‘No city for lovers’: Public romance, illicit sex and urban moral policing in Mumbai
This paper will explore the joint participation of women and the local police in routine surveillance over women’s dress, conduct and public display of love in urban India. My ethnographic landscape is mainly Mumbai, where ‘respectable women’, ranging from right wing activists to old ladies groups, collaborate with the neighbourhood police in cleansing public spaces of ‘free women’. I will also analyse select incidents of civilians, across social and political stratifications, involved in stripping, beating, shaming and harassment of women in other cities in India. The latter incidents were also supported by area police squads, which either overlooked or overtly participated in these confrontations. The emergence of brutal and excessive urban moral policing is conventionally related to cultural, religio-political discourses -- on the loss of women’s normative behaviour due to the impact of education, globalization and women’s labour). This paper however shows that this form of militant scrutiny of urban women is also intimately related to quotidian security anxieties in rapidly modernizing cities. For example, several female residents of a neighbourhood in suburban Mumbai use sticks to beat young girls using their community park for romantic interludes. The local police and security guards from surrounding housing quarters also take part in these patrols. All parties contend that they collectively guard the park from potential paedophiles, kidnappers and child-traffickers acting as lovers, and ensure that the park is safe as a children’s playground in a city faced with shrinking green spaces. While the women urge the policemen to arrest the men as a scare tactic, the policemen need women to beat the girls, an action which is outside their ethical and legal jurisdiction. I eventually argue that this informal and oral contract between ‘the state’ and ‘the citizen’ in controlling urban women’s demeanor and conduct is related to common concerns about maintaining both community dignity and practical public safety in a criminalizing city.