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Making “us” visible

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While the second phase of the project “Network & Neighbourhood” was coming towards its closure we decided to do it differently rather than having a flat ending! Till date we conducted various workshops, seminars, meetings and classes inside Khoj, the ending we planned in two segments – first of which was the two days cycle rally. Even though few of the magazine launches were carried out on the streets and painting done on various corners of the locality articulating presence of women; the rally helped in thrusting our physical presence. Young jubilant women stepped on the streets, challenging the very set up of the patriarchal systems, through their presence, noises, laughs, talks – all in public. Thus breaking the norm of – women should be on the streets with a purpose only, we took the street for a leisure ride; women should be quite in public and should restrict their emotions, we laughed, talked, walked, cycled, we were joyous, happy . We let out all our emotions flow, profusely.

The rally started roughly at around 9:30 in the morning and included all the contributors of our project plus those interested in participating in it. Though the share of girls were more, we did not limit it only to them but also allowed boys accompany our girls. Two consecutive Sundays witnessed this small endevour of ours, an action towards reclaiming the streets. The alley ways of Khirkee- Hauzrani was lightened with the presence of women and draped with their voices of freedom and enthusiasm. Even if for an hour and for two days these girls were able to forget all the boundations, that they are otherwise burden with, and unveil their happiness and wish to move freely in public without being questioned about their presence. Along with it what was more important was the togetherness that both the girls and boys relished. They moved together through the lanes of the locality, competing, instructing and enjoying each other’s company without the fear of being watched or pointed at. There was mixture of expressions – confusion, disgust, delight, surprise – on face of the onlookers and the passer by. Some mockingly laughed at us, quite possible an expression of – what are we trying to establish through the rally? Some did not even bother to slow down their cars or bikes and rushed through the rally. Nonetheless there were also some locals (both men and women) who were extraordinarily supportive. They paved the way for our girls to move uninterrupted, some even stopped their vehicles and waited until we passed. Their (local men and women) facial expression were their words of consent and satisfaction.

An Afternoon With Maps And “Emotions”

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On a sunny Saturday afternoon on the terrace of Khoj, a cartography workshop was organised under the headship of Riju (Sumandro Chattapadhya) as part of the series of workshops under Networks and Neighbourhoods Phase II.  Maps in a very conventional sense provides and answers as to what is where, but a closer look at the distribution would show how maps are not only visual but also speaks to the person of the historical, social and political relevance of the things and places and brings to the fore, the power relations that underlie the outcome in the form of maps. The aim of the workshop was to reveal the understanding of the teenager’s/young adult’s use of public space of their own neighbourhood and the resultant relations, emotions and sensibilities attached to the particular space or a place.  Through the art of map making, an effort was made to unravel the differing experiences of the teenagers from different strata of the society cutting across caste, sex, age, religion, nationality and class.  The motive was to bring forth the multiple usage of public spaces and the meanings attached to it and how such a process initiates an understanding of the ‘spaces of difference’. The exercise at the workshop was to identify a street and make a map of the things that are located on it so as to give a glimpse of the street to a stranger on the road. This is a step towards engaging the stranger in the neighbourhood to the place and ensures a dialogue with the community through the map. The map will not only be a listing of the things available for the stranger to look through, but also the stories or narratives attached to each place that have been experienced. It creates an invisible bond between the stranger and the community that seals the bridge of difference and anonymity. The maps that came up in the first stage were an interesting listing of the things on the streets and a unique representation of the same. One of the participant of the workshop compared the street drawn to the streets of his native country that seemed to have throw open the possibility of engaging in narratives of difference between the public spaces across the boundaries and also integrating them to the public space of the neighbourhood.

Nian Paul
Researcher, Social Geography Department, JNU 


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Open StreetMap as the template, a Workshop

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We organised a workshop with Riju (Sumandro Chattapadhya) on 28 November at Khoj, through which young local residents narrated their gendered experience of neighbourhood public space, visibility, mobility and autonomy.

Mental maps are visual representations of physical places that present and reveal how the mapmaker interacts with and experiences the place concerned. Exercises in creating mental maps can either begin with a existing map of road networks and common landmarks that enables the maker to quickly find locations, or can begin with a blank map where the participant is invited to start with representing the road networks as s/he remembers it. To facilitate workshop processes, we chose the former option. We used OpenStreetMap as the template; which was projected on the wall in large format so that it was easily accessible and visible for participants to decode.

