Public spaces of education: The complicated nexus of shame, agency and resistance
For most of my life, public domains have not felt like a space I had any say or ownership in. They have always made me feel like a fidgety traveller. They were just places that I was existing in, in their liminal corners and not a place where I could express myself fully or that made me feel ‘belonged’ in any capacity.
When I was in school, I used to check my skirt multiple times before catching the bus. I would adjust it until positioned perfectly so that it covered my knees. I’d check the tightness of my shirt, tucking it out a little bit by bit so that it didn’t hug my growing, puberty-stricken body too visibly. I did all of this because on most days I was fearful — fearful that I’d get caught and be made to stand outside of the line during the morning assembly in a corner — too prominent against the red-bricked walls of the school. It was like losing shreds of my dignity every time that happened and not knowing what I did wrong. On most days, the school wasn’t a place that uplifted me because of how good of a speaker I was or for being on the student council. Those weren’t my identities. My identity on most days was reduced to being less of a dignified woman because of the length of my skirt. They weren’t running a school, but an assembly of shame. This story is relevant here because when you step out of school and into the ‘real’ world, all of your surroundings turn into that school assembly. I can assuredly say that in most public spaces and at most times, a large majority of women (close to all, if not all) can feel a constant stream of holes being burnt into their bodies due to uncomfortable gazes. A gaze that closes up your throat and shrinks your bodily autonomy. A gaze that makes your body shiver with the realization of the scrutiny on you and your criminally bare skin.
And it’s not a suppression of just our bodily expression, but voices too. These voices belong to women, young and old, married and single, mothers and grandmothers, or just women even without these aforementioned identities. Their voices are muffled down in most public spaces, be it in restaurants when the bill arrives and is given to their fathers, brothers, husbands and male friends; it is stifled in offices, metros, parks and on the road in a car when people (mostly men) talk over women, mansplain and condescend.
Hence, resistance becomes an everyday act and any place outside your own body is unsafe and uncompromising and sometimes even within it. Resistance becomes something like breathing, an involuntary act that your body gets accustomed to as you learn how to resist gaze and passive oppression.
I started to resist and negotiate when I found a space, which for the first time wasn’t trying to pull me down and tug at me until I came apart. It did not attempt to disembody me from my identity as a woman. It was a place where I could breathe without having my guard up and feel more empowered than ever because of a collective feeling – a feeling of womanhood, of struggle, of achievement, of destabilization and alas, resistance. This place was a women’s college, which ironically, I did not want to go to in the first place because of questions like — how would I grow in a homogenous atmosphere, how would I learn to survive and fight amidst just women? I don’t know if it is the patriarchal narrative or the society that weaves these notions and made me think those things, but I can say that it was in the company of those unknown, strange, yet strong women that I felt as if I was in the presence of some kind of power. It was like living one of those hypothetical, utopian realities of what the world would be like without men? In one word — it was easy.
Ironically, even though I never had to resist anything in that space, I did learn how to resist better there on account of the ideas and agency that flowed in the air there. It also made me realize that I fully accepted my gender identity, in fact, I was proud to be a woman and I was happy in my skin. I had never felt more like a woman and a feminist before coming to that college. It was in the absence of having to constantly fight the world outside, reclaim spaces and ask for my rights that I realised what feminism meant to me. It was because of that college that empowered me and allowed me to express myself that I could compare it to the other end of things — the not-so-utopian reality — and understand better what I and many other women should have on an everyday basis, what kind of a space they deserved in this world.
As for resisting the oppression that we face every day, the biggest act of resistance sometimes simply becomes showing up and not being bogged down. It resides in those little acts of courage people perform every day when they don’t deter or crumble under a gaze, a harsh voice or any other form of systemic oppression. Resistance also entails the process of unlearning the norms of patriarchy; in unlearning the stereotypes, sexism and bigotry. It is about rejecting ideas like ‘asking for trouble’, honour, dignity and who a good woman is. For me, it is also about unlearning the internalized shame that this system imposes on women and other marginalized communities.
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