Before the second wave of the pandemic hit us, I had requested for an at-home salon service from a hyperlocal platform on a weekend afternoon. However, a few hours before the scheduled time, Seema, the assigned professional called to ask if she could come right away. Since I had nothing better to do, I agreed.
Seema arrived a few minutes later with a big bag full of beauty products and equipment.
“I was in the neighbourhood, and thought if I could come, otherwise, I would have had to go back to the railway station and wait,” Seema explained apologetically, forcing me to think, “Where do women working in the gig economy or informal economy wait, rest or even pee? To change their sanitary pads or nurse their babies?”
Seema is a beautician with over 12 years of experience. She worked for a salon in the early years of her career and switched to the hyperlocal platform as it gave her the flexibility to work and also take care of her two children. Seema lives in Nalasopara – a town on the northern edge of Mumbai – two hours away from Khar, where I am currently stationed.
Just like many working-class professionals who have been pushed to the margins of the city due to a lack of affordable housing options and sky rocketing rentals, Seema has been subjecting herself to the back-breaking commute for the last five years. However, she is not recognised as a stakeholder when planning and upgradation schemes – from city scale to neighbourhood level – are rolled out by architects, planners, local authorities along with the residents. She remains an abstract entity used only on renderings to highlight ‘diversity’.
Even though both the genders of the working class don’t find representation when planning and infrastructural decisions are made, I would like to focus on the impact they have on working class women mostly belonging to marginalised castes and communities because of the patriarchal nature of the society that builds additional hurdles for them. I would also not like to include women like me –English speaking, privileged middle and upper caste and class women with well-paying jobs – within the notion of working class women. That’s because I can easily access private infrastructure in a way a woman delivering my meals or a woman selling vegetables on the street cannot.
The lack of gender sensitive planning and infrastructure in our cities stems from a very limited understanding of what it means to navigate and occupy a city as a woman. Most of the discourse is limited to women’s ‘safety’, which is now slowly turning into surveillance with more and more Indian states planning to install CCTV cameras. Although the cameras might provide some sense of security to women, they practically do nothing to elevate or ease her experience of accessing a particular part of a city.
For example, when I asked Ruksana, the local vegetable seller on my street, about why she chose the spot she currently occupies, she said that she stood there as there was shade from the nearby tree, and the area was busy throughout the day because of the shops in the front. More so, the people living in the apartment close by had not objected.
However, according to the textbook definition of urban planning, Ruksana is technically an encroacher as she occupies a two metres long pitch on the footpath and often gets into trouble with the municipal authorities who routinely fine her for encroaching on ‘public space’, which can otherwise be used for other activities like parking.
There is no public toilet – neither on the street, nor within a two-kilometre radius – for Ruksana during her work hours, which start at 7 am and end late in the night. “I don’t go to the toilet during the day. And if there is an emergency, I go back home,” she said. Ruksana is a menstruating woman, but I wasn’t able to ask how she manages work during her periods. I asked her what kind of public infrastructure would ease her experience.
She thought for some time and said, “I just don’t want to be troubled by authority and give my hard-earned money away as fines.” Such is the experience of a working class woman in our cities.
Planning and infrastructure decisions are informed by the perceived understanding of the role of a woman in a city, which is often relegated to being in constant motion from one point to another while performing various tasks. That is why places like railways stations and bus terminals are better equipped with seating infrastructure, toilets, and waiting rooms because they have slowly started to recognise the multiple needs of women travellers. Why Loiter? – a pathbreaking book written by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade on exclusions and negotiations that women from different classes and communities encounter in the nation’s urban public spaces – brilliantly makes the case for loitering, which is defined as the act of occupying and existing in a public space without purpose.
Why Loiter? was published ten years ago, and I remember forming a ‘loiter’ club with a couple of friends where we would go and sit in spaces mostly occupied by men who first got uncomfortable but then got used to us. We too soon got bored of this ‘radical’ act as no other women joined us.
However, this exercise of loitering was also a lesson in understanding intersectionality. As urban english speaking women, we were drawn to the act of loitering because we were able to make ourselves seen and heard in other spaces we occupy. Women like Ruksana and Seema, who battle hostile authorities and a non-negligent public infrastructure for their basic right to work and yet continue to occupy our cities, the act of loitering remains unattained and distant.
As part of BJP’s manifesto for West Bengal elections, home minister Amit Shah had promised the installation of CCTV cameras in all public areas. Arvind Kejriwal, the chief minister of Delhi, is already on a spree of installing a CCTV camera in every street and corner of the national capital. More state governments are following suit by aggressively pushing for surveillance in the name of providing safety to women. The Lucknow police has gone a step further by planning to introduce AI cameras to track women in distress.
This obsession with surveillance lays bare the patriarchal structure of urban policy and governance that is centred around the idea of ‘control’ and not ‘comfort’.
Women feel safer in the presence of other women. The prerequisite for making urban spaces safe for women should be to create conditions of comfort for women who spend most of the time outside and depend highly on public infrastructure for their livelihoods, healthcare, transportation and even leisure. These women aren’t just commuting from one point to the other but are living a large chunk of their lives on streets and other public spaces, and do not have the luxury of retreating into their private spaces to safeguard themselves from hostility and apathy they face outside.
Public infrastructure needs to be planned and implemented with the aim of improving the experiences of women like Ruksana and Seema in a city. They need to be looked at as an asset in the goal of creating women-friendly cities. If one woman steps out of her house feeling confident and comfortable in a city – without feeling compelled to rush back home – she inspires and attracts several others, fostering a sorority that looks out for one another without having to worry about her own personal safety.
Are city planners listening?
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.
Featured image credit: Flickr/Nestor Lacle