Distraction Free Reading

Violence/Freedom: Gender and the Politics of Surveillance in Public Parks

Cities all over the world have witnessed a surge in the use of surveillance technologies, such as data-gathering phone apps, facial recognition software, and closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras among others, to address crime and safety in public spaces. While it may appear that these technologies unequivocally create a safe environment regardless of social identities, unresolved incidents of violence against women and transgender bodies in public spaces suggest otherwise. Surveillance technologies intersect with predisposed social systems and ideas around morality and power in complex ways and may not always achieve the desired results. In this blog post, I reflect on how safe-city infrastructures and everyday moral policing mark unequal and gendered terrains in public parks in Islamabad, Pakistan. Focusing on an incident involving sexual violence in Fatima Jinnah Park, one of the biggest and most frequented parks in the capital city, I discuss the complex intersection of “social” and “technical” infrastructures. Who can rightfully occupy, wander, and experience public spaces and when? How can technology simultaneously symbolize violence and freedom? These questions bring attention to important considerations on how different forms of surveillance permeate everyday life for female and transgender bodies, and the patriarchal ethos of monitoring technologies in urban public spaces.

Gender and public space

This year began with a series of distressing media reports on sexual violence against women and transgender people in Pakistan (Sarwari 2023; Chaudhry 2023; Dunya Webdesk 2023). The fact that many of these incidents have taken place in urban public spaces despite the presence of dedicated security personnel and infrastructures, such as cameras and single-gated entrances, added to a pervasive fear of violence and discrimination-as-violence. Scholars have argued that space is an embodied experience, and therefore our social positions make a difference on how we experience it (Massey 1994). These social positions are not limited to but include gender, race, class, age, sexuality, and disability. Furthermore, the experiences of women can also differ based on what time of the day it is, who are they accompanying, what they are wearing, and other material markers of social class. This means that such public spaces provide us with an opportunity to understand how gender relations are negotiated and reconstituted (Beebeejaun 2017). Since spaces have historically been designed by men, they have often minimized or excluded the experiences of female and transgender bodies. This process ends up producing gendered spaces (Doan 2010). For example, if a park does not provide ample lighting at night or has thick forested spaces, then most women will try to avoid using it.

The night presents another set of challenges for women occupying public space. While the night may represent both danger and excitement for men, for women it represents anxiety and fear. This is why in most public spaces in South Asia, men outnumber women in public spaces at night even more than they do during the day. In fact, not only does it hold the threat of physical harm, it also imposes the threat of reputational harm for women. As Phadke, Khan, and Ranade (2011) argue in their seminal book, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, women who enjoy going out at night, with several precautions and limitations, do not want to be ‘seen’ as doing so because it harms their reputation.

This is the kind of problem that cameras and surveillance technology cannot necessarily address. Women, who have to be outside their homes at night for work or emergencies, may feel safer with cameras watching them but these cameras will not encourage them  to step out at night without compulsion. Moreover, the role of infrastructure is not just its material presence but rather how it fosters accessibility and inclusion, and how can it be a tool to empower marginalized groups to lobby for their rights to the city.

The image shows a brown tree trunk in the center of the frame with a dark brown notice board. There are green trees in the background. The writing on the board is in Urdu.

After the incident in February 2023, the park administration put up signs in an attempt to make the space appear safer. This sign  reads “Everyone is notified that it is forbidden to go inside the forested area- Park Administration.”
Picture credit: Shanel Khaliq

Marking “respectability”

The rape of a young woman by two armed men in Fatima Jinnah Park, the largest public park in the capital city of Islamabad, increased attention towards ongoing conversations among citizens, activists, and the civil society at large around security apparatuses, such as Safe City Projects, and the unceasing moral policing and violence against women in public spaces. Fatima Jinnah Park (also known as F-9 or Capital Park) is highly popular among residents for its walking and bike trails, as well as a large amphitheater, several children’s play areas, a citizens’ club, and art gallery. The park is considered nature’s oasis in the built-up area elsewhere in the city. It is bustling on weekend afternoons when people of all ages can be seen walking, playing, and relaxing in the park. The incident revealed the multiple layers of monitoring that will choose when to make the female body visible and when to make it absent from public space.

For the rapists, a woman in a public space with a romantic partner or a non-relative male becomes a target because she has violated the notion of purdah. [1] On the other hand, Safe City Projects claim universal protection against crimes but fail to address the unequal harms faced by marginalized groups in the city. Armed men in public space pitted against remote video technologies show massive gaps in the state’s understanding and commitment to the safety of women. For the rapists, it was not as much about the illegality of their possession to armor, but the need to pass moral judgement that no “respectable” unmarried woman would be taking a walk with a male colleague after sunset. After committing the crime, the rapists gave her one thousand Pakistani Rupees so that she could make her way home and warned her never to come alone to the park with a man after dark (Qarar 2023). These incidents also extend to transgender bodies, with countless reports citing experiences of being catcalled, mocked, and groped in public spaces ( Human Rights Watch 2016; Noon 2022).

