Aaram Ki Jagah: Tracing Leisure Spaces For Raghubir Nagar’s Women Vendors

In this, the third in the series ‘Placing Work, Mapping Places’, we explore the many reasons why Raghubir Nagar’s women hawkers associate leisure with the safety of places of worship

It has been argued that segregated spaces make it easy for different genders to navigate a city more freely. The need for segregation also points to the patriarchy inherent in our society. In India, examples of these spaces are the zenanas, portions of dwellings cordoned off for womens’ gathering and socialising, and the 18th century Hawa Mahal in Jaipur that allowed the cloistered women of the palace a view of everyday life, says Nidhi Batra, founder of Sehreeti Foundation, a platform focused on the urban environment. 

This segregation has also been debated in the context of compartments reserved for women in different modes of transport, from the local metro to flights and demarcating special parks for women only. 

In 2023, why are gender-inclusive spaces still a far-fetched reality? 

With rapid urbanisation impacting gender-based violence in cities, hard-lining gender-equal spaces need tough negotiation. The draft 2041 Master Plan of Delhi does not include a separate chapter on gender, showing that the trickle-down effect of inclusive social spaces will be skewed. 

From policy to collective action, gendered spaces are easier to design and govern. For example, the provision for model ‘pink parks’ with civic amenities is the Zenana concept revised. But segregated spaces for women do not solve the problem of gender-based violence in public places. Women who may have spent a leisurely evening in a women-only park are also likely to be subject to violence on the street. The recent Shahbad Dairy case offers us an insight into the broader conversation on womens’ access, mobility, agency and dignity in cities. In India, policy/political action on urban planning and designing still does not address the systemic blindspots in gender inclusion. Gender-equal spaces are viewed indifferently because it is harder to demonstrate their value in breaking gender barriers. Batra further claims public spaces are regarded as commonplace and are used by the working class now more than ever. But as more women appear in these locations, there will be an inevitable pushback from men who do not consider public spaces as natural spaces for women.

For most urban women, the notion of leisure is associated with reclaiming spaces of masculinity. But, for women in Raghubir Nagar,  ideas of free time are tied inextricably to faith. Women vendors here are omnipresent in the public because of their work and mobility patterns. But, leisure per se is an alien concept, loosely referred to as aaram karna (rest), ghoomna phirna (wander) and so on. When asked to locate spaces where they relax, loiter or just be by themselves, all responses pointed to spaces of faith. 

Parks Are Masculine Spaces

We were searching for a place to collect, engage, and share when we first entered Raghubir Nagar. In the early days, we found ourselves in the home of Gita ben, a resident of F block. Forming a circle on the floor, we held a suraksha kawachh (safety circle) activity to find out the existing social networks and safety nets that the women of the area rely on. Each person shared something they did to safeguard themselves in the public environment, and whoever resonated with the point being raised was passed a rope to voice their point. This rope was then passed around until a web was formed. 

An activity to facilitate a ‘safety net’ for women in Raghubir Nagar’s public spaces

This activity signalled the strength the women derive from shared experiences and how self-created safety nets tie them together. Safety does not only imply tech-based surveillance or police intervention; it means having people you trust and the support groups you form so that you can be yourself. 

Seeing the large turnout and a growing interest in the group attending the sessions, we felt the need for a larger space for frequent interactions. We decided to situate ourselves inside parks but were faced with many challenges arising from the community environment: parks and open spaces in Raghubir Nagar barely function as places where people relax or children play. They are heavily appropriated by those engaged in the second-hand clothes trade. Clothes are hung to dry on railings and heaps of gathris are stored on park pavements. 

A few park-facing residents assume the role of gatekeepers, often keeping the parks locked and controlling entry and exit timings. However, our core challenge was that the women seemed hesitant to speak up openly. Gated parks are kept clean, while non-gated ones remain unkempt, eventually becoming predominant masculine spaces inaccessible to women and children.

During photo walks, our cues for leisure spaces in the neighbourhood included ‘timepass ki jagah’, ‘idhar-udhar ghumne ki jagah’, ‘sukoon ki jagah’, ‘aaraam ki jagah’ (spaces for rest and quiet). Later, the women shared the photographs they clicked of the spaces where they rest and explained their reasons for choosing these. We observed that most women documented their respective places of worship.

Prompt-based photo walks brought out the interlinkages between leisure and faith

All voices were recorded and linked to the photos. The photos were then pinned on a collective grassroots map of Raghubir Nagar.

The women of Raghubir Nagar reclaim time for themselves by frequenting their respective spaces of faith.

