.
Space and gender both being abstractions, it is difficult to gauge the huge impact these two constructs have when brought together. Gender manipulates space in the most discriminatory and restrictive ways making certain spaces and the resources that are available in those spaces inaccessible to specific genders.
Gendered spaces are formed on the basis of gender roles. Men, the traditional ‘breadwinners’, access all the public spaces they want both for work and then for ‘recreation’ while women stay in the private space and maintain the virtues of civilization by tending to the domestic sphere. Even today, in the ‘modern’ urban centers like Mumbai or Delhi, although women are allowed to work in the public spaces, it is only with the sanction of a man. If she is out for recreation, she is supposed to have a male companion with her and even then there is a restriction based on the time of access. Whenever a transgression occurs, men take it upon themselves to punish such women by way of harassing them, both verbally and physically.
Sometimes a man’s sense of entitlement is a lot more subtle than street harassment. It can be something seemingly petty like ‘man-spreading’. Men tend to spread their legs while sitting or standing anywhere thus claiming a larger part of the space on a crowded bus or a busy mall. They are supposed to live balls out but women on the other hand are constantly reminded of the way they sit and how they should not ever spread their legs EVER because vaginas are to be protected from the manhoods spread all around them. One of my recurring childhood memories is that of my mother asking me to sit properly and to walk with my legs closer, or worse to walk ‘like a girl’. She asked me to make myself small, to give up my space and comfort for being a ‘good girl’ or ‘being safe.’
How then, was I ever supposed to feel safe in a space that made me act and sit and walk in a way I was not used to? How was I supposed to feel like the public space is mine when I’m supposed to follow a hundred rules to get access to it?
This constant feeling of unbelonging, of being unsafe in an urban public space is a another factor that forces women to avoid public spaces.
I recently had a relative come up to me with a ridiculous parallel when I told him that I was going to volunteer for 2 months in Ladakh. “Sneha, girls are like cars and boys are like trucks. Cars can honk all they want but when a truck comes along, it’s in the car’s own interest to move aside and let the truck pass.”
What he meant was that going to a far off cold desert to help people will make me, what people like him like to call, a ‘loose’ feminist woman. A woman who accesses spaces historically allotted to men, therefore becomes a woman who can be harassed because she dared to transgress the space allotted to her by the patriarchy.
This is the kind of orthodox, patriarchal thinking that perpetuates the gender binaries in public spaces. The gender based distinction of space on public transport or on college campuses is another reason why people seem to think that there are certain spaces that women should not access or that they are ‘asking for trouble’ when they do. Getting onto the general compartment of a local train is seen as an invitation to be harassed when all I am doing is trying to save myself from the insane crowd of the painfully inadequate ladies compartments. This would never have been a problem in the first place if our policy makers had not tried to use their orthodox, sanskaari ideology while creating public spaces. If every public space could have been accessed by both genders, the sense of entitlement that men feel would reduce dramatically.
The rise of right wing, radical nationalist ideology has popularised the regressive idea of locking women up or depriving them of their basic resources like their phones for their safety. This phenomenon is often encountered in girls hostels across India. We all have had friends who live in hostels complaining about the ridiculously early in-time or draconian policies like locking the hostel gates from the outside every night. This is the typical attitude that leads to victim blaming. The onus of not being raped or harassed is completely on the woman. If women want to be safe, they should not go out. It never occurs to such people that if men were taught how to keep it in their pants and not been made to think they have a right over everything in the public space including women, we may not have to continue perpetuating these regressive ideas.
The absence of women in public spaces at all times in all areas is the most important reason for public spaces being unsafe for women. Every space that has more men than women automatically becomes their space, an area where they get to make the rules.
Kind of like the way rickshaw drivers at rickshaw stands ask for a lot of money and none of them agrees to go by the standard rates and if one does, the rest of them pounce on him and harass him. Women are that rickshaw driver who is nice enough to go by the standard rates but that one guy never manages to take on all those brawny, testosterone fuelled turds and so; you pay too much for your ride and some turd rickshaw driver accesses the resources that should’ve been accessed by the one who wanted to go by the standard rates and we all live with the patriarchy ever after. (Hey! Look, cars can come up with parallels too now.)
