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On Pleasure in the City and the Contestation of Public Space – II

Editor’s Note: This is a continuation of the first part of the article published on 1 March, 2016.

To think about the class implications of feminist projects of occupying urban space, we must first think about how urban space is increasingly limited and contested.

Dhabas and tea stalls are often firmly part of the informal sector; spaces such as these are especially vulnerable to the systematic colonisation of limited urban land in South Asia by rich and powerful institutions like corporations and governments. The ways in which working-class people occupy land – slums, small businesses – are often illegalised through rhetoric such as “encroachment”, a term that literally means ‘invasion’. To add insult to injury, because local governments have not formally approved these settlements, inequality is reproduced by denying these citizens access to basic public infrastructure like water, electricity, and sanitation. People are regularly evicted from their businesses and homes with the argument that they are occupying land belonging to governments, corporations, or private individuals. Meanwhile, the ways in which the upperclass “encroaches” on public space are never similarly policed. As the authors of the book Why Loiter?mention, plots of land that are reserved for building a public space are often turned over to corporations by the government (87). The rich also occupy public space through lines of cars parked on public roads, and illegal extensions to property. The actions of urban local governments are blamed on rapid population growth, which in turn is blamed on “migrants” (or, to be more specific, working-class migrants).

Make no mistake, this systematic erasure is also gendered – sex workers, and working-class women traversing the city for work, are at once essential to the class system and the economy of the city, but are also constantly pushed off public space, because they mar the vision of the ‘ideal city’. Recently, The Wire published an article on how domestic workers, especially if they are also Dalit, find it difficult to find a toilet to use in the city – public toilets for women are few and far between, and when they are available, they are unhygienic. Employers will not let their domestic workers use their bathrooms due to caste-related pollution/purity discourses that are now being reframed as ‘hygiene’ concerns. Sex workers in particular are usually boxed into red-light areas which are then subjected to highly discriminatory housing, urban planning, and infrastructure policies, as well as frequent police terror. These, ironically, are the women who are in public space the most; they depend on public space to make a living (which raises the question:how can this movement create spaces for pleasure within that kind of occupation of public space?). They, too, are cast as ‘migrants’ – the implication of this discursive dependence on the figure of the ‘migrant’ being that all working-class people, all informal sector workers, all domestic workers, all sex workers, are outsiders. They therefore have less claim to the city than those originally there (i.e. upper-class people without obvious “ethnic” markers) – how dare they come disrupt our vision of the city with their bodies?

It’s worthwhile exploring the assumptions behind campaigns for women in public space.Whydo working-class men sleep in parks? And is it true that they are not policed? They may not be policed for being men, but they certainly could be policed for being working-class and ‘disrupting’ the beauty of a public space. Are dhabas really unwelcoming to women, especially upper-class women? Or are the women at dhabas simply stared at because it’s unusual to see visibly upper-class women frequent dhabas? Are they beingmade tooccupy a different part of the dhaba because of the narrative of the violability of upper-class women’s bodies? What would happen if a working-class woman came to a dhaba – not to clean, or to cook, but to have a cup of tea? Are we really making a radical statement about the right of everyone to urban space when we occupy spaces and ways of being that are usually occupied by working-class men and women? What does it mean when upper-class women, with a relative degree of housing and infrastructural security, decide to occupy marginal and highly policed urban spaces, alleging that these spaces are patriarchal? What does it mean when we understand these relations between class and gender theoretically, but we do not formulate activist strategies with them in mind?

These projects disappoint me by failing (in their actions) to interrogate and deconstruct two narratives about women in public space: firstly, that working-class men are a threat to upper-class women, and secondly, that it is upper-class women who are usually the targets of gendered violence in public space. This violence – whether systemic, e.g. the lack of public toilets, victim-blaming; and interpersonal, e.g. catcalling, sexual assault – actually is much more of a threat to working-class women.

In the past, some have acknowledged their upper-class nature. They acknowledge that working-class women are in fact disproportionately the target of gendered violence; but they argue that they cannot, in the bland name of tokenistic inclusion, call on the working-class women they know to be part of their protests. And they also cannot claim to represent an experience they have not had. This I agree with.

However, it is crucial to have conversations across communities, oppressions, and movements. It is also crucial to support working-class or minority movements, and transform movements that do not put these oppressions at the centre of their concern to those that do.Patriarchy does not exist independent of other oppressions. Therefore, instead of thinking through the lukewarm lens of inclusion (or charity – an idea that has deeply influenced South Asian women’s movements), what happens when we advocate for intersectionality to become the cornerstone of our movements? Can we structure our struggles around the ways in which forms of oppression intersect and affect working-class and minority women the most? Can privileged women – like me – use our resources like access to social media, technology, the English language, the free time to go sit at a dhaba or sleep in a park – to learn, and have a conversation about how the use of public urban space marginalises these women (because it certainly does)?

Certainly, not all of these movements approach class – and other oppressions interwoven with class, for example caste, religion, etc. – with the same lens. Notably, PinjraTod, a student movement started in Delhi that critiques and pushes againsthostel restrictions on women students, has demonstrated a committed concern with these intersections since its inception. It consistently raises consciousness about the activism of working-class, Dalit, and Adivasiwomen in India, and participates visibly and actively in coalition-building between different movements. One particularly affecting moment of their activism (for me) was when, on the anniversary of the December 16, 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh, they occupied buses. This moment had multiple political meanings – of course, the bus was the site of the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, but it is also the one mode of public transport that upper-class women in Delhi are extremelyuncomfortable with, and also a mode of public transport that the government shows very little interest in. I say this not to create an opposition between ‘good’ public space movements and ‘bad’ public space movements, but to illustrate the kind of intersectional activism that we perhaps can look to as a step forward.

If, as Why Loiter?proposes, consumerism is not pleasure because it is capitalist, and the kind of pleasure women need to claim as their right needs to be anti-capitalist (in chapter Consuming Femininity), then the practice of getting to that pleasure also needs to be anti-capitalist. Loitering while inhabiting an upper-class body is not necessarily anti-capitalist if it reinforces narratives of certain bodies being dangerous and anti-woman, and if it doesn’t involve building alliances with the bodies that already loiter, and are already being policed for it. We need to think about the ways in which capitalism is operating in our forms of protest as well.

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Moulshri Mohan worked at TARSHI. She studied Psychology and English, and likes thinking about feminist culture and new media.

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