Where are the women?

An examination of gender and public space in India

American feminist icon Gloria Steinem, in her 2015 Christmas wishlist, said, “I’m glad we’ve begun to raise our daughters more like our sons — but it will never work until we raise our sons more like our daughters.”

To elaborate, centuries of women’s movements have secured for women, the right to vote, right to education, right to participate in workforce and several other rights that enable them to come out of their kitchens and claim equal citizenship in public life. However, we have not addressed the question ‘who legitimately owns the public domain’, and the gender-based segregation of spaces as public(masculine) and private(feminine) has not been challenged. We encouraged and enabled our girls to step out of the kitchen, but didn’t inform and motivate the boys to step in.

The home and kitchen is still considered women’s primary domain and the world outside, men's. Women are allowed to venture out in public space, but not really own it. As a result of this, young girls in Haryana continue to drop out because of the sexual harassment they face on their way to school, rape victims continue to be blamed for ‘inviting trouble’ for 'being outside' at a particular time.

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Women are allowed access to public space only for legitimate purposes, and are expected to walk the straight line between home to their place of purpose. Women do not have the right to purposelessly loiter. The urban women seemingly have a better access to public space, with millions of women participating in workforce, commuting daily using public transport or going about their economic activities etc. Yet, if we observe urban spaces deeply, we realise that women have very limited access to public spaces.

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In 2011, the seminal work Why Loiter? (Phadke, Ranade, Khan, 2011) attempted to bring a paradigm shift in how women could claim full citizenship. Based upon 3 years of research work the book argues that in order to maximise their access to public space, women do not need “greater surveillance or protectionism,” but rather “the right to engage in risk.” Only by claiming the “right to risk,” they argue, can women truly claim citizenship.

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This five-part photo series, that begins on Tuesday, attempts to build on the work above and document the urban woman’s experience of accessing public space through photographs in five major cities: Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru and Mumbai.

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Image courtesy: Rajiv Frederick

What is the ratio of women to men in a given open space? What activities are the women engaged in? What is their body language? Do women and men use the same space differently? Does women’s access to a public space depend on the time of the day? Does it vary according to caste, class and age of the woman? These are some of the questions this photo series will seek to answer.

The idea behind the series is not to provide anecdotal evidence for or against any hypothesis, but to trigger a thought in the audience’s mind; to inspire them to observe the public space around them more closely and find the answers themselves.

Follow what the author explored in the series:

Part 1: Delhi: It is the men who largely occupy open spaces in Connaught Place

Part 2: Mumbai: Gender imbalance is an issue even in safe public spaces

Part 3: Kolkata: Women are almost everywhere, but never on their own

Part 4: Chennai: High female workforce participation contributes to their effort of reclaiming public spaces

Part 5: Bengaluru: Of the two genders, only men loiter

 

Sanjukta Basu is a TED Fellow, Feminist Writer and Photographer. 

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