How Do We Help Women Navigate Cities Designed by Men?

Women’s experience of cities is radically different from men as several factors affect their ability to move around freely.

The way that a woman walks on the pavement is markedly different from the way that men walk. In 2017, Kimberly Truong conducted a social experiment based on an everyday observation:

“But one little thing that stands out to me in everyday life is a situation that most of us have probably encountered: that moment when you’re walking towards someone in the street, and the split second in which you are presented with a number of options. You either a) do an awkward shuffle to see who should move, b) step aside so the other person can pass, or c) barrel forwards and assume that the other person will move.”

She found that men generally went with option “c” and expected women to move around them. Historically, public spaces have been the domain of men. Women are relatively new entrants, and have been staking their claim to male-dominated public spaces only in the last few hundred years or so. Men have built cities to their convenience, so when women began to navigate them they have to find or make space for themselves. “Women are allowed to venture out in public space, but not really own it,” Sanjukta Basu writes. Women are prevented from “owning” public spaces when their ability to move around is restricted by the lack of safe and affordable modes of transportation. This means that women are often unable to experience and access public spaces in the same way men do. As Shelly Tara writes,

“Women's access to the economic, social and cultural life of a city has always been constrained as she could never circulate freely. In addition, “because a woman’s spatial range is kept limited, she is often anxious about travelling alone to a new place or unknown areas even in her own city.”

Earlier this week, Arvind Kejriwal announced that rides on the Delhi Metro and the Delhi Transport Corporation buses would be free for women. In the days since then, several news organisations have reported that women have welcomed the move as an empowering one because of the number of advantages it will give them. For some women who have always had to walk to their places of work because they did not have enough money to buy tickets, it will mean access to transportation and a safer commute. For other women, free public transport might mean that will be able to save money. The hope is that this move will encourage more women out of their homes, which will make the public spaces safer for them.

However, Kejriwal’s announcement also attracted some backlash. Some complained of preferential treatment, while others shared their misgivings about the financial loss the Delhi Metro will suffer. Kejriwal himself is not yet certain about the specifics of this policy but he has promised to implement it within the next three months. In the meantime, the women who will benefit the most from this move seem to be excited.

This reading list helps to understand why women’s mobility is an essential prerequisite for their independence and empowerment.

1) Restrictive Architecture of Cities

Cities provide people with several opportunities for social mobility. They should, therefore, provide residents with the right to live, move around and work with dignity and safety. But very few Indian cities are designed in this manner, particularly for women. Urban spaces do provide women, and especially migrant women, with anonymity, which allows them to escape the patriarchal holds of family and community. While technically, this gives them more freedom, their ability to engage with the urban space is severely limited by the experience of gendered violence. Kalpana Viswanath and Surabhi Tandon Mehrotra tried to understand the gendered nature of access to public spaces and its effect on women’s mobility. Through a study of “safety audits” conducted in Delhi which is notoriously unsafe for women, they explored the different ways in which men and women view and access public spaces.

We observed that safety, or the lack of it, has concrete consequences on the lives of people. For instance, we found that harassment of girls in their neighbourhoods, on the way to the school, and in buses leads to their dropping out of school. The ramification of safety here is not just a feeling of fear but can be viewed as an irrevocable material consequence on the lives of these girls.9 The infrastructure issues, as have been noted in other studies on women’s safety, curtail the movement of women in the city, their work and their education – their complete participation in city life [Andrew 2000; Moser 2004; Whitzman 2002b].

2) Freedom to Behave How You Want

Transport policies have not yet managed to fully integrate gender as a concern that needs to be addressed innovatively, which has naturally affected women’s mobility, especially in urban spaces where financial independence is dependent on the ability to commute safely. Cultural influences on public spaces need to be accounted for when formulating policy. Public spaces for women have traditionally been intermediate space—a space between two private spaces which she is expected to travel through, but not fully inhabit. How a woman negotiates public spaces relies heavily on the cultural expectations that her society places on her, such as how she dresses, walks and talks. In the absence of safe forms of transportation, women are more likely to conform to these restrictions on their freedom of body language. However, when the ladies compartment was introduced in the Delhi Metro in 2010, it gave women a private space within the public sphere, as Shelly Tara wrote.

The ladies coach provides a private space for women. Apart from the safety aspect, women’s physical interaction with men is almost absent during travel in the metro … Inside the ladies coach, the observations reinforce the sense of space and freedom among women in many ways. A group of women is often found to be sitting on the floor of the train and chatting with each other. They feel less conscious in the ladies coach than in the other coaches with men. Women passengers reported that they can talk, sit, and laugh without being conscious of the male presence. The studies on women’s access to public space attach the discourse of respectability with their presence in public space. In this discourse women moderate their behaviour in public to avoid being labelled as unrespectable. This moderation involves tone, volume of voice along with body language. These body politics have been discussed in detail in the studies on social construction of gender.

3) Freedom from Dependencies

For most Indian women, access to safe and affordable public transportation can mean a lack of dependence on families. Similarly, families are more likely to allow women into public spaces if they are able to navigate the city independently and safely. If a family member has to accompany women on her commute to school and work, it may be seen as an inconvenience or as a burden. In case of Delhi, the bus has been seen as an unsafe male-dominated space. The introduction of the metro has meant greater mobility and the ladies compartment presented the possibility of a safer commute for women travelling longer distances every day. Rashmi Sadana’s ethnographic study of women commuters on the Delhi metro found that greater mobility has the potential to change women’s relationship with cities.

A little over a year ago, Vanita, a college lecturer in her mid-50s, told me that riding the metro changed her relationship to the city and made her see herself differently. She said that not knowing how to drive and becoming dependent on a driver – first her husband and then a hired driver – framed her relationship with the city for over 30 years. The idea of going anywhere alone, without the driver, did not cross her mind. It only changed with the rude awakening and painful experience of her husband leaving her and taking the family car with him. She was lost at first, especially since she worked in Pitampura in the north-east of the city, and lived in south Delhi beyond the Outer Ring Road; and then a friend suggested she start taking the metro, even though it required her to take an auto rickshaw until Central Secretariat, almost half the distance. The commute did not make sense at one level, but she did it anyway. “The metro became part of my day-today”, she told me. “You have to walk fast, you can’t waddle along. You can get jostled a bit. But within several days, riding it made me a different person. It was a novelty, but it also took my mind off things.”

4) Reclaiming Public Space

How do we make a public space safe? When Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter? was conducting research, she was often asked why they chose to study Mumbai’s public spaces. It was because Mumbai was the safest city for women, but Khan argued that the safety did not exist in a vacuum. It was generated from the way the city developed historically, through several reform movements that brought more and more women out into the public sphere, and especially working-class women. When a larger number of women exist and inhabit public spaces, it encourages more women to do the same. A feeling of unspoken camaraderie often lends to a sense of security.

It was also partly aided by the presence of a large and visible women workforce across all classes, in blue-collar, white-collar, and informal jobs, and by the reliable public transportation system that encouraged women to commute long distances for education and work. Another contributory cause was that much of the city for much of the time escaped modernist planning and “zoning,” which meant workplaces were not always alienated from residential and entertainment areas (except in exclusive office districts like the Ballard Estate, Nariman Point, and lately, Bandra-Kurla Complex). This kept many areas of the city awake late into the night, which was a source of comfort and safety. The city welcomed people of all denominations and communities, and its labouring masses created a political and social consciousness that shaped a culture of civic-mindedness, collective action, and public accountability. This was where women found a foothold in the city and its public space gave them an opportunity to explore.


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