The first exercise involved one participant mentioning a location within the city of Delhi, and s/he inviting two co-participants to find and identify that location on the map. This activity required a recall and re-inscription of personal and spatial geographies by participants, and a comparison of territories that might be very different, or might have unusual mutual resonances and alignments that emerged through the interaction.

The second exercise involved all participants working simultaneously marking in two colours the areas in the vicinity of their homes, schools and other prominent, popular or familiar places they visit, like hospitals and parks – terrain roughly stretching from Hauz Rani to Khirkee. One colour indicated the places they liked, the other the places they disliked. This activity was built on an exercise that was part of an earlier workshop, when they used two colours to mark spaces in the same way and according to the same logic, but collectively rather than individually. This exercise had catalyzed particular forms of group dynamics. We observed that once a few participants had marked a site as one they liked, it quickly became a focus for other group members; some marked the place in strong agreement, others marked it in strong disagreement. Our objective was to make the participants aware of the way the mind tends to be conditioned by external opinion and peer choices.

The third exercise divided participants into small groups of three to four individuals and sent to scout for locations where wall newspapers could be pasted so that they could be seen and read by a good number of people. The groups were also asked to compile information about local attractions at each site, which will be shaped into mini-maps in a future workshop.

The larger overall purpose of the cartography workshop was to document local input with regard to delineating the available public spaces where women may safely socialize within the lanes of Khirkee and more particularly Hauz Rani. Other than at beauty parlours, which are public sites yet a private/interior and usually gender-segregated zone, it is rarely possible for women to congregate and interact freely.

Sreejata Roy

A Note on ‘Mulaqaton Ki Galiyaan’ and its Architects

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Chetana Naskar
Research scholar
Jawaharlal Nehru University

Mulaqaton Ki Galiyaan – The Lanes of Encounter, our first issue from the network and neighbourhood project which finally grounded on the eve of 25th November 2015. An inspirational work and a toddler’s step taken towards making the presence of the women less blur and also bringing the unknown together. The magazine is not a mere storyteller but an arena where women depicts the struggle they have gone through to establish themselves at the position they are, presently. Each of the stories that has been published in the magazine brings out so clearly the social obstruction and stereotype that being a women one has to face. Nonetheless against this socially constructed barrier the women curved out their way through some heroic fights and struggle to look up to, which is also the reason why we are so keen on bringing out this women’s magazine. This magazine, is a platform given to those women whose immense struggle to put up where they are at present, gets lost somewhere in the by lanes, or remain inside the four walls of their house. No one to acknowledge their endevour or say a few words of appreciation to them. They are the real life heroes, who goes unnoticed, may be because of their gender, as no women can be a hero!

Nonetheless we thought of bringing them forward. Giving them a voice, a structure, a face, at least to make them visible in the locality they put up in. Not only this, their stories and fights might also act as an inspiration for someone, some one who might desire somewhere to free herself from the obstruction she is bounded into and shine separately with the talents she is endowed with. But fear, lack of confidence and proper direction over shadow their desire and crush their talents and force them to leave the usual life they are into. Thus the stories, we assume, will give that someone an impetus or strength to take that necessary step, which would bring in the required change in their life. More so because the heroes of these stories are not unknown but someone who stays next door or in the next lanes, thus deluging larger impact on the other women of the locality. The sense of freedom and the determination of overcoming certain undesirable situations or obstruction would be strong in them.

With this believe in ourselves of lending help and bringing in change, if possible, even if to one life, we are moving towards engaging the community as much as possible. Starting from building a rapport with the women, getting their confidence so that they come up with the minute and personal details of their struggle to depicting them and giving them a form, so that it can reach out to their known and unknown, we also got the magazine launched among the women of the locality (though not all but those who’s stories were printed and also other interested ones). We tried to create a dialogue among them, and tried to make them the known face among others. We thought it is necessary to get them some appreciation and word of admiration, for the struggle they had put up to mark their existence outside the socially given title. In future also we hope to take different kind of endevours to carry further this community engagement task of ours. We hope, by the time we end the project, we could create some impact in the locality. With this hope, believe and determination in ourselves, we are moving forward!

Experiencing Gaze via Art in Public Space

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by Sreejata Roy

As art historian James Elkins observes, the gaze is “a treacherous concept” for theorists in different fields – it is “conceptually ambiguous, self-contradictory, occasionally too rigid, too abstract, too general or too loose or thin or simply unhelpful”.

