Who owns public space? Young South Asian women in Brooklyn struggle with the culture that dictates that women have no business outside the home.
March 16, 2016
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and Tangina, Aisha, and Shakila are waiting for the Manhattan-bound F train at Church Avenue in Brooklyn. They’re talking and laughing – all three of them in jeans, jackets to protect them from the chill that has finally set in, and scarves over their heads. It’s raining, which will likely add to the nearly hour-long commute to Bryant Park, where they are headed to despite the weather.
“I don’t really hang out in the neighborhood that much; I’m always in the city or somewhere else,” Aisha would later tell me. She grew up in the Kensington area since she was 10, when she and her family migrated from Bangladesh. Now 19 and a freshman at City College in Harlem, she traverses a wider radius in New York than ever before. But even prior to this, Aisha has never hung out where she lives.
“When I’m in the city, I feel really comfortable because no one knows me and I’m just doing my own thing, but when I’m in Brooklyn, Church Ave., everyone’s just watching,” she continues. “There’s like a thousand cameras surrounding me. It kind of makes me feel unwelcome even though that’s my home.”
Aisha and her friends have something powerful in their little nook of Brooklyn, a neighborhood often referred to as Banglatown because of its large Bengali population — they have community. Aisha says she recognizes the value of having a world of people who would help if anything went wrong, and who provide support in times of need.
Still, it’s impossible to get around the tradeoff, especially as a young woman: as she put it, “reputation is number one, then everything else.” And simply being seen at the wrong place at any time can tarnish her for life.
The problem is that the wrong place could be streets or cafes, parks or shops.
“Wherever you go, you think, ‘Oh my God, I hope that uncle doesn’t see me; I don’t want him to talk about me,’” she says.
At Gourmet Sweets on Coney Island Avenue, I order a chai and a single spongey ball of gulab jamun at the counter, which displays shelves of mithai — flakey, pistachioed, silver-foiled, and syrup-soaked.
There’s a man, maybe in his 60s, seated nearby, as well as a man about my age, maybe in his 20s or 30s, at a table near the back. The older man, who is simply lounging with no food or drink, cannot take his eyes off of me. I look his way a few times while ordering, and he is not at all compelled to avert his gaze. The other fellow doesn’t interest him.
As I sit down to enjoy my snack, which is what the establishment is for as far as I can tell, he proceeds to follow most of my moves with his eyes — uncle-style I guess, like Aisha said. There’s no real expression on his face; he’s just looking at me.
At one point he asks if I’m going to order a real meal. I say no. A few minutes later he asks if I’d like to get a paratha. I say no.
“’Women are not expected to go there and hang out because it will just ruin their reputation, because they (people) will just start talking sh_t about them for some reason,’ Tangina says.”
He’s still watching.
We’re a bit further south than Kensington in Midwood, where it’s more predominantly Pakistani. But many of the neighborhood dynamics are the same and, since I’m Indian, I’m familiar with them. He wants to know what I’m doing at the sweet shop. Even though he’s there too. And I’m the one eating while he’s doing nothing.
When an afternoon prayer service at the masjid or mosque a few doors down ends, the place starts to fill up. A few women come in to place orders, but then they’re gone within minutes. The only people who actually sit are men, except for an elderly woman who is with her husband. Some of the customers are served tea without ordering.
There’s a rhythm to the hour, and an ease among both the patrons and staff. Everyone is desi, but when a white man comes in, needing the menu items to be deciphered to him, there are fewer eyes on him than on me.
The experience is sort of amusing, since I’m a transplant to the neighborhood and nothing, such as my reputation, is at stake. But I know repeats of it would wear on me. So I usually get my chai and leave.
Later I ask Tangina, who, like Aisha, is also 19 and from Chittagong in Bangladesh: “Would you go with your girls to the cafes around here to hang out?”
“Cafes in this neighborhood?” It’s so out of the question to her that she needs to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.
“Oh I would never do that,” she says.
“Women are not expected to go there and hang out because it will just ruin their reputation, because they (people) will just start talking sh_t about them for some reason,” Tangina says.
“So this is why – actually, I don’t even know why. You just never see women going to any of the desi cafes, like the places in this neighborhood, to hang out. It’s always guys,” Tangina says.
