We need to reimagine our public spaces to include a woman's right to let her hair down without fear or prejudice, writes Sayan Bhattacharya.
“I think I have a real difficulty in experiencing pleasure. I think that pleasure is a very difficult behaviour…and I must say that’s my dream. I would like and I hope I’ll die of an overdose of pleasure of any kind…because I think that the kind of pleasure I would consider as the real pleasure would be so deep, so intense, so overwhelming that I couldn’t survive it. I would die.”
That was Michel Foucault on pleasure in an interview with Stephen Riggins. I would like to talk, however, of daily pleasures, the everyday pleasures that seem so innocuous, which one realises are important only when one loses access to them. More specifically, pleasures that are so taken for granted that we do not talk about how we constantly work at trying to shrink spaces of pleasure for women! So that is my point of departure for this issue on feminism: to talk of pleasure and not of danger and violence, because pleasure is political and it is a feminist issue. But with more and more incidents of gender violence being reported, how do we even talk of pleasure?
IMy friends and I often go out for drinks late evening. A she and a he. If we are trying out a new space, then he always gets the drinks menu and she gets the food menu. But she is the hard drinker and he thinks he is Usain Bolt or Sunny Leone from Ragini MMS 2 after four pegs. In short, he loses himself; she holds his hand and puts him in a cab, and then she goes home. No, this isn’t about reversal of gender roles. It is about questioning your assumptions. It is about unpacking that which is so embedded that it has become a given, such that the moment there is a variation, it gets qualified as a horrid emasculation (of the he), or an aberration (if you are scientifically inclined) or an exception (if you are a benign liberal), leaving the status quo unquestioned in each case.
During one of these drinking routines at a rooftop café, a friend rhetorically asked me, “Why can’t I just enjoy my drinks alone? Look at all these men! Quite a few of them are just sitting by themselves! Why do I need your presence to even have a drink in silence?” I asked her, “But what’s stopping you?” I was almost outed as a liberal fool with that question! She started giving me a list of all the bars in the city that had barred her from entering without a male companion. Most bars of the city, actually. In some cases, she hadn’t even been alone, but with other female friends. In most cases the refrain was, “We do not allow single ladies!” And in one case, “Respected ladies do not go out drinking!” For my M.Phil. thesis, I had interviewed a former Naxalite, a queer woman (sounds exotic? If yes, please read on the contribution of women in the Naxalite movement and the sexism and sexual assault they often faced from comrade brothers). She had told me that often when she felt frustrated serving tea while her comrades plotted, she would sneak out to a café on Sudder Street, the backpackers’ haven in Kolkata. Back then, she felt it was the only place where she could smoke her cigarette with her black coffee all by herself without being stared at or being visibly judged.
Think of Suzette Jordan. I will not use any adjectives before her name. I do not want to shower her with benign praise, but that one woman showed us why pleasure is such a political goal. She was at a nightclub partying, all by herself. First transgression. Then rape. She filed an FIR. Second transgression, because woman, your body is all you have! Somebody assaults you and your honour is ruined and therefore you need to hide your ‘shame’. But Suzette went on television and detailed what she had been through. She demanded justice even as the Chief Minister of West Bengal brushed the incident off as a concocted story. Then she asked the interviewing journalist to shine the light on her face in the television studio because she was not just the ‘Park Street rape victim’. She was also a working woman, a mother of two. Most importantly, she had a name. And why should she be ashamed? It wasn’t her burden. It was the State’s duty to bring the perpetrators to book! Third transgression. Even as her quest for justice continued, she chose to move on with her life. She chose to go out drinking again for pleasure. Fourth transgression.
Suzette did not know how to be the ideal victim, what Sushma Swaraj referred to as a zinda laash. Ginger, a popular bar in South Kolkata, barred her from entering its premises on a night she wanted to have some fun. Suzette posted what had happened to her on Facebook and there was immediate outrage. The Kolkata chapter of ‘Take back the Night’[i] organized a protest right outside Ginger. The organizers had planned to give out leaflets that detailed the incident, to whoever entered the bar. Some of us who went to participate were then informed that Section 144 had been imposed in Ginger’s vicinity. We divided ourselves into two groups and stood outside the demarcated zone, at two different points of the road, to give out the leaflets. Look at the chain of events! All because a woman wanted to have some fun, wanted to let her hair down.