So what do we do? How do we make public spaces safer for women? How do we reclaim what should be ours? Is there any solution or will public spaces never be accessed by women because they’re unsafe and since there are no women in a particular space, no woman will ever be safe there?
Don’t be disheartened! If you are not allowed to be in a certain space, the best way to reclaim it is by being right in the middle of it. Don’t be scared to go out in groups. Access every space you have wanted to at any time of the day, loiter all you want, just do it in groups. In fact, that’s what some of us are doing already.
The Pinjra Tod movement has had huge support from college going women across most cities in India. Women step out of their hostels, ignoring the restrictive hostel rules and repopulate public transport, roads, parks and other such places by night. It is a protest not only against the sexist and regressive hostel rules but also a successful reclamation of public spaces at night.
Blank Noise, a Bangalore based NGO (http://blog.blanknoise.org/) has been working on the issues of gendered spaces and they have come up with another such idea. Meet To Sleep, asks citizens to come to different public spaces like parks, and sleep there in order to take back free spaces without being afraid for their safety. This is a particularly brilliant move because not only are these women accessing a public space for no apparent reason, they are trusting the men who access these spaces by being in a vulnerable position. Women put their bodies in a space that they have been told is not theirs to access. It takes a lot of courage to do something like this and can be a great exercise to build a sense of kinship among a the women of a group that chooses to do this. Most importantly, it creates a visual of women who are relaxed, asleep, defenceless, not scared, not worried, not hurried, and not rushed.
Another such initiative is ‘Why Loiter?’ (www.whyloiter.blogspot.in) a Mumbai based movement founded by Neha Singh. ‘The “Why Loiter?” movement began with a few women starting to reclaiming public spaces by loitering in them, in May 2014. The group works on the pleasure principle and loiters across public spaces in Mumbai, in the day and at night, on foot, on cycles, in small groups and large groups, making the sight of women ‘doing nothing’ a normal and natural phenomenon’
The gendered division of spaces is, of course, highly restrictive of women’s liberty to move freely and access the resources they want but repopulation of public spaces with groups of confident and aware women can really help in the fight to reduce this rampant yet insidious form of systemic discrimination.
We observed the One Billion Rising in our college this year with a bunch of around 20 young women, plopping down right in the middle of a public space which had seen some cases of harassment in the past months. We shared our experiences with the patriarchy, some of them hilarious, some quite sombre, read some poetry, sat the way we wanted to, laughed our hearts out, spoke as loudly as we wanted to and were basically just a bunch of loud, badass, feminist gladiators who were taking back what was theirs and it was absolutely GLORIOUS.
If every woman chooses to do the same, imagine the sense of security women would feel, cocooned in the warm, glowing safety of fellow comrades. The more we try to fall for the rise of right wing nationalism and its regressive policies along with the orthodox propaganda of lame relatives and family friends, of locking women up for their safety the more unsafe the public spaces become.
Step out, reclaim our space. Go drink that late night coffee you wanted, go sleep under that big banyan in the park, go dance in the rain, go sing at the top of your voice, cackle like witches, giggle like bunnies, horse around, sit down wherever and however the hell you want. Be conscious, be aware and never hesitate to help someone who is being harassed in any way. Be the person you would want other people to be and then don’t let anyone tell you that it will be unsafe to be anywhere at any point of time because you are the one who is making that space safe.
Written by Sneha Bhagwat, illustrated by Kimaya Kulkarni
Sneha is a human female who studies literature and does what most people do. She eats everything at arm’s length. She wants the world to be a better, colder, nicer place without humans, maybe. She aspires to be a mountain goat and live in Mussorie.
Kimaya Kulkarni wishes she were a fictitious time-travelling archaeologist arrested for a murder she never committed. She also loves being what she already is, though, which is a philosophy major and editor of a literary magazine and the best friend she could possibly imagine to all her best friends.