This is the fourth podcast in the UCL Institute of Advanced Studies series ‘Life in the Time of Coronavirus’ in which specialists from arts, humanities and social sciences, think about the questions that the virus poses to our ways of life, of being and self understanding, both now and in the past. In this contribution Ayona Datta, Professor of Human Geography, thinks about survival infrastructures, and their collapse or dysfunctionality in the context of the mass exodus and precarity of migrant workers, forced to forsake the city because of India’s lockdown.
What comes into focus in her description is not only the failure of the city to support its vulnerable workers, but the way that the survival of the city depends on the bodies it betrays.
Taking selfies and posting them on social media is often derided as a narcissistic, self-absorbed and attention-seeking practice. Filters come in for particular disdain due to the role they play in reinforcing unattainable beauty standards, by making faces lighter, slimmer and wider-eyed than is natural.
Yet feminist, minority and queer activists have argued that selfies can be a way for people to represent and take pride in their identity, sexuality and gender orientation. And recently, my own experiences researching gender, smart cities and urban citizenship in India have led me to see the value of selfies in a new and surprising way.
As part of a recent research project, my team and I were interested in understanding the lives of young women living in slum resettlement colonies on the outskirts of Delhi’s sprawling metropolis. To that end, we created a WhatsApp group, and asked 11 women to send in diary entries of their daily experiences in the form of images, text, audio or video as they travelled from their homes to the city over the course of six months.
Our participants turned out to be avid selfie takers. But there’s much more to this than a simple rendition of a millennial trend. Their selfies are digital, visual stories from the margins which capture their struggles and accomplishments as they step out from women’s traditional role in the home and navigate the largely male-dominated realm of the city.
Phones for fun and freedom
Getting a personal mobile phone is a significant event in the lives of these women. Families only permit the women to have their own phone after a series of difficult negotiations, as families are anxious that the phones could lead to what families perceive as “transgressive” behaviour, such as disobeying parents, breaking curfew, talking to men, or wearing Western clothes. Our participants convinced their families that having a phone is essential for keeping safe and staying in touch, when they have to go into the city for “legitimate” reasons such as work or education.
Smart phones usually come at a price which their families cannot afford, so when women start working they often spend their first salary to get one of the cheaper Android devices and pay off the full cost in monthly instalments. Data is affordable and connectivity can be instantaneous. Having a personal phone gives women the ability to leave the home and communicate with others away from the gaze of the family, so they see it as giving the gift of freedom.
Women celebrate this freedom using the phone’s front-facing camera. Of course, they take selfies for fun, using filters to transform their faces with amusing and outlandish templates.
WhatsApp me aana, facebook me jaana, yeh hai smart zamaana – translated as ‘coming on WhatsApp, going to Facebook, these are the smart times’. – WhatsApp diary entry, 2018.
But they also take selfies to record their visits to different places, celebrate their friendships and mark their coming of age as smart, connected young women, enjoying urban life – even when poor network connectivity means phones frequently crash and apps fail.
The city at arm’s length
Our participants didn’t really regard taking selfies as a political act. But when you consider how, when and where they take selfies the images are a barometer of their social, economic and political exclusion from the city. They speak to the paradoxes experienced by women living in Delhi’s urban peripheries, as both technology – and the city itself – can be at once liberating and dangerous.
In some ways, the selfies show that being in the city is liberating for women, as they represent a new-found freedom outside the home and the constraints of traditional gender roles. Through these selfies, women curate the city at arm’s length, placing themselves in the centre of the frame as they stage their own arrival in many different public places.
But by recording women’s presence at a particular time and place, these selfies also give away what, when and where the women cannot be. For example, selfies are mostly taken during the day, or when they are with a group of friends, in places where there are fewer men, or in familiar neighbourhoods where they feel comfortable and confident. Very rarely do these women take selfies when they travel alone, – because sexually predatory male attention remains a constant feature of their journeys.
