Every year since I was 20, I’ve been visiting an entirely new place on my birthday as a way of celebrating an internal process of self-exploration within myself.
In November 2020, I turned 28 in a Vipassanna center; an 11-day sojourn of the Mastery of the Mind and Wisdom through meditative techniques which at the core invite us to notice, observe and acknowledge the world, ourselves and our bodies as they are, knowing that everything is impermanent, which is said to be the defining law of nature. Initially, the thought of choosing further isolation during an already isolating pandemic was overshadowed by the sheer joy of simply getting accepted, to experience firsthand this much talked about meditative experience.
The course accepted about a quarter of the people they usually accept, owing to Covid19 precautionary measures. Women had their own individual rooms, a dining hall and a park separate from men, while the main meditation hall was shared by everyone.
The first morning I stepped into the park, I watched the sun rise and I couldn’t hold back tears of joy; my pounding heart felt so full. Was I really going to be able to stroll freely and not worry about the sound of a man’s footsteps approaching me? Was I really going to be able to walk without being acutely aware of a piercing gaze scanning every inch of my body that very often activates a flight (avoid/dismiss and walk away) or fight (staring back or holding their gaze) survival response?
Each morning, I watched death and life, in the form of earthworms shriveled on the grass and new flowers in bloom; all arising and passing in their own time. Nothing felt rushed; including the comfortable pace at which I walked barefoot on the grass and yet, as an Indian woman, I couldn’t imagine experiencing this kind of freedom in public spaces outside of such a setting.
“When being in a public park or promenade poses a potential threat not just to their physical safety but also to their respectability, women often respond by avoiding these places.” Phadhke S, Khan S, Ranade S, (2010)
If more women avoid public spaces, we’re not only normalising but also reinforcing the notion that women should “stay at home” and that it’s only “for their safety and betterment” that they do.
Do women need protection and constant monitoring as a result, or can they enjoy equal access to public spaces, take risks and exercise the entire range of rights that the city claims to offer to all its citizens?
Phadhke S, Khan S, Ranade S (2010) say, “Parks as open public spaces are also used to impose a specific moral – vision of order in the city. In Mumbai, this morality is particularly directed at public displays of affection, and sometimes, even the mere presence of couples. If heterosexual couples find it difficult to find undisturbed spaces, for same-sex couples, it is virtually impossible.”
This made me wonder if we’ve collectively stopped to smell the flowers or have specific groups of people – women, children, sexual minorities etc. – always felt incredibly unsafe to do so?
During my walks in the park at the Vipassana center, I noticed how respectfully and matter-of-factly women would claim or surrender spaces at the garden – to sit on a portion of grass or stand against a rock with a sense of awareness, distance and respect.
I sensed a general calm among the women around me; the ease with which they stretched or moved in their comfortable clothing and really surveyed the world around them without holding back. It felt radical and revolutionary in a way that also seemed alien. Can a utopian world like this exist, and is it too much to ask for?
I was overcome by a foreboding feeling that maybe it is too much to ask for, as my thoughts were disrupted by the sound of a group of young men yelling expletives in the distance, very close to the main gate. I realized that this reality may always persist. This safety and freedom that exists on a hill in a meditation center in Belapur is a rare, safe cave within a larger not-so-safe cave. Societally and systemically, we have not learned how to invite and integrate various sections to co-exist, keeping in mind the lived experiences and needs, of women, children and sexual minorities in the fore. That process seems like a long, complex and arduous negotiation; one that involves letting go of previously enjoyed power and acknowledging one’s privilege for many, collectively demanding effective systems, gender sensitisation across levels and more.
Can I loiter without being moral-policed? Can I laugh out loud or comfortably occupy a public bench without being on constant alert? Can I call any public space safe enough to just be?
Can public spaces be safe and welcoming for individuals across all intersections of society?
Phadhke S, Khan S, Ranade S, (2010). Why loiter. Penguin Books.
[Editor’s Note – This article was previously published on In Plainspeak]