Morality policing is not new to us. Every other week some ultraconservative group in India decides to be offended about the way we dress or walk or hang out with each other. If you look for moral police on Wikipedia, you’ll find a long page dedicated solely to events in India.

It is to defy these attitudes that we launched #ParkMeinPDA, an online and offline campaign that focuses on the moral policing directed at couples in public space. As things stand, it is mostly heterosexual visibly male and female couples who are targeted, but this doesn’t facilitate romance between gay, lesbian, and trans people, it just renders them invisible.

At #ParkMeinPDA, we’re a loose collective of people, including the groups Feminism in India Delhi, Why Loiter – The Book Mumbai, Why Loiter – The Movement Mumbai, Hyderabad For Feminism Hyderabad, Reclaim The Night Delhi, Take Back The Night Kolkata, Zehen Mumbai, Queer Campus Hyderabad, Wajood Hyderabad and two individuals, Rachitaa Gupta and Neha Gupta.

#ParkMeinPDA is responding in the first instance to Mumbai police’s raids last month on hotels and lodges in Malvani where private citizens were pulled out of their rooms in the middle of the night and hauled to the police station. But, at the same time, we are engaging with the shrinking of city public spaces where we might loiter and/or romance as citizens.

Parks and coffee shops

Park authorities are notoriously anxious about public displays of affection. They often display signs that either carry the admonishment “behave decently” or have red lips crossed out with a big X, indicating the forbidden. In some cases, this moral policing is reflected in the design of park benches with dividing armrests and singleton seats. Of course, creative couples get around by simply sit on each other’s laps on these benches.

The same restrictions are upheld by others. In an arbitrary fashion, couples are rounded up from public spaces by the police and fined or terrified into offering bribes or marched off to the nearest policing station and shamed with threats of calls to parents.

Interestingly, coffee shops seem to be exempt from this surveillance directed at heterosexual couples. What makes it acceptable to neck in a coffee shop when even holding hands is frowned upon in some parks? This is because the coffee shop, with its first-world smells, its sanitised décor and its gleaming windows, facilitates what I call a transnational dislocation of space – this space could be anywhere in the world. It loses its sense of place and becomes a space that is removed from the local demands of codes of conduct.

However, even as the cosy interiors of the coffee shop facilitate some kinds of intimacy, they negate the possibility of a dialogue on public pleasure – they suggest that real romance happens in spaces that are global, that transport you to other worlds, that allow you to transcend the complex realities of your own city.

Reclaiming public spaces

Often, the suggestion is that moral policing is for our own good, that it ensures the safety of women. This is hogwash. Moral policing restricts women, often causing them to place physical safety at risk in order to guard their reputations. During our research, we found that women living in Malabar Hill in Mumbai would often walk 200 metres to their house late at night rather than risk their reputations by being seen in the company of a man unrelated to them.

Moral policing is also not about women’s safety because the same families that restrict women to keep them safe might also enact violence against them if they fall in love with the “wrong” man, if they besmirch family honour, if they are caught by the police with their boyfriends in public or in private.

Women fear and loathe moral policing more than they do violence. This is precisely the point that #PinjraTod, the campaign against unfair hostel rules in Delhi is making. Adult women have the right to make choices, including the right to take risks in the city. In our book Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, we argued that what women need in order to claim city public spaces as citizens was not conditional safety but the right to take risks. This suggests that cities are edgy and uncertain spaces, often exciting and fraught with risk. What women need, we argued, is not the promise of never being attacked but the assurance that nobody would question our right to that space.

In an increasingly hostile political climate, where misogynist trolls threaten and abuse those articulating dissent, especially women, it is more imperative for us to speak. Moral policing in public spaces, explained away as a concern for the innocence of the young and women’s safety, conceals the increasing exclusion of marginal citizens from public spaces. Thankfully, in defiance of this policing, couples continue to occupy parks and promenades. I see #ParkMeinPDA as a tiny effort in supporting these claims by endorsing everyday forms of rebellion and smalls acts of reclaiming public space.