Resenting the Public in Public Spaces


*Originally published at Timsaal.

The class divide in Pakistan is frequently documented in figures, percentages and statistics. Yet the divide is not in want of numbers when its evidence can be located in an everyday spaces and attitudes.

Recently, a Twitter user commented about witnessing a woman glaring down a man in a local mall by loudly expressing her disgust towards the “ghareeb aadmi” of his kind venturing into such places.

The incident could be brushed as an isolated outburst of a rude individual, but not quite. It is illustrative of a wider phenomenon: the deeply-held classist and elitist entitlement and resentment in urban public spaces.

“Mahol kharab kardia hai in logon nay”

“Mahol kharab kardia hai” is a thinly-veiled expression for the elitist inability to share space with the “aam awaam.” The classist elitism is driven both by a revulsion for the lower classes or perhaps any class below the upper middle and upper class, and an open desire for exclusion of these “others” to maintain a monopoly of certain territories. This classist and elitist territorialism appallingly hinges on asserting that the right of ownership, access and participation in certain spaces lies and is retained in the exclusive domain of a single group, while quite literally asks for the class divide to be enacted and reinforced on ground. In such an imagination, members of the lower, working or even middle classes, and members with rural backgrounds, are “cheap”, “tacky” and “paindu” in their attire and ways; polluting the ambience of places conventionally associated and visited by the urban, affluent and educated sections of society.

The case against the public intermingling with lower socio-economic strata is also often couched in a language of fear and risk of harassment and hooliganism in public spaces. But it remains to be emphasized that the repulsion directed at the sight of people from lower classes sharing a space exists even if these people are with families. It is not harassment but their ways, mocked as “cheap” or “paindu” for how they dress or carry themselves, their Punjabi, their broken-English or lack of English, which elicits this. On the matter of harassment, it is offensive and baffling that one would associate it with a particular class, especially with the lower classes which are already greatly stereotyped and demonized in our society: “lazy”, “chor”, “paindu”, “jahil.”

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Any woman can attest with absolute certainty that harassment is not a class problem. We’ve been made to feel uncomfortable in various public spaces, even in ones entirely visited by men of the seemingly “educated” and “refined” classes. When it comes to harassment, what we have is not a class problem but a gender problem. To reduce harassment to class is a dishonest and dangerous narrative.

Packages-Mall-Inner-ViewIt remains to be proven, however, how a class, with its superiority complex and faux sophistication, entitles its members monopoly over public spaces. And it remains to be reminded that all persons in this country have an equal right to enjoy malls, parks, events and whatever else there is. This is especially important considering the present situation: the ubiquitous fear and danger of security risks have considerably throttled cultural and recreational life in the country. Gone are the days of frequent concerts, festivities and cricket matches. A careful attempt at revival, however, has begun since the past few years with the opening up of certain narrow channels of entertainment: restaurants, malls, cinemas, and occasional festivals.

Public spaces and events as they are, they’ve allowed various segments of the urban population to access and participate in them, but as much of a breath of fresh air this has been and as welcoming as the democratization of public space should be, it has been accompanied by the aforementioned discontentment in certain quarters. Although several classes still remain barred from accessing these spaces and events due to the limits of familiarity and financial affordability. But ask those who remain repulsed, wronged and affronted by this development and images of an utter disaster would be conjured up. Who let these hordes of the hoi polloi into our idyllic abodes of privilege and into spaces which must only belong to us; the most special, the most cultured of them all. After all, haven’t you heard how fluently we speak English?

This segregation of the poor from the prosperous, which is often proposed for existing public spaces, events and activities, already concretely manifests itself and is enforced by the construction and maintenance of various housing schemes like Bahria Town and DHA which are, in effect, gated communities that do little to welcome and accommodate but a particular class. The entire landscape of such housing communities is oriented and designed to attract and entertain the rich or the rising. Take parks and tracks, for instance. Access to many of them is contingent upon memberships, the fees of which are often hefty and unaffordable except for a particular lot.

