Public spaces have always been a site of oppression for women, queer and trans* people, among other identities. The oppression has been largely normalized and sustained and is experienced by these groups of people on a day-to-day basis. There are different ways to look at this problem.
Recently, a ‘women’s only liquor shop’ was opened in a mall in Delhi and is still being celebrated as a welcoming move by many. But, there is a need to understand the implications of dividing public spaces in such a way.
‘Pinjra Tod- Break the Hostel Locks,’ a recent collective started against paternalistic, sexist and patriarchal hostel rules, launched a campaign called ‘Bus hai teri meri, chal saheli’, (hereinafter referred to as the bus campaign) on 16th December 2015. This campaign aimed at reaching out to girls around Delhi, encouraging them to travel together in buses at night and claim the public space which is ideally meant for all. It is detrimental to understand the political significance of this movement because of certain internalized and normalized restrictions imposed on women, ranging from “it is not safe for women to venture out at night” to “if a girl is out at night, she is asking for it“.
Now, juxtaposing the decision of setting up of a women’s only liquor shop to the bus campaign, the question arises: What is the best way to reclaim public spaces? Should the politics of division and exclusion be preferred over democratically reclaiming spaces, irrespective of gender and sexual orientation? Further, the former question leads to another set of important questions like: Till what extent can this divide be created? Should there be separate bars, pubs and restaurants too? Also, considering that ‘women’ can never be assimilated into a homogeneous category, does this apply solely to cis women or are trans and gender queer women considered too?
Creating separate public spaces is not altogether a bad idea. Most certainly, for women who abstain from stepping out on grounds of safety, it may be a welcoming move. But how ‘empowering’ would that be, really? My dissent arises not with respect to creation of such spaces, but when such measures are celebrated as ’empowering’. It seems almost counter-intuitive to create separate public spaces on grounds of safety rather than reclaiming the existing ones.
The protectionist argument used by many institutions that the Pinjra Tod Campaign aims to target is precisely this alienation and restriction of public spaces out of fear and safety concerns. The bus campaign is thus a significant move in this regard, where women decide to reclaim what is democratically and constitutionally a right for them, as is for anyone – the right to move freely.
Public spaces, as the word ‘public’ denotes quite literally, are for anyone and everyone – democratically, constitutionally and fundamentally. It is only unfortunate and ironic that the largest democracy in the world has the most oppressive structures underlying the politics of everyday life in these public spaces.
The Khairlanji massacre is a case-in-point for how the public fore can be a symbol of enforcing authority from the standpoint of caste and gender. The incident of Mahadevi, a disabled trans woman who was pushed out of a train in Bangalore, shows the deeply entrenched predispositions in the minds of people, making public arena actually unsafe to a large extent. (There is no paucity of examples drawn from the experiences of people facing oppression and violence, but an extensive discussion of that is not the scope of this article).
But the question still remains, are paternalistic and protectionist ambitions going to do anything substantial to engage with this issue of segregated spaces?
Featured Image Credit: The Women’s Only Race