dissonant voices: loitering

The visual presence of the woman remains contested practice in global cities

 

DIissecting the multi-faceted tool of power: the veil. How does the veil serve to simultaneously empower and disempower the woman, asserting vital agency whilst reinforcing subjugation under ‘normative’ modes of femininity? In each cultural context of global cities, the metaphor of the veil can be understood literally, as a tangible feminine ‘marker’ of subjugation, a ‘performance of normative femininity’[1] and its intersection with religion, or more conceptually enacting the ‘veiling’ of the female voice and body when women are unseen and docile, left in the shadows of the topography and discussion within global cities. As Fanon asserts in Algeria Unveiled, ‘with the veil things become well-defined and ordered’; it is thus a traditional uniform by which ‘the observer’ can distinguish a society and its treatment of females, the Algerian woman is ‘she who hides behind the veil.’ [2] Hence, we observe the paradox of emerging global cities imposing more constriction than previously. Every ‘abandoned veil’ and thus ‘liberated body from traditional embrace’ (Fanon 1965: 44) incites a forceful assertion of national identity and tradition against the West and introduces further precariousness to how female bodies belong in the global city today.

Therefore, I will look at the vital role the veil plays in both demonstrating and measuring the physical and psychological agency women have over their bodies. Furthermore, through analysing the varying city scopes of Mumbra and Mumbai, India and Asmara, Eritrea and their societal, cultural, religious and familial expectations of the woman and the female voice, I will consider the way in which authors and directors of literature and film demonstrate this power structure in the global context of their countries and their respective cities. The focus on the concept of the veil transforms the global city as our engagement through reading and experiencing the city is filtered through the skeleton of gender difference. Are global cities really as ‘open’ as they relay? Has the female body and mind really been ‘unveiled’ and freed from patriarchal oppression?

 

Through my reference to Asmara, I will depict the backwards ‘progressiveness’ of a country that was previously more liberal than the current dictatorship. Taking heed from Peromita Vohra’s visual essay, No Man’s Land, I will construct my own photo journal imposing the veil into various scenarios to reveal the psychological burden of weight that women felt in seemingly ‘free’ scenarios. I was influenced by Vohra’s imagined bourgeois life living alone as a wine-sipping single woman and the altogether real stark struggle of PMGP, the low-income housing she was forced to.  I aim to translate how ‘fantasy collides with reality’[3] when women in Asmara dare to dream of a ‘liberated life’ of free movement. Through speaking to the real women featured in the photos and gathering their accounts, I will be able to gage a representation of the original sentiments within the photographed situations and whether they correspond to more recent female accounts of subjugation. The photos represent a medium between a perpetual visceral constraint imposed on women and the more positive attempts of Indian women to claim unconditional agency.

Authorship in this respect is interchangeable with agency – the struggle and fight for the female voice to be heard and now seen. The dissonant voice is therefore not simply the writer or the ethnographic transcriber ‘othering’ the stories and lives of females to whom they cannot relate. The writer is the woman, the embodiment of her respective gender struggle and the orator for voices smaller than hers. All the same, railing against the veil imposed over bodies and voices does not award the female authors authentic experience of their subject matter. There is a matter of conflicting concerns, the individual variation of class and social background, which creates the problematic of providing a true legitimate movement towards future enactment of change. Whilst illuminating the subjugation of the female body and attempting to reclaim and assert vital agency is an admirable feat in itself, the accessibility of these attempts and their potential to reach public and political discourse needs to be assessed. Therefore, looking at particular extracts as a microcosm of their overall thesis, the varying literatures will be analysed in relation to the extent they can provide an authentic female voice for the masses of their respective communities.

No voice, however unharmoniously defiant, should be taken as the unequivocal orator of a collective struggle.

 

Why Loiter? ultimately interrogates gender access to public space and the politics of risk, through the act of ‘loitering’. The basic transformational idea of sitting around enjoying leisure space as a woman and doing nothing is a notion so simple, yet absurd in its controversial reception. Why is the female body so readily attacked by prejudices, stereotypes and constrained to normative modes of femininity and being? ‘Loitering’ is thus the demonstration of ‘unveiling’ the woman – freeing her for an agency that embodies the right to inhabit and be in public space. For the authors of the essay, loitering serves as a ‘strategy of dissent’ against the ‘gendered spatiality in Mumbai’ (2009: 186). 

The project of the loitering as a pursuit of pleasure, draws attention to the politics of space within every spatial parameter of our lives as women. Through Warwick’s own loitering event, we as female students were forced to explore the different spaces around our campus and our relationship to them. Resident halls? The Library? Cafés? Questions of our specific behaviours and dress-codes arose according to each space. The tension inscribed onto our bodies according to areas and the degree to which we were entitled to access, translated into psychological feelings of unease. In our occidental bubble of a British campus, the act of loitering is rarely explored and taken for granted in an academic space that prescribes to cosmopolitan politically correct and non-gendered discourse. Yet, we must ask how often we are really unconditionally allowed to let our bodies be completely and unapologetically present in space.

