Women Have Always Been Negotiating Cities Tailored For Men

Lata, our house help for more than 12 years, came home one day with a box of delicious kaju katli. After years of saving, she and her husband had finally purchased a latest edition motorcycle. “It was getting expensive for my husband to travel to the city every day. Now we can buy groceries, home essentials and medicines for my (paralysed) daughter, anytime,” said an overjoyed Lata.  

Where you study, where you live, where you work and where you buy your groceries from are all political decisions. Access and exposure always depend on mobility. Movement is thus distinctly political.

Over and above this, movement is also gendered. The choice of buying a motorcycle in Lata’s household is a reflection of who should commute. While the whole family rejoiced, its utility was most dependent on the husband. 

Census data shows that women’s most preferred choice of commute, after walking, is the bus. However, men prefer to use cycles and motorbikes as the most common mode of transport. Thus asset ownership among women is lower, making them dependent on public transport systems.

But here’s the catch, public transport is also a gendered space.

The word public derives its origin from the Greeks but was passed on by the Romans. While the greek word ‘polis’ means ‘city-state’ which was the public sphere at the time, ‘Oikos’ meant household (private) which generally consisted of slaves and women. This gave the citizens (male) freedom and leisure to engage with their public activities.

In Roman texts, ‘public’ derives its meaning from the latin word ‘poplicus’ which was influenced by the word ‘pubes’. This represented the adult male population. Hence, the public was historically male dominated and has ever since been designed for the ubiquity and pleasure of men.

This is why a man taking a stroll at midnight is unsuspicious while a woman is expected to have a definite reason to be out, especially in late hours. The underlying assumption is that if women have no purpose to be in the public space then they should return to the space that they inherited by the virtue of their gender, which is the domestic space.

So when my (female) friends and I decided to sit by Marine Drive at 4 in the morning because we wanted to see a sunrise, it seemed to suggest a rebellion of sorts. To encroach the space we lawfully deserve, geared with pepper spray and high quality determination, to watch the beauty of a morning sky unfold in its glory. 

Also read: Delhi Roads at Night

If you have ever travelled in a ladies compartment, you have observed and participated in a similar rebellion. How, you ask? A ladies compartment is a policy-backed infrastructure constructed to segregate gender to give safety and autonomy to women. The space accords unprecedented authority for women with significantly less autonomy at homes. Space in this context is both a physical setting and a product of a social environment.

Thus, it manufactures symbolic power which exists within the legal, protective realm in the middle of a public transit vehicle. This is power to own the space, sit and stand where you please, and most importantly, to reduce vigilance on clothes, heels and body posture.    

Transport infrastructure

“Engineers always focus on mobility related to employment,” says Criado-Perez in her book Invisible Women. Urbanisation is credited with reducing gender gaps by creating excess opportunities. However, due to geographic segregation and resultant geographic hierarchies, the gap only seems to widen.

Studies have shown that in Ahmedabad women from low income groups are often displaced to the peripherals due to municipal development projects. Resettlement of this kind forces women to drop out of the labour market because it is more expensive for them to travel and make the most of job vacancies in the city. 

The transit paths are designed to cater to men’s needs and their job destinations. However, women’s travel demands are not limited to commuting for work. They travel with multiple objectives and destinations in mind. This is also known as ‘trip chaining’. In Delhi, 52% women preferred walking and 42% took the bus. This could be linked to the types of journey they embark upon (i.e. local shopping trips and dropping children at schools). As primary caregivers at home, women are expected to undertake non-employment related trips which are unaccounted for while designing transit paths. 

Harassment and Unsafe Transit

According to data published by ‘Free To Be’, in Delhi 19% women felt unsafe on public transport while 37% felt unsafe on the city street. Women have reported how the presence of drunken men around bus stops creates an acute sense of insecurity and demands constant vigilance at odd hours.

Women’s predicament in public transport and their multiple encounters with harassment is not news. However, the increasing percentage points should alarm. 

Tanushree Paul writes about the time she came across a notice at Bandra station that read ‘two women’s toilets, two men’s toilets and twenty four men’s urinals’. Further, in the author’s experience, these pay-to-use toilets for women are shut down in the night, clearly indicating the exclusive rights of men to be in a public space after late hours. 

Women at a bus stop in New Delhi. Photo: Reuters/File

Low lit streets and bus stops, lack of access to sanitation and lack of gender sensitive training for conductors and bus drivers have directly affected the transport choices of women. 

The discourse around urban planning presents a de-contextualised framework of research which rewards infrastructural development as urban development. However, progressive legislators have begun questioning the gender justice implications of transport infrastructure choices. In Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party government has introduced free metro rides for women. As we learn from the nature of its beneficiaries, many women living in the peripherals stand to benefit from this policy change which makes education and employment accessible.

To combat harassment, the Kerala government organised an 80% women-dominant workforce for Kochi Metro which creates a more gender sensitive experience for female passengers. Moreover, construction of gender inclusive infrastructure like adequate number of breastfeeding pods and toilets ensure women’s well-being in public spaces. 

However, these policy decisions have not impacted women who occupy suburban and rural settings. Women are still forced to walk the walk of shame like Hester Prynne in the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel, every time they walk in a low lit narrow lane. However, at the cost of exhausting the metaphor, I will hark the determination of women across the country. The scarlet letter, an invisible shame that women are burdened to carry across in a man’s world, casts a magic spell. This leaves in us the determination to exist with the dignity women deserve and in the space which is lawfully, rightfully ours.

Sneha Elizabeth Koshy is a Teach for India fellow based in suburban Bengaluru.

Featured image credit: Reuters