A Feminist Guide to Delhi

A space that is free from both violence and fear is how Kalpana Viswanath, co-founder of the women’s safety app Safetipin defines a safe city. There’s no definitive limit to what makes a space feminist or safe and the concept is constantly evolving – and expanding.

Of all Indian cities, Delhi has the worst reputation as a place for women. Women are conspicuously absent from most public spaces the minute the sun goes down. Curfews, both externally and internally enforced, shape most women’s lives. Even small things like public sanitation facilities and bus poles are often gendered – constant reminders that the city was designed keeping the urban male worker in mind. 

Navigating gendered public spaces can be draining for women. Credit: Youtube screenshot.

Yet, for generations, women have been carving out safe spaces for themselves.  Some by coincidence, others by design. While it is worth acknowledging that women have the “right to risk” – to enter and inhabit spaces that are exclusionary both by nature and by use,  often women just want the comfort of a space that welcomes them without having to fight for it. There are times when women just want a lack of hostility and judgment.

Keeping all this in mind, we are compiling a list of spaces in Delhi that are safe and conducive to female participation.

Is this an exhaustive list? Not at all. It is worth noting that a lot of these spaces are only accessible to urban middle-upper class women who can afford entry or, indeed, know of their existence.

Is it a prescriptive list? No. Many women have taken it upon themselves to occupy public spaces around several cities regardless of whether they appear safe or not. Girls at Dhabas, which originated in Pakistan, is one such initiative that encourages women to take up spaces traditionally reserved for men. The Why Loiter campaign, started in Mumbai, is India’s version of the same phenomenon. 

Women reclaim traditionally masculinised public spaces like dhabas. Credit: Instagram/ @girlsatdhabas.

Yet this is a necessary list to start a conversation around how to make Delhi a safer, more inclusive and accessible city for a section that has had little to no stake in its development in the past. 

Gardens: As women across the country come to terms with the victories and stresses of the MeToo movement, some women have been organising weekend morning meet ups at the city’s favourite Lodhi Gardens. It’s an easy way for women to lay claim to public space and do so without having to pay a hefty premium for it either.

Campus: When we asked our Instagram followers to share their safe spaces in Delhi, the most popular answer was “campus”. Delhi University’s north and south campuses offer students some respite from the battles they fight everywhere else in the city. A special shoutout to Jawaharlal Nehru University here, whose large wooded residential campus is a boon for students. Sharika Parmar, an alum, told us that she loved the freedom of walking back to her hostel from the library at 1am without having to worry. When was the last time you strolled aimlessly without accounting for every inch of your surroundings?

Markets and streets: Viswanath’s research with Jagori reveals that spaces with eyes on the road, are, by virtue of their “natural surveillance,” safest for women. Markets where plenty of hawkers are juxtaposed with roadside shops, mochis and paanwalas tend to create natural reassurance for women. Lighting is an important factor too. Well lit markets – Connaught Place, Sarojini Nagar, even the gullies of old Delhi – are often safer for women, especially in the late evening.

Both Viswanath and Instagram user tarangmeows see India Gate as a particularly safe space in Delhi since it is always bustling with activity and tends to be inclusive across age and gender. It’s great for sunrises, sunsets and late night ice cream.

Female-only spaces: While we need our urban planners to create more inclusive spaces, in a city that’s already skewed towards men, female-only spaces offer some much-needed respite.

The Delhi metro’s women’s compartment is a well-loved institution for thousands of Delhi women. It frees them of the constant nagging fear of  harassment and assault while also granting them the independence of travelling without a male chaperone.

Other spaces like cafes have started cashing in on upwardly mobile women with disposable incomes too. For instance, East Delhi’s Star City Mall has pioneered Delhi’s first women’s only theka. Although it sells primarily expensive liquor, it still offers a welcome model for making alcohol consumption more acceptable for women. 

Shi Cafe in Haus Khaz Village sells itself as a space geared towards women; challenging the idea that only men can linger aimlessly for hours on end. Importantly, it also serves incredible waffles. 

However, we’re still on the lookout for thekas and other free public spaces that are welcoming to women regardless of their socio-economic status.

Oddbird theatre has built a reputation as a space for Delhi’s artists and performers to showcase their work. It holds a lot of events that allow young female artists to practice their craft.  

Promo from an event at Oddbird theatre titled “Loose Woman”. Credit: Instagram/ @oddbirdtheatre.

India Habitat Centre and India International Centre are known to host book launches and film screenings with a feminist slant, many of which are free.

Instagram user bablu.escobar suggested Mayday Bookstore and Cafe in Shadipur as a great place for young activists in Delhi to meet and learn. The only leftist bookstore in India, featuring a carefully curated catalogue of books and events on global feminism, this one is on our list as well.

Zubaan Publishing House is a feminist publishing house run out of Shahpur Jat. Although their office isn’t much to behold, it’s worth following their  website and social media to check out the books they have published – all of which have some relationship to South Asia and womanhood.

Which brings us to non-physical spaces.

Online spaces: Feminism in India has a crowdsourced list of campus social justice groups that young feminists can get involved with.

‘The Crowdsourced List of Gynaecologists We Can Trust’ is an exhaustive list of non-judgmental gynaecologists around Delhi (and the rest of the country too) who won’t make women feel uncomfortable or out of place.

Instagram user tarangmeows noted that new media like Instagram often feel safer than physical spaces. She’s not alone, lots of Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts function as communities that offer users solidarity, counsel and support.

Safetipin is a useful app that maps areas in Delhi by their perceived level of safety, also offering useful information about police stations and pharmacies in the area.

Shaketosafety is an app to inform contacts when you feel like you’re in danger.

What can you do?

Credit: Instagram/ @girlsatdhabas.

Want to make Delhi safer for all women? Policy implementation is only one part of the process. Civic participation can go a long way in making the city more female-friendly.

Be inclusive: Women with privilege are not the only women who deserve safety. Make an effort to ask domestic workers and other women who work for you who might not have the same privileges whether they need anything to feel safer. Recognise that intersecting minorities are more vulnerable and introduce them to resources you know about that they may not. Better yet, use your privilege and resources to create more accessible safer spaces. 

Be proactive: Volunteer with one of the miscellany of feminist and women’s organisations around the city. Jagori, Sahaj, YP foundation, CREA, Haq are only some of the hundreds now operating in the women’s NGO sector. Blank Noise is a particularly important one that is reclaiming public spaces through its Meet to Sleep campaign.

Be supportive: Supporting businesses run by women and those that treat their female workers fairly. If you don’t know about the conditions in which your food or clothes are produced – ask. And then find ways to change things. By putting your money where your tweets are, you can enable women across intersections to become financially independent and more mobile, this bolstering women’s visibility in public spaces. The Future is Female Bakery is one such endeavour, hiring only female workers and providing them with amenities and benefits that ensure a safe space.