Let’s no coopt Suzette as a hapless victim who died without justice. That will be the greatest disservice to what she stood for. Instead, let us talk pleasure, fun and desire. Let us talk of women’s right to do pleasure without being bogged down by any kind of moral/self/gender policing. Let us talk of the way we access our city spaces and how that accessibility is gendered.
Suzette is no more. One of the rapists is absconding while another keeps in touch with the world regularly through Facebook updates. Justice seems a far cry. Even in death, the state government failed to redeem itself by sending any representatives to offer condolences to the bereaved family. The opposition tried to make that into an agenda for their own ends. The general public descended on the streets in large numbers for a candlelight march. However, let’s no coopt Suzette as a hapless victim who died without justice. That will be the greatest disservice to what she stood for. Instead, let us talk pleasure, fun and desire. Let us talk of women’s right to do pleasure without being bogged down by any kind of moral/self/gender policing. Let us talk of the way we access our city spaces and how that accessibility is gendered.
Whenever there is any incident of sexual harassment, the kneejerk reaction of the state is to impose more surveillance that impedes women’s access to public spaces. Be it curfew hours in pubs and hostels (only meant for female students), CCTV cameras in educational institutions or police vigil at some major crossings of the city at night—this is what the state understands as gender sensitivity. In other words, each and every move that a woman makes in the public space needs to be policed in order to protect her. For the sake of the unforeseen danger, she should remain cooped up in the house. Yet, Jyoti Pandey (Let us stop calling her Nirbhaya[ii] please! Let us stop making a martyr out of her! She has a name and her parents have themselves given out that name in public interviews) had been accompanied by a male companion. It has been long proven that women are more unsafe at home than in public spaces in terms of the wide range of violence they face. Marital rape, rape by relatives, quite often by fathers: why do our media not talk about these, instead of crying itself hoarse for more vigilantism? Conversely, if we are to go by crime statistics, men face more physical violence in public spaces than women, but the myth of the home being a safe haven for women has been deliberately constructed to keep the patriarchal stranglehold on women’s movement, their bodies and their sexuality. After all, what is a worse form of violence that a woman can face than sexual assault? But what makes rape worse than physical assault or acid attack? Why is rape even worse than death?
It is very instructive to go back to what Flavia Agnes said during the height of India’s Daughter controversy, while the Right was ranting about a white woman tarnishing India’s honour (the Hindu woman is of course the sole custodian of honour[iii] and if that is tarnished, then the good Hindu sons of the motherland will take care of the internal matters) and some feminists about how Mukesh Singh’s interview constituted hate speech. There was particular outrage over Mukesh Singh saying had Jyoti not fought back, she could have still survived. So then, did this mean that women should give in to rape without any resistance? But this is an entirely wrong question to ask. Agnes raises a most pertinent point—what are we doing for women’s safety beyond surveillance, karate lessons, pepper sprays and mobile apps? From her long experience on the ground working with rape survivors, she pointed out:
“The words of a friend from a distant past, who not only survived rape but became a renowned novelist and columnist continues to haunt me: ‘My only concern during the rape was that I should emerge alive at the end of it. So I talked to them, pleaded with them to be gentle, not to hurt me, to think of their mothers and sisters. This brought in some change, they calmed down and did not kill me.’ Another young woman, who survived brutal gangrape recently, confided: ‘As I kept screaming, the rapist held up a broken bottle and threatened to slit my throat. My only concern was that I should survive this ordeal, I didn’t want to die.’ The culture of parading ‘real victims’ is not only accepted but applauded in talk shows like Satyamev Jayate.”
