Global Feminisms

South Asian Women Reimagine Public Space

This article is part of a series on Global Feminisms. Articles in this series explore how feminists have acted beyond the nation. How have global events, ideas and tactics impacted feminism, and vice versa? How have feminists worked across difference – for example, of race, nation, politics – more and less successfully? Read an introduction to the series here.

Many desi (South Asian) women in South Asia and Britain cities perceive public spaces as unsafe because of experiences of harassment and racism. Women are relegated to private spaces, often presented and justified, by families as well as the state, as a way of preventing violence, harassment, and aggression in public spaces. When women do venture out into city-spaces, they often modify their behaviours to minimise threats of harassment. If violence does occur, women’s modes of ‘being’ in public can be questioned by society —  What were you wearing? Did you take a side street? Why didn’t you quickly stride past that group?

How women traverse public spaces, marked as the preserve of men thus deemed inappropriate or unsafe for women, are a key concern for feminists and female writers. Questions about female (hyper)visibility, mobility, comfort, pleasure, and protest in the street, the bazaar, the road, or the park are revisited again and again. These concerns unite many desi feminists across the hard borders of the Indian Subcontinent.

One early South Asian interrogation of public space is the speculative future presented in Sultana’s Dream (1905), a short story authored by Bengali Muslim educator Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (1880-1932). This story, written in English and first published in The Indian Ladies Magazine (1901–1938), offers a utopian critique of patriarchy. In the story, an unnamed protagonist, presumably Rokeya herself, falls asleep in Calcutta and wakes to find herself in ‘Lady-land’. The narrator’s companion in Lady-land, Sister Sara, gives her tour, recounts Lady-land’s history of gender relations, and explains how women came to occupy public spaces freely here. Men, found unfit for public life and unable to ensure female safety  — ‘it is not safe so long as there are men about the street!’— are compelled to retreat to the ‘murdana‘. The murdana is a subversion of the female zenana (segregated living quarters). In their place, women take charge and radically alter society. They excel in all areas, making technological and educational advancements as well as finding time to embroider and garden.

Sultana’s Dream appeared at time when the movement of elite and upper middle-class women outside of the home was the subject of much debate. From the late nineteenth century, English and Indian social reformers alike were criticising some purdah (veiling and segregation) customs and the zenana as an unhealthy space hindering female education and social development. Weighing in, Hossain’s revolutionary utopia,  published in a magazine committed to women’s uplift, offers a homosocial world in which they are safe and valued. Taking Hossain’s image of a liberatory future as a starting point, I use Sultana’s Dream as an interrogative tool to trace other modes of occupying space, many of which build upon or extend Hossain’s vision. Some reclamations of space tackle interpersonal violence and harassment (like ‘Why Loiter’ and ‘Girls at Dhabas’ discussed below) whereas others focus on confronting state-sanctioned violence.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain [Wikicommons]

‘Why Loiter’

Why Loiter?’ is the provocation at the centre of a project started in 1997 by academic Shilpa Phadke in collaboration with journalist Sameera Khan and architect Shilpa Ranade to highlight social issues around women using public spaces in Mumbai. The project involved speaking to women about how, why, and when they navigated public spaces. Phadke, Khan, and Ranade found that women only ventured out to shop and for professional work — notably not sex work — as encouraged by neoliberal capitalism, or to visit religious sites and pick up children.

Three Women of Mumbai [Wikicommons].

The writers argue that many upper-caste anxieties about women in public were based around the threats posed to Hindu middle-class women by dangerous ‘others’— lower class/caste or Muslim men. In response, women performed respectability by wearing markers of ownership, propriety, and marriage, like jewellery, as a strategy to move through public space. Women are not only limited by the public/private binary, but reinscribe it through gendered performances of respectability. Navigations of respectability are visibly potent in many South Asian cities wrangling with conservative, religious, and caste-sanctioned expectations alongside neoliberal opportunities, but also extend to urban spaces globally. Therefore, the ‘Why Loiter?’ trio argue that the discourse of respectability needs to be dismantled for equal, unconditional to access to public space. They argue for transforming ‘loitering’ from a frivolous, extra-legal, and unproductive activity into a productive pleasurable one, framing it as a right.

