In the very act of choosing to step outside your house, you begin a complex negotiation with space. This ‘space’ does not refer to mere passive surroundings which frame events and our actions. This space is an agent. It participates in the creation and perpetuation of social structures and norms. It is demarcated across along the lines of class and religion. Further, men and women share a differential relationship with this space.
Ranade (2007) writes about two studies conducted by Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR) that explore the relationship between gender and public space. Here, public space refers to anything outside the home ranging from parks and shops to the libraries and streets. The first study explored how men and women perceive themselves in and negotiate space in their daily lives. It was conducted across four locations in Mumbai and traced the daily movement of individuals for a specific period of time and juxtaposed the patterns generated on a geographical map of the respective areas. For women, accessing public space or the exit from domestic space was a means to a purposeful end such as buying groceries or dropping the children to school. However, men could be outside their homes without having a definite goal or for meeting friends and in some cases, even sleeping at night. The study found that while accessing public space could be an end in itself for men, the same was not possible for women.
In another study conducted by PUKAR, individuals were asked to imagine men and women in a public space and state their possible activities in that space. Over four hundred participants across ten locations in Mumbai participated. While women were located by the participants in specific locations and their paths were always clear, men were located almost everywhere. Notably, the men were rarely located within homes. The placement of men and women in different locations did not vary with hypothetical ages provided to the participants. For instance, when asked to place boys and girls in playgrounds, boys were placed everywhere while girls were located in enclosed spaces and in smaller groups. Further, adolescent boys were located across a larger territory while girls were placed nearer homes. Discussions with the participants based on the observations revealed a perceived relationship between a woman’s pattern of movement in the city and her perceived character traits. A woman at a street corner (where she may not have a definite purpose) was described as “loose”, “available”, and even provocative by the participants.
The relationship between gender and space gets more complicated when religion comes into play. For example, there is little spatial mobility for Muslim women in Mumbai due to contextual factors. Khan (2007) writes about the “ghettoisation” of the Muslims in Mumbai. Post the communal riots of 1993, the social geography of the city underwent major changes and it led to the physical separation of Muslims from the mainstream community. Increasingly, Muslims were relegated to “mohallas” or Muslim ghettos, not as much out of choice as out of the inability to access resources despite similar socio-economic backgrounds as their counterparts from other religions. By interviewing Muslim women across Mumbai, Khan explores the impact this exclusion has on women’s spatial mobility. While mohallas or districts with a homogenous population might create an impression of greater physical security, it facilitates greater policing of all its residents – particularly women. After the riots, the Muslims were further pushed into specific localities and this further inhibited women’s mobility: Girls were prohibited from pursuing “inappropriate” jobs i.e. jobs that required long or irregular work hours, movement outside the community, and contact with men. This, then, had larger implications in terms of education and health.
Women’s mobility is thus the most affected because notions of mobility and respectability are inter-linked with reference to them. “Respectable” women do not loiter on the streets, walk through dark alleys, sit in circles near shops at night or sit in a park with no specific aim. Through establishing themselves as respectable, they attempt to ensure their safety. This is thus reflected in the professions women choose or have to choose. Khan mentions women who wanted to pursue advertisement and journalism had to quit their professions and teach instead. Professions in the fields of media and tourism demand erratic work hours and constant interaction with people from diverse backgrounds. It is not a coincidence that the travel industry is dominated by men. For example, Delhi-based Intrepid Travel has 59 male tour guides and 11 female guides. Traversing space, particularly with men, is seen as a departure from the norms of respectability that are defined for women. However, professions such as that of a school teacher are far more socially acceptable as they conform to pre-defined norms of respectability for women. This is because these professions are restricted to a delineated space and primarily involve interactions with other women and children.
Public space is capable of reproducing hegemonic ideas. However, it also has the potential to counter hegemonic culture and democratise access. And this potential is being realized in recent times. For example, the #MeetToSleep project by Blank Noise aims to create a relationship between women and public spaces that stems from a sense of belonging and not fear. Hundreds of women from Bangalore, Mumbai, Goa, Pune, New-Delhi, Hyderabad, and Vadodara gathered in the parks of their respective cities and slept there in the afternoon. Another campaign, I Will Go Out, started off online. It gained momentum and in January 2017, women and members from marginalised sections of the society from across the country marched on the streets just as the sun set. These movements sought to reclaim public spaces and were a result of women rebelling against safety concerns that prevented them from accessing the public spaces.
Democracy and access to resources should ideally go together but ironically access is monopolised by the benefactors of existing power structures, who in this case are proponents of patriarchy and misogyny. Reclaiming public spaces is a step towards challenging these structures and co-creating a more democratic, accessible city.