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  • Rajashree Ghosh

“Shaking it up” – thoughts on women in the public square

Photo credit: Deccan Herald


Spaces in cities provide significant opportunities for interactions between people, polity, history, the advantaged and the vulnerable. Contemporary academic narratives on gender and urban space especially in the west have illustrated that spaces impact women’s lives. Women and men experience and use urban space in different ways and have different priorities regarding access to housing, transport, water and sanitation.

This argument corresponds also to the public versus private debate in that the public urban spaces are very much the realm of the male. Women are relegated to private spaces and homes and stepping out of those domestic boundaries implies transgression because public spaces are fraught with dangers of gaze, violence and crime. And so, experiences of women seeking water for household needs means that they have to step out into the public arena to fulfill a domestic need.

Overall, urban and gender studies have provided a feminist critique of mainstream urban policy and planning and a gendered reorientation of key urban social, environmental and city-regional debates. Following which, studies have been organized around the rights of women in cities and the risks to their safety posed by inadequate infrastructure, services and poorly planned or managed urban spaces. Many international sanctions were developed to mitigate these very risks given that violence and insecurity limit poor women’s mobility and their participation in society.

Subsequent efforts were initiated to highlight women’s right to the city, developing sustainable cities that are inclusive of women’s rights are well documented. Policy makers are attentive to practical and strategic gender needs for expanding women’s empowerment. As an example, the UN Women’s Safe Cities Global Initiative is developing and implementing models to reduce and prevent sexual violence against women and girls in public spaces. These facts further reinforce the concern for safety and security for women in public places in cities. On the ground this translated to enhanced street lighting, traffic lights, widening of walkways for strollers and wheelchair and so on. Additional measures to develop “smart” options lay the grounds for enhanced use of technology to amplify the issue of safety. Citizen participation in the smart city move the world over has been limited. In effect, that the citizens who are involved in these methodologies of the smart city come from well educated, technology savvy groups, professionals and really from privileged socio-economic backgrounds. In an already established schism, women’s role in the digitized spaces have been fraught with issues of rights but also of access. While urban planning, it is said must be inclusive of all needs, resource poor, less developed countries leave gender issues out of the process.

Literature is available on women in public spaces where women slide in and out as “invisibly” as possible. Women engage with the city as anonymous beings as they step into public spaces. It may be liberating in limited ways but admittedly, sneaking in is not the same as staking a claim.

In another instance of claiming public space, street hawkers come to the mind. Street peddlers in India, for instance, either coopt with law enforcement and pay bribes so they can situate themselves in the “no-squatter zones” to sell their wares in major shopping arcades. Well established shops and businesses are wary of hawkers because it affects their sales in a negative way and mar the appearance of cleaner shopping place. In this instance hawkers who are mostly men, surreptitiously encroach on legitimate spaces and in effect by pass the established order. But the two instances of subversive acts are not similar – women sneaking in public spaces to fulfill daily chores and needs is an essential right. Hawking is primarily an economic activity and even though there are rights associated with livelihood, there is a sense of choice available. If not one space, there is another.

The dichotomy of public versus private falls through when we consider some of the events around the world with women leading gatherings in largely public and often historically erstwhile male dominated physical urban spaces.

In most cases, protests start with the imminent need to change power dynamics. Whether an incident is the spark or that a particular legal enactment propels it, rallies, sit-ins and sloganeering have all worked to raise public conscience and express dissonance that is palpable. Collective gatherings especially initiated by women have approached public urban spaces where they are visible and heard. While women’s protests do not need specific urban designs, some do have lasting impacts because of the particular location. For example, Tahrir Square in Cairo caught the attention of the world as the planned dissent played out with precision and in the end had a major impact on the world events.

Within the US, the women’s march is committed to dismantling systems of oppression through nonviolent resistance. In Boston for instance this march was organized at Boston Commons, in DC it was at Pennsylvania Avenue. Both these spaces are public and allow participants to express their ideas but also draw attention thereby increasing support for their cause.

Then again, the instance of women in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, India, offers a unique lens about an ongoing struggle for rights to equality and citizenship. More than two thousand women, majority Muslim, have been sitting out protesting the discriminating national register of citizens (NRC). The law, which came into effect on December 11, 2018 offers amnesty to non-Muslim immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Opponents of the bill say it is exclusionary and violates the secular principles of the constitution. The Indian constitution prohibits religious discrimination against its citizens, and guarantees all persons equality before the law and equal protection of the law. The reaction from the current political stalwarts reflect deeply seated patriarchy. Ministers and associates of the government in general have expressed anger at the audacity of Muslim women to be at a public space without men. In a speech a member of the government has given orders to shoot those at the sit in.

Despite the threat of violence and persistent abuse from the administration, the women’s interventions within the public space has in itself been a threat to the hegemonic patterns of knowledge and authority. Where this is a departure from established public/private discourse is that these women at Shaheen Bagh– with or without the veil have stepped out of their domestic/private spaces and are occupying a public space. This move destabilizes the perspective that religion obstructs women’s freedom and autonomy, and it also underscores the diversity and dynamics in the way women experience and use urban space. Shaheen Bagh, a nondescript neighborhood has now gained media attention from within India and abroad because of these women’s efforts to express their dissent. The space is delineated and appropriated for a systematic, structured peaceful dissent. The threats are many – radicals have presented themselves incognito to dismantle the effort by using violent means, authorities have issued concerns about children’s health being neglected (since mothers are involved in sit-ins) which reeks of patriarchy, police presence is to the maximum, but the protest has been through these tests and survived.

The concern with safety issues in public spaces for women needs to take cognizance of citizen perspectives. For safe cities initiatives and smart technologies to succeed, women’s interests in urban spatial restructuring and the consequent impact on urban spaces needs to cultivate a more inclusive process. Thus far they remain a top-down version of citizen participation. If inclusive city is to be achieved, which the global order needs and SDGs proclaim, then we need a radical shift in our thinking and action regarding urban experiences.

Women’s movements threaten the public versus private debate on a textual level but also repeal the authoritarian and often patriarchal belief systems where women are and must stay in their lanes. In effect the collective of women in public spaces contests both thought and action and opens up a conversation on the multiple contexts and dynamic uses of urban space.

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