While we were researching women’s access to public space in Mumbai under the aegis of the Gender and Space Project, one decade ago, a police constable raped a young college student in a police chowki located on Marine Drive, the curved stretch of road along the bay that for many years served as the iconic image of the city until recently when it has to some extent ceded this privilege to the Bandra-Worli sea link.
In the wake of this attack, the city was up in arms protesting and demanding justice but also as is often the case, expressing misplaced anxieties about the clothing of college students. Young women in the city whom we spoke to were also anxious. Their anxieties stemmed not so much from the attack as from the anxieties of their parents and others in positions of authority over them. They feared that the resulting publicity and fear would further restrict their mobility in the city.
When we first spoke of loitering as radical politics of unconditional access in the city, many feminist academics and activists were puzzled by our claim suggesting that “even good men did not loiter”, since loitering itself was an anti-social act. However, interestingly the young women in college who would often begin any statement that professed gender equality with the disclaimer “I am not a feminist but…”, responded to the possibility of loitering with unconcealed delight. As Blank Noise‘s initiative I wish I want I believe in 2007 demonstrated, young women fantasized about unimpeded access to the city. One woman wrote, “I wish to be able to walk late at night in my city and find at least 50% of the population, at that time, to be women.”
Young women reported that telling parents about sexual harassment often meant that they were told not to use those streets or, worse, to not go out at all except when necessary. This of course meant that parents rarely heard about sexual harassment on the streets. When on their occasional over-zealous drives against public displays of… well even holding hands, the police often attempt to shame couples, especially women by threatening to call their parents. I have often wondered how much would change if the young people look the police, or indeed any person who threatens them, in the eye and simply say, “Please call them. My parents know where I am and with whom.”
The post December 2012 scenario has meant increasing reportage of sexual assaults. This by itself is not a bad thing. However, when coupled with an environment where narratives of danger abound, it is often a recipe for all kinds of restrictions and sanctions. Though more men are attacked in public space than women, and though women are assaulted more in their homes than in public, and though women are assaulted far more by people known to them than by unknown strangers; it is assaults against women in public committed by strangers that receive the greatest attention. This has had the effect of producing the supremely illogical yet widely accepted assumption that women should stay within the four walls of their home in order to be safe. Writer Rokeya Sahawat Hossain pointed out the irrationality of such thinking as early as 1905 in her story Sultana’s Dream.
Parental and other illogicality is not restricted to assuming that keeping their girls indoors keeps them safe. They often don’t want their girls to know anything about anything that might set them asking questions, or horror of horrors, exploring their desires and capabilities. This includes sexuality education. Clearly, information about the low rate of teenage pregnancies in the Netherlands, widely linked to their sexuality education programme has not filtered down to most parents.
Being a parent is not easy. One almost seems wired to be anxious. Reading newspapers produces paranoia. Parents worry each time their child steps into the school bus. There are far too many stories of all that can go wrong. Schools are no longer seen as entirely safe spaces either. The streets are horribly unsafe.
And yet, one cannot but know that the response to this potential violence cannot be to withhold information or indeed to restrict mobility. We also know that knowledge is indeed power. That sexuality education when taught with the view to provide children and adolescents with a sense of ownership over their own bodies and the ability to say no, and even yes when they want to, cannot but make for a more fulfilling life. That teaching one’s child to navigate city streets, dangerous as they might be, creates the possibility of an exciting and sustainable relationship with the city, a source of joy in itself. There is an obvious connection between access to sexuality education and access to our streets. Both are seen as a source of risk. I would argue rather that there is far greater risk in not providing the skills to navigate the equally complex and yet infinitely pleasurable worlds of sexuality, and, separately and together, the city.
Last year we invited women to post online pictures or statements of themselves enjoying the city under the initiative #whyloiter. We used posters created by two advertising professionals Nishant John and Abhishek Jayaparakash to suggest that having fun in the city was a form of claim staking. The response was beyond our wildest imaginations. Women responded in large numbers not just from India but all over the world and in sheer joy. We created word clouds of the cities women were loitering in. We created word clouds of words for loitering in different languages. The media responded by widely covering what seemed to be a revolution. More recently, another online space, a tumbler called #GirlsAtDhabas initiated in Pakistan, now also drawing responses from other parts of the world, also demonstrates the sheer pleasure to be found in the city.
As parents, we must work our way through our fears, because we also know how much fun both sex and the city can be. Sameera Khan writes of her internal struggles when her daughter decided to walk home alone from the school bus-stop. In another piece, I wrote of my simultaneous desires that my daughter be safe and have fun.
Last week my daughter told me, “Not listening to Mamma makes me feel adventurous”! At five, she seems to know instinctively that there is pleasure to be found in rebellion. I know already that there will be times, many many times, when my daughter and I will disagree. There will be times when we will violently disagree. My task, as I see it, as a parent, is to convince my daughter unequivocally that no matter how much we disagree, I am in her corner and will support her even when I do not agree with her.
Some years ago, I wrote the acknowledgements to a monograph I had written as part of a grant that was being published. To my parents I wrote this, “… For even if they did not agree with me, it was always clear that our agreement was not going to be the ground for their approval. Thank you for convincing me that I could do anything I put my mind to, and then never retracting that conviction”.
If my partner and I ever receive a similar acknowledgement, it will be worth all the anxiety.