Speculative Data Futures: To Whom Do The Streets Belong?



Urban development

2021-05-05 12:53:03 1512 0

There are two trips I dread most in my life. The first is the three-hour daily journey to work from Ramallah to Jerusalem passing through the crazy checkpoint of Qalandia. The second is the two-minute walk from my apartment to the grocery store around the corner. As I step out of my house and walk to the store, I am flooded with unwanted attention. A few cars on the road are honking at me, while a bunch of guys standing on the side are making some noises in a rude invitation to make me lift up my head and turn into their direction. It is a cacophony, a disturbing reminder that the street I am walking on belongs to them. Do I feel threatened? No. Do I feel unsafe? Not really. I feel particularly annoyed. I ask myself: Do I really have to go through this every single time? Why can’t I just slip into my pajama pants and stroll to the supermarket to buy that carton of milk or bag of chips? My alarm clock rings at six in the morning. It is as disturbing and haunting as the cars honking at women walking on the sidewalk. I run to catch the bus from Ramallah to Jerusalem. I arrive at the checkpoint of Qalandiya. Memories of the second intifada checkpoints rush into my head while I am sitting idly on the bus, trapped in the middle of the daily brutal traffic at the checkpoint. I moved to Ramallah in 2003, right during the heat of the second intifada. Israeli military checkpoints have cut the cities and villages apart. They completely blocked the passage of cars with big grey cement cubes. On a good day, Palestinians had to get off, pass through the checkpoint on foot, and have their ID checked by armed soldiers one by one. On a bad day, no one is allowed to pass or travel at all until further notice by Israeli soldiers. I also remember my first trip from my hometown Hebron to Ramallah very vividly. I was 17, traveling with my father and a big suitcase to attend my first day at University. We arrived at one of the notorious checkpoints erected shortly before the town of Abu Dees near Jerusalem. Unruly lines of people were impatiently waiting to be let through the checkpoint, with two heavily armed Israeli soldiers standing in the way of going about their daily business. Everybody was waiting. They did not let anyone in. As the crowd got bigger and louder, the soldiers lost their temper and started beating people aggressively. People retreated as the soldiers expanded their circle and went forward in their aggression away from the checkpoint. My father quickly seized the chance, snatched my hand and the bag, and we ran through the checkpoint. Life back then was like an Atari game. One never knew what might pop up on the road – a “flying” checkpoint, cement blocks, military jeeps, military curfews, burning tires, you name it. One had to always be alert and creative. Taxi drivers were ahead of the game, as if they had a natural talent for it. To every block, there was an alternative way- through dusty roads, small alleys, and farmlands. In occupied territories, where Google Maps neglects to pin those Israeli military checkpoints and roadblocks, you can only trust your intuition and your taxi driver to safely find your route. Sometimes I wished there was a magic app that could show me, a woman, now in her early thirties, where I could move safely, free from the prying eyes of men and from the tyranny of military checkpoints. Or a map that warned me, just like Google warns drivers about routes with heavy traffic, about streets that are full of male crowds or military road blocks. “If only men would just disappear,” my roommate often remarks –annoyed- when she walks into the door from work and throws her keys angrily on the table. “No occupation and no Qalandiya,” I quickly add. How perfect the world would be if we –women- took charge. That was our daily mantra coming home from that aggressive world outside. One evening my roommate came in shivering. She had no words this time. I understood from her words and gestures that she had been sexually assaulted that night. I learnt later that it happened to her while she had been walking home from work on a side road streaming off Ramallah’s busiest streets. Seeing her in that state, I could not sleep at night. I felt helpless. What would I have done? To whom can we go? To the police? Can she tell her family? Would I tell my family if that happened to me? And if I did, what would they do? I would be immediately blamed: my jeans were too tight, my body too suggestive. Anger was eating me up. It is infuriating to think that on top of military occupation, we have to fight all other sorts of mental and social occupations. Public space is not for us, women. It is for men. They occupy every street and corner with their loud voices, prying eyes, and unapologetic bodies. Our entrance into these spaces is an invasion and a threat to what men have learned over generations about where a woman belongs. I kept thinking that night: “Is there any way we can reclaim these spaces? How can our presence there be part of the natural order of things rather than ‘tolerated’ by men?” I thought of that magic app, the one I always dreamt about. So, the next morning I called