How women can confront and conquer urban chaos

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The most effective way to feel safe in a messy sordid city is to look its “unsafe” spaces straight in the eye and stare them down. That way, you reclaim your space in them and naturalise them for yourself.

An urban space is only as liberating as one feels liberated within it. | Pixabay

“Being born a woman is my awful tragedy,” Sylvia Plath wrote in her journal in 1952. “My interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. My consuming desire to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars — to be part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording — all is spoilt by the fact that I am a girl, a female always in danger of assault and battery. Yet, God, I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night.”

I keep Sylvia with me, her restlessness, her joyfully sleazy feminine desire, her impatience with good behaviour; I keep it under my pillow, in my bag, on my desk, close to my body always. Sylvia knew how to live in the world, she knew how to really rage at all the things that were denied to her female body. What I treasure most about her is her deep hunger for the space around her, for physical environments that were unfamiliar, uncomfortable, wildly different from those she already knew. My heart breaks for this unfulfilled desire of hers, and when I walk around my own city late at night, when I slip into places where I should not be, I bring her with me, and I make promises to her and to myself that I will not let this hunger for freedom flicker or wane.

I keep her with me especially during one of the most common conversations I find myself a part of when discussing places with my girlfriends — neighbourhoods to find flats in, clubs to visit, new sights to see. “Is it safe?” we always ask, impulsively. An important question, of course, but also an incomplete one. The adjective ‘safe’ is part of a language that doesn’t care very much to understand the behaviour of our cities, and the immensely diverse populations that fill them.

 

Around the world, but especially in India, we are seeing a constantly changing urban landscape, a new one that is overwhelmingly made up of migrants, newcomers, outsiders. Interactions in cities are increasingly being informed by pluralism and messiness. Cities, and city people, are messy; they are awkward, vulnerable, unpredictable. A few years ago, Shougat Dasgupta, former literary editor at Tehelka, wrote an exhaustive and extremely important essay about the “outsider sensibility” that should be inherent in the DNA of cities... a sensibility that creates unique forms of tolerance, that drives people to “confront chaos in order to create something new”. This messy acceptance of diversity is a survival instinct. But, as the essay says, it is being lost in cities “calcified by prosperity”, where the bourgeois expectation of order reigns; and it is increasingly being replaced by suspicion.

It is, in some sense, this suspicion of “chaos” and unfamiliarity, this suspicion of economic diversity, that informs the question, “Is it a safe place?” When we, in particular as women, but also otherwise, ask this question, what we are asking is, “How is the environment going to treat me?” What we are leaving out is, “How should I treat the environment in a way that I can thrive in it?”

Our urban environments are not static, lifeless forms, but all-consuming, living, breathing, wild things. Our bodies converse with them, respond to them. Cities have heartbeats. The urban environments in the cities we call home cannot be passively described or judged with flat adjectives; they have to be deliberately interacted with and responded to, the way Sylvia ached to: to sleep outdoors, to meander in public with no apparent purpose, to watch men in their natural settings.

When we talk about urban space, we use language that assumes space remains constant while we move our bodies through it. We assume that the street is not changing when we change our gait, the pace we walk at, our body language, the accents we speak with, the paan shops we stop at, the strangers we interrupt for instructions or a cigarette. But the decisions we make as women about behaviour in public space matter; they can make a space lively and diverse, they can prevent a space from becoming polarised or “calcified”. But when we avoid certain spaces, like those that are “sketchy” or not clean enough or are too populated by poor men, we enable this polarisation, we conjure up a feminism that supports gentrification. Most tragically, we shrink our own conception of our city, our home; we kill off parts of it for ourselves.

 

In messy cities like Bombay, one feels safe by experiencing and normalising danger; feels energy by experiencing and normalising exhaustion; feels comfort by experiencing and normalising discomfort.

 

So many people love to think of women as victims, whether by intention or simply by habit: the police, the media, even seemingly liberal women, like the women from Columbia University who once visited my office in Dharavi during a particularly hot summer wearing tiny shorts. They were awash with pity at the local women covering their heads with dupattas, awash with horror at the local men who stared at their legs and their shiny iPhones. But there was so much these liberal women did not see about us, about the many ways in which we create comfort for ourselves in a supposedly hostile environment. City women belong to the city just as much as men; we have responsibilities just as we have rights. We must ask questions about ourselves when we ask questions about our safety. We make choices of our own volition in order to not alienate ourselves from our environments.

