The term ‘safe space’ has become increasingly popular over the last few years as a way to talk about social justice and inclusion. Often the conversation is about what makes a space ‘safe’ or not. But a group of creative, tech-savvy feminists in India found themselves asking another question: where are the safe spaces?
The urgency of this question became clear to lawyer Jasmine Lovely George in 2015, when she was approached by a friend for advice on where she could go to have an abortion. This friend had already tried go to a private health clinic but was kicked out after the practitioner found out she wasn’t married. Not only had she been shamed, but she hadn’t gotten the healthcare she needed.
The injustice of the situation sparked something in Jasmine: she realised that a crucial part of comprehensive sexual and reproductive healthcare is how women are treated and how they feel when they seek healthcare. She saw the dots that needed to be connected. And so Hidden Pockets Collective was born: a multimedia feminist project mapping out where women and trans people can access the sexual health resources and services they need.
But quickly, Executive Coordinator Aisha Lovely George says, “we realised that we can provide a map, provide locations, but the thing is we don’t utilise our public spaces. We navigate our cities from point A to point B. We want women to explore their cities, own their cities. It’s not just about getting them to reach the hospital.”
The pleasure perspective
The collective began thinking about the experience of women moving in cities as a whole, taking what Aisha calls the “pleasure perspective.” After the extremely violent incident in Delhi in 2012, there was a call for increased securitization: “Women should not go outside alone, someone should be there with her; we should have cameras everywhere possible to monitor where she is going,” Aisha recounts.
“We want women to explore their cities, own their cities. It’s not just about getting them to reach the hospital.”
But greater restrictions on women’s lives was not a solution. Aisha and Jasmine wanted women to feel confident and empowered – not confined and scared. So in addition to mapping health services, they map “pleasure pockets”: spaces that are safe, comfortable and free for everyone, like parks, monuments or markets. To make the information clear and engaging, they use an innovative combination of visual storytelling and technology to create “doodle pockets” and podcasts.
Still, Jasmine and Aisha – based first in New Delhi, and now in Bangalore – knew that most effective way to create change was not for women to just listen to Hidden Pockets podcasts at home, but to themselves get outside and explore. So they began asking women all around India to map their cities and tell their own stories of how different spaces felt. “We are pushing them to see their own city,” Aisha explains. “So the person who is making the podcast and the person listening to it are both benefiting and are impacted. People listen to stories.”
These podcasts also serve as conversation-starters about sexuality and sexual health in government schools. “They’re like plays,” Aisha says. “If there’s a story and characters, it’s easier for the students to understand and grasp what are the characters are talking about, and the teacher isn’t uncomfortable.” They are working on bringing these podcasts beyond schools, and into juvenile homes, where children below 18 years old are sent when they come in conflict with law.
With this combination of art, digital campaigning and storytelling, Hidden Pockets is transforming cities throughout India – step by step, one “pleasure pocket” at a time.