A Place For Her (APFH) in its essence is an exploration of all too familiar urban social condition. Despite the multiple roles that a woman plays in her lifetime, even in the course of a day, why, when it comes to claim a place of her own and a place for herself does it seem impossible?
Most women experience a sense of confinement both physically and emotionally, their days packed to the brim. Almost nothing in their day contributes to their well being or to enriching their lives.
APFH, over time has evolved into a metaphor for an imperative; that of first acknowledging and then creating sustainable spaces for all those in our cities who cannot take as given, easy access to a space where they can be and develop.
Our discussions at some point began to crystalise into an organic research into the question of non- acknowledgement of certain needs of different groups and individuals.
Above all else A Place for Her is a statement of resistance.
More important than a physical place,APFH is the acknowledgement of the need for an inclusive, accommodating non- commercial space that can allow women, young, old and ageing to meet, interact and spend a few restful moments away from the routine stress of their day.If social well-being is to become a norm rather than an exception contingent on wealth and status, society cannot ignore the well-being of large sections of its members.
A Place for Her is a three-pronged project that talks about women in the urban space. It is about women working and contributing to the economy, being integral to making the city what it is regardless of their background and age. The main component of the project is conversations that we have had with girls and women from across different backgrounds, a young teenage girl who lives in a slum and is responsible for her household, to the ironing lady opposite our office who works from morning till late evening without talking a break to the 78 year old retired telephone operator and mother passionate about carnatic music and wants to pursue a PhD in the same.
Familiar unaddressed questions have surfaced along the way:
Who are these women and why are they so important to the city?
What are the expectations that come with being a woman?
How do we wish to look at these women and represent them?
How do they represent themselves?
What are their experiences of being part of the urban space?
And finally what is a person’s right to the city and what specifically is a woman’s right to the city?
Our curiosity about these things and how deeply they were affecting us nudged us to simultaneously look at working women and elderly women in the urban space that became the two important strands of APFH. Due to the organic approach of the project, the third component, Chai ho jaai which are free-wheeling discussions with women about their experiences in the urban, became the connecting platform which combined and at the same time affirmed the work in the other parts of the project. Working women conventionally brings to mind the images of women working in offices, corporate houses, schools colleges and other institutional spaces. In Women at Work we have attempted to look at
women who are part of the informal economy and form the backbone of the city. They work in our homes, offices, on the street, in bus stops, at the entrance to shopping malls, function halls and other public spaces. They have no job security, no steady wage, have no medical insurance and they are afraid to drink water because they do not have access to toilets in their work places which are often on or close to the streets. What happens when it rains? When it is dark? When they are unwell? What if there is a bandh in the city? What about education and healthcare? What are their entitlements?
Through Meri Kahaani we established contact with elderly women of our cities. Once active members of society they are no longer seen as important contributors to society. We believe that elderly women are repositories of information about changes that cities have gone through over the last few decades, about families and their inner workings, about mechanisms of survival, about being women and what that means in the urban at a time that was different from ours. Most importantly we do not agree with the general perception that the elderly are irrelevant. They have a lot to tell us and Meri Kahani has tried to make their stories audible and more visible.
Chai ho jaai brings into the same room all the women we have been closely looking at through the other two strands. Women from different walks of life are brought together to speak about their experiences in the city, about work environments and relationships. One account triggers an experience in the mind of the next person and the conversation rolls on.
It was interesting to see that our interpretations and analysis from the WW and MK strands were reinforced in the chai ho jaai exchanges.
The non-linear process of A Place for Her allowed us to experiment with various modes of representation, resulting in some unique outputs and products.
Meri Kahaani was entirely video documented where the women spoke about their lives. We got not only their stories but subtler nuances of the women’s mannerisms, a spark in their eyes when they spoke about something/someone dear to them, memories from the past that they felt strongly about. Through their narratives we gleaned unstated details about their lives, about values they have held on to and experiences that they cherish. It was very reassuring to witness almost uniformly a sense of eager excitement to talk and to share their stories. The notion that old people have nothing to say seems a myth if not a fallacy.
The video documentations led to a series of paintings chronicling the imaginary journey of a grandmother, representing the lives all the women we spoke to and this eventually became a storybook-calendar for 2016.
Everyone can see inanimate objects and systems like roads, pavements, vehicles, flyovers, bus stops and other utilities in the city. What we often do not see or do not wish to see are the men and women in the city who provide the fundamental services that enable connection, production, consumption, mobility, recreation and much else in the city.
The Urban Infrastructure visual made as a part of Women at Work highlights the precarious conditions and the unacknowledged labour of the housewife, the street cleaner, the construction worker, the sanitation worker, the hawker and countless others. They are as much a part of the city’s infrastructure as its buildings, roads, flyovers and malls.
Another more serious and long-term idea is to turn all of our findings and methods into a manual for teaching gender. To enable people to think differently, look at situations and people from fresh perspectives whereby they do not err in accepting difficult and abnormal conditions as normal and given.
Even though A Place for Her is a metaphorical term, we are invested in designing spaces specific to the recreational and non-work needs of women and girls, within the existing urban environment. If one can create an actual physical place, for women to talk and spend time away from home and work and other routines that would be a step in the direction of securing a stress free component to their day. A public space that is free, safe and easily accessible to all kinds of women is what we are aiming at. Even something as simple as forming a “club” in one’s apartment building to share certain skills is a great start. To just volunteer and spend some time with the old lady next door can do wonders for her day. We hope all these things will build fresh relationships in society and will enable women to see themselves as causing, affecting, changing, and choosing but without ignoring their own need for time, space and enrichment.