Our choices are not necessarily constantly based on our feelings of fear or discomfort in unfamiliar environments — or a notion of practicality that is driven and defined by fear or discomfort. We don’t choose to not wear shorts in some places because we are afraid; we choose not to do so because it matters to us that we naturalise ourselves and/in our environment, each for the other. It matters that we are a part of this temporary context, that we are making ourselves and this momentary home as we go along — a woman’s existence in public space is an act of constant creation.

Or perhaps we do choose to wear shorts. Perhaps we make other choices about ourselves that make the environment more comfortable for us. How we shape ourselves to our environment is not just about the clothes we wear but the shops we choose to stop at, the people we talk to, the accent and language we use, the men we make eye contact with.

Sylvia’s obsession with experiences, with widening her own horizons to grow as a person, reflect the kind of woman that even much of progressive society today deems inappropriate, or at least impractical: a woman passionately, desperately consumed by a desire to know and experience and live in the world, outside of what her economic class has given her. Two decades before Sylvia wrote in her diary, Virginia Woolf, a character in her own story, slipped out of her house after tea, saying, “Really I must buy a pencil,” and walked halfway across London and back on her own for the sheer joy of, as she wrote, “rambling the streets”. Irritated with the scrutiny on women in public, she made up stories in exchange for freedom, pretending she was running errands but really just delighting in the stroll, the ability to silently watch the women in the windows, the dressmakers, the street vendors, the book sellers. “Let us dally a little longer,” she pleaded. Virginia loved London; vibrant city life mitigated her depression. Virginia, too, tugs at me when I meander my streets, her words reminding us of the importance of loitering women for a thriving, safe, interesting city. The freedom to walk and engage with other individuals is not a luxury. It is essential to individual growth, as Virginia implored; it is also a fundamental part of urban life.

 

 

What popular forward-thinking media tells us about responding to acts of harassment is very important. Social attitudes that make women hesitate before reporting or speaking out against sexual harassment, or that shame women for doing so, are extremely problematic, and refraining from speaking out from fear is not a solution.

But what such media does not show is women who don’t report or speak out against such acts for reasons other than fear. Women who ignore brushes against their stomach or thigh that may or may not have been intentional — not because they believe they will not be heard, but because they are in a crowded train station, running, being a passenger, surviving, shoving. Because to stop in her tracks or chase after a man who may or may not have intentionally touched her, to suddenly remember amidst the roar of the station that she is a woman and try and figure out whether she was violated, rather than continuing to shove her way onto the train or through the crowd, continuing to own the space she occupies, would be to break the reverie of surviving on the platform, break the concentration that she has channeled in order to get exactly what she wants and where she wants to go.

Walter Benjamin, one of the 20th century’s greatest urban thinkers, recognised the value of perfunctory, spontaneous interactions in big cities. They are deeply communal, and they exemplify the way big cities often remedy alienation. In 1929 in Moscow, he wrote, of the city tram, “A tenacious shoving and barging during the boarding of a vehicle, usually overloaded to the point of bursting, takes place without a sound and with great cordiality.” Benjamin’s language is sensitive to the way these processes reject the binary of comfort-discomfort, and his description of Moscow trams sounds pleasurably similar to the Bombay locals.

In messy cities like Bombay, one feels safe by experiencing and normalising danger; feels energy by experiencing and normalising exhaustion; feels comfort by experiencing and normalising discomfort. Simplistic binaries do not apply here. There is a unique and complicated communication involved in carrying out daily functions of big cities — communication that often recognises that women are not just women (as the conversation around public safety pigeonholes us) but also travelers, shoppers, wanderers, workers, commuters. We have infinite identities in big cities; it’s a natural process of daily urban life. When we exclusively use the language of safety in every situation, we grossly simplify and consequently eschew environments like these dimly-lit bars and crowded dirty streetcars; we become women before we are “road crew” members or local travelers, which is exactly what Indian society — both traditional and “liberal” — is expecting of us, albeit for wildly different reasons.

Feminist discourse cannot be detached from discourse around the spaces which women occupy. It also cannot be detached from the possibility of a woman deciding for herself — for different, actually legitimate reasons — the same things that far too often are decided for her. Feminist discourse needs to factor in the possibility of a woman feeling and being more of a railway passenger or a pedestrian in a mob, than a woman per se, at a particular moment in time. We are constantly engaging in such roles when we live in big cities. We are so many different people. Living in big cities means struggling, surviving, putting in conscious effort, to be all these different people. We could not survive if we were each just one person with one agenda.

