It was a mild Saturday afternoon last December in Chennai, India’s Semmozhi Park. The park was full: couples strolling hand in hand, families having picnics, solitary people reading newspapers on park benches. Overhead, clouds passed in the sky, and below, the grass was dappled with winter sunshine.
Under a canopy of trees, a group of women lay sleeping. With their yoga mats out and covered with thin blankets, the women cut an unusual scene amid the strangers. Some lay curled on their side, their hands clasped loosely; others sprawled on their front, their limbs outstretched. Passers-by were puzzled; others stared with suspicion. A few shouted distractions, but the women did not stir.
United in their sleep, the women had a purpose. On the fifth anniversary of the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh in December 2012, the women were among 22 collectives across India that had gathered to assert their right to public space. Sleeping together in the bright light of day, the group confronted the feeling of vulnerability familiar to any woman in India, replacing fear with a sense of connection and pride.
“We want to create space to fight sexual violence, but also move from fear toward a sense of trust and belonging,” explains Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, a global volunteer-led collective which develops strategies to eradicate gender-based and sexualized violence. One of the collective’s projects, Meet To Sleep, encourages participants, whom she calls “action heroes,” to shift the fear-based relationship women have with their cities by taking a nap together in public parks.
This kind of independence is not without risks in a country that has seen sexual violence escalate in recent years. Seventy-nine percent of women in India report experiencing sexual harassment in public, according to a 2016 survey by ActionAid UK, a non-profit focused on lifting women and girls out of poverty. Reported crimes against Indian women, meanwhile, have increased 34 percent in the past four years according to recent statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau. But recently, thanks to a wave of bold activism dedicated to reclaiming public space, women are gaining the confidence to explore their cities.
While America was busy marching to protest the election of Donald Trump in January 2017, Indian women were also taking to the streets. In the city of Bangalore, New Year’s Eve celebrations turned into a “night of shame” after it emerged that women had been groped, harassed and molested en masse. Instead of denouncing the widespread sexual violence, a number of government ministers caused uproar with victim-blaming remarks, including Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi, who claimed “women should not be out after sunset.” Outraged by the sexist comments and mounting cases of harassment, a collective, I Will Go Out, was formed with the intention of encouraging women and girls to claim equal right to public spaces.
“Calls started pouring in from sisters and allies across the country who wanted to channel their outrage into action-oriented petitioning,” explains I Will Go Out coordinator Bhani Rachel Bali. Using social media to connect with like-minded individuals, the word soon spread, and on January 21, 2017, the nationwide #IWillGoOut march mobilized 5,000 people across 30 cities and towns in India to protest sexual harassment and gender inequality.
What started as a reactive protest evolved into monthly meetings, where a diverse group of volunteers came together to lobby for safer infrastructure, better public transport, and gender sensitization in public institutions. “The intention to change the state of affairs brought hundreds of strangers together under one hashtag,” explains Bali. “Four months later, we address each other as sisters.”
Despite the growing conversation around gender-based violence in India, being out in public for leisure remains a fearful prospect to many women. Patriarchal attitudes about male and female roles are deeply ingrained, and women are cautioned from childhood about their bodies and behavior.
“The fear narrative around public space has suited patriarchy,” says Patheja of Blank Noise. “It’s this relationship between fear, warning and control, and possession of the domestic as the safer space versus the street.”
The idea for Meet To Sleep emerged over a decade ago, after Patheja asked her action heroes to develop a wish list of things they wanted to do in their cities. “We were already unlearning fear and warnings, and learning instead to occupy, be idle in public spaces, and make eye contact,” she says.
Today, Patheja issues a regular call to action on social media for women to gather in public parks such as Bangalore's Cubbon Park and “sleep alone together.” To date, the movement has helped hundreds of participants challenge sexual harassment while creating positive memories for the body in relation to the city that patriarchy once taught them to fear.
“It’s very important for women to physically act on this whole concept of acquiring and reclaiming public space, and not just talk about it,” explains Neha Singh, founder of Why Loiter? a growing movement in Mumbai that encourages women to wander public spaces, day and night, with confidence. “It gives you strength, changes your worldview, makes you a more political person, and helps you think that you can do anything.”
Anger can’t sustain itself
While Singh says that it’s important to protest sexualized violence when it occurs, Why Loiter? centers around the pleasure principle–and that guiding force has sustained the movement.
“Anger can’t sustain itself, but pleasure can, and it does,” says Singh. Ultimately, the hope is that the movement will normalize the sight of women outside having fun, creating broader societal change.
Elsewhere, the action heroes of Blank Noise say sleeping out in the open has already altered their behavior. Patheja recalls one participant telling her, “I’m now walking in the middle of the pavements and getting my space,” while another said, “I’m not apologizing for the way I dress.”
As a growing interest in feminist activism sweeps across India, women are no longer relying on the government to define their politics.
“People have given up on politicians and are taking individual action, or collective action, regardless of what the government are doing,” says Singh. Many movements are focused on enacting social change on a smaller scale. “People are trying to bring about change in their own neighborhoods, their own cities, in their own families, friends, and colleagues,” adds Singh.
Armed with a new sense of confidence, these activists are changing the fabric of their communities, one step at a time. For Bali, the coordinator of I Will Go Out, this is just the beginning: “We believe the women of this country are unstoppable.”