Uploading selfies to Facebook also exposes these women to the dangers of online and offline stalking, harassment and bullying. A disturbing picture entry in the WhatsApp diary, captioned “my selfie in a bus full of men”, evoked the Nirbhaya case of 2012 – when a young woman was fatally gang raped on a bus – and suggested that the selfie is also a way for these women to witness and record danger in their everyday life.
Phones between the home and the city
Selfies inside the home are largely absent in the WhatsApp diary entries. Although home is valued by their families as private – and therefore safe for women, our participants often viewed it as a place of confinement.
Home is where the women’s daily struggles with poor infrastructure for drinking water, sanitation, waste collection and transport take place. More significantly, family control over women’s bodies – through strict curfew hours and restrictions on where they can go – highlight older and younger generations’ very different understandings of freedom and danger.
While older generations who grew up without mobile phones are mainly concerned about women’s physical safety, the young women in our research have to deal with daily invasions of privacy, sexual harassment and abuse both at home and in the city, online and in real life. Their selfies tell a story about what it’s like to navigate the journeys between home and the city, as the boundaries between public and private, freedom and danger become increasingly blurred in these “smart times”.
Please see below a Photo Essay by photographer Rohit Madan, including a 360 degree view of a busy crossroad in Madanpur Khadar JJ Colony, New Delhi, India, one of the areas our ‘Gendering the Smart City’ project is focusing on.
The photo essay forms part of our #GSCProject #AanaJaana exhibition taking place in Mandi House metro station, New Delhi from 1 to 31 January 2019. You can read more about the exhibition here and explore and share our exhibition event Facebook page here.
I was lucky enough to be a part of this research network and feel strongly about the overarching objective of this research project. My association with the ‘Gendering the Smart City’ project was quite serendipitous and has been rewarding in many ways. Without going into too much detail, I would like to share a few challenges that we had to face during the making of this video with the Khadar girls.
Poster created by: Ayona Datta
Availability – Although the Khadar girls might appear homogenous, yet the group was quite diverse in terms of identity. They ranged from unmarried, divorced, to single mothers; most of them were working outside their homes and some pursuing education alongside this. Amidst all the personal, professional and educational pursuits, it was tough for them to take time out for participation in the project and particularly for the film. The working women often came to the filming sessions even if they have to make excuses at work. Those who have to take care of their family were continually moving between the filming sites and their homes.
Onlooker’s reactions – It is clear from the music video that it is of an open genre where the Khadar girls speak back to the city about their day-to-day challenges particularly around violence in public spaces. Most of this music video have been shot in the streets, main road and open market – places that are frequented by men in general. The Khadar girls had to withstand this male gaze in public places, often also from their neighbours or relative. Even though initially they were uncomfortable with this gaze, they stood firmly through this.
Image Credits: Ayona Datta
Infrastructural challenges – In the #AanaJaana StoryMap Dr. Datta has shown how in recent years urban transformation has taken places in Madanpur Khadar JJ Colony. Khadar is on the outskirts of Delhi NCR with least or minimal infrastructural development. The roads were narrow with no public transport and modern monuments of garbage everywhere, with cows scavenging on them. On the last day of our shoot there were no electricity all through the day, no streetlight, and no place to charge our equipments.
Breaking the ice with Khadar girls – My association with this project is nothing but serendipity and this serendipity happened on the night before the day of the shoot. So when we started filming, although Dr. Datta and her team had been working closely with the Khadar girls but my crew and I were strangers to them. To be able to achieve a music video of a good quality we felt that it was critical for us to know them better. We spent a half a day just to get familiarise with each others through various participatory video training sessions.
Image Credits: Ayona Datta
Facing the camera – With the advent of smart phone and cameras at both in the back and at the rear people have become adept at photography and taking selfies, but a camera with a cinematographer on the other end is still threatening to a lot of people. I have seen people serving at high posts in government and corporates stammering in front of a camera. Shooting with the Khadar girls was also not easy. We had to take numerous shoots for a single 5 second line and at time with a zero percent success rate. The first day was exceptionally challenging with little progress, but we began to have more of a rapport on the second day. Dr Datta also did a few shoots on the third day and practiced some of the shots with the girls. The last few days of shooting went smoothly with the last day going exceptionally easily as reflected in the video ending.