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The situation is compounded by the abounding suspicions and caricatures about the poor within these areas. Earlier this year, mass texts purported to be from Defence Housing Authority Lahore circulated among residents, cautioning them against allowing their domestic help from interacting with other workers in the neighborhood to “control the increasing number of thefts and other social evils.” The poor are welcome in these housing schemes and communities, but only to be sequestered in servant quarters, under the strict surveillance of their sahabs and bajis.

Even keeping aside the posh housing schemes and communities, which “often deploy a mix of methods in constructing space and regulating the flow of undesirable bodies”, the case still stands. Ammar Ali Jan, in fact, traces the development and management of Lahore itself as an urban space to specific colonial and post-colonial calculations and objectives which converged at “render[ing] the poor invisible” and the creation of  a “demarcation….between the elite areas of the city and those that contained Lahore’s working people.” Clearly spatial demarcation and confinement of the poor precedes, but aggravates, the exclusion from the few public spaces and recreational facilities that the poor too can avail.

But while the socio-economic gulf may be replicated and reinforced structurally in the design of the city as an urban space and elite housing communities, that does not trivialize the weight of exclusionary mentalities and behaviors which desire and drive away those of the lower and marginalized streams from the few places and areas they may be able to access, even if they are unable to participate equally or frequently in them. The arrangement of urban spaces ought to be critically interrogated for the exclusions they foster, but so do individual attitudes. The next time you find yourself wincing at the sight of someone from a different class visiting or occupying the same space as you, stop and reflect for a moment the discriminatory, demeaning and disdainful nature of your prejudice.

The reasons for denying members of different classes the right to enjoy public spaces, events, activities can be endlessly contrived, but their underlying classist and elitist nature cannot be denied. There is a long route to take if such frameworks of thinking and inhabiting spaces are to be overhauled for a truly inclusive society but a few steps towards it are both necessary and significant. It is crucial for people to learn to see and truly treat, with respect, those separate from their class as equal human beings and citizens who have the right to occupy and share spaces, comfortably participate and claim visibility in them. Although the acceptance of such a perspective may still prove to be tremendously difficult for some.

-Hafsa Khawaja

A Body of Burden


 “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

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The female body. The female form. The female figure.

To be a woman in this country is to be constantly, painfully and unusually conscious and aware of a great many things: so conscious of every part of your body; deeply aware of the demands made upon you for its every movement, move and motion to be calculated.

An oppressive consciousness and awareness.

Sit in a certain position, don’t sit in a certain position; don’t lean too much, don’t slouch so much, don’t sit cross-legged. Don’t talk in a certain tone, don’t laugh too loud.

Constantly survey and check yourself.

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It is as if the female body is a burden to be carefully carried and shouldered.

To possess a female body is to exist for and in multiple bodies. You are responsible for your own morality, and that of the other – that of the male. You check yourself and so you check the other. By possessing the vice of a female body, you bear the burden of their imaginations and their impulses. If the gaze or some misfortune falls onto you, you invited it for it is your responsibility to bar it, not that of those who cast it onto you.

You exist with the burden of that gaze on you and that gaze defines how you carry yourself.

It takes nothing but a moment to realize just how these burdens have sculpted you and your persona in the public space. I hold a deliberate and constant scowl on my face, head high, and my walk brisk. It is my way of denying and deterring those prowling leers and stares, of resisting the vulnerability that comes with my skin and whose fear crawls on my skin.

Of leers, jeers, and harassment.

And yet I know it can prevent little. My mere emergence in public visibility is what makes me far too prominent itself. Just being there is what draws attention, I need not create a scene. I am the scene.

The female body is oppressive for the expectations, fears, threats and oppressions heaped onto it are what it heaps onto you.

I catch myself unconsciously glancing at my dupatta every now and then, adjusting it even while it is adjusted. I find myself unconsciously straightening my kameez even when it already is, to make sure its corners aren’t turned, to make sure they cover me fully.

It is a constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

embodying-indus-lifeI sit in the car and get uncomfortable when a car or motorcycle veers too close to my window. The proximity is unsettling for the proximity of access of sight is unsettling. I grab the black shades and fix them over my window amid a sigh of relief. There, I am now hidden. Phew.

I step out and it is a struggle to keep my appearance…in order. I can’t hide here.

