Updated: Aug 8, 2021
In this piece, Disha Sharma writes about the ways in which young women and girls in India have in recent times engaged with the urban street by asserting their presence through resistance and everyday navigation, confronting violence and other patriarchal structures.
To comprehend the youth culture, it is fundamental to locate the spaces where they are both present and absent. This article will reflect upon both the presence and absence of the youth on urban streets, particularly relating to the gendered nature of its use. Urban streets are nexus where the youth voice their viewpoints and are also silenced by the authority. These spaces are both inclusive and exclusive in nature. There is no singular dimension of the urban streets or how the youth utilize it and thus this article does not have the capacity to reflect upon all the dimensions and intersectionalities to understand the relation between youth and the urban street. The reflection will focus on temporal and spatial dimensions as pertaining to gender inequalities. The article will first discuss the claiming of the streets through protests, Anti CAA protests in particular. This will be followed by reckoning how pride parades are also a way to claim the streets. The article will end by focusing on the everyday manifestations of occupying the streets especially by women in the Indian context.
Claiming the streets
The urban streets are socio-political spaces which are claimed by different bodies at different times. They have been used as an essential tool by the youth to claim spaces and voice their ideas against the power structures. Youth activism has an established history in human society (see Nayar, 2020). The youth act as political agents while coming to the streets, marching, and coming together as a unit to speak out against the state or authoritarian figures. Be that as it may, its inclination and strategies may have changed somewhat over the years.
To understand the relation between youth and urban streets, anti-CAA protests will be taken as example. The youth of India took to streets to raise their voices against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRC) which violates the principles of secularism and equality by excluding the religious, cultural, and linguistic identities. In the cases of Anti-CAA/NRC protests, certain urban streets witnessed one-liner jokes and satire to ridicule the unruly decisions and actors of the state (see Desai, 2019). However, at many places, the youth protest took violent turns due to police brutality. The violence inflicted by the police depicts the power structure where the youth is not allowed to claim the urban streets. Many young activists are jailed in order to silence the voices of the youth and stop them from questioning the hostile acts of the state. One such brutal arrest was of a youth activist, Safoora Zargar, who was three months pregnant when she was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. This inhumane arrest has been seen as a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the United Nations (Wire staff, 2021).
The police brutality has abused the other spaces of the youth as well such as university campuses. Violence was inflicted upon the youth in Jamia Milia Islamia in 2019 and Jawaharlal Nehru University in 2020 where the student protesters were beaten up by the police as well as masked mob (Subzwari, 2021). Despite the police brutality, the youth still come to the streets in solidarity to challenge the power structure. This mirrors the inter play of power and powerlessness at the urban streets in the youth culture.
The youth also claim their rights on the urban streets through pride parades. The first pride parade was witnessed in Kolkata in 1999 and from that point forward many major metropolitan cities have been taken up by the youth to celebrate the pride parade on the streets and mobilize the cause of the LGBTIQ+ community. These pride parades enable mobilization of youth to come together to mark the visibility of the different segments of the youth which are silenced and misrepresented or not represented at all by the dominant ideologies in the power structure. Through the pride parade, the youth also protested against the Transgender Persons Bill 2016 and brought the inequalities to the public view and mobilized their ideology. The pride parades also enabled voicing the demands of the youth on issues of Section 377 which criminalized homosexuality. Demands proposed through the parades resulted in the striking down of Section 377 which was celebrated in the parade of 2018 (Alagarsamy, 2019)
Re-claiming the streets
While discussing about the urban streets, it is critical to ponder upon intersectionality and question the spatial and temporal dimensions of the street. The streets are not welcoming to all the bodies all the time. Particularly for some women, there is a 'time limit time' at which they must return to their 'homes' or hostels. The night-time or after dark is not seen as safe for women to access the streets due to the patriarchal structure which brings up the question, ‘Who can access the urban streets and at what times?’ The absence of women at night-time depicts the patriarchal notions of chaining and subverting women by minimizing their mobility and creating gender asymmetry.
This absence is questioned by many and amongst those is a collective called ‘Women Walk at Midnight’ where women come together as a group and walk at midnight to re-claim their rights on the urban streets. Here, the urban street spaces get extended to social media where the youth collectives voice their plans of protests, and form solidarity to support each other. Alternatively, the social media space (where the participants first register and share insights) also gets stretched out to the urban streets. There is a deliberate effort to create a counter-narrative for spatial and temporal dimensions of the streets. Where there are restrictions on women to access the streets, there are also negotiations taking place by the youth to be active agents to mark their territory on the streets.
Another such initiative is Pinjra Tod (Break the Cage) which commenced as a youth collective of women to stand against the oppressive regulations imposed on them in university spaces. They raised their voices by walking on the streets at night and refuting the rigid regulations imposed in the name of safety. Dr.Uma Chakravarti, feminist and historian, praises them for bringing caste, and class questions in the movement (Borpujari, 2016). However, to what extent the initiatives of Pinjra Tod are inclusive is questionable. It is criticized to use the façade of the inclusivity and accessibility to speak on behalf of all women. In 2019, nine members belonging to disadvantaged groups exited the movement stating the exclusionary practices as reason. It is accused that the decision making roles are majorly taken by Savarna women who pose as the savior of women belonging to marginalized communities. Women of disadvantaged groups are excluded from taking part in meetings and online groups. The only issues discussed are the issues faced by the Savarna women which silences the voices and agency of women of the disadvantaged groups (Lama & Maharaj, 2019). Hence, even in reclaiming the streets, it is questionable who are the members of these groups and what are their agendas in order to understand whose voices gets heard. It is important to interrogate what is the socio-political backgrounds of the women who are accessing the streets. The question of the urban street does not stop at gender dynamics but moves beyond to criticize other dimensions as well.
Moving beyond reclaiming the streets by walking at night, Phadke, Ranade, & Khan (2009) argue that the discourse of safety categorizes women into the binaries of good and bad which gets manifested in creating dochotomy between the well behaved middle class women (who is mostlty a Savarana) versus lower class bar dancer. This dichotomy can be questioned by the act of loitering. Loitering can alter the city with the increased presence of women on streets. It is visualized as emacipatory as it replaces the discourse of safety with the discourse of fun. They state that the urban streets can only be accessed by all women if it is accessed by all men where there is no need for a purpose to visit the street but to have fun. It reflects how accessing the streets only with a purpose is not true emancipation. It is emancipatory only if everybody gets access to the streets without an obligation to fulfill a task (Phadke,2013).
The article highlights the temporal and spatial dimensions of the street while contemplating the role of the youth. The youth act as active political agents of the society who claim their stand against the state by coming to the streets and protesting. Their presence on the streets depicts their power to have a voice against the authoritarian rules. The voices of the youth in urban streets are juxtaposed by the police brutality and violence on the youth. Furthermore, intersectionality is questionable as not all segments of the youth can mark their presence at all the times. This gives rise to negotiations made by those segments to re-claim their right on the streets and be visible and acknowledged so as not be voiceless.
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Wire staff. (2021, March 13). UN Body Opines That Safoora Zargar's Arrest Violated International Treaties Signed by India. Retrieved from The Wire: https://thewire.in/diplomacy/united-nations-safoora-zargar-arrest-india-international-law