Online spaces and streets are not carefully bounded territories, but spill into each other fluidly, each enhancing the capacities of the other space for resistance
On 21 January, the US witnessed a Women’s March in Washington, DC, together with solidarity events in many countries. The Women’s March website estimates that in all, 673 marches took place and nearly 4.9 million women participated in them across the world. The sight of hundreds of thousands of women, men and trans people marching in support of democracy was a celebration of dissent and resistance, and its stance was firmly feminist. Closer home, on the same day, in 31 cities across the country, women marched (or staged protests in designated spaces) under the banner #IWillGoOut for the right to access public space.
These events may be an indicator of the feminist future. The organization of #IWillGoOut was large and there was no one group or individual responsible for putting it together. It emerged from an online conversation, the momentum towards the event built up and different individuals and organizations took responsibility in different cities. The participants came from all walks of life, as did those involved in organizing them—very different from the usual suspects: feminists and feminist organizations.
Public space research, advocacy and activism has taken varied routes. When my collaborators and I began researching women’s access to public space in 2003, the only organizations we were having conversations with were Blank Noise and Jagori. So 21 January was a heartening moment.
However, there’s also need for some caution. At the Mumbai march, there was a moment when, during the feminist chant that asked for what women want, protestors were asked to respond with suraksha (safety). The refrain usually is azaadi (freedom). There is an ocean between safety and freedom and if we want the latter, we cannot ask for the former. In the years since the gang rape and murder of a young physiotherapist on a Delhi bus in December 2012, the public discourse on women’s rights has focused on safety in public space almost to the erasure of many other concerns. It is almost as if we would have addressed the issue of gender equality if we ensured that women on the streets (no word about homes) are safe.
There is a radical edge to the demand that women have every right to access the city as citizens. The Pinjra Tod campaign makes this claim when it seeks to dismantle curfews that infantalize adult women students, keeping them locked inside “for their own good". There is an exhilaration when we collaborate across our fraught borders with the Karachi-based Girls at Dhabas in online and street activism, claiming public spaces by loitering. Online spaces and streets are not carefully bounded territories but spill into each other with fluidity, each enhancing the capacities of the other space for resistance.
As we reflect on these spaces of resistance, it is important to remind ourselves of intersectionality. That the Women’s March must consciously include activism around Black Lives Matter, and marches reclaiming the public space must engage Dalit movements.
The women’s movement in India, and elsewhere in the world, is not any one thing—it is a complex, multifaceted creation that is not an imitation of any other but is born in a unique context. We don’t always agree with each other and we are currently asking ourselves and each other difficult questions about consent and law.
In the coming years, we will see a more complex conversation around consent and women’s right to say no—but also women’s right to say yes. We will have a conversation on women’s agency, our right to our sexuality, challenging ideas of family and community izzat (honour). The brave activists of the Sahiyo organization are taking up cudgels against the practice of khatna, female genital cutting in the Bohri community. There have been campaigns asserting women’s rights to enter dargahs and temples.
The next decade will see more international, coordinated protests, as well as more localized ones. As more women are willing to speak out about workplace harassment, there will be a greater conversation, as well as the setting up of committees to address these issues in more organizations. There will be more conversations between movements, disagreements certainly, but also synergies and the effort to work together.
We will see intense debate on the uniform civil code, with many feminists weighing in against the imposition of a single law and focusing instead on reform within existing law, a process that is already happening.
We will see a coming together of movements—feminist, Dalit, workers, queer, transgender, disability and environmental—with different focus agendas but with a willingness to speak to each other across differences. We will be willing to listen carefully to acknowledge that the threads of hierarchy and oppression are tied impossibly in ways that make some of us complicit in the oppression of others. We will see feminists in different countries and within our country speaking across differences, willing to listen to each other. We will see a revolution because we are faced with a moment when only a revolution will bring meaningful transformation. The future is intersectional and gender queer.
Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist and an assistant professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai campus)
This is part of a series of articles in Mint’s 10th anniversary special issue that look at India 10 years from now. The entire list of articles can be found here