How selfies help Indian women from Delhi’s outskirts claim their right to the city

Taking selfies and posting them on social media is often derided as a narcissistic, self-absorbed, and attention-seeking practice. Filters come in for particular disdain due to the role they play in reinforcing unattainable beauty standards, by making faces lighter, slimmer, and wider-eyed than is natural.

Yet feminist, minority, and queer activists have argued selfies can be a way for people to represent and take pride in their identity, sexuality, and gender orientation. And recently, my own experiences researching gender, smart cities, and urban citizenship in India have led me to see the value of selfies in a new and surprising way.

As part of a recent research project, my team and I were interested in understanding the lives of young women living in slum resettlement colonies on the outskirts of Delhi’s sprawling metropolis. To that end, we created a WhatsApp group, and asked 11 women to send in diary entries of their daily experiences in the form of images, text, audio, or video as they travelled from their homes to the city over the course of six months.

Our participants turned out to be avid selfie takers. But there’s much more to this than a simple rendition of a millennial trend. Their selfies are digital, visual stories from the margins which capture their struggles and accomplishments as they step out from women’s traditional role in the home and navigate the largely male-dominated realm of the city.

Phones for fun and freedom

Getting a personal mobile phone is a significant event in the lives of these women. Families only permit the women to have their own phone after a series of difficult negotiations, as families are anxious the phones could lead to what families perceive as “transgressive” behavior, such as disobeying parents, breaking curfew, talking to men, or wearing Western clothes.

Our participants convinced their families that having a phone is essential for keeping safe and staying in touch, when they have to go into the city for “legitimate” reasons such as work or education.

Smart phones usually come at a price which their families cannot afford, so when women start working they often spend their first salary to get one of the cheaper Android devices and pay off the full cost in monthly installments. Data is affordable and connectivity can be instantaneous. Having a personal phone gives women the ability to leave the home and communicate with others away from the gaze of the family, so they see it as giving the gift of freedom.