September 12, 2016

The Right to Walk: Women in Public Spaces

(Courtesy: The Conversation)

I recently published a piece, The Right to Walk: Women in Public Space on Feminism in India. It was the first time in ages that I had written a consciously feminist piece about a subject which had been consuming me ever since I moved to Delhi. I talk about accessing the public space in Oman and the United States before narrowing my focus on how I navigate the Delhi streets. It is an issue which continues to impact me but what I have observed is that I have recently begun adapting to the situation, deliberately becoming oblivious to the aspects which earlier made me furious: constant staring, the paucity of sidewalks/space to walk (well, at least, I have the gardens to walk in), and in general, never being at ease in the public space. Is adapting the right thing to do? Should I actively challenge the things which I resent and cause discomfort? However, so far, my only way to address the situation has been to write this piece, articulating my frustrations. I was amazed to see the number of likes (over 1000) the piece garnered on the Feminism of India's Facebook page and how many times it has been shared. It just goes to show how many women identify with the piece and how incensed and intense we are about the fact that we cannot access the public space in the way that we should be able to do. In any case, my voice is just one of the many who are championing the right to women to access the public space through movements such as the Blank Noise Project, which is a community/public art project that seeks to confront street harassment in India and a movement explores and encourages women to loiter in streets of India, Why Loiter. Our collective voices and action will contribute towards normalising a women's right to walk in the public space.

I hope to explore this idea in other pieces but for now, am just reproducing this initial piece on the blog:

I clearly remember the first time I experienced the unadulterated pleasure of walking. I had recently moved to Pittsburgh, United States; even though it was a steel-cold, gray December afternoon, I must have walked for over an hour, eagerly exploring the bylanes of my new neighborhood. By the time I returned to my apartment, I had seen several runners, mothers pushing babies in prams, and elderly folks amongst other using the sidewalk. That walk marked the first of the many walks I was to take over there. What I appreciated the most was the abundance of space that the walks afforded to me; I often had the sidewalk to myself, walking unobserved while simultaneously observing my new surroundings and people. The public space was a friendly, welcoming, and accessible one, encouraging me to walk and take pleasure in the experience, significantly offering it to men and women alike. It was nothing like I had ever experienced before.

Prior to moving to the States, I grew up and lived in the Sultanate of Oman, where I only walked during the night and that too for the exercise. The night made me invisible, something which I was grateful for because I no longer had to negotiate men constantly looking at me while I walked. The men never said anything but their act of looking spoke volumes enough – and the looking-at-edness made me experience extreme anger and discomfort. As it happened, I lived in a self-contained university campus kilometers away from downtown Muscat, where I still felt more protected than I would have in the urban spaces. I would like to point out that while Oman was a largely safe country for women, I nevertheless did not feel entirely comfortable walking for long stretches or periods of time in the urban areas; women friends and acquaintances often spoke of being followed or being harassed, making it extremely difficult for them to freely access the public space. Passing drivers often shouted out demeaning remarks, as if women walking on the street and moral laxity were synonymous with each other. Given all of these constraints, I welcomed these nightly walks. They say that you do not miss what you do not have; indeed, until I moved to the States, I did not really think so much of my walks apart from the functions they provided of exercise and contemplation. It never struck me that I was being deprived of a right or its gendered implications. I should add that it was not as if I did not have to face cat-calling or unsolicited conversations while I walked in various parts of the States; yet, on the whole, I still felt a lot more comfortable walking over there, no matter if it was night or day.

I moved to New Delhi in October 2014. Even though I had grown up in Oman, I had regularly visited India during annual trips since my childhood so it was not as if gendered public space dynamics were alien to me; however, I had always significantly moved around in a sheltered bubble which meant I hardly ever had to access the streets and public space on my own. Arriving and living in Delhi meant that I had to now consciously pay attention to renegotiating how and where I walked. I currently live in a gated, security-fortified Delhi Development Authority colony where it is still relatively easy to walk around but what happens once I step out? I encounter broken side-walks, if there were any at all, truncating the space that I have to myself when I walked. The narrow streets with their unpredictable traffic mean I have to be more vigilant of the passing vehicles, reducing my singular focus on the walk. Walking has become a mode of getting to point A to B, the destination taking precedent over the journey of walking, which I so enjoyed earlier. The sidewalk here does not offer much incentive for walkers to enjoy and be aware of the act of walking; there are no benches or other ways in which the pedestrians could engage with the urban space, which would invite them to linger there longer. You had no choice to but to simply carry on walking.

A public space theoretically allows democratic access to its users; yet, what I have most singularly realised over here is that there are sharp differences between a man and a woman walking in the public space. A man walks with authority, without perpetually looking over his shoulder, without worrying about constantly being watched and examined. Given that I am fond of phone photography and perpetually taking pictures while walking, I have faced double scrutiny of being both a woman as well as a photographing one. I am deprived of the precious me-time that my walks should afford me, encroached as they are by constant watching or unwelcome conversation. Can they not read my eyes and body language which singularly say, 'Leave.Me.Alone'? And as for nocturnal perambulations, I cannot even think about it, here in Delhi, the darkness potentially yielding multiple unknown terrors and threats.

I thought that I would find solace in the many parks that happen to dot my neighborhood; I thought that I would find the pleasures of walking there at least which was otherwise deprived to me in the streets and roads. I would find regulars walking around and around the circular paths, using the park space as a much needed one for exercise, social activities or to simply sit and soak the fresh air. Yet, even there, I was either constantly watched or found myself being followed on several occasions, the culprit tracing my steps within the garden and then from there onwards. I had to take alternate routes back home to dodge the follower, furious that the brief pockets of serenity I experienced in the parks was no more my own. What public space was left for me to call my own? Or perhaps public spaces and women were not synonymous with one another?

The only time I have found joy in walking the streets in Delhi have been the ones which curiously enough have been the canvases for incredible street art, such as the neighborhoods of Shahpur Jat and Lodhi Colony; the local populace is perhaps accustomed to the sight of people photographing and documenting the street art. It doesn't matter whether you are a man or woman; they simply encourage you to go and seek the wall-canvases which have made their neighborhoods attractive magnets for photographers, tourists, and art connoisseurs. Having taken ownership of and deriving pride from their neighborhoods, the inhabitants in turn seek to make visitors to the spaces that they call home as welcome as possible. For me, as a woman, I felt entirely comfortable walking around those neighborhoods, taking pictures, pausing to linger upon the art, chatting to the residents about the stories behind the art. I experienced the double pleasure of accessing the art in a public space as well as being able to appreciate it just as easily as any man would.

The public space is for the public and that public consists of men and women; it is not a contested territory, affording more rights to one gender over another. When I walk in a city, I would like to walk with the knowledge that it is my own and that I can access anywhere I want. At the end of the day, I do not want to move around in circumscribed spaces, subjected to a spatial censorship. I demand the right to walk without thinking that it is a right. 


You can read the full piece here

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