My strict task-master attitude – My personal attribute might have been a challenge for both the Khadar girls and me as director and producer in charge. As a director of the process I had to be assertive at various points and with each repeat shot I was also losing patience and failing to keep my calm. But at the end of the process the Khadar girls and I had come much closer than falling apart. We have ended the filming with a lot of mutual respect and camaraderie. I hope we can stay in touch and develop more films in the future.
Please click here to see the ‘Khadar Ki Ladkiyan’ music video.
Curating Digital Lives for a Feminist Urban Future
13th December 2018, India International Centre, New Delhi
This workshop seeks to establish an alternative framework for curating the smart safe city. It aims to engender current smart city agendas through young women’s everyday experiences of navigating the city. It will present different perspectives of mobility and safety generated by young women through participatory maps, photographs, videos and WhatsApp diaries maintained over a period of time. In doing so, it explores how women on the margins view, understand, and ultimately navigate the city through information and communication technologies (ICT) accessed from low-cost (and often low-tech) mobile phones. It provokes us to think what safety means in a context where social media provides real time information on the dangers and freedoms located in the metro, bus, auto rickshaw, and walkways as well as the opportunity to express this in creative and poignant ways. It invites us to think how women living on the urban peripheries negotiate the ‘freedoms’ of moving in online space with the ‘dangers’ of going out into the city, or the limitations of engaging via digital technologies with the freedom of stepping out of one’s home. Through a convergence of artistic practice, digital media and architecture, this workshop will demonstrate the potential of a new kind of visual language of safety that is co-produced with the women. It will reveal the capacity of this language to move beyond existing data on gendered violence to highlight the gendered and socio-economic patterns of inclusions and exclusions brought about by a digital urban age.
As part of the United Nations #16DaysOfActivisim, we launched a hip hop song ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ [Khadar Girls] co-written and co-produced with our participants at the event. See our Story Map of the process here.
Explore the event Wakelet with all of the Tweets before and during the workshop here.
Watch our workshop videos featuring our #GSCProject team members and workshop participants – project societal partners, academics, experts, practitioners and community stakeholders – who joined us on the day below:
Read the workshop report by Project Research Assistant Arya Thomas here.
Participants start arriving with tea and coffee served
Project Outline and Findings Chair: Kalpana Viswanath
Dr. Ayona Datta (Principal Investigator), Reader in Urban Futures, King’s College London Gendering the Smart City: Curating Gendered Digital Life in the Margins
Dr. Padmini Ray Murray (Co-Investigator), Digital Humanities Course Leader, Srishti School of Art and Design, Bangalore Sharing and Making Digital Knowledge: Using Wikipedia
Arya Thomas (Research Assistant)
WhatsApping and Rapping with Young Women in Delhi’s Peripheries
Rwitee Mandal, Safetipin (project societal partner) Gendered Safety Maps of the Unmapped Peripheries
Q & A
Break for coffee and tea
Right to Urban Technologies Chair: Padmini Ray Murray
Sarita Baloni, Researcher, Jagori (project societal partner) Working with Youth and Technology in the urban peripheries
Swati Janu, Senior Designer, mHS CITY LABS and Lecturer in Architectural Design, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi Memory Cards and Vernacular Media
Krishna Menon, Professor, School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Gender and the Smart City
Nayanatara Ranganathan, Manager, Freedom of Expression programme, Internet Democracy Project Surveillance-As-Safety in Hi-Tech India
Q & A
Curating the City with Art and Architecture Chair: Ayona Datta
‘Khadar Ki Ladki’ launch of music video and Q & A with participants and sound artist Sunayana
Kruttika Susarla, Graphic Designer and Comic Artist The Personal is Political
Shveta Mathur, Visiting Faculty, School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi and Coordinator, Urban Design Studio Student Design Interventions in Khadar
Sameera Jain, Filmmaker, Editor and Course Director, Creative Documentary program, Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication, New Delhi About My Own City
Q & A
Break for coffee and tea
Roundtable Discussion on Gendering the Indian Smart City: Contexts, Challenges and Future Directions Moderator: Kalpana Viswanath, Co-Founder and CEO, Safetipin Janaki Abraham, Associate Professor in Sociology, Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi Anjilee Aggarwal, Director, Samarthyam Sohini Bhattacharya, President and CEO, Breakthrough Mriganka Saxena, Founder, HTAU (Habitat Tectonics Architecture and Urbanism)
Final reflections and moving on to next phase of project Ayona Datta and Padmini Ray Murray
Funded by: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), UK
Co-convened by King’s College London and Safetipin, Delhi
Local partners: Jagori and School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi
The research network primarily involves working with millennials from a resettlement colony in Delhi. We decided to use WhatsApp Diaries as a form of interaction with each other, as a medium to curate and co-produce the idea of gendered mobility and safety through text and images. Since the use of cheap smart and feature phones and access to internet technology has proliferated in South Asian economies, this also allowed for a process of documentation of the project in the virtual domain.
