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CategoriesIssue In FocusMobility and Sexuality 2

Of Mobility, Ability and Identity

Mobility is most commonly understood as movement, either from one place to another, or simply moving one’s body, or a bit of both. A pillion rider or a passenger in a vehicle, is mobile. A person cycling, riding, driving, walking or running, is also mobile. A user of a wheelchair, or of a walker, is also mobile; however, this person is less likely to be asked the question: ‘Are you mobile?’ The assumptions made are often immediate, ranging from, it would be rude to ask this of a person sitting in a wheelchair, to, if a person is in a wheelchair or using a walker, they are not ‘really’ mobile. This, even if not intentionally, successfully disempowers and disenfranchises the person using that walker or wheelchair.

Assumptions about mobility also work in the opposite way, assuming that a person is mobile, because there appears to be no visible physical impairment, or because it may be assumed that such impairment is the only reason a person may not be mobile. Ask someone with agoraphobia, a fear of leaving the house or their own safe environment, what mobility means to them. Ask a long term primary caregiver to a family member with a chronic illness, ask a girl in a remote village who is forced to give up school because the route is isolated and her family is ‘protecting’ her from the possibility of sexual assault or an unacceptable relationship ‘chakkar‘ (fling) and themselves from the consequent ‘dishonour’, ask a transgender girl in a social environment where toxic masculinity prevails, what mobility means to them.  Any of these individuals may have access to a bus, or some local and creative version of the spluttering engine of some vehicle attached to a cleverly crafted chassis that can accommodate six to sixteen people, if some sit on the roof. Some of these individuals may have a car parked outside the house and a driver’s license parked in a purse, and absolutely nothing to indicate that mobility is an impossibility for them.

In Plainspeak emerges as the result of conscious efforts to widen conversations, listen to voices less heard, share experiences less known, and foster inclusion and acceptance of diversity using the lens of sexuality. Sexuality is an integral part of every aspect of self and identity and so every theme focused on at In Plainspeak has provided an opportunity for a layered, interconnected perspective across facets of life. The theme of this month’s In Plainspeak is Mobility and Sexuality. Right at the outset it is important to understand that both, mobility, as well as sexuality, are misunderstood and undervalued, despite both being crucial to daily life. People make assumptions about both and quite often reduce them to a few simple, unidimensional concepts. Sexuality is reduced to sex, marriage and the gender binary. Mobility is reduced to ableist concepts of body and capacity, and access to, or the possession of, a vehicle to get from point A to B.

Assumptions are dangerous because they have the power to limit and restrain a person, or to deny them the support that may be needed to experience mobility. This is equally true of sexuality. To limit and restrain a person and to deny them support is a violation of human rights, in particular, of freedom and equality. Mapped together, the interconnections between mobility and sexuality create a complex world where self, identity and relationships are forged, then broken or upheld, evolving or stuck in stereotype, and the cement hardens if nobody questions anything.

When you start to unpack mobility, this is just the beginning of a large pile of issues. Mobility isn’t neat, not in the way some travellers pack and unpack things, socks rolled up to fit in the corners of the soft top to be checked in, toiletries organiser and packing cubes neatly holding it all together. Mobility is straggly, untidy, the socks and undies disappear, the joint pain oil spills onto a shirt or saree and the wheelchair with the user of the chair is often hoisted up the steps because somebody put a lock and chain across a perfectly good ramp. All these images of travel represent some of the pain and complexity around mobility, and yet, not all of it.

Given this situation, it is important to ask: How does mobility play a part in building an environment where safety, inclusion and a positive, affirmative approach to sexuality become the norm? What is required, and from which actors, to redefine the perspective and create a fluid space where self, identity, and individual circumstances find room to locate themselves freely, and to shift location as freely? What is required to be truly mobile geographically, as well as within society?

Oddly enough, sunglasses for one, and not for protection from the sun! In past issues of In Plainspeak focusing on mobility, contributors have shared their thoughts, connecting dots to reveal what should be obvious but often isn’t, and also new ways of understanding both sexuality and mobility.  In 2016 Swapna Vasudevan Thampi wrote, “I travel daily from the suburb I live in to the metro city. Every day, I travel in a slow train in which the maximum number of passengers are male.[… ]I cover myself from head to toe and wear sunglasses double the size of my face. Why? Because most of the male passengers look at all the women in the compartment as if this is something they get for free along with their ticket.”  In an interview earlier this year focusing on safe cities, mobility is flagged – Kalpana Viswanath says, “I always talk about how the idea of flaneuring, being able to walk the city, and experience all the sensory elements that a city has, whether alone or with other people, is integral to city life. We need to ensure that it is available to all people. That’s where I think we bring in the elements of safety.” And in 2014, Mansi Wadhwa wrote about migration – and mobility is an inherent part of migration – saying, “One of the main factors differentiating male and female gender was the migration and relocation of the latter to her husband’s house and clan after marriage. The migration herein, was not restricted to a change of residence but encapsulated a redefinition of a woman’s entire existence, from her name to her status and functional role in society. In this way, the reconstitution of a woman’s identity was ritualised.”

