Football, bicycles, hashtags: how women are reclaiming public space

Greater physical presence in public can be a route for women to engage more meaningfully in the public domain.

This article was first published in The Long View 2016. Please share your thoughts here and join the conversation on social media with #longview2016.

On a sultry weekday afternoon, 16-year-old Bhavna came flying out on her bicycle, a blur of black and yellow prints, enmeshed with the black and red of her bike, smelling overwhelmingly of freedom. The narrow alleyways of Madanpur Khadar, a lower-middle-class locality in the Indian capital New Delhi, is just about getting used to seeing girls on bikes for the last few years. Girls, in this locality, usually stay at home and go out to school or on household chores, chaperoned by a male member. In 2009, a local non-profit, Jagori, donated five bicycles to Bhavna and her four friends. Today in Khadar there is a growing gang of girls on bikes, running household chores, commuting to schools or just racing each other and the boys for fun. There is also a new sense of equality among the boys and girls in the neighbourhood. “It is about equality but it is also about staking a claim on male-dominated public spaces”, says Suneeta Dhar, Director of Jagori.

While non-profits like Jagori who work with gender issues have stressed on reclaiming public spaces as a must for gender equality, it is only in the last few years that India and some of its neighbours have been waking up to it as a tool of gender empowerment and equality. A string of events in the past few years have fixed on this issue, now part of the sustainable development agenda the world adopted in 2015, which includes the goal to “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere”.

“It is about the ability of women and girls to be safe in public spaces — it’s about being able to wait for a bus … ride a subway … sell goods in a marketplace … walk to school … be in the school, a store or a voting booth … swim in a pool … visit a friend — safely and peacefully”, Michelle Bachelet, former Executive Director of UN Women, said in a speech in 2013.

Three years on, this remains quite a dream for women in various societies across the world. Many are being cornered and threatened for daring to stake a claim in male-dominated public spaces. In the developing world, simple acts of being a citizen, including riding, voting or just loitering in parks and open spaces, are denied to women for fear of them entering male-dominated public spaces.

But the pushback was not too far behind. In India, it started right after the infamous Delhi gang rape, when on a cold December night in 2012 a 23-year-old woman — now named publicly by her mother as Jyoti Singh — was gang raped brutally on a moving bus in the Indian capital of Delhi and thrown on the streets to die. The incident led to wide outrage globally. In India it mobilised the youth, especially young women, and through unprecedented protest — which almost brought the Indian capital to a standstill — forced the government to enact a new anti-rape law that also included stalking as a punishable offence.

Social media was flooded with online campaigns that encouraged women to claim their rights to public spaces. A seminal book by authors Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, became the basis of the very successful #whyloiter campaign that asked women to “hang out in the city, to make use of its public spaces, to loiter aimlessly”. Soon, women were flooding social media with pictures of them loitering in public spaces with the hashtag #whyloiter.

In the book the authors said, “We need to redefine our understanding of violence in relation to public space — to see not sexual assault, but the denial of access to public space as the worst possible outcome for women. What we might demand then is that women’s right to be in public space be unquestioned.”

Most of the social media campaigns that broke out during this period had actually been simmering in the backdrop for many years. One is Blank Noise, a project founded in 2003, with the aim not just to reclaim public spaces but also to help people unlearn societal biases and explore discomfort and vulnerability. In 2003, the campaign simply asked women to tell stories of harassment they faced in a public place and upload pictures of what they were wearing at that time, to drive home the point that sexual assaults have nothing to do with how a woman was dressed or whether ‘she was asking for it’. In 2014, Blank Noise launched Meet to Sleep, a campaign that asks citizens from all across India to come to different public spaces, like parks, and sleep there. One repeat participant describes how she took her daughter along, who kept whispering, “What is the big deal about sleeping in a park?” Her mother writes: “While she may be too young to understand this, my hope is that with movements such as these, she would continue to ask this question, even as an adult woman living in India.”

The pushback also came through sports. Some older initiatives gained new momentum, including the story of Bhabani Munda, a 24-year-old tribal girl from the tea estates of north Bengal, a region known for its patriarchal attitude towards women, who has been using football to empower women in India’s tea gardens since the mid-90s. Munda’s team, Dooars XI, has created an enabling atmosphere for girls in the region and, in its own small way, increased gender parity. In the tea gar- dens, Munda and her girl’s roam about fearlessly even in the evenings: no one dares catcall or tease them.

In Afghanistan, where public spaces are generally out of bounds for women, around 100 girls are cycling in the country, 10 of whom are part of Afghanistan’s first girls’ national cycling team, established around a decade back. These girls courageously defy repression left over from the Taliban era: cycling is considered a worse crime than adultery in the country, but the girls, who are often stoned by men when they cycle past, told me they risk it all because they know something has to give to let change in.

Their sights are fixed firmly on the 2020 Olympics. A year back, two of the cycling team members were ‘roughed up’ while cycling from Parwan to Kabul. They had to be treated for their wounds in hospital for close to a week. “Beat me with a stick, pelt me with stones, but you can’t stop me”, Marjan Siddiqui, one of the two girls who were attacked told me with the help of a translator, on a poor mobile phone connection from Kabul. “When we take part in the Olympics, the world will know that Afghan women are brave too.”

In Bangladesh, too, cycling is a taboo for women. Why? “By riding a bicycle she challenges the status quo in a male-dominated society, where general perception is riding a bicycle is a man’s business”, says Ananya Raihan, Executive Director of Dnet, the non-profit behind Infolady. This campaign has seen women on bikes going around remote villages, empowering villagers and connecting them to the outside world through the internet — again despite kickback from their families and village men.

In India, the choice to put girls on bicycles, and so teach them to traverse male- dominated spaces, has become a critical factor in completing their education. Without a cycle, most families would take girls out of school after class VII, rather than allow them to risk walking long distances. The Mukhyamantri Balika Cycle Yojna (Chief Minister’s Cycle for Girls) programme in Bihar, launched in 2007, gives schoolgirls a cheque of roughly $33 upon passing class VIII to buy a bicycle so that they can make the journey every day. In 2013, a study found that within the first two years the cycle programme had increased girls’ age-appropriate enrolment in secondary school by 30% and also reduced the gender gap in age-appropriate secondary school enrolment by 40%. In 2006, 17.6% of girls were out of school in Bihar; by 2013, that figure had come down to 4.6%.

A physical presence in public can be emblematic of — and potentially a route to — meaningful presence into the public domain, through recognition as a citizen, and acknowledged entitlement to perform citizens’ rights. Can civil rights also help to open up public spaces for women? In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women voted for the first time ever in 2015 and were elected to public offices — but have yet to reclaim the right to drive — as well as to travel, work or study.

While change from the ground up demands the courage of women and girls, safety in numbers and official sponsorship (as with Bihar’s cycle scheme) are key to achieving greater public visibility while minimising the risks. Bachelet draws on UN-sponsored research in asserting that while “women and girls identify sexual harassment and fear of violence in public spaces as inhibiting their lives” they are also “ready to break their silence about it and collectively move to action”. Which spaces will be next?

By Nilanjana Bhowmick

Where else have you seen women reclaiming public spaces? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Image Credit: Sasikumar Ramachandran


Originally published at thefuturescentre.org on March 3, 2016.