The basic idea in the diaries is to share experiences of safety, discomfort, pleasure and risk with each other in the form of audio recordings, pictures and videos from the city as these girls navigate the city everyday. We are building a thick narrative of the city from the perspective of young girls who live on the margins of the city. As mobile phones have become an intrinsic part of our lives, one had to think of ways to ‘involve’ the medium actively in this research project. Many engagements and conversations take place through the phone- from access to public services to job opportunities, to discovering and finding new friends, to narratives of discomfort in these interactions, the phone and internet are crucial to the merging subjectivity in the neo-liberal order.
Till now, the WhatsApp timeline has been primarily marked by experiences\instances on infrastructure, politics and safety. A rain in the city would flood the whatsapp group with images of water logging in the locality or in areas where they would be navigating, giving a scathing critique of the state of public infrastructure and lacunas in planning the smart city. Easy access to affordable public transport in another issue that has come up again and again in our discussions.
‘Delhi rains’ from participants’ WhatsApp diaries. Collage by Ayona Datta.
The issue of safety seems to emerge often enmeshed with questions of infrastructure and other community ethos in the city. While the lack of proper lighting and narrow\dark lanes are a constant source of anxiety, a substantial feeling of safety also emerges from perceptions prevalent in the society along with other socio-economic issues. The persistent complaint that ‘boys who take drugs\alcohol’ often crowd in certain lanes, or stand around in deserted areas, the complaint about how one has to take long routes and avoid shorter unsafe routes; all underline the immense precariousness of everyday mobility.
The participants definitely should not be seen as ‘helpless victims’ rather there is often sharing of what they did to avoid a certain situation, that they are not constrained by these structural issues, rather, alone or collectively, women are trying to devise ways to fight it or negotiate it.
The role of community and family in controlling women’s mobility is something that is recurrent in both the whatsApp diaries as well as group discussions. Our WhatsApp diaries, like all WhatsApp groups in the subcontinent has also been flooded with an interesting set of forwarded messages or fake news propaganda – in that sense, we are never in isolation of the political contexts that mars all our lives constantly. There is a steady inflow of political propaganda that comes through, some of them would reflect the schisms within as discussions unfold or erupt.
Below are some of the narratives in the diaries.
“Sheher (city)- where no one listens to you – I got on a bus, on the bus stop from Okhla tank, near Harkesh Nagar to go to Chidiya Ghar, he shut the gate so hard that I fell and my phone broke. I complaint on 100, called on 181, I also got a traffic police number, but no one listened to me” (27th June, 2:47 pm)
“Hello friends, if you know of any jobs, then let me know, I’m very troubled – I left the job in July and I’m trying but also very troubled” (23rd August, 9:07 pm)
“I’m sitting on a rickshaw for Okhla phase 2, and the driver is a woman! It makes me really happy, and she’s riding it very calmly!” (9th July, 1:49 pm – didn’t have space in phone to send an audio recording)
These quotes give a sense of the conversations that unfold between young girls living in Delhi’s urban margins – spatially, economically and socially. They access the city from their subject positions, through the knowledge (and power) garnered via these whatsApp groups, and the city is playing a constant role in moulding and shaping that knowledge, power and subjectivity. These conversations also talk to us about the necessity of seeing the linkage between various aspects that govern a woman life, and her access to a ‘freer’ life, which includes livelihood, education and easy mobility, giving a more comprehensive notion to empowerment and women’s rights.
