DAY THIRTEEN: Fursat ki Fizayen: a reclamation of space, rights and aspirations

Divya Chopra and Rwitee Mandal illuminates the importance of accessible spaces for women, especially in urban sites which are often planned with masculine vision and makes these spaces unsafe and non-inclusive for women.

Divya Chopra and Rwitee Mandal 

Featured image: ‘Top view of the terrace’ at Fursat ki Fizayen, credits to authors

Gender Biased Violence (GBV), especially Violence Against Women (VAW), is a living reality for migrant women living in resettlement colonies. Dislocation to under-resourced peripheries of cities is an iniquitous outcome of the urbanization process which deeply and disproportionately affects women who constitute almost 67% of the migrant population (Census of India 2011). While the underlying causes of GBV are rooted in patriarchal relations, the impacts of urban migration on gender compound those relations. Violence Against Women varies according to geographical location and scale as well as various other causal and contextual processes in cities. Migration particularly has deep ramifications on the lives of women by impacting their livelihoods, access to opportunities, resources, services and their ‘right to the city.’ Further, the physical configuration of urban areas planned with a masculine vision renders urban spaces unsafe, inaccessible, and non-inclusive. 

Within this larger discourse on GBV, VAW, and urban migration, ‘Fursat ki Fizayen’, a socially engaged art project supported by Khoj International Artists’ Association, engaged with the spatial realities of young, single, working women living at the margins – geographically, socially and economically – and artistically interpreted the multiple narratives around women’s leisure in the visible public domain, thereby encouraging women’s participation in public space.

The project explored the concept of leisure as a way of acknowledging women’s right to leisure time for personal growth as well as mental and physical well-being; as a way of addressing women’s right to leisure spaces in the city; and together with such an approach, contributed towards building gender inclusive cities. 

The project site, Madanpur Khadar, is a peri-urban, resettlement colony in Delhi, located along the southern banks of River Yamuna, where provisions of basic urban services and amenities are grossly inadequate. Open spaces within this tightly packed, built-to-edge, lower income neighbourhood are heavily gendered, unsafe, and hence inaccessible, discouraging young girls and women from enjoying these spaces. Instead, they avoid these spaces completely and remain invisible in their own neighbourhood.

Lacking access to physical leisure spaces, but having access to smartphones, they escape into a virtual space to live an alternative reality of public life. Through the construction and projection of self in an anonymous digital realm, they express their aspiration for leisure without being judged or afraid. Thus, providing access to a safe space where young women could enjoy leisure time without the fear of harassment or violence became the primary objective of the project.  

Leisure for women in cities, often determined by the intersection of gender with other identities, produce exclusion in complex ways. It is seen when women spend their leisure time, they construct their identities using space to express themselves and interact with others. Fursat ki Fizayen explored this dialectical relationship between leisure and space by engaging young, single, working women to reflect on how they think and construct their own images in the public domain. Participatory place-making and image-making being powerful tools for social empowerment were used to foster ownership and belongingness for their created environments. Stories of daily negotiations and contestations were curated to understand the lived experiences and spatial realities of these young women who access the site of power – the public domain – while exploring and reclaiming spaces for leisure in their own unique ways. Aspects of time, space and nature of leisure were discussed to co-design and co-produce leisure spaces with them. Their stories were used to understand and question the ways in which the world affects women at leisure. 

Among the many open spaces imagined and desired for at the neighbourhood, precinct, and city level, a space often forgotten, underutilized, and seldom used for leisure – terrace – emerged as the space of relief and escape from the confines of the four walls. Our facilitation partner Jagori provided the terrace at their community office at Madanpur Khadar for intervention.

The terrace at Jagori was also seen as a safe, familiar, and accessible space. Addressing multiple binaries, this space was reimagined as a personal yet collective, private yet public, internal yet external, an open-to-sky elevated space with lots of plants, seating, lights, decorations, music, mirrors, games (carrom, hopscotch, skipping), exercise equipment, a patch for a kitchen garden and various backdrops for selfies.

