By Reza Shaker
In this blog, Reza Shaker discusses the research he did as a Fellow in the PUTSPACE Project. He is currently a PhD Candidate at the Faculty of Spatial Sciences, University of Groningen, Netherlands.
Public transport is filled with intense encounters. There bodies with different race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, age, class, ability, appearance, size, culture, religion, and citizenship come across each other within limited (im)mobile spaces. It is within these shared public spaces that multiculturalism is lived and experienced. Buses and trams (as well as their stations) are key sites for the negotiation of difference. It is within these (im)mobile spaces that strangers, on previously unrelated trajectories, come together, highlighting the inevitable challenge of negotiating multiplicity. Public transport is a space of encounter where difference, as part of everyday social routines, is lived, experienced, negotiated.
The meaning of an encounter comes from the society, culture, politics, and histories within which each passenger is embodied and embedded. Encounters within public mobility spaces are not merely sensorial and corporal (based on smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight) but loaded with emotions and affects, histories, tension and anxiety, cross-cultural discomfort, and racist intolerance. Spaces of public transportation have been the sphere of power struggles, racial and class tensions, and replication of boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ through which familiarity and difference are (re)established and maintained.
In this blog, I touch upon what happens when passengers from a minority group, particularly Muslims, are waiting for a bus, train, tram, and metro. How do they experience waiting? What tensions do these everyday encounters generate? What are the cultural, social, and political relations activated? The primary objective of the blog is thus to provide an understanding of how passengers from minority backgrounds experience waiting for public transport as part of their everyday life. Between January 2019 and March 2021, in Amsterdam and Tallinn, I was engaged in investigating how young Muslims experience everyday urban life including on public transport. This blog touches upon one particular segment of their daily lives: waiting for the carriage.
For all the participants, spaces of public transit stations have been a stage of social drama, exclusion, discrimination, and racialisation; spaces where intercultural encounters fail, the threshold of tolerance is crossed, bodies are read and judged based on race, beard, veil, dress, gender, age, size, language, and the objects they carry. For the participants, especially women, some of the most problematic and challenging interactions they experienced occurred while waiting at a bus or tram stop. Both transit vehicles and stops are places where religious minorities are highly visible. This visibility can increase their vulnerability while also decreasing their accessibility. Some participants argued that their visibility in and around public transport stations increase tensions. Such encounters makes the normal, everyday space of a bus or tram stop a dangerous space.
The most occurring experience is the weird, lengthy, bitter, judgemental looks. The interviewees stated that they have to deal with frequent, long looks which suggest feelings such as being judged or unwelcome. As Salma in Tallinn says, “Seeing a woman of another colour with a different dressing makes them look at me and some even stare [which make me] feel uncomfortable because of the judgemental looks and silent stares.” These looks can be read as informal negative sanctions, attempts to discipline and regulate the perceived deviant behaviour of Muslims. These looks expect conformity and perform as a method of surveillance and control. Thus, there is a tone to the visual which informs the gazer’s intention. As Salma felt, the gaze is never neutral but charged in a way that makes her uncomfortable.
Encounters on the move never take place in a vacuum; they are politically, pedagogically, historically, spatially, and emotionally charged with material conditions and power. In one way or another, most of the participants have been subjected to comments from their fellow passengers. As examples, they mentioned utterances such as “Jesus is going to burn you in hell,” “crappy foreigners,” “go back to your country,” or “Muslims are terrorists”. By reproducing the religious Other, the ethnonational Other, and the dangerous Other respectively, these utterances demarcate boundaries and redefine the bodies of Muslim passengers as a body out of place.
Sometimes, however, the threshold of tolerance is crossed even further and the encounter becomes physical aggression. The participants told several anecdotes of being assaulted. For example, Mona in Tallinn said that: “I know a Russian-Estonian lady [who] wears a black abaya and face cover [niqab]. She was going with other sisters who were not wearing the hijab. They were waiting at a bus stop and then a guy punched her in the face.”
Some respondents specifically noted anxieties and mentioned their safety whilst waiting for the transport carriage. The highly visible nature of waiting for public transit increases vulnerability and visibility which in return demands hyper-vigilance when entering such spaces. Nour in Amsterdam stated that: “When I’m on a train platform, I always take 2-3 steps backwards and I won’t wait right before the line because you never know what may happen and [there are] some crazy people. The reason I do this is because of the stories you hear from other countries where people have been pushed over the platforms because of their faith.”
These anxieties and fears around public transport stations not only limit the mobility of Muslim passengers but also teach them how to perceive and engage with public spaces of urban transit. Muslim people move through these spaces with the knowledge that their racialised body is associated with risk and insecurity. This challenges their sense of national belonging, cultural citizenship, sense of belonging in public space, and access to and movement through their cities.
In public transport stations where movement is paused, slowed, or stopped, negative encounters happen often. In return, the need for hyper-vigilance whilst waiting for the transit is important. These notes illustrate that for the participants moments of waiting and quiescence demand extra self-awareness, an awareness of one’s own body in space. This is what Hage (2009: 138) calls the politics of waiting: “a politics around who is to wait. There is a politics around what waiting entails. And there is a politics around how to wait and how to organise waiting into a social system.” Thus, stillness and waiting have the potential to “certain features of a social process that might have been foreshadowed by others or entirely hidden” (Hage 2009: 4).
The encounters in transport stations go beyond passenger-passenger interactions. Participants gave several accounts of discriminatory behaviour by drivers. Sara in Amsterdam, for instance, said that “the driver saw me at the bus station; he looked at me and was like ‘no, I’m not stopping for you.’ I ended up being late at work.” Such accounts are examples of discriminatory behaviour by public transit crew. Although they do not contain any anti-Muslim terms, poor or no-service provisions can also be seen as racial or religious profiling, forms of discrimination, and the exercise of power. These accounts are embodiements of discourses of xenophobia, migration, and terrorism; forms of social sanctions through which everyday (anti-Muslim) racism is enacted via avoidance.
In this blog, I approached a segment of the everyday life of Muslim communities in Europe: waiting for public transport. As one of the few public places where people of different socio-economic, ethno-racial, and religio-cultural backgrounds encounter each other in an intense manner, public transport is a site of (re)construction and replication of multicultural (in)civility. Processes of racialisation are (re)practised within the immobile urban spaces of public transport through which the Muslim Other is (re)produced with ongoing negotiation over space, proximity, and distance, involving the whole series of embodied registers (sensorial, corporeal, and affective) and processes of inclusion and exclusion, likeness and difference.