Sleeping, strolling, being idle, casual everyday actions that are nothing remotely out of the ordinary, when it comes to public spaces are still a privilege of men, leading to new debates on gender equality. As women’s groups speak out on various issues, reclaiming public spaces too is at the forefront of their campaigns.
Some months ago, a group of women came together in Bangalore for an event ‘Meet to Sleep’, to assert that the activity of sleeping on parks needn’t be the sole right of men. “A lot of us are not even familiar with our cities, and don’t venture into several public spaces alone. We wish to change that,” says Jasmeen Patheja, the founder of Blank Noise, a project that aims at various ways of asserting women’s rights in tackling street abuse. “Even being idle in public spaces is something women do not do,” she says. Blank Noise’s activities involved simultaneously getting women in different cities, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Mumbai and several other towns, to come out on the streets and stand around idly, things that men do without qualms.
In a book, Why Loiter, written by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, they looked at women using varied public spaces and found that it has a correlation with certain aspects of design, class and society. Through experiments and research, they argue that good design can go a long way in making spaces inviting for women and discouraging situations where women get harassed. For example, they found that women often took longer routes that involved crowded areas rather than a short but lonely stretch.
They also found that it was more likely to find a woman sitting alone in an upmarket coffee shop with good lighting and glass windows, rather than at a roadside ‘cutting-chai’ shop.
In Chennai too, women using public spaces like parks, often confine their activities to just walking, which they do in spaces that they trust. A typical scene at a beach has couples, families, groups of friends and often single men but very rarely single women.
“A lot depends on the psychology of security. Being in a space that is open and where they can see what happens on all four sides makes people feel safer,” says Tripurasundari S, a Chennai-based architect and urban planner. “In Anna Nagar where I live, I see plenty of women using the Anna Nagar Tower Park even as early as 4.30 am with no fear. This is probably because of it being open on all sides, surrounded by residences and a school, giving an impression of safety,” she says. The area was planned with the intention of hiding from vision what are generally considered to be ‘unsafe pockets’, like slums and corner tea-shops with loiterers, she adds.
Many women are conscious of using spaces alone. Manaswita Dutta, a young professional who has also lived in the United States speaks about the difference she experienced in Indian cities. “I’ve never had to bother about going alone to places, like sitting in a park and reading a book, in the US. But here, there are often pointed stares. A lot needs to be changed both in attitudes and in planning. Some women are bold, and do not mind going to movies or restaurants alone, although they are a minority.”
Even as increasing crimes against women are being reported, awareness has also gone up and there are increasing voices by women to claim theirs. As for public spaces, it would need a mix of planning, monitoring and change in attitude to make it as much a woman’s as a man’s.