It’s 2:41AM and I just got home. As I walked to my car, it occurred to me how strange it was that I felt so safe in the middle of the night. My immediate thoughts flashed back to India, where I first truly realised how much of a privilege the feeling of safety really was. The genuinely scary experiences I rarely speak about publicly, except to those who I trust, to avoid perpetuating negative media stereotypes, and giving fuel to the annoying aunties who told my mom “I can’t believe you let your daughter go to India!”
[Firstly, no one asked for your opinion so please go away. Secondly, I am my own human being with my own volition, and fought my parents (especially my mom) tooth and nail to make a lot of my own life decisions, much of which they still probably don’t understand. So, don’t blame them for immigrating so their kids could have a better life, only to be co-opted by western ideals of individual self-actualisation and feminist liberation, as opposed to those of self-sacrificial, obedient Asian filial piety. Trust me they’d probably prefer otherwise.]
But I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, India.
Apartment hunting in India remains one of my most frustrating memories. What bothered me the most wasn’t even the endless restrictions and preferences of landlords and potential flatmates regarding lifestyle habits (i.e. no drinking, partying, smoking, non-veg), ethnic references (North/South Indian only!), or marital and working status (married couple only or working single person!…) Don’t get me wrong that was all mildly irritating — but I guess I was trying to be all culturally relative, and understand (and accept) that there were some traditional folks who just couldn’t fathom why some westernised Taiwanese Canadian firangi would want to live in their flat.
No, none of that bothered me more than the fact that my living decisions were influenced by whether or not there were *streetlights* outside, so that if I were to come home past sunset, I would feel safe traveling back. The fact that something so seemingly benign was restricting my mobility and freedom and access to affordable housing felt so ridiculous. The locations with convenient access to busses, grocery stores, STREET LIGHTS, and the city core, were often much more costly, than those farther away from the city, without proper visibility and infrastructure. There were some places and spaces and instances, where I just felt, for no discernible, necessarily “rational” reason, unsafe. Goosebumps. A tension. Extra-awareness and caution of my surroundings.
For a long time, I tried to ignore that feeling. When I first got to India, I (perhaps foolishly) really wanted to embody Blank Noise’s Action Hero Guide to Unapologetic Walking — claiming public space and rejecting fear — taking busses, traveling alone at night, having broken conversations with sometimes questionably friendly men like my auto rickshaw and chai wallas — against most people’s advice… But honestly, 90% of my time was fine… Granted I lived in pretty-friendly Bangalore for the majority of my stay in India. Then I got to Delhi and reality slapped me in the face (or more accurately, two teenage boys kissed me without consent on the face, but that’s an annoying story for another day…).
It’s been almost a year since I returned from my last trip to India, but I realised that my not having had the life-long, lived experience of lack of safety has granted me a certain privilege that allowed me to aspire towards an ‘action hero’, to engage in debate and discourse about things like rape culture, sexual assault, violence against women. And more importantly, I’m starting to realise that my attempts to challenge the “negative media stereotypes” by asserting that “actually, from a per capita perspective, India actually has some of the lowest per capita rates of rape” (then, ignorant to vast under-reporting), I was likely denying the lived experience and actively invalidating the lifelong embodied experience of fearthat many faced… So if this was you, I’m so sorry.
I’m being reminded that to be rational, ‘evidence-based’, to be ‘unemotional’, and ‘calm’, is to be privileged. I was trying to use “data” to reframe a certain narrative and assert a more “objective truth”, when in “reality”, I was simply privileging (likely faulty) numbers over a subjective, but nevertheless, predominantly shared narrative about the fear and lack of safety for women in India.
It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, because I recently started doing some community-based research in, what has been characterised as “one of the most dangerous places in Canada” due the media’s often misrepresentative spotlighting of this neighbourhood as one rife with crime, gangs, and gun violence. Having not grown up in this community, and having read about how gun violence in this neighbourhood has actually DECLINED despite the spike in lethal shootings in Toronto this past summer, I’m able to reject this narrative because I had access to the “facts”. To some high level reports and policy briefs that demonstrate this is untrue (but remain largely inaccessible for the majority of those experiencing it).
But the more community events, and town halls I attend, the more folks I speak to who actually live and work in the community, the more stories I hear of losing family, friends, and community members to violence… the more I realise how little the ‘facts’ actually matters… The narrative, the perception, the lived experience and the trauma that results from it… that is what takes precedence…
I struggle with this tension. I attended an event where an urban planner was presenting on the redesign of one of Toronto’s social housing units, in which they proposed implementing more streets to run throughout the community, so that each house would be facing a road. However, someone brought up that during youth consultations, many expressed fear that this would increase the risk of drive-by shootings — an ongoing challenge in the community. The urban planner’s response was something along the lines of. “according to our research, more streets tend to improve visibility and traffic in the neighbourhood, thereby reducing the number of’ hiding places’ and improving overall safety in the community.” It was hard not to read her response as slightly dismissive of these fears… and not just any small fear, but fear that where one sleeps, eats, spends time with family, one’s HOME would be MORE UNSAFE because of a technocratic decision that was largely out of your control, despite what will ultimately be reported as having done extensive ‘community consultations’.
My boss used to say that good policy means everyone is equally pissed off. It was his way of saying you can’t please everyone. But how can you really know that your technical expertise and ‘research’ will apply in every context, with differing social, political, cultural conditions, UNLESS that’s also fully agreed upon and validated by the community you’re trying to serve? How can you guarantee that your ‘evidence based decisions’ won’t cause unintended harm? Are you better able to allegedly advocate on behalf of those whose potentially traumatic lived experiences and lack of access to information/education prevent them from engaging with certain conversations? Or ought we always attempt to meaningfully engage with folks who have these experiences, particularly if your decisions will directly impact their lives, given their expertise in the context you’re privileged to influence? Is this a less “effective” use of public resources, and time, because of the messy, “inefficient”, costly, timely nature of genuine community consultation and collaboration? Or is this actually the most effective process of all, because it ensures your alleged ’expertise’ and ‘evidence’ is actually contextually grounded and validated by those who are experts of their own lives and contexts? I’m most definitely leaning towards the latter.