The “gaze” has traditionally been explained by philosophers and scholars of the history of visual art in relationship to the pathology of narcissism. However, from the twentieth century onward visual culture criticism has actively traced the term’s varying resonance within different discourses. Thus, for Lacan the gaze was an extremely influential human force, because only in the meeting of the face and the gaze “do we exist for each other”, psychoanalytically. Foucault used the medical gaze as a means to describe the power dynamics between doctors and patients. Feminist critics and art/film historians have narrated how the male gaze relentlessly objectifies the female subject in overt and covert ways. A more detailed theoretical discussion of the “gaze” is beyond the scope of this presentation. I restrict myself here to what Elkins describes as one of the most “lucid and persuasive” summaries of the gaze: Margaret Olin’s definition of the gaze as part of a wider effort “to wrest formal discussions of art from the grasp of linguistic theory, to focus on what is visual about a work of art and yet address the wider issue of social communication”. Olin refers to the dialogic models of Mikhail Bakhtin, where the gaze creates a platform for communication and equality between the seer and the seen: thus, in every instance the gaze is both a determinant and instrument of relationship. Drawing on Olin, Elkin defines the gaze as “an indigenously visual way thinking about visual art, one that responds to the fundamental acts of seeing that constitute every work and is attentive to the political and social dimensions of visuality.” This social aspect of visuality, in which the collective gaze has central place, is what informs my art and research practice, and my involvement in community art projects.

A wall-painting initiative evolved through our discussion sessions with the group members. The idea was to paint a series of ordinary women doing daily activities and engaging in work that is customarily done by men in the locality. The intent was to draw men on the street into a dialogue about the gender equality in terms of the acceptance of women in male-associated professions, as well as dialogue about the visibility of women in public spaces.

Naseem, Nilofar and Azra did a series of drawings that indicated how they want paintings of women to be prominent on the walls of Khirkee and Hauz Rani. They selected certain walls in the locality for their renderings. It was obvious from the drawings that behind their simple demeanour and lifestyle, the girls had a capacity to powerfully visualize their personal aspirations.

Azra chose a wall in the main Khirkee lane where motorbikes are parked. She depicted girls like herself sitting on bikes and chatting, just like the teenage boys and young men in the locality do in real life – something strictly forbidden to locality girls. Naseema chose a wall next to Jha-ji’s tea stall, also in the main Khirkee lane. She depicted girls like herself running the tea stall, where girls could sit and spend their free time, chatting, playing cards and other games, etc. She has experienced this at tea stalls on campus, but no women socialized at tea stalls in Khirkee and Hauz Rani. Nilofar also chose the wall next to Jha-ji’s tea stall. She imaged girls who cycled expertly enough to overtake locality boys cycling on the road. The girls would park their cycles by the stall, drink tea and hang out there like the boys.

The practice of active listening is the core of our dialogic method. Refining this into ideas and images for example, the wall painting, an ongoing process, has given us an opportunity to engage deeply with local people and gather content to be painted on the wall. This intervention has provided the opportunity to build a relationship with the local men. For instance, the cobbler who sat just in front of the wall was earlier very reluctant to talk to us, but through daily interaction and our promising to paint a dynamic signboard for his kiosk has given him faith in us, and he now communicates freely. He has gradually become a custodian-cum-curator of the wall painting behind him. When passers-by or his customers ask him what it is, he replies confidently, “Yeh kala hai!” (This is art!), to which many of the inquirers respond, “Hope it does not get damaged here…!”

We tried to negotiate with Jha-ji, the tea-stall owner, and the owner of a local workshop to give us permission to paint female figures on their walls. They were reluctant, doubtful and suspicious. However, after we painted a female cobbler on the wall in front of which the cobbler used to sit, Jha-ji and the workshop owner both agreed. The image depicts young girls enjoying tea at Jha-ji’s stall. We noted the various ways local men responded to these images. For instance, one man found it interesting that the “humans beings” painted “in costume” looked like women, not like men. Women socializing in public through a simple, traditional, natural act of tea-drinking seemed to be beyond his imagination. Some people asked the tea-boy whether they could bring their families to the stall and be painted on the wall while they were there drinking tea. Serving simultaneously as collective mirror, canvas, testament and repository, this wall painting is ongoing, and it has not only given us a chance to connect to most of people in the locality, it has created an environment for communication, and established a public space for community interaction.

