Women and Public Spaces

The following is a speech I delivered at NGAGE 2021, an event conducted by the Bangalore-based NGO Durga India, where I was the keynote speaker.

I have been invited here to answer the question- ‘How I experience public spaces as a woman.’

To get into this however, I think it is first important to identify what exactly is a public space for a woman. This is a tricky concept because to me I have always felt like my presence, my womanly existence makes any space I enter, public.

To explain, there is a constant eye on women. Everything we do, eat, wear, speak, there’s an eye on it all. An eye that is waiting to taunt, to blame–
“He raped her, because she was wearing this”, “He hit her, because she provoked him”, “They went to war, because she laughed”, “He sinned, because she gave him an apple.”

So there is something about a woman’s presence that makes every space she occupies automatically public, because suddenly it is open to comments from everyone.

So when we put it this way, the question then transforms to how I live through my daily experiences as a woman. How I survive knowing full well that I am being watched and observed.

The truth is, I survive in fear.

There is fear in walking out into the streets at any time of day, fear of laughing a little too loud, fear of wearing certain clothes, fear of just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And yet even in this fear, I am privileged. I was groped on the streets at 4PM in the afternoon while taking a road I take every day. The man came to me on his Yulu bike, groped me, and then went to the end of the street and flashed me the middle finger. I was frozen still. He then proceeded to imitate the penetrative action by pushing his finger into his curled-up hand.

After this incident occurred, I did not wish to go out at all. It was too scary. In fact, in a month or two I even shifted to another country. But for many other women, such occurrences are a constant reality. It is a chance they have to take every day in order to survive.

Based on your ethnicity, religion, sexuality, abilities, caste, and overall appearance, your experience in a public space can become worse and worse. And this is precisely why we need to stress the need for intersectionality today.

We need to be aware of these differences, acknowledge them, and most importantly address them. The feminist movement in our country will only progress if we begin to accept that there are certain systemic issues that contribute to making issues worse. Because it is not progress unless we are all progressing.

Incidents like nudes being leaked, which occur every other day, or the Sulli Deals incident which occurred a while ago where Muslim women were ‘auctioned’ off online bring forth another perspective in the case of women and public spaces, which is that the private becomes the public in the case of women.

There is a tendency to view our bodies as public property, which is why we are assaulted, our nudes leaked, and even our most private experiences tailored to fit public consumption.

And so this watchful eye that is waiting to critique everything we do, combined with the burden of heavy expectations that dictate everything we do work together to exclude us from many public spaces.

The phenomenal feminist writer, Virginia Woolf, wrote at a time when women were not encouraged to speak, read, write, or even think. There is a fierce speech she delivered called ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ where she talks about how she was denied entry into libraries and certain university spaces simply because they were meant only for men and she was a woman.

Fast forward to today, there are no more restrictions in place that prohibit women from entering any place. But it still silently exists, and it is very visible if you really open your eyes. I would still think twice before entering a tea shop if it was filled with men. In fact, any space with a male majority automatically causes me to rethink- “Do I really need to go here right now? is there an alternative place? is this really urgent? can it be pushed to another time?”

This is a sad bitter truth. And it may seem small when I put it only in my perspective, but think on a larger scale. Every day, there are so many women who make the same decision to avoid certain spaces after being intimidated by the overwhelming number of men present. This also means that every day, a huge chunk of our population is excluded from certain spaces.

It is men occupying more spaces, and women adjusting further by slipping into the shadows.

What makes writers like Virgina Woolf great is that despite not having space, they created their space. They fought for it in their own ways.

Today, by attending this platform I think we have all taken a huge first step into creating this space, and for that, I would like to congratulate us all.

But I would also like to urge you all to keep creating more safe spaces, and more importantly, to talk about the fear you experience, because we can only solve an issue if we first acknowledge its presence.


Woolf on the Streets

This is a blessing of the face mask. I have finally become a lot more comfortable in public, and have successfully been able to resist the urge to only observe myself. Hiding behind it, I focus now on others and the spaces they occupy. These others are almost always men, and during some opportune moments, women.