When I spoke to Shahana Hanif about the challenges she faced in organizing a vigil in Kensington for Samiul Alam Rajon, a boy murdered in Sylhet, Bangladesh, she mentioned the apathy in the community toward issues like violence against children and the general lack of understanding about how to mobilize and be politically active.
But something else stood out in her story about flyering around the neighborhood to raise awareness for the vigil.
“Men loiter — men take claim of the space,” she said. “It’s something that’s unspoken, but it’s very male-dominated and it’s very threatening.”
“So when we were doing street outreach, I was so, so scared. It’s not like I felt they would attack me, but there was such an intimidation factor of breaking into a crowd of men who are usually the same ones who will catcall, and the same ones who you know are judging you for coming home at 12 or 1,” she says.
Shahana explains that growing up, her mother told her and her sisters to always look down when walking through the neighborhood and instructed them on what routes to take — Dahill Road versus McDonald Avenue.
But unlike the advice that many young women get about choosing busy main roads and steering clear of deserted areas, the Hanifs’ version of mapping routes was flipped. Dahill has less people, in this case, men, and therefore the girls would be able to avoid unwanted attention by going that way.
While street harassment is widely known to be a problem for women, a related concern, which Shahana is more directly referencing, is who lays claim to public space in the neighborhood and how. The silent yet stringently coded expectation of women is to stay inside — to literally be less visible.
The specific ways this question takes shape in South Asian communities in particular have implications beyond ownership of space: they dictate ownership of women’s bodies.
Indian feminist scholars Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shipla Ranade wrote about this topic in Why Loiter?, a book focused specifically on Mumbai but meant to draw in women all over the world and most specifically those in cities across South Asia. The authors state that the unwritten rules about public space are ultimately about harnessing female sexuality and maintaining caste and class hierarchies through marriage.
They articulate the relationship between society’s attempt to keep middle- and upper-class women shut in to the private realm ostensibly for their own protection and the restrictions on these women’s basic rights – not only of citizenship but of bodily autonomy – through the incessant surveillance of their whereabouts by family, community, and in some cases, even the state.
“Safety’ is the apparent reason women are denied access to the public. The unarticulated reason why women are barred from public space is not just the fear that they will be violated, but also that they will form consenting relationships with ‘undesirable’ men… Apparently there is almost as much shame in choosing the wrong kind of man as there is in being violated against one’s will. Women are then more carefully monitored in an effort to not just prevent them from being assaulted but also to guard against their forming unsuitable alliances with men of their choice.”
The argument is not that women are expected to never be out at all, but that using space for fun or pleasure, as opposed to for the explicit purpose of getting somewhere, is somehow stigmatized.
“You’re supposed to do this — and done,” Aisha says. “This” meaning school or work.
“’A woman is supposed to be hidden. So the moment she’s out in public space, especially if she’s on her own, its like, ‘Oh she’s this loose woman.’”
I reach out to the authors, wondering whether they would be surprised to hear about these constructs reaching into the diaspora, following whole communities in their paths of migration. “In general we’ve found echoes of this across different cultures and countries, so it is not specifically an Indian or South Asian phenomenon,” Phadke says in her email. “Though there are peculiarities to the ways in which izzat and honour are constructed in a South Asian context, different from, say, Southeast Asia or the West.”
Honor — along with its opposite, shame — is the operative concept for the women I meet in Kensington and Midwood. They don’t use either of these words; instead they talk a lot about boys in relation to their movements and visibility around the city.
“In my neighborhood, if I walked with a boy, it would be a huge deal, like a huge deal,” Tangina says. “They would end up saying I have a boyfriend and stuff like that. And this mark will stay forever. People will be like, ‘Oh yeah, I saw your daughter’, or ‘I saw your sister with a guy. Who was that? Is that her boyfriend?’ and ‘This is why you shouldn’t let her go out by herself.’”
Aisha echoes this, explaining that she has to worry even if she’s just with her girl friends. “Once someone told my parents, ‘Does your daughter have a boyfriend? I think I saw her in the park.’ And it’s like, so the park means I’m meeting my boyfriend or something? Don’t put random stuff in the story just depending on what area I’m in, like where I’m standing around doing something. I was just there with Tangina and Shakila after school. It was like, wow.”
