If an alien were to walk the public parks of any metropolitan city of India, it must think that everyone in the city is a young, abled heterogeneous man.
Public space is not gender neutral. This might seem strange to some people. However, this was one of the criticisms highlighted by western feminists in the 1970s as well. Urban planners ignored the needs of women in public spaces, making them exclusive, inaccessible and even dangerous for women. Unfortunately, not much has changed. Even today, public space is designed with the assumption that the primary beneficiary group who would access it, is going to be cisgendered, middle class and upper caste, young and healthy men. Gender continues to be neglected in theory and in practice of shaping the cities.
Ideally, public spaces should promote human contact and community involvement and reflect local culture. In reality, women do not feel welcomed in the public spaces. They are expected to access it for a few socially acceptable reasons such as education and employment. Even in cosmopolitan cities of India, women in public spaces are believed to be a rarity and as a result, they have very limited access to the public domain. They are viewed as mere commuters who travel from their homes to the desired destination.
Women are restricted from engaging in sauntering of any sort. Under the garb of love and safety, women are denied their right to be in the public domain. If we were to expand the definition of violence, the denial of equal opportunity to the public space is also a form of structural violence. Smart City Dive rightly pointed out, “the number of women that appear in the public realm, during the day and and especially at night, is an indicator of the health of a society and the safety and livability of a city. The more that the built environment is designed with women in mind, the more women will feel safe, welcome and comfortable using public space and the more livable a city will be for everyone.”
Women can claim their citizenship fully by claiming their right to access public space. Dr. Shilpa Phadke has explained this argument of making women in public spaces a norm further through the concept of equality of risk. This basically means that conditional safety is counterproductive. Neither does it reduce violence against women nor does it allow women to claim public space as their own.
What we need is the development of a general consensus over the fact that women in public spaces, along with other marginalised sections, are equal citizens and their right to be in the public domain as citizens should be safeguarded at every cost.
There are many types of hurdles that women in public spaces have to overcome. The first type of hurdle is societal restrictions, imposed on women to save them from stranger violence. These restrictions on women in public spaces include covering up adequately while going out, coming back home on time, not loitering around, and the list is unending. The rationale behind these restrictions is to protect women and confine them to safe spaces i.e. homes. However, according to a research, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime highlights that almost 6 out of 10 women are killed by their partner or family members. Closer home, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report of 2017, the victim knew the accused in 93.1% of the rape cases in the country. These statistics debunk the myth of women being safe at home as compared to women in public spaces, and the need to protect us from stranger violence.
The second type of hurdle is infrastructural in nature – design of public spaces. In simple words, women are disadvantaged by design. For example, research has shown that women take longer time to use washrooms as compared to men; and therefore, have to wait in longer queues to access washrooms. The reason why public space continues to be patriarchal is not just lack of female architects and designers but also a resistance to make public space inclusive of different social and economic backgrounds.
We need to create a culture of sisterhood which is possible only when women in public spaces decide to access the domain for one purpose i.e. leisure. The way a woman walks on a pavement is very different from the way a man walks. Men are less likely to move and make room for their female counterparts on a crowded pavement. To test this, Kimberly Truong in 2017 conducted a social experiment in which she decided to not move and expected the men to step aside. Unsurprisingly, she faced a lot of manslamming, a terminology used for men who continue to ignore the presence of other people, especially women around them. It stems out from their inherent belief that public domain is a man’s place.
This shows that women in public spaces are still not considered eligible to confidently access the domain as their own. Women’s participation in urban planning and the momentum of social media can help to create safer cities for women. For instance in 2017, when Varnika Kundu alleged in her Facebook post that she was stalked by two men, she faced massive trolling for stepping out at night and drinking with male friends. This initiated a widespread social media movement #AintNoCinderella where women posted selfies of their post-midnight outings. The movement aimed at conveying that women in public spaces have the right to access the city 24/7. The message that women’s status as a citizen doesn’t end at sunset should be made clear.
In the online public space, the culture of sisterhood can also be created by rejecting academic panels and discussions which do not have equitable women representation. Moreover, we should go one step ahead by being mindful of equitable representation in the panels organised by us.
To make public spaces more accessible, we need concrete plans along with social media campaigns. Sabina Riss, a lecturer at Vienna University of Technology, stated that men designed cities as if only men going to work and returning back home only occupied them. Therefore, policy makers should involve more female architects while planning the city. Moreover, the divide between academia and policy planning can be reduced by making academic research and data accessible and understandable.
The city of Vienna can be considered as the perfect example. A photography exhibition organized in the 1990s shed light on how women use the city. This inspired the establishment of the City Women’s office which carried out surveys on gendered usage of the city. Along with analysis of two sociologists, this motivated the government to increase street lighting, widen pavements, and improve pedestrian access.
Some people might think that women in public spaces and their access to the domain is a strange issue to discuss at a time when the whole world is confined to the four walls of their homes. However, people are ready to rebuild their society while learning to live with Covid-19. This makes this issue more relevant than ever, so that when we can go back to the public domain, we can go back to an inclusive public space which would also make it relatively safe for all the citizens.
Discussing about women in public spaces, the design of public domain putting women at disadvantage, Dr. Shilpa Phadke and Ananya Chhaochharia, the founder of Paint It Red, spoke in a podcast for The Bridge Project, where the authors work as research associates. You can listen to the episode here:
Navya Khanna is a student at Kamala Nehru College. She can be found on Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Prarthana Puthran is a student at Ramnarain Ruia Autonomous College. She can be found on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. Both work as Research Associates at The Bridge Project.
About The Bridge Project: Co-founded by alumni from IIT Delhi, St. Stephen’s College and South Asian University, The Bridge Project is an initiative set up by recent graduates to address the divide between academia and policy-making in the field of International Relations, Indian Foreign Policy, and public policy. The objective is to ‘bridge the gap’ between academia and policy in International Relations and Public policy by facilitating a dialogue between scholars and practitioners in the discipline. You can learn more about the project on Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.
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