‘Loitering’ as ‘Unveiling’

Why Loiter? draws upon an extensive patriarchal history of walking in the city, an act reserved for the male. The figure of Baudelaire’s European flâneur, a man who experiences pleasure and thrill through the sensory experiences that the city lends him on his walks has been reinterpreted in modern literature such as Ivan Vladevlisic’s Portrait with Keys and Teju Cole’s Open City. These reinterpretations have demonstrated how new sociological timely concerns of global cities like New York and Johannesburg require a ‘re-imagining’ of a previous understanding of walking and its relationship with the city both geographically and socially. Yet, the ‘visceral and subjective engagement’ (2009: 194) of the flâneur with the city through walking is denied to women who never have the possibility of ‘making new meanings’ of their spaces. Modern literature still generally subscribes to the hackneyed ruling of the public sphere relegated for the male, with the female consigned to the private, the un-seen.  A notion further solidified after the onset of the industrial revolution, walking in the city was largely perceived as a criminal act, the only women seen on the street, as their namesake evokes were ‘street walkers’ or prostitutes, the woman ‘is either mad or bad or dangerous to society’ (2011: vii).


‘Loitering’ is thus a heavily loaded term, and rather than trivialising the gender struggles of women, it carries the burden of the violence of language and recuperates the possibility of ‘free’ movement. The Foucauldian movement from identities to acts, allows women a real participation society, not without but within. As asserted, loitering, unlike even the ‘flanerie and tapori-giri’, bears no attachment to an identity or sense of purpose. In the process of loitering you are only ‘temporally present’ (2009: 192). It is through this purposeless wandering with no visible productivity or markers that a real ‘organic and visceral’ (2009: 192) engagement with the city can be achieved. Partaking rather than observing, the loiterer is not a surveyor but an actor in her environment, and thus can finally achieve subjective rather than objective scope on reality.

The inclusion of photographs by Poulomi Basu in Why Loiter? visually demonstrate the contrast between the act of waiting for a bus (2009: 190) and hanging out at the marina (2009: 193), a movement from purpose to pleasure. Whilst in public and in the company of males, female body language remains upright, reserved and restricted to the norm, compared to the more relaxed seated posture, women in conversation leaning on and into each other with feet dangling towards the water.like, the photos taken in Asmara, Eritrea from 1961-1977 visually chart the assertion of female agency in respect to their surrounding environment at the time. The photos of my mother with cousins and friends in adolescence and early-twenties show a female solidarity and sisterhood based on pleasure: going out and enjoying life without the burden of family responsibility.

The women come from affluent families, where money whilst not taken for granted, was rarely a great worry. The girl groups pictured represent a younger model of the middle-class educated professional that Why Loiter? focuses on

However, the pictures also represent the prevailing constrictions of ‘normative femininity’ despite the increased right to pleasure that Asmara held. The photos of women ‘loitering’ in parks and on city-centre streets, or camping in the countryside were overshadowed by male counterparts, providing the groups with ‘respectability.’ The superimposed gold mesh veils demonstrate the vicious façade - that even in times of supposed ‘freedom’ the women were far from free.

Eritrea, in particular the capital, Asmara has been largely perceived as a liberal environment in regards to gender politics. Yet, although space is not as obviously gendered as in India’s Mumbai and Mumbra, the changing roles of women during Eritrea’s War of Independence (1961 – 1991) and then the Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000) encouraged misogyny and a regress to stereotypical ideas of the woman belonging to interior space - to the home as a mother, carer and wife.  Patriarchal ruling of women tightened as women fought alongside men on the front line as soldiers rather than the more traditionally received nurse.

 

Eritrea’s current dictatorship has now left women more constrained than before. Surveillance and security prevails, regarded as tantamount to Eritrea’s version of a ‘progressive’ society.

The photos taken of the camping trip of five girls within a group of boys, was received much differently to the same women attending a music festival by themselves. Despite their assertive manner strolling in the park and laying on the grass – ‘loitering for pleasure’, they were not allowed to attend the festival without male chaperones and were regarded as ‘bad and boisterous women’.  I superimposed veils onto these images, where women were without their male chaperones, to signify the burden they carry to ‘perform’ the subdued femininity that is asked of them. The golden mesh signifies the ‘cloak of respectability’ that allows women to be seen in public, seemingly free but altogether abiding by societies patriarchal ruling.

Now, Loiter?

Do actual spaces in cities need to change or the people in it? The fraught relationship of citizens with space continues to be based on exclusion, regardless of gender difference, men and women continue to be marginalised most often for their class or religion. The priorities of emerging global cities rest in economics rather than social politics and thus loitering comes at a price. In India, the neo-estate proceeds to take over all other concerns, and whilst space is momentarily reserved for public social use like the third of the two hundred acres that was promised to Mumbra[1], the acres are quickly consigned back to the ‘progressive’ agenda of real estate. In general, it is bureaucrats not political parties that pose political objection, demonstrating that whilst the rich can benefit extortionately from sanitizing ‘poor’ space like slums, loitering for women of all classes cannot find a voice, let alone be heard.

Pleasure achieved through the acts of loitering and playing football do certainly assert a feminine physical agency that translates into a psychological agency over female body and voice. Yet, the intersectional problematic of the global city attempting to accommodate and fuse the old and new politics of religion, caste, class, economics infringes on women really partaking in a true ‘unveiling’ of male subjugation. In the emerging global South, an incessant ‘fight’ in open spaces resonates, a struggle in the city for every intersectional material and intangible question alike to be raised, voiced and heard.