WHAT ARE we doing to help women strategise how to negotiate the danger that supposedly lurks in city spaces? Excluding them from those very spaces! Our urban spaces are conceived in a way that makes them less friendly for women. Scratch the surface of neutrality, and our cities are revealed to be designed primarily for the upper-class, dominant-caste Hindu able-bodied male. Be it through the acute dearth of toilets (and wherever there are toilets, the hygiene standards are appalling) for women in public spaces, the lack of adequate lighting on all thoroughfares, the lack of public transport at night[iv], the odds are heavily stacked against women accessing public spaces. Just scout for the number of ramps in government offices or any office for that matter, or look at our overbridges and underpasses for the sheer number of steps required to be descended to reach the metro platform, the high steps of buses and it is easily evident how our city spaces disallow free movement for the disabled. Then look at the state of public transport. How cycles, cycle vans, hand carts and other forms of non-motorised transport have been banned from major thoroughfares of the city in complete disregard of the livelihoods of lakhs of people like newspaper vendors, milkmen, courier services, bakeries to ostensibly improve traffic conditions. Look at how the areas underneath flyovers are being gentrified with installation art so that the homeless cannot sleep under them. Take a close look at the government’s so called beautification projects.
While this essay is not about the complete lack of aesthetics of such initiatives, what is important is how this so-called beautification changes the ways spaces are consumed. Trident lamps, models of animals and fountains have been set up in many public parks across the city and then you see a board which notifies that this is a children’s park, such and such hours are for walkers and so on. Then to protect the so-called assets that have been erected, you see the parks remaining locked for those hours of the day when the city’s migrant workers, daily labourers and the homeless could enter them and rest there in the afternoon or at night. Look at the way our river banks are being altered to make them family friendly. More trident lighting and cement benches and background music for the bhadralok[v] but the city’s transgenders, kotis and gay men—who often used the river banks for strolls, for cruising—have been pushed to the unruly margins in these gentrified spaces, too unpalatable for the “family” crowd. Now do a combination of these various vectors of oppression with gender. Disabled women or Dalit women, the sexually marginalised and so on. In short, exclusion is imbricated in the very architecture of the city. What should be the next step? Should women and the rest therefore give up the city spaces, or do we stage complex negotiations and confrontations for our right to free access and, in the process, conceive new ways of accessing and making the city?
Exclusion is imbricated in the very architecture of the city. What should be the next step? Should women and the rest therefore give up the city spaces, or do we stage complex negotiations and confrontations for our right to free access and, in the process, conceive new ways of accessing and making the city?
In their fascinating work on public spaces and how women variously negotiate them, Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan show how loitering is a deeply political and feminist goal. They begin their book Why Loiter with the following evocative lines: “Imagine our streets full of women talking, strolling, laughing and gesticulating. Imagine parks and beaches dotted with young women sitting alone. Imagine street corners taken over by older women reflecting on the state of the world. Imagine maidans occupied by women workers planning their next strike for a raise in minimum wages…If one can imagine all of this, one can imagine a radically altered city.”
These authors talk of the rights of women to take risks. The spectre of violence curbs female agency and freedom but what if women step out, for work or aimless wandering, despite the so-called risks? It is only by the presence of more and more women on our streets, that we can think of a gender-just and safe world. Feminists have noted how the reserved compartments of the Mumbai local trains have been a boon for lakhs of women going out to different parts of the city, which otherwise is becoming more and more exclusionary, for work and pleasure. The same goes for the local trains in Kolkata. This brings me back to what my friends had said about their right to enjoying their smoke or drink. Do not mistake this as some frivolous project because the right to use public spaces for pleasure is the other side to the right to public spaces free of violence. This is why pleasure is important.
IIOur iconic (male) writers have often talked about midnight bouts of drinking in burning ghats, singing to the stars like there is no tomorrow, have talked about finding inspirations in these moments of abandon. My mother has a favourite story about such an idea of inspiration. Ashapurna Devi, her favourite author, used to cook for her joint family everyday and she also wrote during breaks. Most of her manuscripts used to be stained with turmeric. Perhaps, her lived reality gave her stories such strong female characters who constantly challenged patriarchal control over their bodies and their minds. But what if she could also go out at night and stake her claim to complete leisure and unadulterated pleasure like our Shakti Chattopadhyays and Sunil Gangopadhyays could? If she could, what would her body of work look and smell like?
