Sunayana Bhargava is a 22-year-old MSc student in Astrophysics, researching topics in observational cosmology. In addition to studying, she is a member of Barbican Young Poets, Burn After Reading and Octavia collectives. She is also a keen musician and can be found eating burritos while attempting to photosynthesise in and around London.
Walking home along Southwark Street was a common ritual for me on the way back from a day of physics lectures. Peppered with expensive restaurants, derelict office blocks and byroads sloping towards the Thames, I would often regret surrendering the longer route home down one of these byroads. A distinct preference for the sight of the power-station-turned-art-gallery instead of the multi-story Royal Bank of Scotland spitting out bankers into the rollick of rush hour.
On one of the many instances I bridled the fantasy of loitering, passing underneath a viaduct, a man approached from the opposite direction, noticed me and slackened his pace. I maintained mine, curating an unruly adrenaline rush, preparing for the moment our shoulders would level. As they did, he stopped. His body swung into mine, swiftly cornering me into the walls of the viaduct. He asked whether I could direct him to Southwark Bridge. I pointed in the direction I had come from. It was plainly visible. His eyes, undistracted, locked firmly on my eyes. Then across my body, stiff and unyielding. He licked his lips and sauntered within centimetres of my face.
I froze. Diffuse, diffuse, don’t make him angry.
His hands clamped around my hips, he hissed “You’re beautiful, you’re scared. Why are women in London so scared?” He thrust in to kiss me. The desire to appease exhausted, I torsioned my body, silent, turned back in the right direction to go home, both hands sweaty, clinging to the straps of my backpack. Over my shoulder I heard, with confidence, “Hey, give me your number, yeah.”
Customarily, I began to imagine “what if?” What if that day was destined to contain loitering? I might have detoured along the bankside, impulsively ventured into the Tate, found myself in a thrilling and thought-provoking exhibition, left cradling an iridescent, humble orb of appreciation for art. I might have dangled my feet off the embankment over the coarse hairs of the river, observing the waves propagating in patterns of destructive and constructive interference. Each lines of reasoning which converged to the gist of “What did I have to lose? I may as well have enjoyed myself.”
In Shilpa Phadke’s book, Why Loiter?, she puts forward reasons for the resistance to loitering among women in many of India’s urban spaces. After examining the case for gendered dissent in India generally, she radically claims loitering as a feminist right. Loitering is asserted as a reclamation of space, and, by association, time. I admit that some of the most enjoyable, thoughtful walks I’ve taken have been late at night in some of South London’s quiet, dimly lit backstreets. Perhaps it is the feeling of travelling through a void in the vibrating, turbulent dissonant of the city. The senses sharpen, the body a clean silhouette.
An untethered woman might be unsafe but she is also dangerous. This perhaps unseemly motivation for being outdoors is easily dwarfed in comparison to securing the protection of women. How does feminism assure us as to the value of loitering against a backdrop of violence against women? Phadke argues that one cannot polarise those who seek pleasure and those who seek an end to violence. Rather, there is a contingency: the right to pleasure must include the right to live without violence. Framing the desire for women’s agency in public spaces as one which concerns rights rather than one which depletes their security continues to be a difficult, important and ambitious consideration.
I return to the man under the viaduct. What did he mean? Beautiful and scared? Beautiful but scared? Beautiful because I’m scared? Was my beauty to him some kind of compromise? A quality emphasised by fear of it being recognised? Is beauty something uncontrollable, volatile, and inevitably responsible for the attention it elicits?
Violent responses to beauty become encoded in its value. Helen, the face that sailed a thousand ships. The beauty of not recognising one’s own beauty — a woman who never claims it for herself, leaves it to the observers alone to discover, memorialise and agonize over through art ad nauseum: You don’t know you’re beautiful – that’s what makes you beautiful. This requires a loss of self. Beauty begins to occupy the consciousness as something solely relational.
In short, while its ‘subjectivity’ has long been a lie to perpetuate devices of white supremacy and misogyny, the relational essence of beauty nullifies any claims of beauty made by the woman on herself. Women grow a second pair of eyes, carrying the male gaze, complete with the controls of power, everywhere with them. I sympathise with Medusa here – remembered equally for hideousness and hatred of men. If a beautiful woman could only benefit from being gazed upon by men, an ugly one must spite the male gaze, turn it to stone in a frenzy of rejection and malice. Any action undertaken in efforts towards her own protection are an unmeaningful consequence.
However, dangerous women are not simply found defying their remits walking home from club nights at 4 in the morning, picturesquely puffing a cigarette against the serenity of a library in an unfamiliar location, nor whistling ambiguously to court the attention of anybody within earshot. A litany on whistling: radial siren, kiss performed with shrill intonation, mythologised seduction luring sailors to their death, risky imitation of police authority. There is an old Irish proverb, “Whistling girls and crowing hens / always come to some bad end.” When a silent woman is deemed the only one worthy of a favourable outcome, her defiant, noisy spatial occupations entangle directly with survival.