But at Dome Playground, a small park tucked into a triangle where Dahill Road and 38th Street meet at a 45-degree angle, young men in jeans and hoodies are scattered throughout four or five courts playing handball and basketball. This is where Aisha’s parents would let her go when she was young but tell her not to stay too long because they didn’t want anyone to talk about her.
“They don’t usually like me hanging out there because there’s a lot of desi guys or people we know,” she says.
She’s right. It’s mostly South Asian boys and men playing, and there isn’t a female in sight; the rows of white benches are bare, and the sidewalks that line the perimeter of the courts empty. Monji Islam, a 26-year old of Bangladeshi descent, is leaning against the fence on the handball court while his buddies play. He says he hangs out at Dome all the time and has been making his own rules about where he goes and when since he was 14.
“I do me,” he says. “There’s nothing stopping me.”
“Are there ever girls here?” I ask with a nod, indicating the entire area of the park.
“Sometimes, mostly they come to watch,” he says, but then clarifies that he didn’t mean girls from his own community. “It’s mostly Puerto Rican, Mexican, Italian girls. Like that.”
When Sadia Khatri returned to Pakistan after living in the U.S. and Nepal, she decided she wasn’t going to heed the norms she had internalized about her rights to the city. Having grown up in Karachi and now back there once again, she’s pushing back against the forces that aim to push her behind closed doors. Her form of resistance? Drinking chai at dhabas, which are roadside tea stalls commonly seen in South Asian cities, where women are largely absent — like at the cafe on Coney Island Avenue.
“It’s just so normalized that it’s disturbing,” she says. “We sort of want to grab people and be like, ‘Look at this, this is not okay!’ There are no women outside. If you walk around, it’s like man planet.”
Early last year, Sadia took a picture of herself sipping solo and posted in on social media with the hashtag #girlsatdhabas. Because of how out there it was, it kind of became a thing. Other women started doing it, and it sparked a critical dialogue as well as dhaba hops in different neighborhoods. She has even spoken at high schools about the project. From time to time, she has seen women struggle with the concept, grappling with understanding why they should go to these places when it’s easier not to.
Of course, dhabas are not really the crux of the matter as much as they are a symbol of the broader problem: “No one is raising their girls not to go to dhabas,” Sadia says, half sarcastically. But they are raising them to be fearful, to know their place, to not seek justice if their safety, their izzat rather, were compromised.
Along with the women of Why Loiter? And others, she hopes to shift the culture that says women are to be policed, not protected. Dhabas are Sadia’s way of showing women like herself that they can reclaim and redefine public space — on their own terms.
“When we are told we must strategize, we know that we are among the unbelongers,” Shilpa Phadke of Why Loiter? says. “This category, of course, includes all kinds of others, too — hawkers, sex workers, lower class men, Muslim men. In the U.S., black men for instance are told to strategize in order to be safe. We need to see women’s right to public space within a larger context where many marginal groups are seen as outsiders to public space.”
When Sadia lived in New York for a few months, she learned quickly that she could find pockets of home in more ways than one. On trips to Midwood for halwa puri or in Manhattan’s Curry Hill for tea, she got what she called “eye hostility” – the familiar, inquisitive “Why are you here?” looks from men in salwar kameez policing the moves of her and friends.
“Public space is hypersexualized for women,” she says of both Karachi and Kensington, calling out what Aisha and Tangina could not. “A woman is supposed to be hidden. So the moment she’s out in public space, especially if she’s on her own, it’s like, ‘Oh she’s this loose woman.’”
For the young women in Brooklyn who don’t have a Why Loiter? or Girls at Dhabas movement of their own, the constraints of respectability and image weigh heavily, with no support on challenging these notions around space and visibility.
Aisha says that if desi girls did what her guy friends do – hanging out all the time late into the night – their parents would disown them. Tangina worries that if she breaks the unwritten laws of where she can go and why, her parents might take away the privilege of her education and try to force her to get married sooner.
“The conclusion is that they do all this stuff just so you can get married to someone from a good family,” Tangina says. “But that family can also become not a good family if they have a daughter who is seen out too much.”