Why did the women choose places of faith? If you study Raghubir Nagar on a plan or locate it on a satellite map, you will notice it is dotted with open and green spaces. However, the reality of this Jhuggi Jhopri (hutment) Cluster differs from its map. The amount of green space here is 1.1 sqm per capita, way below the recommended 9 sqm per capita for healthy living (as per WHO). A closer look reveals that the 1.1 sqm per capita falls to a mere 0.4 sqm per capita if we only include “quality” green spaces. Even within this, there are unofficial pockets under the ownership of male groups huddled together playing cards, and drinking alcohol.

To assess the quality of public spaces in Raghubir Nagar, we looked at two aspects – maintenance and cleanliness. Borrowing from their voice recordings and leaning into the verbs and adjectives they used to describe places, such as a khoobsurat jagah or a gandi jagah (beautiful or dirty spaces), here are the definitions we charted:

Mapping the quality of public spaces brought up important questions. Why was there such disparity in how parks were maintained, even when they were just a few feet apart? It turns out the clean and well-maintained parks remain locked. Park-facing residents and local leaders keep the keys and often use the park as a storage space or use it for domestic chores. The quality map, in this instance, reveals the hidden power dynamics at play within the community. This map indicates the nuances of governance, local politics, and management of public spaces.

The quality map looks at two aspects of public spaces - maintenance and cleanliness

So, where do the women go for leisure without parks and quality open spaces?

The women of Raghubir Nagar count on faith-based places or places of worship. Through faith, they also develop bonds with other women in the community. For instance, jagraatas (all-night hymn singing sessions) and kirtans are held predominantly for the women in the neighbourhood, and at these events it is considered acceptable for women to be out all night, even as they create reliable social networks. Festivals celebrated by communities allow women to remain in public spaces at leisure instead of moving quickly through them. Thus, activities related to faith allow women to take a break from the tedium of work and domestic chores. 

In what was meant to be an experiment in how the body expresses itself in (public) spaces/encounters of safety and fear and everything in between, we facilitated a process which required women to react to certain scenarios. Here were some of these – placing themselves in crowded environments, MCD officials taking away their wares without any notice, harsh weather conditions, dimly-lit areas, walking/travelling alone at odd hours, and working and socialising in public spaces. 

Their lived experiences of normalised behaviours and attitudes towards gender-based violence showcase how women have developed subliminal body language as an action to feel safer in perceived spaces of fear and danger and in encounters of violence.

Raghubir Nagar women use their bodies to portray a range of emotions in different scenarios and in different parts of the neighbourhood

We want to step back from the binary perception of “safe” and “unsafe” spaces. If we do not let self-determination be a valuable metric, we end up giving men a sense of impunity in ‘unsafe spaces’.

Reimagining City

In Western discourse, walking, occupying streets in the nighttime, and intentionally indulging in unproductive, unplanned and non-work activities in the public realm are forms of leisure. In the Indian context, however, walking cannot be conflated with leisure due to the inadequacy of urban infrastructure and the number of social restrictions attached to it. If the city is not walkable does not mean people do not walk. A study on the ‘walk economy’ refers to a kind of walking that is invisible, taken for granted due to its everydayness, and one that is intertwined with the city’s informal economy.

A constant tug of war exists between enforcing safety upon women (through tech-based surveillance and households demanding by-the-minute updates) and acknowledging self-created safety nets.

For instance, Paramvati ben, like other women in Raghubir Nagar, feels threatened and unsafe in her neighbourhood park – a spot where men drink and gamble. She does not venture there, nor does she allow her daughter to do so. She wants to tackle this feeling of being threatened in this space by creating a mandir in one corner of the park. She believes that women will automatically collect closer to the mandir and men farther away, creating a non-tangible boundary between the two. More so, she hopes that the presence of a religious structure will discourage, if not prevent, the men from misbehaving. She reimagines it as a safe place where women can find solace and children can play and where they can freely reclaim this public space as their own.

Paramvati ben’s re-imagination of TC Camp’s Trikona Park as ‘Vishnu Park’

Such self-created safety nets prove to be more sustainable solutions as they directly respond to the local power dynamics at play and put the community’s needs at the forefront. Raghubir Nagar’s women require quicker and more convenient redressal mechanisms that circumvent ideas of victimisation.

In a city plagued by patriarchy and devoid of basic infrastructure, the discourse around leisure must go beyond the singular act of reclaiming inclusive places. It is critical to adopt a holistic lens by looking at how diverse citizen groups navigate the city, with special attention to the experiences of those presently invisibilised. Once this is done and the gaps are identified, the dialogue on leisure can be broadened and explored further.

Leisure and faith are inherently linked for the women of Raghubir Nagar. This connection stems from a lack of accessible and quality safe spaces in this male-centric neighbourhood and the scarcity of time afflicting women’s everyday lives. Therefore, it is not faith that contains them but the relentless search for self-determined safe spaces. 

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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