Armed with feminist terminology, I often find myself battling patriarchal notions with family members and associates. But in the public space, it seems all too limiting to make a dent and to humanise myself as a woman. I have lived in two cities all my life, Lucknow which is where I was born and brought up, and Delhi, where I moved, to pursue my undergraduate degree. Ramjas College of Delhi University has a rather liberating public space despite certain elements that intermittently spew toxic masculinity. It has enabled me to secure a sense of my realities whether ideologically, politically, or even at a personal level.
This often becomes problematic when I try to engage with public spaces in Lucknow, on a similar plane. The freedom of mobility that comparatively satiates my feminist palate in Delhi is almost instantly discarded, and replaced by cautionary tales of everyday street sexual harassment by family and friends alike. Caution shrouded by paranoia sets in as I tell my parents that I wish to explore my City of Nawabs, particularly old Lucknow.
The freedom of mobility is replaced by cautionary tales of everyday sexual harassment by family and friends alike.
In my summer break, I was working on a project of museum mapping in Lucknow. This required me to visit museums, many of which were situated in old parts of Lucknow, particularly around the Qaiserbagh complex which at one point used to be the haven of culture due to patronage by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah (who developed the area during a period of 1848-1850). The visibly poetic aesthetic of kothis (mansions), gardens, and ornately carved gates with fish motifs, often become inaccessible due to the sheer lack of space for women to co-exist on an equal footing with men.
As I set out to map Lok Kala Sangrahalaya in Qaiserbagh, in my ten minute walk from Aminabad to Safed Baradari, I was either constantly ogled at or cat-called by every single man on the road, without exaggeration. I was harassed to the extent that a man walked up to me and sang a perverted, objectifying song while he stood inches away from me, grinning and maintaining his steady, piercing gaze. I was horrified and to humanise myself, something a friend of mine has always inspired me to do, I yelled, “What do you want?” Unflinchingly, he began to follow me and petrified, I darted towards a safe haven, Safed Baradari. My parents have hardly ever let me venture out into old Lucknow alone, and that day the feminist in me felt a debilitating defeat.
The sex ratios on the streets of Lucknow are appalling. A study was recently conducted by a group of 31 youth leaders and individuals from Kadam Badhate Chalo (KBC) programme under the Martha Farrell Foundation. The Participatory Safety Assessment (PSA) was steered in a direction to evaluate four public places in Lucknow: Lucknow Railway Station, Bada Imambada, The Residency, and Hazaribagh, over February 19-20, 2018. The lens that were used for this study was to judge the safety provided for women.
I was horrified and to humanise myself, I yelled, “What do you want?”
Four groups with individuals from seven states presented the conclusions from their audits at the office of Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra, Lucknow on Tuesday, Feb 20, 2018. The audit of the four groups stated that the spaces were unsafe for women. They further assessed that the number of female guards/officers were low and those present were gender insensitive. Street sexual harassment in the form of groping, stalking, touching, comments, and clicking photos was rampant and facilities for restroom were located in unsafe areas that were either isolated or adjacent to men’s restrooms. Their observations dictated that all these factors resulted in restriction of mobility of women in public spaces.
Women in the city exist in blind spots of the male gaze. In public spaces, their altered clothing, choosing not to smoke, and their very presence is motivated to grant themselves the weapon of invisibility, a rather passive existence. Adopting these tool for self-preservation, anonymity, and an escape from the omnipresent male gaze, are the last resorts to become mobile with a restricted sense of freedom. However, with most men falling into the category of either fence-sitters or perpetrators themselves, these measures are undertaken under false pretexts by shifting the blame. The onus of providing safe public spaces begins to lie only on women and the tacit normalisation of street sexual harassment makes public spaces increasingly inaccessible.
Another study was conducted by the Lucknow-based Safe Safar in collaboration with Crime Science at University College London (UCL), Department of Security and students of Social Work Studies in Lucknow over a period of three months. A survey and a smart phone app called SafetiPin were created to evaluate the “nature of offence, the profile of offenders and the sense of fear amongst women in Lucknow while using public transport.”
The analysis of data of the study, where 10 girls with an average age of 24 years reported that they were regularly subjected to unwanted touch and remarks, concluded that none of the parameters received more than 3.2 on a scale of 10. The lack of safe transport services hinders mobility and has a direct effect on the economic independence of the women. The importance of accessibility to public places where women do not have to exist in the shadows of men must reflect in the public policies. After all, women are equal stakeholders of the democratic machinery.
The case of flâneuse (a female city observer and actor, a job mostly reserved for men, the flâneur) perhaps exists as a latent and secondary form of resistance. The existence of a flâneuse, nevertheless is a vital commentary on cityscape and the mobility of women within its boundaries. Seemingly progressive cities that interact with women in such a manner that entering a public space feels like a transgression raise questions of resource allocation.
The city of Lucknow requires a structural change, where the woman is not a mere spectacle who is allowed rare sightings, but a chronicler, a poet, among others and a mundane walker because that in itself is an act of resistance.
Shatakshi Whorra is a third year student at Ramjas College, University of Delhi, pursuing Political Science(Honours). If you sexist her, she’ll feminist you. She can be followed on Facebook.
Featured Image Source: Magic Carpet Journals