What is it like to sleep under a blue sky? To stretch out on the grass and feel the earth under you? To close your eyes and hear the quiet hum of traffic or the chirp of a sparrow?
I have no idea.
The freedom to rest or sleep in a public space is one that women in India don't enjoy—being idle in public is not something we do. Not because it is illegal, but because we are vulnerable wherever we go. This is increasingly true in recent years,when the country has seen a spate of violent rapes and street harassment.
This weekend, small groups of women across the country (and in neighboring Pakistan) will fight their fear and vulnerability and head to a local park to do nothing but take a siesta. They will carry a mat, a bottle of water, perhaps a snack or a book to read. Then, they will then take a nap. Or try to.
Hosted by Blank Noise, an all-volunteer collective that campaigns against street harassment, this seemingly subtle protest event is called "Meet to Sleep," and it asks citizens to come together to reclaim public spaces and make cities safer. Started in 2003 by Jasmeen Patheja as part of her graduation project, Blank Noise mobilizes citizen "action heroes" through its projects, events, and campaigns, and it has played a major role in the snowballing discussion surrounding street harassment in India. The organization has been hosting Meet to Sleep events in cities across India since November 2014.
"Meet To Sleep aims to build a conversation built on trust," says Patheja. "Our thoughts carry fear, and it is important to think about this fear. Tackling sexual violence is what we do [at Blank Noise], and we need to ask how this fear, these warnings that we carry within ourselves, change us."
Vira Mistry, 24, remembers her first Meet To Sleep event. "I lay there and couldn't sleep," she says. "I realized that there is a learned subconscious fear of being so exposed and vulnerable. You wonder who's looking at you, what they are thinking, are they taking pictures? When you're so used to walking around and having men stare at you all day, it is hard to let go of that anxiety of being in a public space."
Mistry was part of an event held at Bangalore's Cubbon Park, a large green space in the city. She's been to three events so far, each making her progressively more comfortable. "I hadn't been to Cubbon Park in almost 15 years when I went to my first Meet To Sleep. I used to go there as a child for birthday parties, but as I got older, my friends and I would joke about how it was filled with men masturbating (and there is a lot of truth to this). That was enough to keep us away."
Vijji Chari, 40, took her daughter along for a Meet to Sleep. "I was very nervous," she admits, "because I had taken my ten-year-old daughter with me, I was anxious that there shouldn't be any unwanted attention coming our way. I was concerned about potential teasing or comments being made."
When you're so used to walking around and having men stare at you all day, it is hard to let go of that anxiety of being in a public space.
"Every time I heard a noise I would open my eyes to see what it was," says Mistry.
So what happened when the mats were spread out, benches were chosen, and eyes were closed? Some women found a quiet spot and relaxed under a tree. Others slept in small clusters around the park area.
"I remember a group of young men who regarded us curiously, as though [we were] a spectacle," remembers artist Satya Gummuluri, 41. "They walked around us and then settled under a nearby tree. At one point, a security guard showed up and started questioning some of us. He wanted us to leave and tried excuses such as it is not safe for you here and things will get stolen. However, nobody moved."
A seemingly innocuous event like this also requires strategic wardrobe planning. "I wore comfortable clothes, since I knew I would be sleeping. And I carried a sheet. It felt very vulnerable to sleep in the open without a sheet covering me," says Chari. Mistry, on the other hand, has begun to feel safer over the years. "I wore a sweater to my MTS—I was more comfortable sleeping in it. Lots of people bring blankets as well—it does give you a sense of security, although I have never brought one myself. For my last MTS, I wore a sleeveless white blouse, which was almost a crop top, and pants."
"These interventions are peaceful and affirmative collective action," says Patheja. "We are occupying, yes, but it is not a reactive process. This is a conversation with ourselves as much as with the space and people around us."
Acknowledging women's right to safe public spaces isn't something most of us think of intuitively. When you spend most of your life denied the joys of loitering or lingering in parks or on street corners, you have no idea what that freedom means. "As a child, I never questioned the restrictions on 'loitering' and never even thought of it as something important. But having experienced a certain openness in my trips abroad, I began to miss it back home. It was important for me to participate in this with my daughter—for her to know that she had access to safe public spaces—and it was as much her prerogative as a girl to enjoy a sense of freedom and abandonment that I had never felt at her age," says Chari.
Gummuluri now lives in Germany, where public spaces are a lot more accessible and welcoming. "When I come back to India and move about in public transport, for example, it takes time to readjust to the fact that Indian spaces are not necessarily as accepting, that I should remember to be more alert. I am also reminded of the daily reality women face in India. I recollect saying after the Bangalore event that Meet to Sleep [was] a wakeup call."
"Men can stand around idle and never be questioned, but for women it is always uncomfortable. MTS does challenge our notions of who this 'public' is and why a certain group is more privileged to public spaces than others. It is also reclaiming our idea of what public is in our country," says Mistry.