Different facets of mobility and sexuality in interaction with each other and with multiple other factors are in evidence here. There are personal strategies that may not find their place in an academic discussion of either mobility, or sexuality, such as wearing sunglasses in a train! There are environment-specific factors so layered and interconnected that mapping them requires a multi-disciplinary team comprising experts from diverse fields that include technology and engineering, design, policy and planning, disability, gender, law, architecture, infrastructure, human rights, and certainly the travel and tourism industry. For example, the Internet often throws up questions about safety and mobility from women travellers who use online spaces to seek answers, not necessarily a safe space either, but offering a sort of mental mobility in preparation of the geographical.  Then there are socio-cultural factors and the use or abuse of power in patriarchal systems that restrictively govern the lives of individuals across gender and sexual identity.

As a natural progression of this, another direction when considering mobility is towards how we think, and the influencers of thought. If thought and spirit within an individual and across relationships cannot move beyond narrow confines, then all the physical mobility on the planet will not lead towards getting us somewhere on many issues that matter.  There are stories online of people on their ‘special’ day, the wedding day, with their ‘best friend’, who is a person with fur, paws and a tail. Sometimes these individuals grieve the leaving behind of this best friend along with the family they are ‘leaving’ and sometimes these individuals proudly confide to the world that this best friend, tail and all, will be coming along as part and parcel of the marriage deal. That’s one aspect. Then there’s another. Far less considered when assessing the physical, mental and emotional capacity for mobility of a person in an abusive marriage or relationship who needs to get out of there.  How will this person get out and where will they go when they have a dependant paw? Dependent human children are rightly approached with sympathy, empathy and enormous care so as to consider their best interests in cases of spousal, partner or domestic violence. Dependent paws, wrongly, are not so considered. They often become the reason many individuals do not have the mobility needed to get out of there. What will it take to switch to thinking differently about these, and many other lesser known circumstances? In some parts of this world, advocacy has effectively brought such issues to light and has even led to extending legal protection for pets of persons in abusive relationships. This is an example from the US where recently last year, the Pets and Women Safety Act (PAWS) was passed, signed into law, and now provides legal protection that even includes “a criminal penalty for those who travel across state lines with the intent of violating a protection order against a pet”.

One may debate the value and importance placed on animal versus human life in different corners of the world and in different cultures, just for making a point. One cannot debate that a human animal relationship transcends politics, gender, borders and cultures for vast millions of people and animals everywhere. A quick search on Instagram yields almost as many people camping, driving cross-country, traveling, walking, hiking, cycling, kayaking, reviewing pet friendly hotels and climbing mountains with dogs and cats, and sometimes even with ducks, as there are people doing these things with children. Pets caught with their human families in disaster and crisis situations are another example of circumstances that impact the capacity for mobility even to escape disaster. Articles such as this one point out how “many residents of New Orleans refused to evacuate their homes in advance of Hurricane Katrina in order to stay with their animals, which were barred from shelters like the Superdome.”

Disasters are another superstage of dramatic activity where constrained mobility and the inability to leave the scene of disaster impacts safety and affects different people differently. For example, as reported here about events around the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004: “Both domestic violence and sexual assault were widely reported to increase in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Examples from Sri Lanka cited by researchers include women battered because they resist their husbands’ sale of their jewelry or disputed their use of tsunami relief funds and mothers blamed by fathers for the deaths of their children. One NGO reported a three-fold increase in cases brought to them following the tsunami.” The Gender & Disaster Network (GDN), mentions LGBTQI people specifically on their website, as being particularly marginalised and therefore vulnerable and requiring specific resource focus during disasters, stating “GDN aims to be as inclusive as it possibly can. It will add LGBT+ resources here whenever it can.” Many resources and service providers have begun to include the aspect of inclusion and safety under circumstances such as these that in particular may be assumed to negatively impact what may already be restricted mobility for many individuals and communities. This description of a training workshop, or this Fact Sheet about sexual violence during disasters are further examples.

Such accounting of aspects of mobility and sexuality can take up far greater space, time, knowledge, resources and energy than is possible in this article here. However, as a concluding thought, one may turn to childhood and seek a personal understanding of the subject. Childhood is a part of the life experience of every adult on this planet, without any exceptions. A brilliant way of treating childhoods as a resource for fostering compassion, and mobility of thought and spirit, allowing us to migrate across diverse experiences while still located in our own lives and selves, is provided by toys. Going far beyond “blue is for boys, pink is for girls, boys like engines, girls like jewellery,” these particular toys are a very inclusive view of us, accepting of human diversity across bodies, relationships and self. We need more of such creative spirit and thought. Creativity is in itself a kind of mobility, as it requires a person to shift location across different ways of thinking, feeling, relating, doing and being. Creative responses are needed to the questions raised here in this article and elsewhere by others tackling these themes.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Cover Image: Shikha Aleya

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Article written by:

Reads, writes, does Sudoku, grows plants and walks with dogs as a reasonable option to running with wolves. Is a consultant with TARSHI, focusing on health, disability, gender and rights issues. A post-graduate from XLRI, graduated from Hindu college, Delhi University.

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