It is easier to observe what is so common, so out there always. Men occupy the center in the large back seats of buses, they sit with their legs crossed- right ankle on left knee. They loudly proclaim business decisions, casual musings on the state, and evening plans on phone calls- allowing their voice to occupy more space than I find women occupying physically. Women choose to cram themselves into small spaces, their eyes focusing first into little screens and then at the roads and their buildings, trained eyes that don’t stop for any detours. But we must pardon my rogue eyes, for they- though once trained are now in the process of un-training.

I find that women occupy more space in men’s eyes than in the physical realm. At first, I would try my best, through ample shirt tuggings, buttonings, and layering, to prevent this kind of occupancy. I watched in awe, from my tiny little pocket, how men occupy the physical so boldly, and then allowed for a moment for self observation to mull over my inability to even begin approaching this space without thinking it over five times, without calculating the risks- the potential for embarrassment.

But then I spoke to Virginia Woolf, and she told me, through ‘A room of One’s Own’ how I must occupy more space- physically.

She told me how years ago, a woman would need to think five times, and calculate the risks- the potential for embarrassment, before she picked up a pen- the only activity that today I find myself doing with no extra thought or effort, even in public. She told me with brilliant humor, about the discomfort with which their writing occupied space- that made possible the comfort with which my writing occupies space today.

And so, thinking of all this from my corner seat, I stretched my legs out a little further, I read a funny article and laughed out a little louder, I crossed my legs- left ankle on right knee until it hurt, and played the music on my headphones loud enough to block out his unimpressive evening plans.

Most importantly I tried to steady my eyes. Raising them. Readying them to shoot back relentlessly when reluctant male eyes bounce back up from my cleavage.


On Physical Abuse

Physical abuse against women has been happening for so many generations that one may even refer to it as a part of culture or tradition. The only reason it hasn’t been proudly acknowledged in public today is because of the progress that feminist movements have been able to achieve.

When a man abuses a woman, it is an act of power. Abusive men are quick to justify their actions by claiming that they lost control. A listener may infer this statement as- the abuser lost control over himself, but what he really means is that he lost control over the woman- his woman. His patriarchal (male) privilege of owning all the women in his family was lost, even if just for a minute.

The patriarchal society we find ourselves in today has dictated specific expectations with regard to the way a woman must act at all times. Take for example, how loud should a woman’s voice be? loud enough that she is heard by all household members when they are called for mealtime, soft enough to be ignored when they don’t want food yet. And never so loud that it can be heard outside the house. If you watch old Disney films like Bambi or Cinderella, listen to the voices of the female characters- it’s soft, reserved, and almost never angry unless she is chiding her children. An indoctrination of patriarchal expectations from a young age is what I find this to be.

When women don’t match the strictly prescribed code of conduct, i.e. if they are stubborn, arrogant, quick to anger, loud, or even physically consume a little more space than what is designated, they are met with backlash. If snarky comments don’t work, physical abuse is the next stop.

To accompany this male entitlement are those who support the men- who enable them. Together they attempt to justify the abuse, mostly done by blaming the survivor for not following patriarchal rules.

This support is further extended by encouraging the survivor of abuse to maintain silence and fall back into the patriarchal system- commonly done by outsiders and extended family. Or by their own silence- i.e. ignoring the issue- commonly done by the immediate family. They assume this silence to be a position of neutrality. It helps them gather favour in the eyes of the abuser who holds much power in society, while also enabling him- it is like the nod or wink that the protagonist’s best friend-turned-villain shows to the other villains while hugging or pretending to safeguard the protagonist. They are the Brutus, the Judas.

If the survivor resists and continues to fight, they try to discourage them by appealing to emotions, to spare a thought for the greater common good- “think of the family”, “think of the baby.” It seems babies are only meant for emotional blackmail. It is astonishing that we are more okay with the idea of a baby being raised by a patriarchal, abusive man, rather than trying to raise the baby in a more feminist world by:

1. Obtaining justice for the survivor,

2. Raising the baby in an environment where no patriarchal beliefs are tolerated.

The final blow is an expectation that the survivor will forgive the abuser with a compassion that was forgotten/ deemed unnecessary when the abuse was taking place. That forced forgiveness, contrary to all your “be the bigger person” nonsense, is a silent hand back of the power she had fought for. It is an even bigger slap.