Alice McDermott once wrote a story about a little girl who relished her ice cream. Through all the household chores, studies, she looked forward to those moments of sheer pleasure when she could have her scoop, all for herself. Then as she grew older, she started meeting boys. Her mother caught her red-handed having sex. She made her confess at a church but the girl kept meeting more boys…and more. Then she got married, had seven children and six miscarriages, mourned each loss ferociously. She loved and desired passionately, unapologetically. She turned 90, but continued to fiercely love her ice cream.
“Pleasure is pleasure. A remnant of strawberries, a young man’s hands, a newborn in your arms, or your own child’s changing face. Your lips to the familiar stubble of your husband’s cheeks. Your tongue to the last vein of fudge in the empty carton. Pleasure is pleasure, if you have an appetite for it, you’ll find there is plenty. Plenty to satisfy you—lick the back of the spoon. Take another, and another. Plenty. Never enough.”[vi]
The challenge of conceiving pleasure as a political and feminist goal is to imagine spaces that do not elide material specificities of women, that do not become new forms of gated communities with free access to only a few. While the market will keep spawning such exclusive spaces for the consumer who can afford them, if we think of pleasure as a fundamental right of every individual, our public spaces have to be radically reimagined.
However, there is one yawning gap here. Pleasure is not equally accessible to all women. Pleasure is mediated by women through their class, caste specificities? My friends still have some bargaining power in the pleasure economy because of their class and caste positions. This takes me back to an Airtel advertisement that had generated a lot of commentary last year. It was about the female boss, the hard taskmaster who had given such a load of work to her employee that he could not go home on time, but then we see the female boss is also his homely wife who cooks a Chinese meal for her husband and waits for him to arrive. While some lauded it as a step forward for showing women holding important positions of power, many wondered about the man still being the lord of the house because his wife has to cook for him, dutifully wait for him. Why could we not have the woman, it was asked, spending an evening of leisure after work. Couldn’t she have played cards, watched TV or read a book or simply rested after a hard day at work? Why couldn’t she be entitled to some pleasure hours after work?
Some retorted by saying that perhaps she found pleasure in cooking for her husband, but what was mostly missed in the exchange was the absent body who was the very foundation of the way leisure was being conceived for this working woman. If the working woman would be seen enjoying some moments of leisure, who would do the cooking? Obviously the domestic help! Who is mostly a woman from a subordinate caste. She is also a working woman. The Airtel woman’s home is the workspace of the domestic worker. What is her pay structure? How many days in the year does she get holidays? Are those holidays and her working hours compliant with our labour laws? Does she get maternity leave? Her employer might have crèches and playhouses for her kids and if the employer is remotely lucky, those crèches may adjoin her workspace[vii], but what does the domestic worker have for her infant children? While moving from one house to another for her cooking and cleaning work, if she wants to go to the loo, where does she go to in the near absence of public toilets for women in most parts of the city? Often at work, her employers do not allow her to use their washrooms. Does she have a supernatural control over her bladder? In the afternoon—when one shift of work is over and a few hours are left before the evening shift begins—where does she rest? Many of them avail local trains to come from other districts. They cannot just go back home, take a power nap and come back. Where do they rest their feet when more and more parks of the city are being locked to protect them from trespassers? Do our gated communities have canteens and restrooms for people like her? Does she have a union to go back to in case she is not paid her due remuneration on time, or if she is not paid at all? How is her remuneration fixed? If she faces sexual harassment in the workspace (which is quite frequent and so commonplace that it is mechanically hushed up by replacing her with another worker), that is the home of the Airtel lady, how does she claim redressal under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act? How secure is her job? Does she get benefits like insurance and provident fund? After work, when she goes back home, what is her life like? She has to cook and clean there too. Between her workspace and home, where does she seek pleasure? Does she have any leisure hours? What is her idea of fun? The answers to all these questions perhaps lie in the fact that these were not discussed when we spoke of the Airtel commercial.