Women and girls from a feminist group of the same name tweet pictures of themselves walking and enjoying the city with the hashtag #whyloiter. Crucially, rethinking relationships within public spaces departs in many ways from Hossain’s story in which men are banished to the murdana. In Sultana’s Dream, men had previously ‘dawdle[d] away their time’ smoking, talking, and doing little work. In Lady-land, however, everyone is productive, men in the home and women in scientific pursuits. Thus, loitering, as an unproductive activity, would not be sanctioned in this world. Yet, Hossain’s depiction of ‘enjoying Nature’s gifts’ by such means as taking walks in botanic gardens, a pleasure intrinsic to the act of loitering, resonates with this contemporary campaign.

‘Girls at Dhabas’

Taking pleasure in public spaces in defiance of patriarchal expectations is one of the aims of another movement, ‘Girls at Dhabas’, a multi-city feminist initiative in Pakistan. This initiative, started by journalist Sadia Khatri in Karachi, was inspired by ‘Why Loiter?’ and highlights shared concerns across South Asian cities as well as a feminist cross-border solidarity. ‘Dhabas’ are roadside stalls that serve food and drink, they are sites of male sociability and female exclusion. Women’s exclusion is ensured by staring, cat-calling, and making women feel uncomfortable if they do endeavour to use dhabas, thereby shoring up an atmosphere of toxic masculinity.

An artistic rendering of dhaba [Flickr]

‘Girls at Dhabas’ aims to take up space at dhabas. Women and girls do this by posting photographs of themselves at dhabasand and, in doing so, question male territorially at them. In one post from 2017, a girl persuaded her mother to join her at a dhaba and jubilantly reports that ‘the best part was that she was loud, talkative, comfortable. told one guy off for staring in our direction and then we laughed over it’. Since its inception, the initiative has expanded intergenerationally and across cities.

This is quite a different vision to Hossain’s. Though she did recognise the severity of purdah norms in India, Hossain viewed purdah as necessary outside of the home because of the possibility of violence in a male-dominated public sphere. In Sultana’s Dream, the discomfort of the author-narrator ‘not accustomed to walking about unveiled’ is palpable in the story. Her companion, Sister Sara, comforts the narrator by reassuring her that ‘you need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Lady-land, free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here’. In this way, ‘Girls at Dhabas’ is more hopeful.

Public Protest and Violence: The Spectacle of Shaheen Bagh and Anti-Racist Organising in the U.K.

While ‘Girls at Dhabas’ and ‘Why Loiter’ tackle interpersonal violence, feminists have also been concerned with confronting state violence. Women have harnessed public sites to contest, protest, and campaign for better political futures. In December 2019, a group of Muslim women came together to a stage a public sit-in at Shaheen Bagh (Park) in Delhi to protest the Citizen Amendment Act (2019). They were initially responding to police brutality at Jamia Millia Islamia university against students protesting the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC), which stipulated that Christians, Hindus, Jains, Parsis, and Sikhs who had migrated from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, or Pakistan to India prior to 2014 were no longer considered illegal immigrants. The state enabled their citizenship but excluded Muslims. The CAA and NRC protests were nationwide but the Shaheen Bagh protest, which lasted until March 2020, received considerable attention in mainstream media, social media, and in academic spaces because the protestors were lower middle-class Muslim women from an economically-deprived area of Delhi.

The main protest area of Shaheen Bagh protests 15 Jan 2020, [Wikicommons].

They subverted the conservative stereotype — one that endures across the Subcontinent and the diaspora — of the oppressed Muslim woman dominated by her male Muslim family members who confine her to the home. Aware of the very public display of resistance, the protestors employed maternal imagery as a form of protection that transformed a public space into a site of cross-religious sisterly solidarity. The sit-in and the tent covering at the park have been depicted as a ‘womb’. Protestor Prarthna Singh, described the site as ‘volatile, but the womb [the tent] always felt safe because there were so many women, and no matter what happened, you were always holding someone’s hand’.