The ‘Dual’ Identity and the ‘Camouflaged’ Freedom

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Chetana Naskar
Research scholar
Jawaharlal Nehru University

Women have thrived in the society not without putting up struggle and when the question of imprinting self-identity comes into the scenario the scuffle becomes more austere. The story of Urmi ji (name changed) and Rama ji (name changed) brings forth this immense struggle that women goes through to establish themselves in this society where certain (patriarchal) norms are valued more than the worth of a woman. These two women have built a small world around their boutique where their command is the last thing. Nonetheless, though for Urmi ji the boutique (precisely her tailoring shop) is a modus operandi towards a better living, for Rama, it is an instrument upholding her worth and giving way to her freedom. A freedom which she had longed for years, which grounded when she finally collected the courage to break through the false mask of the social values. Her separation from her profligate husband and forceful moving out of her in-laws house in Lucknow to Delhi, and her bold decision of raising her children by her own blood paved her way towards this caricature of confidence and building of the self-identity that she possess now.

For Urmi ji, her husband has been a support system helping her in creating her own identity. His allowing her to set up her small boutique (tailoring shop) without any hesitation and permitting her to enjoy her economic independence has been a blessing in disguise – as not only she now supports her family economically she also interacts with people with more confidence – which according to her, a woman with no educational background seldom relishes. Nonetheless, she still prefer solitary at her work place and denied of engaging into any kind of ‘extra’ gossip with the ladies she come across in her shop. When asked about any externalities she encounters from the passer-by or from other shop owners, as she intruded their space (hers is the only ladies shop in that stretch), she blatantly denied of any. Her denial came in a way which gave a feeling that she choose it deliberately, or, may be, it was too hasty from the part of the interviewer to get so intimate at the very first meeting.

However, keeping aside the struggle that these two women went through, another thing that was very much prominent in their elocution was the submission to incessant social norm. Urmiji, though presently enjoys the status of being an independent women, had to seek permission from her husband before stepping outside her own ‘private’ space to the ‘public’ space. Furthermore, as her independence is a granted one, which all feminist scholars may argue is a right every women should exert, a large portion of it is commanded by her husband. Thus, she acquires a camouflaged independence wherein her husband is the main actor, under her caricature. He directs all her decision and negotiations within the public space. Surprisingly Rama ji, who hails from a very different background (than Urmiji), i.e. born and brought-up in Delhi, a graduate in commerce, holding a strong personality, belonging from a strong community (saini) still believes women represents the ‘private’ space and if her situations were not so adverse she herself would have maintained that. Her preferable choice would have been that of an actor of the private domain ‘only’. Not that I am humiliating the private sphere, or the janitor of it, but even after experiencing such custodian in the so called masculine space (I have seen many working under her, and she sternly commanding and single handedly managing her workers and customers), deep inside her, she wished submission to the social norms, which has always disfavoured equal status to women. Furthermore, she took continuous wrath and difficulties from her husband, only to break out of her marriage which has never been a favourable one (the base of her marriage was placed on a platform of lie, where the unstable mental condition of her husband was hidden from her and her family), when all her sisters got well settled in their lives or to put it more straight – married. Again submitting to an unsaid social norm. Therefore a duality in the identity is exhibited by these two women, which may not be unique to them only, but most women in our society. Firstly a woman of strong will and attributes – a strong entrepreneur; secondly and quite conflicting to the first image, a woman submitting to the social standards and asymmetrical values – acting according to the social acceptance.

Thus, two different women, from different situations, coming from absolute different background, and different impetus forcing them to break out of their shells and step into the so called ‘masculine’ space. But what remains same for them is the normative or the ideological constrains. Though bold enough to survive at their own terms, somewhere these norms are so deeply rooted that it (the norms) overshadow this audacious endevour of them.

Women on Streets: Encounters in Everyday Life

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Nian Paul
Research scholar
Jawaharlal Nehru University

The invisibility of women and the restricted mobility as highlighted in the previous blog will remain incomplete without further enquiring/delving into the negotiations that the women residing in Khirkee and Hauzrani make as and when they become visible on the streets for work, shopping, commuting, child care, etc. Phadke’s ‘Why Loiter’ stresses on women’s movement or visibility in public spaces constructed around a purpose and hence the public space remains the medium to access the “purpose” and never the purpose. This week’s blog takes account of four women whose foray in the public spaces directly or indirectly, speaks of the intersection of class, caste, religion, region, etc. that plays an important role in informing the women’s understanding of the public space and the belongingness to the same.

