Public space, loitering, and feminist activism may seem like disjointed entities. So, it might be even more confusing for you, dear reader of this blog post, if I say that really what I’m talking about is all wound up in a chai stall.
Public Space, Loitering, and Feminist Activism
Yes, I am talking about the delightful chai carts that can be found on almost any corner in a busy Indian city. Served in wonderfully small cups, the delicious chai is made hot (a lesson I learned after burning my mouth the first time) and fresh through a complicated process of straining and boiling accompanied with an incredible aroma. Even in the limited spaces that chai stalls are set up, such as street corners or the side of a road, there is always a sense that a chai stall is a “hang-out” place. The one I stopped today had a few stools set up and newspapers to read while sipping on the heaven-in-a-cup that is a chai in India. Yet as a woman (and also a sociologist cursed with the habit of obsessively studying people) I can’t help but feel the gendered dynamics of the chai stalls I visit. There are exceptions of course, but in general a chai stall is a male-dominated space. The people sipping on chai while reading newspapers, chatting in circles, sitting on benches near the stall, are mostly men. This is a pattern not just limited to chai stalls. The public parks and sports fields are often a male held space. Cafes and restaurants and other kinds of food stalls are also highly gendered with the significant presence of men in comparison to women. Even out on the streets men often hold more space than women. Through my conversations with women here in India and my own experiences, the more I have become interested in the gendered dynamics of public space and how this is embedded in wider systems and forces in India. In this blog post I will describe some of the academic ideas on these topics in the context of India, highlight some of the feminist activism in India around public space, and include both my own and my friend’s thoughts. So, feel free to make yourself a chai, cozy up, and keep reading!
A public space historically has meant “open space” such as parks or sidewalks that are publically owned and managed spaces in opposition to private spaces such as the home. Yet, the social management of these ‘public’ spaces are often contested through dynamicssuch as class, race, or gender to name a few. In India, the conversation around public space and women is often linked to the lack safety of women in public spaces as well as connected to social norms and cultural values about gender. Interestingly, although they acknowledge that the safety of women in public space is a serious issue, writers of the book Why Loiter Phadke et al. (2011) argue that the way in which safety of women in public space is discussed is problematic. They argue that stressing safety without acknowledging the structural violence that makes safety a gendered issue is to turn a blind eye to the many dimensions at play. Furthermore, it also works to construct women as agentless victims who may end up ‘in the wrong place’ at the ‘wrong time’ and experience violence. The authors further discuss how although safety of women is key, it should not be used as a way to justify their lack of presence and engagement in public space. To do so, is to reproduce the same kinds gendered ideas that make public spaces more unsafe for women in the first place. The authors write that “most debates on public space are disproportionately focused on danger rather than pleasure…Pleasure or fun is seen as threatening because it fundamentally questions the idea that women’s presence in public space is acceptable only when they have a purpose” (Phadke et al., 2011).
So, this is where loitering is connected. The authors emphasize that loitering, such as hanging around a chai stall, can be a part of shifting from a politics of safety to a politics of pleasure. In this way, the public space can be re-claimed as a space of enjoyment for everyone and contest many ideas of what a woman can or cannot do. The authors describe how the “right to loiter has the potential to change the terms of negotiation in city public spaces and creating the possibility of a radically altered city, not just for women, but for everyone” (Phadke et al., 2011).
Discussions about public space and women takes place in both in the online and real world of India as well. Feminist activists in India have engaged with public space in a many inspiring ways. Inspired by Phadke et al.’s (2011) book Why Loiter women have used social media to take action by posting pictures of themselves in public spaces by using the hashtag #whyloiter and claim space both physically and online
In the online sphere, in 2012 following the horrific rape of a female student in Delhi after boarding a bus, a campaign called #Boardthebus aimed to create a public conversation around the safety of women and their right to public spaces. This trended online through its hashtag and raised awareness as well as solidarity for women’s “right to mobility and public spaces” (Eagle, 2015). This online activism was also coordinated with a call for women to ride public buses on March 8, 2014 (International Women’s Day) to take up more public space rather than less.
Other inspiring forms of activism have been organized by the group ‘Blank Noise’. Formed in 2002 to address street harassment in India, ‘Blank Noise’ uses activism, street experiments, and art in their campaigns. One of their interventions in public space is described by Gupta (2016):
A solemn line of ten men and women arranged themselves across a pedestrian signal on a crowded street in Bangalore, India. Red reflective tape formed English alphabets across their chests. When the traffic signal turned red we assembled on the zebra crossing staring back silently at waiting commuters. Together the letters on our chests spelt a question for onlookers to ponder: “Y R U LOOKING AT ME?” The signal turned green in some minutes and we dispersed, mingling with crowds on the sidewalk to disperse pamphlets about street sexual harassment.
To wrap things up, I’d like to share some words from my friend Sudha Samyukta reflecting on public space and gender in India:
We (Indian Women) live in a situation where we have accepted and institutionalized “gendering” of spaces. How else could a chai stall be a “space” only for men? Where else will I feel like an achievement going to one of these little chai stalls around the corner and feel like I have conquered something? Why do I even accept it within my head, that this particular “space” is not for me/other women? As I ponder, it makes me sad and angry at once. I feel an achievement when I enter the space, when I return, I wonder, in amazement at the way I have gendered a space. Women need to claim public spaces, reclaiming is a later stage. If we can ensure that a group of girls in their most comfortable clothes can walk around the cities without fearing for their safety even if they are not in a group, maybe we can start a discussion on reclaiming any lost space. At this stage, women don’t have a claim to any space whatsoever, forget the “male” spaces. I would however add that it is not just the corner chai stalls. Any public space, including the upper class spaces are not fully accepting of a woman. A woman that walks in alone is stared at, sized up and made to feel uncomfortable. Somehow, as a society we have not been able to make women feel safe, secure and contented. She is somehow uncomfortable and worried for herself, and that is acceptable. How else do you justify women only in groups, accompanied more often than not with male companions and seen only in the acceptable spaces which are not essentially “male” and definitely never alone?
Learning about the complexities of gender in India is a huge learning and unlearning process for me that will continue far beyond my internship. In both Canada and India, gender plays a powerful role in each of our lives whether we are aware of it or not. In both contexts, gender is deeply embedded within the unique social, economic, cultural, and historical forces at play. For me, gender has also become a way in which public space, feminist activism, and ‘loitering’ are intertwined as well as raises further questions. What kinds of lens am I biased with when looking at these issues based on my own culture and socialization? How does ‘loitering’ in public space operate in diverse cultural contexts? What are the impacts of feminist activism around public space in India? How do these actions affect how women and men feel about public space?
Ahh I think I’ll go ponder these questions with another cup of chai…
Bowles Eagle, R. (2015). Loitering, Lingering, Hashtagging: Women Reclaiming Public
Space Via# BoardtheBus,# StopStreetHarassment, and the# EverydaySexism Project. Feminist Media Studies, 15(2), 350-353.
Gupta, H. (2016). Taking Action: The Desiring Subjects of Neoliberal Feminism in India.
Journal of International Women’s Studies, 17(1), 152.
Phadke, S., Khan, S., & Ranade, S. (2011). Why loiter?: Women and risk on Mumbai streets.
Penguin Books India.