Project Principal Investigator Dr. Ayona Datta also wrote an article on our WhatsApp diaries project with participants published via The Conversation UK here, Scroll.in here, The Print here, Yahoo! News here, Quartz India here, Firstpost here, Asian Correspondent hereand shared via the Twitter account of Contrast News, the Twitter account of the International Council of Women’s Health Issues, the Twitter account of the Sociology programmes, Institute of Humanities at the University of Worcester and the Twitter account of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) Higher Education.
Project Principal Investigator Dr. Ayona Datta gave a keynote talk entitled ‘Fast Urbanism: Speed and Time at the Margins of the Indian City’ at the 50th Conference of Irish Geographers (CIG) from 10 to 12 May 2018.
Maynooth, 10 May 2018
Speed is fundamental to shaping visions of the modern city and of contemporary urban life. Notions of speed and the acceleration of time have produced distinct conceptualisations of rapid urbanisation as a rush towards progress and modernity. In India, speed is shaping new vocabularies of the future (fast forwarding, future proofing, leapfrogging, race against time), new urban tropes (smart cities, safe cities) and new domains of state rule (streamlining bureaucratic and regulatory processes, efficiency measures, egovernance, Big Data). In this paper, I argue that speed is also fundamental to the conceptualization of ‘new solutions’ to ‘old urban problems’ of Violence Against Women (VAW). By examining the trope of the ‘smart safe city’ this paper examines how speed is conceptualized in the rolling out of safety apps and what this means for those living on the margins of both smart city and safe city in India. Taking India’s recent national initiative to create 100 smart cities I will argue that the focus on the smart city as a strategy of gender safety is a co-optation of women’s bodies and spaces within the logics of a ‘technological fix’. This paper will examine how transformations of ideas of speed and time in the smart safe city shapes practices of measuring, visualising and representing violence, how those on the margins encounter and negotiate the spatio-temporalities of violence, and what this tells us about how we create gender just urban futures.
Have a look at the Wakelet of the event by clicking below:
The symposium aimed to explore ideas such as digital (in-)visibilities, voice/voicelessness online, data ethics and data justice, digital divides in access and affordability, uneven digital literacies, justice and inclusion in digitally mediated/smart cities and using digital forms of protest to address social and environmental (in-)justice, featuring panels with high-profile researchers and practitioners as well as three participatory strands of talks, ‘digital shorts’, from members at all career stages, and discussions.
The strands were:
1) Citizenship, Protest and the Digital
2) Data, Justice and the Smart City
3) Justice and Global Digital Inequalities
You can find out more about the symposium here and explore the event Wakelet here.
NEWS! Dr @AyonaDatta speaker at 2nd #DGWGSymp researching smart urbanism, gender & citizenship Current projects: Disconnected Infrastructures & gendering the smart city, working with ICT social enterprises, grassroots NGOs & women from low-income Register https://t.co/saZ0ZlNFmQ
Time justice is important! There is already a discussion about the triple burden of women, and women's time poverty which ties into the smart city discourse where digital spaces are often being pushed top-down – @AyonaDatta#DGWGSymp
Combining approaches from urban geography, gender studies, software ethnography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), this ArcGIS mapping project is a unique interdisciplinary international collaboration between King’s College London and Gendering the Smart City project (#GSCProject) societal partners Safetipin and Jagori in India.
Data has been collected on infrastructural blind-spots using innovations in digital technology and open-source mapping, and on violence against women (VAW) through participatory mapping of infrastructure and social usage of public spaces by women, in the selected low-income neighbourhoods of Madanpur Khadar and Badarpur, Delhi.
⬇ PLEASE CLICK ON THE IMAGE BELOW TO EXPLORE OUR STORY MAP.