To Loiter or Not? – The Question of Women’s Access to Public Spaces

Gender and mobility are closely intertwined, though urban planners often forget to connect these dots and so create unequal cities through their physical infrastructure itself.

Historically, women have always been confined to the private sphere as the stereotype was that they were docile and needed protection. This was also a method to control them and restrict their movements.

For women to go outside then is more than just the act of moving out of the indoor spaces, it is about challenging the gender status-quo. Hence, the ability to expose themselves to a sphere which is outside the home and go into public spaces to attend a variety of activities on their own is an act of empowerment.

In her famous work A Wheel within a Wheel, American suffragette Frances Willard talks about the freedom she gets from riding a bicycle, and opines that mobility is primarily at the centre of feminism. The liberation that is achieved through spatial movement leads to a greater level of accomplishment, a soul-stirring sense of confidence, expanded horizons, aspirations and personal growth.

However, given the patriarchal shackles that we find ourselves bound by, the liberty of women to run wild while roaming outdoors seems to get crippled for the sake of upholding an upright moral character. A woman is often forced to abandon her love for outdoors and restrict herself to the indoor realm of household affairs.

The meaning of a ‘good’, ‘virtuous’ and ‘respectable’ girl is constantly shifting and being contested. These changes reflect the cultural progress over prescribed gender norms that requires us to keep re-defining certain behaviours. This also flows into creating or promoting an inclusive spatial movement.

Given that women’s activities in public spaces are often restricted, zoning separating land uses such as industrial, residential, commercial leads to antiquated gender roles that confine women to local private spaces.

Further, women are usually blamed for any unfortunate incidents that may occur if they fail to comply with the unwritten norms of the public spaces. Despite all the advancements in the field of science and technology, it is unfortunate that women’s safety is correlated to their confinement, whether spatially or temporally.

Looking at public toilets, it becomes obvious that they are mostly designed for men – rather than being accommodative of women’s specific needs as well. The underlying assumption may well be that fewer women go out and hence, the need is not at a substantial scale.

As Canadian professor and the first major communications theorist, Marshall McLuhan pointed out globalization is turning the world into a global village – it presents women in developing nations with massive opportunities and access to the outer world, potentially shifting bargaining power within their households and changing the choices that are made for subsequent generations.

Such an existing scenario can maybe explain the spectacular popularity of shopping malls in developing nations. On investigating beyond what appears to be a result of globalization and subsequent commercialization, malls also provide a closed confined public space for women. They often act as a source of respite for disadvantaged sections of society – like women – who are often excluded from urban public life.

Though physical barriers have always existed, it was the fear of potential unwanted interactions that limited women’s access to urban space.

The reality of the daily lives of women has not been recorded for urban planning processes. To bring about a positive and sustainable change, the question of power and male dominance needs to be examined more closely – this would require bringing together the perspectives of social sciences into planning.

Planners need to look beyond the functioning of transport infrastructure and into the complex hierarchies that inform the daily mobility options for women, especially in the developing world. There is a need to contextualize spatial movements as they are rooted in a patriarchal culture that segregates people based on their gender (and other aspects of their identity). This inequality often seeps into urban planning and affects the type of activities one engages in and the legitimization of such access.

A gendered understanding of spatial planning highlights issues of safety and security and ensures that the quality of places and spaces reflects everyone’s needs.

After all, the potential for true development can only be unlocked when the public space has been reclaimed, every individual stands liberated and has the power to decide for themselves – whether to loiter or not.

Debarati Bhattacharya is a doctoral student at Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT University), Ahmedabad.

Featured image credit: Reuters.