What was mostly missed in the exchange was the absent body who was the very foundation of the way leisure was being conceived for this working woman. If the working woman would be seen enjoying some moments of leisure, who would do the cooking? Obviously the domestic help!
Do not mistake these questions as an attempt to trivialise the middle-class, dominant-caste woman’s right to pleasure. The point is to lay bare her privileges that go completely unmarked. So then the challenge of conceiving pleasure as a political and feminist goal is to imagine spaces that do not elide material specificities of women, that do not become new forms of gated communities with free access to only a few. While the market will keep spawning such exclusive spaces for the consumer who can afford them, if we think of pleasure as a fundamental right of every individual, our public spaces have to be radically reimagined.
To go back to my mother’s story about her favourite author, I wonder what were the stories of those domestic workers who helped Ashapurna Devi cook, who ensured that she could find some time out to write for pleasure as well as for work. How did they seek pleasure? What were their unwritten manuscripts stained with?
[i] The Kolkata chapter of ‘Take back the Night’ was started on 31 December 2012 after the Delhi rape incident. It talks of making city spaces more accessible for marginalised genders and sexualities. Chess matches, addas and walks are organized in public spaces at night as a symbolic gesture of reclaiming the nights. Find more on https://www.facebook.com/TakeBackTheNightCalcutta?fref=ts However, it is important to ask here, what about the nurses working on night shifts, the call centre employees, the sex workers on the streets (often that’s a floating population unlike brothel based sex work)? Their livelihood makes the night their time of work. How do we talk of them? What modes of transport do they access while reaching work or while going back home at dawn? Not all workplaces offer transport.
[ii] While the clamour for the ban on India’s Daughter reached a crescendo and its telecast was finally forestalled, much of the debates were concerned with Mukesh Singh’s interview and how the gruesome details of the rape were given out. This whole debate was extremely indicative of how our human rights discourse and often our women’s movements take their class, caste privilege for granted. When two OBC girls were raped and hanged in Badaun, one of the signatories to the public letter written to NDTV to stall the screening of the film, a lawyer herself, had circulated the images of the hanging bodies on Facebook. Soni Sori’s image and her name have been freely used to speak of state-instituted atrocities. If these were not inflicting indignities on the victims, if these were not in violation of law, how was Jyoti Pandey’s name being given out or talking of what had been inflicted on her violations?
[iii] During the height of the agitations to ban the screening of the film Fire, Bal Thackeray had asked how could good Hindu women indulge in lesbian sex? Why were the characters named Radha and Sita? Why didn’t they have Muslim names because they were the ones who were capable of indulging in such impure activities? The upper caste Hindu woman is the receptacle of the nation’s honour. Such politics also plays out when we note the debates around “love jihad”.
[iv] The fleet of buses has drastically reduced in Kolkata in the last five years. This has been accompanied by the advent of AC buses, which have steep fares, and app-driven cabs.
[v] “Bhadralok” denotes the Hindu upper-caste Bengali male, that benign category of men who speak about social reforms but with their gender, class, caste privileges intact. A Bengali bhadralok would perhaps love his beef, but also criticise the reservation policies for the subordinate castes at work!
[vi] ‘Enough’ by Alice McDermott, The New Yorker, 10 April 2000
[vii] Jadavpur University is one of the very few spaces in the country that offers to keep the infant wards of students and teachers while they are at work. During my M.Phil. coursework, one my classmates, who was married and who had read about this facility wanted the admission form of the playschool. Both of us were literally mining the campus to locate that playschool. Most people could not direct us and it did not help that both of us were freshers in the University. However, finally we did get directions and we did go to the playschool and it was heartening to see the clean rooms, the smiling warden and hordes of cackling children playing among themselves, but the school was full to capacity. My classmate was asked to come back after some months when there would be possibility of a vacancy.