Rita, in her late 20’s runs a small “boutique” or as one can visibly classify it as a tailoring shop, came from Rai Bareilly after marriage some 10 years ago to the neighbourhood of Khirkee. Economically less driven, Rita felt the urge to learn the skills needed to bring the extra income home. On the streets with her small shop, her negotiations with the men and the public space remain an interesting area of research as conversations of this sort gave a few insights into her situation. As a working lady, her interaction with the surrounding neighbourhood remains limited to her customers. Her foray into the neighbourhood of Hauzrani seem to follow a sort of a negotiation strategy in which she closes her down against the environment oblivious to the people and places around her. Though managing her own shop, her venture into the next neighbourhood is always with her husband as she feels that she doesn’t belong to the place. The smell from the shops, the men at the street corners and the blind alleys creates a sense of alienation which restrains her exertion of rights in the public space. The place that she travels thus becomes a site of a privatised public.

Rashmi ji on the other hand, a woman in her 40s separated from her husband, struggled her way to the public visibility through her years of tuition and network building. Situated in the lane of parlours and boutiques, the glass door gives way to the well decorated and affluent interior of the boutique where we see men engaged in various sections. The struggle of Rashmi Ji as a part of her ancestral Saini lineage, can be seen as to be feeding the class structure of Khirkee. The Sainis typically with a strong hold of the area and the surrounding neighbourhood under the Lal Dora arrangement follows a strict understanding of class and caste hierarchy where the ‘other’ in their case becomes the women who come and work from the Jagadamba camp. The lanes of Khirkee as she puts it has been undergoing change since the heralding of the 21st century witnessing the influx of migrants for construction and other purposes, leading to the shaping of the public space in an uncanny manner which has restricted the entry of women. Thus the class component springs wide and open, wherein Rashmi Ji’s fear of the unknown stems out of her ignorance of the other.

Another woman getting the light of the day in the struggle for public space is a woman of late 20s running tuition classes in her apartment. Bano Ji, a Muslim resident of Khirkee, losing her father figure in her teens, worked her way up the ladder of economic success through her enduring hard work which spanned over prolonged hours of tuition and taking care of the family. The woman figure that she embodies presents a contradictory picture of Khirkee as she surpasses all the notions of visibility in public space. Spanning across more than 8-10 batches, her tuition classes has garnered her a position in public space which is not limited to her visibility on streets but also her dealing with men from her community. Narrating an incident, where a girl was stopped from coming to the tuition or attending classes by her father in response to a relative eloping from her father’s house, Bano ji played a prominent figure in cutting out a good deal for the girl from her tuition. Her words and her example did convince the girl’s father but on conditions that the girl would come back early, cover her head everywhere she ventures into and not talk to boys from other communities or within her community till she gets married. The girl complied, and so did her freedom! But the question here is whether one can talk of the masquerading independence of the girl from her community or a form of negotiation that the girl and Bano Ji made in order to continue the girl’s education. Can some sort of an agency be derived from the picture; an agency informed by the ‘majboori’ of the teenage girl?

Reflecting on Bano Ji’s story, the different form of interactions that informed her daily practices, from managing the kirana store’ to taking care of sisters to building a large network of chitfunds becomes an important category of inquiry that needs to be dealt in later sessions. What comes out of the picture, at present, is the social allowance granted to her in the absence of her father that helped her negotiate and navigate her existence and that of her family in Khirkee. Shabana, a close friend of Bano Ji, had an interesting take on how education has been a major instrument of her existence after she filed for a divorce. Even though her family’s economic condition was withering, she managed to squeeze out time for her studies, negotiating with her brothers who were against the wastage of money on schools. She pursued her studies and toiled for the day managing her private spaces which included housework, taking care of her old mother and attending to her brothers. Her plight deteriorated after her marriage, which lasted for few months owing to the alcoholic and gambling attitude of the husband. With her education up her sleeves, she waged a struggle against her husband and came to Delhi to find work. She started her daily struggle for bread and butter by giving tuitions to students in and around Khirkee and Hauzrani and simultaneously fighting her way to the legal doors.

Holding education as a strong measure to bring women into public space (one should keep in mind the social context in which she is placing education as an instrument in her community where purdah restricts the mobility and educational attainment of girls), Shabana narrated an incident from the police station, where a woman with an uneducated background stuck in a dowry case was unable to negotiate with the police officer. “With education comes respect for women” were the words echoing Shabana’s narration. What kind of negotiations does she make in the city of Delhi, in a constantly changing neighbourhood of Khirkee and hauzrani, as a single woman earning her livelihood becomes an important area of investigation. This would help understand the negotiations that women across region, religion, caste and class make to constantly strive for recognition and redistribution in Nancy Fraser’s words.