Feminist photographer and PhD Scholar Sanjukta Basu conducted a Gender and Public Space project in 2017 by traveling to five Indian cities to document how Indian women access these public spaces. Public parks were rarely visited by women in Delhi and Hyderabad, with women accessing these spaces in Hyderabad if they were smaller and all parts of the park were visible. Basu noted that class, caste, and socio-economic backgrounds influenced women’s use of public spaces. Only women from higher income families in Hyderabad supported the idea of parks with ticket prices to ensure better security and maintenance.
“Councillor introduces motion for Glasgow to be first city in UK with feminist town planning approach.” – The Scotsman, October 21, 2022
This recent headline caught attention of many people. The motion stated that it is ““fundamental that women are central to all aspects of planning, public realm design, policy development and budgets” to ensure public spaces are safe and inclusive for women.”
Kristen Day, an architecture researcher from New York University, has investigated the feminist approach to urban design, where women’s experiences in public spaces are heavily shaped by their gender. Her chapter on feminism and urban design describes the following findings:
- Women’s personal spaces are more likely to be invaded than men, with people standing closer to them and women are more likely to make way for others than men.
- Women are more likely to be touched in public than men.
- Women find crowding less stressful than men, especially if there is no groping or sexual harassment
- Women do have constraints in the public sphere, but they also enjoy and move freely in many cases
The goal of inclusive urban design is to create accessible, diverse, and open public places. For women, such spaces should provide “perceived and actual safety” and “facilitate their multiple roles of completing work tasks, household responsibilities and entertaining or caregiving for children”.
Transportation for women is also a challenge, especially if the public transportation is not reliable. Women’s commute is described as more complex than men due to their paid and unpaid work, involving commute to work plus other caregiving work, including dropping children to their school. Kern describes multiple challenges of moving around in a western and developed world capital, London as a pregnant woman and the hurdles women in general face during their commutes even with a well-connected public transport system. There are also major socio-economic differences between women that impacts their experiences in the public sphere, with women of higher socio-economic status able to bypass the unsafe environments.
India has its own unique challenges in terms of women in the public spaces. Almost every woman who has grown up in India is warned of not staying out for long and especially not after dark. Sometimes women pretend to be engaged in a phone call for safety reasons or avoid the “judgmental gaze”. You go out only if there is a purpose or work. Even after more than 10 years of the Nirbhaya case, Delhi continues to be unsafe for women.
To improve the poor India’s women labour force participation rate (LFP), World Resource India’s (WRI) Connect Karo 2021 conference emphasized the need to keep women at the centre of urban planning and policy decisions. Unsafe public spaces, lack of efficient public transport, access to jobs, availability of facilities such as toilets are the major concerns for women workers, especially in urban areas.
Girija Borker carried out a study in 2018 on the impact of perceived risk of street harassment on educational choices of women college students in Delhi using a random utility framework. Women were more willing to go to a lower quality college and spend more money in annual college tuition than men in order to commute to college by a safer route. This is believed to further impact their labour force participation rate after graduation.
Nithya V. Raman, an urban planner in Chennai, believes that two major biases of urban planners makes cities unsafe for women: 1. City streets planned and built for cars rather than people; and 2. Bias against street vendors. Creation of wider roads without pedestrians and street vendors makes streets unsafe for women. UN’s Sustainable Goals 5 and 11 emphasize gender equity and empowerment of women and girls and making cities and human settlements inclusive and safe by 2030. Mahadevia and Lathia describe the safe cities ideas for women to include their right to the city and public spaces within it, their right to mobility at any time of the day, to loiter without any threats of harassment or sexual violence.
Mahadevia and Lathia’s (2019) interviewed 100 women in Ahmedabad at the famous Sabarmati Waterfront and 52 of them reported experiencing harassment at least 3 to 4 times, even though they were always accompanied by family or friends. The main causes of harassment were identified as male-dominated spaces or fewer people or vendors around. The place, where the maximum amount of harassment occurred had poorer maintenance and reduced visibility.
They also concluded the following aspects about built environment and women safety in public spaces:
- Properly lit spaces are essential for women safety with most women using well-lit spaces and routes while commuting for work or otherwise.
- Quality of public spaces matters as poorly maintained spaces like broken sidewalks, streetlights blocked by trees generate fear of violence or accidents.
- Three major concerns for women in public spaces are: to see and to be seen, to hear and be heard, and to get away and get help.
- Groups like “middle-aged people”, “older adults”, “women and families”, “familiar vendors and shopkeepers” make women feel more secure according to Jagori (2010)’s research.
- Spaces that are well-patrolled, with formal or informal surveillance, and close to police stations make women feel safer.
- Male-dominated spaces in India include cigarette shops, dhabas (roadside or highway food or tea stalls), liquor shops and deserted parks are perceived to be unsafe for women
Safetipin, an organisation that began in Delhi, uses crowdsourced data from women to develop maps of unsafe areas in cities like Delhi and Bhopal, and has expanded to 65 cities around the world, works with government and non-governmental partners to create safe and inclusive public spaces for women, even at night.
Movements like Why Loiter from women activists in Mumbai have thrown light on women’s right to public spaces. Girls at Dhaba is a feminist initiative that was started in multiple cities in Pakistan to highlight women’s access to public spaces. One of their narratives refers to not just safety but also a loss of respectability in the eyes of the society, family, and relatives for women who choose to move around freely in public spaces like men. Sadia Khateeb, one of founders of this initiative gives a detailed look in this piece of her experiences navigating public spaces since childhood.
The outsourced call centre industry in India disproportionately hires women in the information technology sector with night shifts that needed commuting at a time not common for them. Aparna Parikh interviewed women in call centers in Mumbai to examine how they navigated the nightscape and found that company transportation was a way to legitimize their presence in public spaces at night and give them respectability against the “bad women” narrative associated with women being outside at that time. They would leave right after their work and not socialize with their colleagues to avoid being labelled frivolous.
Women’s presence in public spaces are hampered by safety concerns as well as the society and families’ views of respectability and reputation. Shilpa Phadke emphasizes the point that there is a risk of violence and safety concerns for women as they can face domestic violence in their own homes. In an earlier study, Phadke found that women are more likely to be policed in homogenous neighbourhoods (same religious or caste communities) where their neighbours can see their departures and arrivals easily in both lower middle-income Mumbai chawls as well as upper-class South Mumbai neighbourhoods. This policing is related to future marital prospects of the women with the prevalent caste and community endogamy practice. .Phadke believes that the greater emphasis on women safety in public spaces is centred more around their honour and respectability, even though men face far more physical violence in public space but this non-sexual violence is deemed as more acceptable. According to this perspective, women should claim a right to this safety risk (which is prevalent in private sphere as well) along with other marginalized communities, while accessing public space rather than petition for safety alone.