Silence in a digital age accepts a different currency. In the era of social media, silence is not active, it is assumed: women who appear (semi)anonymously on social media are automatically typecast as men and granted protection under this assumption. Digital loitering is disclosure: when women occupy digital spaces visibly, they are promptly conscripted in labours which are contingent on their belonging. In a slightly more subtle fashion to the “t*ts or GTFO” command, women must advocate emotionally, sexually, intellectually (but not too intellectually) for themselves in order to find acceptance in spheres dominated by men. In one breath a woman is ‘lauded’ for posting an ‘empowering’ topless selfie, in another a woman disclosing vulnerability about body dysmorphia is condemned by men for whinging.
It is no wonder that there are so many grey areas in the largely white, western feminist notion of ‘empowerment.’ This term has been revised so frequently in accordance with the whims of choice feminists that it currently stands to designate any (seemingly) autonomous decision made by one woman, regarding herself. Not only is this disingenuous towards the provenance of the word (academic texts dating back to 1976 titled Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities by Barbara Bryant Solomon), but it further ensures that while there is the illusion of individual agency, all underlying racist, misogynistic structures that circumscribe the diversity of women’s participation in social media disappear.
When the voices of women in the digital realm have been prescribed so formulaically, there is danger in venturing outside of these boundaries. Break the digital curfew. Stay out late after hours to criticise men’s fallible allyship. Lurk around the digital street corner to remind male video game players (who often like to feign their own oppression as a simulated minority) their favourite games normalise gendered violence and misogyny. These are not radical instructions. Women have upturned assumptions about their ‘selfie-laden-fan-girling-emotionally-saturated-and-excessively-meaningless’ discourse for some time now. In return, they received some very disheartening backlash (see GamerGate for a particularly belligerent example).
The protection of men in digital spaces affords them a key rebuttal to tackle exactly this level of distinguished, nuanced anger. I recall some pertinent tweets made by Brianna Wu, a video game developer hounded for highlighting gender disparity in the gaming industry. “One of the darkest aspects of new misogyny is these emotionally stunted men can’t imagine than anything a woman feels is genuine,” she writes. Her evidence includes vitriol against women who vocalise fear towards rape threats (many of which were received directly due to digitally loitering) from men who insist they must be lying. A woman banished to the asymptote of hyperbole — out to get everybody for everything, a feminazi, ‘censoring freedom of speech,’ worst of all, being sexist to men. This belief stems from a deeply entrenched fear that women can only use their words to beguile, manipulate and seduce. Somehow, women are inherently venomous, and, left to their devices, will ultimately unionise to destroy men. They must therefore be kept down and belittled at all cost.
Where is the reconciliation of structural hostility with tenderness? Encountering hardship upon hardship dulls the proclivity to seek hopeful ends, but when survival seems the only guarantee of seeing hardship resolve into some meaningful creed of solidarity, the determination rekindles. Build up as you break down. Do not leave others behind who could benefit knowing how you recovered from your pain.
All this doesn’t, however, soften the heartbreak of seeing one’s feminism disintegrate before their eyes when it’s most needed. In front of my mother, crying on the living room floor, whispering, indistinct, “I did nothing wrong, I only said I loved him. What is the penalty for feeling?” Hearing back, with such cold, distinguishable resolve, “You must understand your brother. He does not like being lied to. You’ve been caught for making a big, big mistake.” Absence from one’s body is necessary to survive as a daughter. A discovery that my inability to parse love in the language devoted to respect and shame is insignificant. Territory is territory, fought between men, no matter the price of the woman who guards it. Something about bartering feelings appeared to her beneath all violations of the body. As if any non-consensual experience would be immediately visible –body morphed, distorted permanently. If it were the case, that she would surely see me cower, scrape the guilt from my skin, strip the clothes away, wash until I uncover bone. Emotions are smoke, mirrors, fumes, blood, some soluble, some not. Where is the accountability for feeling if it leads nowhere? Where does the charge for disobedience lay? We could treat such love as a highly nonlinear perturbation throughout the genealogy of women.
What does a woman not do for love after all? An old Hindi song croons ‘pyaar kiya to darna kya?’ If you’ve loved, then why fear? But women loitering outside their emotional boundaries are penalised. Love makes women lose their Chill, cling to their hearts, crying You will not take my heart alive, makes them ask, What are you willing to do? Liken it to diagnosis, exclaim fatalistically, something terminal perhaps, Must be love on the brain! Where is the remittance for these women courting danger for the value of love? In return, they see little of their burden shared. Is it simply their public, embarrassingly confident, unshaken, impassioned resolve to follow love that makes it so difficult to ignore them? Just not enough to equalise the cost of feeling?
Emotional labour is a caveat for all women in their occupations. This additional servitude – implied willingness to expunge emotional anguish from otherwise unreflective men – ensures they remain subordinated when the novelty of feeling is exhausted. If the woman begins feeling “too much,” she is the perturbation. Evict her. The same is said for labour and critique in a digital age that speedily polarises invisible and hyper visible entities. Women are watched hawkishly for ‘overstaying their welcome’ by going one criticism too far, expressing too much of themselves – un-caricatured means unwanted.
Policing space in the digital and analogue sense is a concentrated effort. You must hold up your sentiments to rigorous examination, guard their safety, and interrogate them for honesty. Carry their weight in your hands over indefinite distances until it is safe enough to return them to your mouth.