Wall-art graffiti at Shaheen Bagh Protests [Wikicommons].

How do experiences of hostility and protest on the Subcontinent connect to experiences of South Asian women in the U.K.? In South Asian cities, women are often viewed as overly-sexualised beings and are burdened with respectability politics. In British cities, they are further racialised and expected to perform model minority politics whilst conforming to community-based, sometimes patriarchal, expectations. Cross-border networks of solidarity between women of South Asian, African, and Caribbean descent have long thrived in Britain through collective organising. Southall Black Sisters (f. 1979) is one such organisation where Asian and Black women came together to campaign against structural racism, state violence, and gender-based community violence. The group, for example, campaigned against the state-level policy of virginity testing of South Asian migrant women in the 1970s and campaigned against so-called ‘honour’ killings. Their long-sustained public campaigning on local and legislative levels again subverted norms about South Asian women. These norms were at the oppositional extremes of either obedient and uneducated (in line with popular assumptions about backward, non-integrated South Asian migrant communities) or model minorities. More recently, one example of public protest that embodies the feminist ideal of anti-racist futurity is the East End’s Brick Lane campaign against gentrification by working class Bangladeshi communities. Women have been at the forefront of such campaigning around claiming and safeguarding affordable, communal, and historical spaces in London. The Brick Lane campaign encompasses their Bengali feminist ‘foremother’ Hossain’s ideal of an inhabitable space when women can survive and thrive.

In Britain, access to public space remains contested as concerns about sexual harassment, xenophobia, racism, and Islamophobia are heightened for communities of colour. In such spaces, individual experiences of violence in public are intimately connected to structural issues. In March 2021, the horrific murder of Sarah Everard by an off-duty police officer and her aggressively policed vigil rightly received much news coverage and solidarity. It also posed questions about cultures of violent misogyny in the police force. However, Everard’s murder also highlighted racialised disparities. The murder of Black and South Asian women did not receive as much coverage such as Sabina Nessa who was killed as she walked through a park. As Anita Mureithi writes, ‘the sheer level of disregard for Black and brown people is not a myth conjured up in our heads’.

State-sponsored public safety initiatives often look to women to take responsibility for personal safety through alarms and self-defence training alongside pushes for heavier policing. Yet, these approaches do not challenge the systemic racism and violence of penal institutions, as demonstrated by the racism of police officers in the investigation of the killings of Black sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman. Hossain’s utopian vision offers a solution that connects personal action to collective accountability and justice rather than state-sanctioned punishment. Lady-land has no police force nor magistrates. Society is able to function because of the existence of the murdana system and any woman who is ‘dishonest’ in the public realm could easily be ‘chastised’. Though this vision still operates through the existence of a putative, prohibitive model, that of the murdana system, it does show the kind of liberatory alternatives that can be imagined as a solution to male violence. Visions of abolition continue to be feminist ideals.

A woman lays flowers at the Sarah Everard vigil [Wikicommons]

Liberatory Futures

South Asian women, whether in South Asian or British cities, have historically sought ways to subvert norms and claim access to public sites through taking up space, loitering, and harnessing feminist solidarities to protest. Of course, many of these reclamations go beyond Hossain’s solution of a future dependent on segregation. The wrongdoing of men in her story resulted in a loss of rights rather than justice-based accountability. Another story, ‘An Answer to Sultana’s Dream’, published in the next issue of The Indian Ladies’ Magazine in 1905, offers another approach. The story, authored by female writer ‘Padmini’, narrates a visit to Lady-land but illustrates the dangers that come with one sex overpowering the other. The story highlights female desire for ‘equal men-friends’, not servant-like men, and ends with women entreating the queen of Lady-land to ‘let us have equal rights in everything’. It offers a future that recognises mutual dependency and seeks to equalise access to public spaces through accountability. South Asian women continue to challenge and transform the gendered dynamics of highly classed, caste-based patriarchal societies, whilst also combating prejudice in various local, national, and global geographies. Rokeya Hossain can continue to serve as inspiration as we tackle structural inequity and create transformative, welcoming public spaces for all.

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