A central feature of the terrace, a colourful wall mural, was conceptualized along with the girls who co-created the mural along with two young artists. Together with the girls, the artists painted each of the girls’ avatars in joyful colours, enjoying both productive and non-productive means of leisure – reading, singing, working out, taking selfies, dressing up or just watching the world go by.  

Project team with group of girls. Image credits to authors.

The mural also strongly represents women’s right to experience leisure freely without the fear of harassment or violence. Since the young women have a strong digital presence, a Wi-Fi connection with boosters, charging points and speakers have been installed along with the creation of a beautiful backdrop for video calls/meetings, selfies/reels. A QR code printed on the wall connects the visitors to our Instagram page. The reclaimed terrace now has become a space for me-time, meet-ups and celebrations. 

Having an afterlife, way beyond the duration and scope of the intervention, was an inherent quality of the project and its associations. The women appropriated the space by growing their kitchen gardens, making their decorations, creating their selfie backdrops, holding their celebrations, and bringing along more women and girls to enjoy that space. The vibrant terrace continues to be used in creative ways to experience leisure by the community women. This terrace was built as a prototype that could be easily replicated allowing for additions and alterations. We hope it can trigger similar ideas to make use of underutilized terrace spaces to their full potential using local skill sets, locally produced products and locally available materials – which are low-cost, sustainable and support local businesses.

Together, these terraces could fulfil the need for accessible, and familiar spaces which women can access freely and use for personal and collective time, without fear of harassment and violence. 

Authors’ Bios

Divya and Rwitee are spatial design practitioners, researchers and educators based out of Delhi/Gurgaon. 

Divya’s practice primarily delves into themes of Inclusive Cities, Informality and Migration, Socio-spatial Justice and Urbanising Rural. Her current research pursuits revolve around formulating an integrated urban development framework that allows for a collaborative and structured way of envisioning, co-designing and co-producing our cities. She has been working across community partnered multidisciplinary engagements with a focus on placemaking through participatory art and co-design methods. She has been actively involved with the Urban Form Lab at the Urban Design programme at the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi. 

Rwitee is a Senior Program Manager at Safetipin, a social enterprise which uses technology to collect spatial data in order to make cities safer and inclusive for women and others. She has been working across multidisciplinary domains with a focus on gender-responsive spaces and placemaking through participatory art and co-design methods. She mentors the Social Urbanism Lab at the postgraduate Urban Design programme of the School of Planning and Architecture (SPA), New Delhi. 

DAY THIRTEEN: Opening the Pandora’s Box: Dilemmas in a Course on Family Engagement

In this engaging piece, Monimalika Day writes about encountering pedagogical dilemmas and ethical decisions when listening to oral histories of GBV in the classroom.

Monimalika Day

Featured image: ‘Group of Three Girls’ by Amrita Sher-Gill, source: Wikimedia Commons

A course on families in the department of education is usually designed to enable educators to begin to understand the structures, functions and perspectives of families from various backgrounds. Discussion on developing partnerships with families often focuses on issues of trust, respect, reciprocity and responsiveness.

As a faculty in the field of education one attempts to follow the principles of critical pedagogy “read the word” and “read the world” (Shor & Freire, 1987, p.135). In India and many other parts of the world, the majority of the students in education discipline are women. As our students grapple with these concepts of respect and trust, often stories, memories and narratives of gender violence slowly begin to emerge. A range of experiences are shared, with variations in the degree of violence, the relationship with the perpetrator, the nature of oppression, the site of the violence, each a powerful testimony of dehumanization. However, this approach often challenges the instructor to move beyond the well-defined space of a syllabus and explore uncharted waters.

The instructor introduces students to some of the key terms related to engaging with families and encourages them to reflect on their experiences to make sense of the words.

