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.

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