A group of people who live within spying distance of a bus stand frequented by students of Thiruvananthapuram’s College of Engineering (CET), taking umbrage at the sight of young women and men spending time together, decided to take matters into their own hands. Last month, they vandalised the bench by cutting it up into three one-seaters. Is it easier to pat yourself on the back from a moral high horse, or do you lose balance and fall off?
In an act of happy resistance, the students sat on each others’ laps on the newly severed bench and posed smilingly for social media photographs. This unique protest worked, rather splendidly. Thiruvananthapuram mayor Arya Rajendran was reportedly angered by the conservative infringement of basic liberties that the students had faced, and made swift amends. The mayor is just 23 years old, and her response demonstrates how having young people in high civic offices can bring meaningful change that is relevant to the times. Other politicians, including Kerala’s General Education Minister V Sivankutty, also expressed their support for the students.
Moral policing events in India don’t end well that often, and it’s such a refreshing change that this story appears to have culminated happily. Thiruvananthapuram authorities have announced that this bus stop which had previously been more of an illegally constructed shelter will now become a full facility, as well as a “gender neutral” one. While it’s unclear what this means in this context, we can surmise that discriminatory actions such as the division of people by gender will not be tolerated as a matter of principle. Moreover, free Wi-Fi will be provided at the facility a cheerful development, since it will encourage loitering.
The concept that this is a public space, for public use, is well-promoted through this gesture. This is especially vital because people who are not men are not often seen occupying public space at random. For instance: a woman at a bus stop isn’t idle; she is likely to be commuting from her work at an office to her work within a household. When she needs a little solitude, she is more likely to retreat to the terrace than to step out to a park alone, where inquisitive or even threatening stares will disrupt her peace and make her vigilant. Even if she was with a friend, someone in her family may ask them why they were stepping out “alone”. The allowance for leisure and personal space are intimately linked to the use of public space.
The Why Loiter? movement initiated in 2014 was a great step in asserting within the public discourse that it is not just men who have the right to enjoy or simply be present in a public space — staring at others, shooting the breeze, listening to music on their phones, doing whatever they please. What was treated and normalised as a gendered privilege was questioned, with the intent of expanding possibilities for others to experience that same right.
This incident in Thiruvananthapuram will hopefully disempower those like those pesky residents near College of Engineering Trivandrum. Their having to put away their binoculars, or at least their bench-cutting devices, is something to celebrate.
The columnist is a writer and illustrator