So much of the contemporary public safety discourse today concentrates on all that is lacking in a woman’s surroundings. What we now need more of are the voices of women demanding their own freedom on their own terms; restless, lamenting voices like Sylvia’s or Virginia’s, of women who yearn for new landscapes and freedom. We call for intangible, banal truisms like rights and improved treatment of women, but have no desire whatever to “mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers”.

Instead, much of our energy is spent identifying and avoiding this chaos, or the threat of chaos. When we constantly fear certain parts of our cities we alienate not only the spaces but ourselves. Being unable to be outside at a particular time or drink water from a street vendor or wear certain clothing is an act of self-alienation. The fear of chaos or fear of the unnatural is itself unnatural — especially in cities.

 

 

City-dwelling women are city-dwellers as much as they are women; a more “natural” thing for a woman, as any city-dweller, to do would be to imbibe the chaos and be an integral part of it, because this chaos is an inevitable part of the city’s being. Jane Jacobs, the godmother of urban thinking for the people, stressed on the importance of respecting this chaos, this “weird wisdom” of the streets, the unplanned public contact between strangers. She, I think, would have understood my attachment to going by myself to Yacht and Sunlight, traditionally largely working-class bars in Bombay, to read or write or work while the bhaiyyas there slowly grew accustomed to the rum I always ordered, to when I liked to have an ashtray, to how I am comfortable when a stranger sits down with me and when I am not. Yacht and Sunlight felt much more like home than upscale Bandra clubs where the men wore suits and ogled in a more upscale way — and if I or any of the other regular female customers ever found ourselves in the neighbourhood late at night, being followed or uncomfortable, we would only have to walk in the vicinity of these bars, in the line of sight of these men, and we would be safe.

What I promised Sylvia and Virginia was that it is not only the city-dwelling woman’s right but also duty unto herself to take long walks at odd hours, to loiter, to own the space around her. I promised that I would reclaim my agency not only from the elements of my environment that make it ‘unsafe’, but also from the dominant narrative on public safety that in very specific situations describes me as being “in danger”. It involves constantly making these places — a train, a sidewalk, a cigarette stall — our home, for the duration that we are in it. It is a conscious, active process. It involves knowing when to say “excuse me” when making space on the train, when to jostle roughly in mutual understanding, and when to outright shove and shout.

Pathologically heterogenous cities like Bombay make us balance many reference points and many ideas of normalcy. Especially in cities that are increasingly being defined by movement, the kind of constancy, order and comfort that we expect of our environment starts to become irrelevant. When we recognise this, we can ask a more holistic and inclusive question, the unasked part of “Is it a safe place?” — “What is this place like, and how should I be in it to feel comfortable?”

Such questions are especially important in spaces that are often othered as unsafe. Sometimes, I think, it isn’t the crowd of working-class men that gathers around my regular 3-a.m. cycle-chaiwalah near my flat in Dharavi that makes it an unsafe place to go get chai-sutta in the middle of the night, but upper-class women’s refusal to go there. In my memory of that flat, the street becomes a crystal-clear scene, and my chaiwalah is an irreplaceable part of it; part of Jane Jacobs’ famous social fabric, her ‘sidewalk ballet’. After a suffocating desperation for something new pushed me out of the flat one night and down the street to where I first met this chaiwalah, I went every night, and I took Sylvia with me. We drank chai and listened to the men talk, felt the Thane local train rumble under us, counted the trucks that stopped and started by the side of the road, watched the chaiwalah boil and reboil the over-sweetened milk. We followed a man down a dimly-lit street where he said there was more chai, and when that went disastrously wrong, we returned to the quiet, watchful gaze of our chaiwalah, who only had coffee for a time.

These strange isolated relationships between people whose lives are poles apart but who share a small corner of their city are what our cities are built on; they, more than laws or the police or policymakers or ‘liberal’ men and women, are what create the feeling of ‘safety’. Our bodies, the language and behaviour we choose for ourselves, are powerful — they can create truly safe spaces for us by creating a sense of home in the unknown, a sense of comfort in newness. With this, we can confront the chaos of our cities, feel safe, and still sleep in an open field, travel west, walk freely at night.

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