Respect refers to an acknowledgement and acceptance of the boundaries that exist between persons. Boundaries are markers that simultaneously connect and distinguish one from others…When these boundaries are crossed without permission, that person feels disturbed or even violated. When boundaries are acknowledged and crossed with permission, trust and connection are supported

Shor & Freire, 1987, p. 43

As students grapple with these concepts of respect and trust, often narratives of gender violence slowly begin to emerge. A range of experiences are shared, with variations in the degree of violence, the relationship with the perpetrator, the nature of oppression, the site of the violence, each a powerful testimony of dehumanization.

Is family a safe space?

Family is often assumed to be a safe space, a nurturing environment supported by a network of trustworthy relationships and yet it is the site for many of these violent incidents. One disclosure concerned a woman in her early twenties, who had repeatedly been molested by a cousin in the extended family. Her efforts to fight this had met with failure to find someone willing to support her. An uncle who visits the family found opportunities to molest her too in her home. Issues of gender and economic security interact to create a vulnerable situation. Her circumstances are complicated by the fact that her mother is a widow and does not have a source of income.  So she encourages her daughter to remain silent for fear of facing social isolation, extreme poverty and perhaps a life worse than what they have. This narrative highlights the long struggle of a woman trying to live with dignity in the family in which she is born.

Other narratives focus on the new relationships that women forge through marriage. With great anticipation, a newlywed woman travels with her husband to a secluded resort in the forests for her honeymoon. Her dreams turn into a terrible nightmare as she is tied up and raped by her husband and his friend for three days. She is shocked, dazed and unable to recall the details of this ordeal, which the judicial system demands of women like her. Upon returning to her husband’s home she manages to run away and get support from an ageing father.

However, seeking justice is a long, uncertain and tiring journey. For eight years she struggled to simply get a divorce. No action could be taken against the husband or his family as he lived abroad and managed to exploit the loopholes in the justice system. This was perhaps the most violent narrative that emerged in class. The narratives are uncomfortable both for the instructor and the students, and pose several teaching dilemmas.

The instructor and the students remained silent for a long period of time, no one moved when this story was shared. One could only hear the uncontrollable sobbing of the narrator, and sniffles of other students as they tried to desperately control their tears. It was as if a dark and heavy cloud had settled in the class, and infused a deep sense of helplessness, frustration and anger. The class was extended by an hour but no one left. As the instructor struggled to find words to end the class, the teaching assistant spontaneously began to sing and was joined by others “Ruk jana nahi too kahin haar kei, kato pei chalke milenge saare jahan se” (Do not stop when you face failure, walk on the bed of thorns to meet the world), a popular Hindi film song. Perhaps one can find a voice in the world of arts when the rational world of words fail.

Occasionally, the narratives follow one after another, as the instructor struggles to reflect on the boundaries of the classroom space and her role in facilitating learning. Neither her training, nor a long teaching career has prepared her to process these texts of violence. Critical pedagogy is guided by the principle of “Read the word and read the world.” The instructor attempts to help students make sense of the class readings by connecting it to their lived experiences.

However, sometimes, apparently simple words such as respect and trust open a pandora’s box and the answers to uncomfortable questions about human relationships cannot be found in the class readings. The overarching question that emerges in relation to the course is: Can we assume that family is a safe space? Can we assume any relationship to be safe?

Routinely the instructor refers these students to the counselling centre hoping to hide her feeling of inadequacy. Sometimes they seek counselling and at other times they do not continue therapy. However, often students return to the instructor to continue sharing their challenges and victories. Perhaps the relationship between a teacher and a student provides a safe space for such dialogues to continue as they struggle to have faith in themselves and others. The dialogues and the relationship continue even after students graduate and the frequency only fades with time.

Author’s Bio

Dr. Monimalika Day is Associate Professor, School of Education Studies, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi and currently Deputy Director, Centre for Publishing. She has provided technical assistance to various states in India through the Center for Early Childhood Education and Development and has supervised research projects. Her research interests focus on early stimulation, quality of early childhood programmes, preschool education, inclusion of children with disabilities, teacher education and collaboration between schools and families.