As a society, we impose severe and rigorous rules on love — on who you can love, when you can love, how much you can love, and of course, a strict taboo list of who you cannot aspire to love at all.
We seem to loathe love in our public spaces as much as we abhor violence in them. Never is this clearer than around Valentine’s Day, but even otherwise, increasingly through the year, we find neighbourhood citizen’s groups and local police often going into a hyper overdrive at the presence of couples. We don’t want lovesick couples canoodling on our park benches, hugging on our waterfronts, or strolling hand-in-hand on our streets and promenades. It’s almost as if their presence will taint our public spaces and disturb our ‘moral vision’ of order in the city.
Ridiculous measures are taken to imprint this on the body of the city, through the design of public space infrastructure. Many parks now consciously prefer benches with dividing armrests and singleton seats, and neighbourhood groups will tell you it’s to prevent couples from ‘misbehaving’. A well-known story is of a Mumbai municipal corporator who several years ago hacked park benches into single-seater to discourage couples from engaging in what he termed as ‘indecent behaviour’.
Other plans by zealous residents groups have included CCTV monitoring of the Bandra Bandstand seafront to ensure, as one of their representatives said to a reporter, that couples “sit in the area decently rather than in an absurd manner that is embarrassing for other people.” This plan was later scuttled after a media outcry highlighted how this flouted privacy.
Much of this moral vigilantism visibly targets heterosexual male and female couples, but turns even nastier when confronted with queer and trans couples in public.
Moral policing in public spaces is often defended as being an expression of concern by law enforcers and society for young women’s innocence and safety. But not only does it in actuality restrict women’s mobility, it also makes them take unnecessary risks with their physical safety by being forced to lie and hide.
When couples in Mumbai’s public spaces are routinely rounded up and taken to police stations, it is often young women who are sought to be shamed by threats of informing their parents. This was the case when the Mumbai police picked up 40 couples checked in consensually into hotels in Madh Island and Aksa in 2015, on charges of ‘public indecency’. Traumatised by the incident, a 19-year-old girl told a journalist that she was contemplating suicide because her parents were not talking to her any more and the stigma was preventing her from stepping out.
For hidden under the safety discourse, the presence of couples in public spaces raises the fear that families/communities really hold in their hearts: that our young people, particularly our young women, will form consensual ‘friendships’ and romantic relationships with the ‘wrong’ kind of partners — read this to mean those of the ‘wrong’ caste, class and religious background — and tarnish family reputations.
In cities like Mumbai, where private space of one’s own is a luxury that many couples can ill afford, a park seat or seaside corner is often the only space where any sort of intimacy can be expressed. Rather than look at couples in public space with disgust, it’s time we looked at them with empathy and saved our real loathing for the everyday violence we witness in public space.
Why should we be nervous if our children witness a kiss on a park bench? Instead, we should be angry that our children are forced to observe the violence perpetrated on our street corners when college boys stalk and harass girls that walk by. Let’s celebrate love’s presence in our parks and on our promenades; let’s reserve our outrage for the violence that continues to haunt women in public space.
The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets