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Women in the City: Examining Mumbai’s Gender Issues - An Explosive Issue

/Mera Apna Sheher/ (My Own City), a film by Sameera Jain (India, 2011, 70 min.), was screened as an event during The BMW Guggenheim Lab installation in Mumbai. The film is provocative in that it was intended to explore and document sexuality and gendered spaces in India's public realm. Following the Lab's screening, a panel discussion was held about the role of gender in public space but erupted when some men from the community began screaming at the panelists...

Photo of Ivy Young
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"The BMW Guggenheim Lab was a mobile laboratory about urban life that began as a co-initiative of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the BMW Group. From 2011 to 2014, the Lab traveled to New York, Berlin, and Mumbai. Part urban think tank, part community center and public gathering space, the Lab’s goal was the exploration of new ideas, experimentation, and ultimately the creation of forward-thinking visions and projects for city life." (More explanation here.)

The Lab's Film Screening

Scheduled for December 30, 2012 (7 pm–9 pm) with the intention to open up a dialogue about gendered spaces in India, the event was described/promoted as follows:
What role does gender play in public space? Is there a way to reimagine and reclaim the city as a place of equality for women and men? How can we reveal female subjugation, which is so deeply embedded in the terrain of cities and the logic of our culture?  Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City)(2011) is a film by Sameera Jain that attempts to confront these difficult questions. The film depicts the city as a contested terrain where conflicting emotions of belonging and alienation, anxiety and comfort, freedom and control come together.

Participants: Shilpa Phadke, writer and assistant professor at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences; Surabhi Sharma, moderator; Prasad Shetty, urbanist and city official, Mumbai Metropolitan Region–Environment Improvement and Heritage Conservation Society, and teacher, Rachana Sansad’s Academy of Architecture in Mumbai.

(Soured from the BMW Guggenheim Lab here.)

About the Film from The New Indian Express (published July 29, 2012)
"Meet, Delhi-based filmmaker and editor, Sameera Jain. Sameera’s primary research on her film, Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City) that was first screened in August 2011, began some seven or eight years ago, with making mental notes of listings of elements, experiences, incidents, occurrences, all pertaining to the context of gender and space."
"Sexuality and space are the film’s articulations while the camera interestingly achieves that by 'hanging out' casually with the various women who amble along the metropolis—Delhi, aware of its onlookers; alert of the threats and troubles they may pose. On the one hand, the film follows the everyday journey of women drivers (trained by Delhi-based not-for-profit Azad Foundation), as they manoeuvre their way amid traffic and male attention. Juxtaposed with this strand is quite another that follows a single woman as she attempts to reclaim public spaces—park, a street food place, a road—by casually hanging around them; for company, all along, she has the disconcerting male gaze." 

Full article here - A film I'd like to see. Jain's work speaks to me of radical positive deviance, just as her character "a single woman as she attempts to reclaim public spaces" does.

Blog Reflection on the Lab Event

While the intentions of screening this film appeared to be founded in progressing the dialogue about women in Mumbai further, a blog post on the event was very revealing. Christine McLaren, the blog post author, began her entry about just how pervasive the Lab revealed women's issues in Mumbai to be:
One of the things I find most interesting about the Lab is the manner in which local issues naturally come up and become, without intentional curation, recurring themes in discussion. As with the Liegendschaftsfondpolitik in Berlin, for instance, these tend to be issues that weigh heavily on people’s minds and affect many aspects of city life, yet often are being poorly addressed by official channels. In Mumbai, women’s issues became among the most pressing and widespread ones to arise during the Lab’s run.

However, she and the Lab did not quite anticipate how the screening would be received, as McLaren continued in her post:

In some instances, the conversation became perhaps almost too lively, like that which ensued after the screening of Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City). What was intended to be a discussion about the role of gender in public space erupted when some men from the community (the film was screened at Sambhaji Park in the northern suburb of Mulund) began screaming at the panelists that the woman’s place is in the home, and that they should not be insinuating otherwise. Perhaps even more interesting about that event was the fact that women were almost entirely absent by the end: the event had started later than intended, and by the time it concluded, the women in attendance had already gone home to cook dinner.
(See the whole blog entry here.)

Lessons Learned?

Showing the film and attempting to hold a panel discussion on the topic may also have provided an example of positive diviance, in the best scenario. I wonder, however, if in the end, it was truly positive. Could it have been approached differently to ensure more female presence and certainly less "eruption" from the men in the audience? Sadly, even talking about the very real issue in a public forum - otherwise well-received -doesn't appear safe. 


Join the conversation:

Photo of Meena Kadri

Fascinating Ivy. I wonder whether there was a difference in class between the panelists and men who were shouting? Class differences can amplify a sense of 'us and them' which often adds to emotions in contexts like this.

On another note – great to hear that Azad trained drivers were featured in the film. You can check an interview with Azad trained drivers by members from our Amplify Team here: and here:

Photo of Ivy Young

Thank you for your observation & leads, Meena. Though I do not know, I would wager that there were class differences between panelists and audience members -- which is an important contextual clarification. I would also imagine that there were fewer audiences members (if any) from Mumbai's low-income community, which is obviously more relevant in the greater context of our own discussion here.

As an aside, from my experience, often museum initiatives and programming fail to reach or make accessible offerings to lower socioeconomic strata / conversely, why visit a museum or a museum program when the content may not appear relevant or accessible especially when time is better spent meeting other real needs (household and family responsibilities, generating income...)? Also, the low-income urban residents were not the BMW Guggenheim Lab's primary focus in Mumbai - though certainly issues here must have emerged as part of the city's fabric.

With all of this said, there are always many cultural components and nuances that we must consider in offering cultural programming, opening important civic dialogues, and preparing the ground for change -- things I do believe the Lab had intended, though may not have executed with enough sensitivity all of the time. And for this reason, I find the example important to note . There is learning here. Learning I believe we might be able to leverage and build upon.

Photo of Meena Kadri

Agreed – certainly learning here.