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”.
On Monday 28th January 2019, we had our ‘Gendering the Smart City’ research network project team findings and impact feedback meeting with our Advisory Board consisting of Professor Katherine Brickell (Professor of Human Geography, Department of Geography, Royal Holloway, University of London), Dr Melissa Butcher (Reader in Social and Cultural Geography, Department of Geography, Birkbeck, University of London), Professor Cathy McIlwaine (Professor of Development Geography, Department of Geography, King’s College London) and Dr Katharine Willis (Associate Professor (Reader), School of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Plymouth).
Find out more about our Advisory Board members here.
Check out all of the Tweets from the UK-India network team member work package presentations and Advisory Board feedback discussions from the day below:
Sunayana Wadhawan, Sound Artist and Music Director
It all began with the young women of Madanpur Khadar, when they voiced their idea for expressing their thoughts and experiences in the city through a song. Inspired by the youth and emerging alternative media around them, the young women began envisioning themselves as being heard and becoming visible in the fast internet world.
Music is a powerful instrument to connect with people, their personal experiences and their struggles. It is present in the personal as well as public spheres of our lives, and has the potential to overcome social and physical boundaries within and across communities. This was their first time trying their hand at an experiment with evolving genres of music like hip-hop and slam poetry, and we collectively turned it into an opportunity to find our voices, our rhythms, our styles, and think more deeply about our reasons for engaging with music.
All the women involved in this song, including me, are women who are working and/or performing domestic work at their homes. We met every Sunday for a few hours as that was the only day we didn’t have to go to work outside. The sessions were based on the following themes that were covered over a period of 10 days in total.
Introductions and discovering rhythms: To work together, it was important to first get to know each other and share our personal stories and struggles, issues that affected us the most, our aspirations and our love for music. We respected the stories each one of us shared with the group, these stories accompanied by tears, laughter and much more. We also searched our memories for issues and incidents that affected women in cities to bring alive narratives and people’s stories previously missing in our conversations. While we acknowledged that our bodies were a site of violence in the city, we also discussed notions around desires for freedom linked to our bodies. This also led us to explore how and why we enjoyed dancing to songs from different regions and understanding how rhythms flow through our bodies and can give a sense of freedom of movement.
Apart from clapping and dancing, one of the exercises I conducted was an attempt to find a shared rhythm using a timing that we are all familiar with – the sounds made when we wash clothes. It was an extraordinary moment as all the women had different styles of washing clothes and each one of them was well versed with the actions and sounds involved in washing clothes – a domestic chore often delegated to women in the house. We all settled on one of the easier-sounding styles that helped us make the sounds collectively in rhythm and in unison.
History of hip-hop and finding your own genre: From discussing the history of hip-hop as a medium of protest and expression, to observing how hip-hop has been embraced in India over the last few years, we watched videos and grooved to different songs to become more familiar with the sound and delivery of messages through spoken word/hip-hop music. We also watched videos of emerging female hip-hop artists in India like MC Kaur, Dee MC as well as songs like ‘O Womaniya’ that revive local dialects, music instruments and traditions with the help of technology. We did a few exercises to come up with rhymes in Hindi and English, inventing words to find a way to express ourselves and help us warm up to writing our song.
Lyric writing: Taking from the conversations we had during our introductions, each of the women penned down their own story as well as the stories of others they had learnt about from the news or even their neighbourhood, in the form of prose, poetry and couplets. The challenge here was to let different stories emerge and express them in the least amount of words possible. We worked on the stories and rephrased them, added rhymes to them, and began reciting them to each other. We then stood in circles and recited different verses alongside some hip-hop tracks I had prepared for our sessions. This process also helped us edit and put the verses in an order that allowed the stories to become more connected and cohesive as one collective narrative, while at the same time retaining everyone’s individual voices and words.
Recording, tracking and mixing: Initially, we had planned to hire a studio and gain experience of working in a studio environment, surrounded with all its technologies, as budding artists. However, constraints on time, and being unable to get all the women to a studio for several hours on the same day, limited our options. We decided to take inspiration from our situation, absorbing it into the process of creating this song, and borrowed a good quality sound recorder to record each of the women singing/reciting different parts of the song. Their voices echoed through the lanes of the neighbourhood when they were practicing and collectively recording parts of the chorus and other lines. It was challenging to balance the sounds of a busy neighbourhood and the sometimes timid voices of women who were finding their inner strength to do justice to the emotions they tried to express in the song. Yet, we managed to find spaces in their homes, and Jagori’s local office, to record to our best abilities as the women juggled between their responsibilities and their excitement for recording their very first song.
Once the recordings were done, we heard them out and selected those that were well-recited and fit well with the tempo of the base track. After organising each of the voice clips of the track on software with the help of sound professionals, we worked with, and gave inputs to, the sound professionals to ensure the tracks were mixed in a way that separated each of the voices without making them sound disconnected.
Then came the most exciting moment for all of us – to hear the final track together. It was a Sunday again, and most of the women who took part were present during our first collective listening session. The happiness in the room was evident from the smiles on everyone’s faces at hearing their own voices in the final version of the track. Some of the women were so overwhelmed at their achievement that they had tears rolling down their cheeks.
It has been a wonderful and enlivening experience to be a part of this journey to find our voices, imbibe the joy and power possessed by music, and witness a growing sense of pride and confidence in the women as they expressed hope to continue making more songs and spread powerful messages in their city.
Read the other blogs on our new #GSCProject initiative:
‘Filming ‘Khadar ki Ladkiyan’ [Khadar Girls]’ by Nandan Latwal, our Film Director and Creative producer, here.
‘The City is For You and Me’ with the music video by Dr. Ayona Datta, Project Principal Investigator, here.
We welcome submissions for the 2019 American Association of Geographers meeting in Washington, DC April 3-7. This large interdisciplinary conference regularly attracts 6-8,000 attendees across a broad spectrum of disciplinary homes.
Gendering the Smart City: Towards just and feminist urban futures
Organisers: Ryan Burns, Ayona Datta, Nabeela Ahmed, Max Andrucki
The critical smart cities research agenda continues to develop insights into evolving relations between the digital, the urban, and socio-political process. Attention has broadened from taxonomies and ontological questions, to ideal-types and dominant epistemologies, to interrogating the “actually-existing smart city”. This trajectory has brought to the fore variegations and fissures in the politics of the smart city within which elements of social justice can appear, where smart city visions can adapt to and address low-tech infrastructures and where populations can contest the smart city’s often business-friendly, empiricist, governmentalizing, and neoliberal tendencies. Researchers have, indeed, recently illuminated smart city models that…
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.
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