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.
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”.
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.