up a friend. She knows all about making apps. We decided to design a tool that could warn women of incidents of sexual harassment and their locations. The task was simple: we would create an open-source/open data map and if you were misfortunate to experience or witness any kind of verbal, non-verbal or physical harassment, report it! It would appear on the map, we would share it with other women so they could be alerted and take precautions. We reached out to women and men alike on social media. We gave away a number and a contact form on our website where women could text or log in their testimonies. They were asked to specify the location and the time of the incident. All data was open except for the identity of the reporter. Those would remain anonymous. The first few days passed silently. Then the information started pouring in. One geo-location after the other. Some with extensive narration of the incident, some with emotional testimonies full of fear and anger, and some were just muted and quiet. We did little moderation. We shared the testimonies as they were. We believed all the stories. Of course – we knew that as a woman you would get harassed on this street, or that street, or that street. We were all harassed there at some point. We pinned them all down on these rigid streets. The data was open to everybody, to read, to share, and to recreate in whatever shape and format to make women aware and alert to their surroundings. We continued to reach out to women, with the promise that we would finally be able to create a map of alternative safe routes for women based on the data we received. More days passed, and more incidents were reported, and the map became more and more crowded with of all sorts of colored pins. Ramallah was full of colors. Yellow for verbal harassment and red for physical harassment. The dots swallowed all the streets like a hungry monster, one street after the other. Wide or narrow, all streets were occupied with dots. Layer after layer. After two months and a half, there it was: a blank map with no roads, only the two horrid colors. There are no safe streets. It was horrifying to ask ourselves the honest question: what do we do about it? There was a one silver lining in creating that horrific map. For once, we had captured something that happened every day and every hour but that was nevertheless still denied and brushed aside as a trivial matter, as something that happened to women who we didn’t know or who were “asking for it”, as something that only happened on streets that were not our streets and in societies that were not our societies. The colored maps left no room for denial. As more and more women spoke up, those who continuously questioned women and their testimonies could no longer do so. Changing the map virtually meant changing the reality on the ground. Every dot meant there must be a counter act, an act of change and resistance. Reading the testimonies had moved people to act. There were new groups popping up online offering support to women through hotlines. Another group asked volunteers to go in groups to areas where there was a blazing concentration of red and yellow. These groups stood there, like civil police, to make women feel safe walking these streets again. Other campaigns to fight sexual harassment also joined the ongoing effort. Activists mobilized people to go on streets declared ‘dangerous’ on the map to show solidarity and support. Families, students, unions, civil society organizations, and many other ordinary citizens went out on the streets to put the harassers to shame and seize the streets from their hands. As more and more volunteers took to the streets, the colored dots started to slowly disappear. As the dots cleared away, the streets began to show up on the map again. I imagined a Palestinian woman standing in the place of every dot, re-occupying the streets with her body. We felt empowered. “The streets are ours too!” “The city can be safe again!” Indeed, the streets were safe again, but only inside Ramallah. A couple of kilometers outside, the military checkpoints with its watching towers remain, dark, oppressive, and brutal. They are torturous as a thousand alarming clocks going off at the exact time to disturb us, to remind us of our biggest quest for freedom: freedom of military occupation. Can we fight this too with an open data map? Perhaps. The world’s map authority, Google Maps, does not recognize our villages and communities nor does it recognize the military checkpoints scattered everywhere, while it can show any Israeli settler living in the West Bank how to drive to his destination. We have to create our own maps, agile and open enough to capture the ever-changing creations of the military occupation: shrinking territories, blocked routes, new settlements, closed military zones, new checkpoints and new informal borders. A map alone, however, would fail in the face of this immense task. The real question that we should ask ourselves first is: what would we do, if we all came together? Ramallah was the start. We need to liberate other cities too, to clean our homes and streets from prejudices, patriarchy and social oppression. There are too many demons to fight. We should start with our own first.