Woke, but too exhausted to march the streets? If protests past are anything to go by, emerging from one’s boudoir might not be necessary. Even grabbing some shut-eye can be an act of protest. Revolutions can begin at Nap City, as John Lennon and Yoko Ono demonstrated via their bed-ins calling for peace at the height of the Vietnam War. Despite being clad in the exact same white kurta-pajama your dad wore to bed, their publicity stunt worked. They received plenty of press coverage for their rather ephemeral goals and even had Childish Gambino recreate their protest for a music video four decades later.
But does one need to be a fist-shaking, placard-carrying, _andolan_-ready protestor ready to march against the powers that be when one leaves their bed? Not really.
Head to your local park and you might see an unusual sight emerging from the mist: Women laying down to sleep in public, as participants in the Meet to Sleep initiative. Conceptualised in 2008, by Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise—a feminist community that uses participatory action to fight against gender and sex based violence and discrimination—Meet To Sleep is a public intervention that was a response to how often women are made invisible in places and experiences that are par for the course for men.
Patheja describes one of the first organised Meet To Sleep interventions in one of the few remaining green spaces in Bengaluru, Cubbon Park, in 2008: “Despite there being other ‘action sheroes’ with me, I still felt like it was such a threatening experience, to be able to sleep [publicly]. It made me question the fact that we are taught to fear, because every time I was falling asleep I would wake up to some sound—it wasn’t a predator, but just a leaf or a passing dog. It made me think about the fear we are taught to carry. I started wondering, what if thousands of women did this? It goes from occupying space, of course, but also our right to live defenseless, our right to not carry the weight of fear and warnings, and our right to fully claim that I Never Ask For It.”
From a few 'action sheroes' in a park to over a 1,000 women, girls, and persons across gender binaries from over 27 allied organisations in solidarity meeting in over 19 parks—from the expansive Lodhi Gardens in Delhi to the World War 2 Cemetery in Kohima—more and more people have been sleeping in protest with each passing year. In 2017, Meet to Sleep was organised in memory of Jyoti Singh (often referred to as Nirbhaya, the fearless one, in the media) on December 16, to mark her brutal gangrape and murder five years earlier. In 2018, allied organisations took Meet To Sleep out of parks and into fields, other public spaces, or anywhere under the open sky.
But what makes the act of sleeping so revolutionary over others? Dr Shilpa Phadke, Professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and an expert on gender and the politics of space, explains, “Sleep involves a degree of vulnerability. In an ideal world, our parks would be safe and comfortable enough to sleep in for everyone. In the real world, in Indian cities, at some point, men used to be able to sleep in parks, though usually men at the top of the totem pole (upper caste, upper class and heterosexual) would not be found sleeping in a park. However, now in Mumbai at least [and Bengaluru], parks close in the afternoons in the express denial of such possibilities. In the light of this kind of surveillance and policing, the act of sleeping in a park is indeed revolutionary. And even more revolutionary when women do it because we defy norms of gender alongside refusing to acknowledge public anxieties about what ‘people are up to in parks’.”
Sleeping to protest is not new. From fighting The Man from tent cities in Zuccotti Park during Occupy Wall Street to camping out at Standing Rock reservation to protest the environmentally destructive and culturally insensitive Dakota Access Pipeline, protestors have dined in, sat in, and slept in to agitate for their rights.
As was expected in both cases, critics pushed back at what seemed like a gimmicky stunt that was had no real life effect—these were just freeloaders squatting, wasting public time and money to no worthwhile end, after all. But in India, one cannot ignore that sleeping publicly often happens out of compulsion, rather than choice. Marginalised women are rarely choosing to sleep dangerously on our railway platforms, under flyovers, or out in the open.
“Yes, there is a class issue in interventions like #MeetToSleep,” says Dr Phadke. “Who can hang out in public? Which women feel confident enough to try this and engage with park security, for instance? Also some groups of women are forced to sleep in public, like homeless women for instance. We need to acknowledge this hierarchy. But this kind of claim staking, in public and visibly (unlike homeless women who try to be invisible) has its own place too. It makes a larger point about the need for accessible parks.”
Napping in protest is not just signalling for insta-woke ingénues. Describing how ground staff at a local university and participants’ househelp were encouraged and enabled by their institutions to attend last year’s intervention, Patheja is not shy about wanting to make Meet to Sleep more plural. “Different women give it [the intervention] new meaning and shape depending on who they are and what they want to make of the invitation [to sleep publicly],” she acknowledges. “For some it might be about the right to pleasure or right to leisure. As collaborations grow, we want to make this about all women.”
It’s difficult to quantify whether interventions like Meet To Sleep have directly resulting in an upswing of the number of women sleeping in parks. This intervention is not just about the women who choose to sleep in protest, but also about bystanders who witness their actions. Reactions can range from amused to jeering, but with the sight of a woman idling, loitering, sleeping and engaging with their city in ways they never have before, the space for women to live freely expands.
Patheja has already noticed a change in attitude: “There was a park in Bombay, I remember, where a security guard kept saying we were not allowed to sleep here. They kept mentioning these park rules, what parks were for, what sort of activities were allowed. We’ve had this experience everywhere. In Bangalore, at Cubbon Park, we got into a conversation with them, [asking them to] look at how beautiful the trees are, that you don’t get this in Bangalore. And he finally just connected as a human being and asked us to continue sleeping.”
Our desire to be an akeli, awaara, azaad aurat (as Blank Noise puts it) is here to stay. Don’t sleep on it.
Follow Sushmita Sundaram on Twitter.