If after all this the survivor persists in her aim for justice, she is met with hostility and banishment from her own family. With no support, she is forced to think twice- was it my fault? am I making a big deal?

Then, she has to fight herself and her family.

Chumma Stories

Cook Little Mina, Cook!

“Mina! come and help me in the kitchen, simply sitting and watching tv.”

“Yaa Mina, go do kiitcheen work, ahahha” Nino teased.

Mina glared at her brother. “He was older, he was also dumber, but why did he never have to work in the kitchen?” she thought to herself, “what a douchebag” she said out loud.

She stepped into the kitchen and stood watching her mother mix the cabbage thoran with the broken wooden spatula, a few yellow pieces fell out on the stove, Her mother would clean that up at 3, after everyone was fed.

“Mina, you make the mango chutney. I don’t have time.”

“Ugh. okay.”

Mina despised the kitchen. In five minutes of standing there, your forehead, your mustachey upper lip, your back, neck, would all break into sweat. And if you were forced to wear a bra, as Mina was today, since her father and brother were both at home and “young girls should dress a certain way when men are at home”, you had your personal undershirt waterfall. “Why was the kitchen so hot always?” Mina thought to herself, wiping away the first of many beads of sweat.

She opened the refrigerator and felt some temporary relief, even though there wasn’t any particular smell, she still liked to inhale cold air and feel her nose close for a second before she exhaled. Ice vapours rushed to meet her face and she bent down to pick out one mango, two green chillis, some shredded coconut, small onions, ginger and garlic.

“Mina, take out some ginger garlic for me also” her mother said with her hand stretched out, Mina put it in to her mothers hand almost immediately. It was ike she knew exactly how much her mother needed, “so weird…” Mina thought to herself.

She set the cutting board on the counter below the masala rack. She began chopping all her chutney ingredients.

“Pass the powder Mina”

“okay now the other powder”

“okay now the…” Mina handed over the mustard seeds “ah yes that only”

“What is this power?” Mina thought to herself, amused. Mina knew exactly what was needed and when, “this is awesome!” she smiled.

Mina began to put all the chopped ingredients into the mixer, she was aware of the sweat pouring down, she was irritated by it. She was about to shut the mixer when her mother put in a pinch of salt and a little more coconut. Mina closed the mixer and switched it on, “why isn’t this switching on?” she looked, confusingly. Her mother rotated the mixer once more to let it sit correctly on the stand and it started grinding.

When Mina took a bowl from the drawer to empty the chutney, her mother closed the drawer behind her. When her mother went to the fridge to take out something, Mina immediately filled her place and continued stirring the masala mix. Her mother came back to stir and Mina went to take out some coconut oil to pour in the pan. “What coordination Mummy and I have….” Mina wondered. They were in sync all throughout, they were both copiously sweating too, but Mina didn’t seem to care, she had never felt so sure before. Her mother and her seemed to have some exotic chemistry in the kitchen, they were dancing together in perfect beat, each one knew what the other one wanted, neither got in the others way- puppets controlled by an expert, there was a perfectly established system, a choreography that seemed to have been practiced many times before.

Many streams of sweat later, the food was ready. Mina helped her mom set down the bowls and the family sat to eat lunch. Mina was too delighted by that power she felt in the kitchen. She had never felt such power before, “What is this power that Mummy and I seem to share in the kitchen?” she wondered. “Why don’t I feel it anywhere else?”

“Ey Mina” her dad burped out, when he saw his daughter engrossed in some happy thought near the window, “come and massage my legs, nothing you do all day” and he lifted his legs and lay on the sofa, eyes darting between her and the Tv.

Mina’s illusion of power was suddenly broken. She was just Mina again. Mina who had to massage her fathers feet while her own feet hurt from standing in a hot kitchen.

“I’ll go back to the kitchen tomorrow, that power might come back again.” Mina said to herself, grabbing the bottle of oil to go massage her fathers feet.