How can you possibly feel naked with clothes?

How can your own skin induce fear, vulnerability and discomfort in you? How can it induce a desire for invisibility in you?

An invisibility from the leers and stares that pierce right into you, that frighten and unnerve you. Leers and stares that stalk you with a perverse pride, entitlement, insolence and impudence, and with a complete sense of the perverse power they are, which are undeterred by one’s detection of them. The detection only emboldens them.

How do you come to feel uncomfortable in your skin? How do you come to feel uncomfortable by your own skin?

You see the leers and you survey yourself in worry, is the dupatta in place? Is something wrong? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? I quickly sling my bag or purse on one side to slump over my legs, while the dupatta falls over the other.

How do you keep prying eyes away? To what extent can you possibly hide yourself? What more can you hide of yourself when the imagination encroaches and penetrates all that is you?

What can I do when I am uncomfortable by my own skin? When I made to be felt oppressed by own biology?

I wonder what it feels like to be in the public and to have a mobility unhampered by an agonizing consciousness of every part of your body, a tiring and grueling consciousness that presses itself on your mind.

How does it feel to not be ashamed of your anatomy?

How does it feel to not want to shrink?

How does it feel to not be stalked, surveyed and to surveil yourself?

How does it feel to just wear your skin without wanting to peel it off, shroud it, or fix it?

How does it feel to not be a woman?

I wonder what it’s like, while the corners of my dupatta and kameez tug at the corners of my mind. Is the dupatta in place? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? A constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

 

-Hafsa Khawaja

Beyhayai On Wheels


*Originally posted on the Dawn Blogs:

The Punjab government’s Women on Wheels programme was initiated this 10th by a rally of 150 women trained by the Special Monitoring Unit on Law & Order and City Traffic Police.

According to a report in the Daily Times:

“The campaign is aimed at increasing women mobility and presence in public spaces by providing them free lessons in motorbike driving,” said PML-N MNA Maiza Hameed. “The Chief Minister’s Special Monitoring Unit (SMU) had launched this campaign for educating the women of Punjab against harassment and violence,” she said, adding that the campaign involved workshops to provide women with free motorcycle lessons and also to educate them on their role in society. “Women from all walks of life are invited to ride motorcycles on a pre-specified road,” Hameed said.

The WoW programme took off but not without condemnations on social media littered mainly with charges of “bayhayai”.

That the sight of women on motorbikes is obscene and repugnant to some in a country where hundreds of children are horrifically and despicably abused for years, an issue soon forgotten, spells volumes about the warped and twisted sense of outrage possessed by many in Pakistan.

It is also mind-boggling how the sight of women with men on motorbikes isn’t “beyhayai” but women alone on motorbikes definitely are. Why?

There is little doubt that this line of thought owes itself to the deep-seated scandalization of female presence and participation in public spaces in Pakistan.  This is a scandalization resulting from any breach of the chaar diwari; a concept, set in values of honour, which frankly holds scant compatibility with the 21st century, but which nonetheless designates and limits women to the boundaries of the private sphere.

To reiterate what I have asserted previously, this scandalization is a part of the bigger problem women in Pakistan face regarding public spaces and places; culturally set as alien territories for them, with the right to their occupation understood as a monopoly for males since public spaces belong to ‘their sphere’ – everything external and separate from the domestic domain to which women ‘belong’. Any breach of this monopoly by women is then either fraught with risks such as those of harassment, or restrained by these risks which limit female mobility and safety, but are rationalized as part-and-parcel of stepping into the ‘male realm’ of public spaces; in which female presence and visibility may be treated as cultural anomalies.

It is about time that we open our minds and stop treating public spaces as a distant realm for women, off-limits to them, in which their presence and participation is an anomaly that must be demonised and thwarted. It is such a view that often sanctions and promotes hostile conditions for when women when they do step into public spaces, which range from roads, educational institutions to work places, because “that isn’t where they are supposed to be”.

And it is in view of this that an initiative such as Women on Wheels is important and necessary, precisely because it resists this myopic idea by attempting the normalization and empowerment of female engagement with public spaces.

-Hafsa Khawaja