Seen from the perspective of law enforcement authorities and city management, the crime was a lapse in their security apparatus. In 2016, the Islamabad Capital Territory police force launched the Islamabad Safe City project with the goal of countering terrorism and tracking crime in the city. This project included over nineteen hundred CCTV cameras which were connected to one hundred and thirty LED screens in the control room to monitor activity and people on roads and public spaces. Such information and communication technologies have become a central part of placemaking as envisioned by the state, a role that was previously held by transportation and communication (Green, Harvey and Knox 2005). While cameras had already been installed in Fatima Jinnah Park, it was only after the incident that they were linked to the database of the Project (Junaidi 2023). In retrospect, public opinion deemed the project another device of power allowing the state to surveil political protests, not necessarily make the cities “safer” for everyday citizens (Azeem 2022). Beyond the guise of efficiency that works in the best interests of all members, these surveillance infrastructures also allude to power imbalance where the state dictates who and what is being watched, and which optics are grounds for intervention and action.

Existing research on CCTV cameras has shown that women are already used to being hyper visible in public spaces, and the presence of cameras only means that now there are even more eyes on them than before. The voyeuristic use of CCTV cameras by operators to watch women has been well documented. It is not surprising then that the presence of such technology can also discourage them from being in such spaces to begin with (Coleman and McCahill 2012). Through this disassociation of technologies from social identities, we can understand violence as not only the antithesis of peace but also against freedom and the right to the city. In the same way that the gun is used to attack life and dignity, state technologies can produce violent dispossessions by ignoring the gendered dynamics of space and infrastructures.

The gaze of surveillance technologies

On February 6, 2023, the Women Democratic Front (WDF), a grassroots feminist resistance movement, organized a roadblock protest to demand justice for the F-9 Park rape incident. As a member of the organization, I was part of the organizing committee for the protest as well as a participating body in the public space. Scores of cisgendered and transgender women, along with men, gathered near one of the gates, raising banners, and shouting slogans to insist on women’s rights and freedom to access public parks without fear. It was dark by the time we ended our protest by marching as a group towards one of F-9 park’s main gates. Several women hung their dupattas on the wrought iron bars. [2] The dupatta holds great symbolic significance and is often cited as a marker of a woman’s morality and modesty (Magnier 2010). Therefore, hanging several dupattas in a wide variety of colors, prints, and sizes was to serve as a reminder to all those entering the park to remember the violence that was subjected on to the body of a woman for merely existing in public space.

Pieces of paper and dupattas of many colors hanging on a red metal gate.

The dupatta installation set up by protestors and organized by the WDF (Women Democratic Front) at F9 park. The protestors also attached handwritten notes demanding justice.
Picture credit: Women Democratic Front Social Media Team

The dupatta installation, in this capacity, was envisioned by WDF as an “eye” that was watching those who entered the park with malicious intent, and simultaneously a reminder to everyone at large about the violence that women of the country are constantly subjected to. Such installations can be poignant, given the 24-hour news cycle where victims of violent crimes simply become statistics and the next day the world moves on. However, shortly after the installation was set up, it was attacked and destroyed by ‘unknown individuals.’ This was heartbreaking for those who participated but also signaled something deeper—that only certain forms of surveillance were legitimate. It seemed that the display of dupattas as a form of resistance at the gate of the park was a bigger social threat than armed men walking into the park at night. The destruction of the installation is also poignant because this happened while the Safe City cameras were fully operational.

The design and development of technology itself is a series of political, social, and economic choices. Therefore, it is important to unpack the rationale behind those choices to reveal embedded inequality. Additionally, technologies created with a specific purpose at the beginning may take a completely different form during the process of use in a particular context (Sedeño 2021). To counter these exclusionary and oppressive regimes, digital surveillance technologies need to follow participatory processes (Shelton et. al 2021). This means including more women, transgender people, and working-class residents of the city in the design, implementation, and evaluation of these technologies and addressing the heteronormative, patriarchal assumptions that exist.

Mitchell (2003) suggests that public spaces, such as public parks, can be both emancipatory and exclusionary at the same time. Towards this end, it is imperative that we address the infrastructures and surveillance mechanisms that contour the possibilities of violence and freedom. After setting up the dupatta installation, the protest culminated in the participants singing at night in the park. As the sounds of resilience permeated the space where a few days ago there was only despair, I was particularly awestruck by a fellow political organizer’s singing of Habib Jalib’s poem titled “Zulm Rahay aur Aman bhi ho” (Can oppression and peace exist side by side?).[3] To see so many women singing these words in the park, after dark, was an unprecedented experience in my more-than-three decades of living in Islamabad. When we turn the gaze towards each other, we can truly begin to recognize that social solidarity and collective action has to join any infrastructures that we design.


[1]  In Urdu, purdah literally means curtain. Figuratively, it is used to refer to a woman who has her head or face covered and it also refers to the concept of keeping women from interacting with strange men.

[2] A dupatta is a loose fabric, much like a stole or shawl, that women wear.

[3] Habib Jalib was a renowned progressive Urdu poet from Pakistan. He is still revered today for his hard-hitting criticism of military dictatorships and class inequality throughout Pakistan’s history. In this poem he talks about how the state cannot expect peace in society until the day that every segment of society is emancipated and despite all forms of coercion, he will continue to raise his voice for those who are silenced.


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Chaudhry, Asif. 2023. “Transgender anchor survives gun attack” Dawn. 24 February 2023. https://www.dawn.com/news/1738828

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Qarar, Shakeel. 2023. “Islamabad police issue sketch of F9 park rapist” Dawn. 5 February 2023. https://www.dawn.com/news/1735458

Sarwari, Aisha. “F9 park rape: If you’re a woman out for a walk you’re asking for it” Dawn Prism. 7 February 2023. https://www.dawn.com/news/1735797

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