Curating gendered digital lives in Delhi’s urban peripheries
Combining approaches from urban geography, gender studies, software ethnography and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), this ArcGIS mapping initiative is a unique interdisciplinary international collaboration between King’s College London and ‘Gendering the Smart City’ #GSCProject project network societal partners Safetipin and Jagori in India.
The Story Map presents different perspectives of a digital age by young women living in Delhi’s urban peripheries – resettlement colonies, urban villages and border towns. Using visualisations of selected data – participatory maps, photographs (click here for Rohit’s photo essay on his photos included in the exhibition), videos and WhatsApp diaries maintained by these women over a period of 6 months, #AanaJaana curates women’s everyday stories of comings and goings in the city. It explores how women on the margins view, understand, and ultimately navigate the city through information and communication technologies (ICT) accessed from their mobile phones. It provokes us to think what mobility 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 also shows us how women living on the urban peripheries negotiate the ‘freedoms’ of moving (aana) in online space with the ‘dangers’ of going out (jaana) into the city, or the constraints of entering (aana) online space with the constant control over their bodies even when they leave (jaana) home for the city.
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:
Spin the globe to India and you’ll see it’s lit up like Diwali: the #MeToo movement is rising, and – like its US predecessor – is largely being played out on social media, with very real consequences for well-known public figures. The campaign is not confined to large cities; among the top areas searching the term are small towns across India.
This moment has been a long time coming. The public accounts of violence shared by women using the #MeToo hashtag stretch back to memories of growing up, entering the workforce, walking on the streets, using public transport and other settings typically encountered throughout the course of life.
Recently, the Indian state attempted to use smart technologies to deliver safe cities for women. The strategies used to address both online and offline violence include installing surveillance systems such as CCTV cameras, facial recognition, license plate recognition and social media monitoring. What makes these strategies “smart” is that they are integrated into centralised police command and control centres, to monitor and increase response rates.
Yet one of the flagship smart safety apps, Himmat – launched by the Delhi police in 2013 to enable women to alert police control centres of the location of violent incidents in real-time – had only 30,000 users in a city of 19m, and was declared a failure by a parliamentary panel in 2018.
A right to technology
Clearly, technology has divergent outcomes: it can escalate a global movement for gender justice, but it cannot be taken as a panacea for deep-rooted social problems such as violence against women. This raises further questions about who has access to technology, and how it can be used to document violence.
In India, these questions are significant because 26% of the population has access to the internet, compared to the US and the UK where it is 88% and 90% respectively. The demographic of people who use the internet is also skewed in terms of age, gender and geography: 75% of mobile internet users in India are aged 20 to 30, while only 5% are over the age of 35. What’s more, 89% of mobile internet users are male, and only 27% live in smaller cities.
A recent study highlighted that although more people of different ages and incomes are starting to use mobile phones across India, there are still barriers to access: currently, only 45% of people in lower income groups have a mobile phone.
Working women often use mobile phones which belong to male household members, and can be used to monitor their movements. The lower purchasing power of these families means that they mainly have access to older models bought secondhand, with little capacity to download data-intensive apps and other web content.
When they do use the internet, working class women often do so for practical purposes – searching for employment, transport options, childcare and so on. Mobile phones themselves can even be seen as harmful mediums of violence against women, by means of abusive texts or cyberstalking – as #MeToo has shown.
Speak, witness, curate
We three academics are part of a larger group of researchers and social organisations, who have been examining the links between access to digital technology, urban infrastructure and violence against women in India, as well as considering how women themselves speak about and document these connected issues.
Based on our research, we see the right to technology as a key means of fighting gender injustice, in all its forms, in the 21st century. A right to technology means developing women’s capacity to speak about violence. More than simply giving women the freedom to speak via mobile phones, a right to technology would expand their use safety apps and global hashtags to include text messages, pictures and videos shared between private support groups.
It also means developing the potential of low-cost, lightweight mobile technologies to enable women to speak of violence, giving them the confidence to locate their violence – in the home, street, buses, workplace – and name its perpetrators, whether that’s family members, colleagues, friends. The purpose of this speech? To be believed, to not be shamed, to remove their perpetrator or to claim justice through the courts.
A right to technology is also about developing a society’s capacity to witness violence through technology. This means expanding how violence is seen and heard, from the #MeToo hashtags to the range of social, legal, policy and infrastructural blindspots which enable violence to continue on an everyday basis and be perceived as normal.
It means seeing violence in the absence of safe spaces, lack of access to safe and reliable public transport, safe drinking water or public toilets. It means perceiving violence in stories of everyday struggles with mobility, unemployment and education. It means witnessing violence in women’s inability to speak without a #MeToo movement, or even despite a #MeToo movement.
A right to technology also means building women’s capacity to curate violence through a variety of media. This means women can actively select and present a variety of personal stories of violence in their daily lives – monsoon rain floods, waiting for public transport, moments of panic in buses filled with men and restrictions on mobility.
The maps and pictures shared by women living in the urban margins show the mundane ways in which violence against women and other forms of injustice are interwoven in their everyday lives. This bottom-up viewpoint disrupts the Google worldview of #MeToo trends, seen from a global perspective, and allows women who are too often overlooked and excluded from urban technology to curate their experiences of violence, within or without the #MeToo movement.
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.