Claiming parks one nap at a time

A wake-up call: This year, about 500 women and girls participated in ‘Meet to Sleep’ in more than 20 cities, towns and villages   | Photo Credit: BLANK NOISE/ Jasmeen Patheja

When you close your eyes and feel the grass beneath you, it’s quite heavenly. Even more so when you open your eyes and are greeted by a canopy of green leaves. Then it hits you that you are in a public park, lying under a tree and have just roused from your first short snooze in the open. It feels disorienting and exhilarating. You also feel like an errant school girl who has just done something she was warned against.

Sometimes a radical act begins with a nap.

For most Indian city-dwellers, sleeping on grass under the shade of trees is an unaffordable luxury. On one hand, we have few parks and they are getting fewer. On the other, sleeping in public is considered inappropriate. Since women’s incursion into public space is in any case fraught with hostility, an idea encouraging women to venture in public with the aim of sleeping seems positively radical.

This December 16, Blank Noise, a non-profit focusing on street harassment, with the help of several feminist allies, initiated a nation-wide ‘Meet to Sleep’. The agenda was simple: women meet in groups at different parks armed with mats/blankets and fall asleep on the grass. ‘Meet to Sleep’ is an annual event since 2014; this year’s was in memory of Nirbhaya on the sixth anniversary of her gang rape-murder which took place when she was out in public. The inception of ‘Meet to Sleep’ lies in a question Blank Noise asked women some years ago: ‘What are the things you wish you could do in your city, but haven’t been able to do’. Several women responded, ‘I wish to be able to sleep in a park by myself’. Just this year, about 500 women and girls participated in ‘Meet to Sleep’ in more than 20 cities/towns/villages across 30 locations, including Bengaluru, Mumbai, Bidar, Delhi, Hazaribag, Kochi, Patna, Hyderabad, Pune and Patna.

When Blank Noise founder-director Jasmeen Patheja first tried to sleep in a park, she realised she couldn’t. “Each time I would almost fall asleep, I would wake up with a sense of threat, only to realise it was a leaf, or a dog. It made me think about fear and about designing interventions that pushed values of trust instead of defence,” she recollects.

Women have long been taught to carry their bodies in fear, especially in public space. When those bodies are encouraged to sleep, an act that makes us feel vulnerable, in public, it has the potential of becoming a transformative experience. “I had never occupied a park bench like this,” says Archana, who participated by dozing off in a Juhu park. “It felt liberating; if we did this more often, we could normalise the presence of the sleeping woman in public.”

But before we fight our fears, we have to challenge the many rules city authorities impose to keep public spaces non-inclusive. The Chembur municipal park that some of us tried to sleep in this Sunday refused to let us sit on the grass, let alone sleep. We were scolded for sleeping on empty benches. Private security guards blew their whistles and waved their sticks at us. An elderly park regular shouted at us and told us to “Go to a hotel”. A few other regulars, however, spoke up in our favour, questioning rules and timings that make parks so hostile. Clearly, we were supported as we were coded middle-class. Homeless and working poor, usually men or children (almost never women), who sleep in the open are never looked upon so kindly.

Thus, ‘Meet to Sleep’ doesn’t just start conversations about women, space, and fear, but also about privilege and accessibility of the city’s open spaces to all citizens. These are complex long conversations, yet it’s important to remember, as Shilpa Phadke, co-author of Why Loiter, says, “claiming of the public is an important assertion against the neo-liberal privatisation of pleasure and recreation.”

So off to the park, we go!

Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

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Printable version | Dec 4, 2021 8:51:59 PM |

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