Famously, Virginia Wolfe addressed the important issue of safety and innovation in space and the necessity of these spaces for women in her essay A Room of One’s Own. Though women have more agency as compared to the era Wolfe described, the instances of public discrimination faced are still as prominent today.
The culture of safe spaces for women first began to sprout in 1878, with the occurrence of the first recorded tea room (Strickland, 2019). The tea rooms became a significant part of history as they gave women the opportunity to work independently without dispute while maintaining their traditional feminine aura. This space also became hotspots for feminist discourse as tea rooms were one of the few places that women were allowed to gather unaccompanied by men (Brandimarte, 1995). The combination of these complemented by the prohibition on alcohol led women to use these spaces as public forums for seeking systematic change.
As most tea rooms closed towards the middle of the 20th century (Strickland, 2019), women were in need of public spaces again – often gravitating to bars and taverns. Unfortunately, until the latter half of the 20th century, women were not permitted to enter these spaces if unescorted by a man. The ban on women was rooted in the belief that women would prove as distractions to the men attempting to make business deals. Thus, if women did enter these spaces, they stood the chance of being arrested, even if they were not intoxicated (Cohen, 2019).
Tea rooms became hotspots for feminist discourse as tea rooms were one of the few places that women were allowed to gather unaccompanied by men.
Though these events are not common in spaces for casual interaction anymore, there are still many problem areas in other cultural sectors regarding gender discrimination. Across the world, each economy is fighting its own version of gender and safe spaces. The most recent occurrence in the USA would be public restrooms for gender non-conforming and trans citizens.
In India, the manifestation of public gender discrimination is long-standing. In a recent survey by the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology, it was observed that amongst the men and women, women feel unsafe and less obligated to public spaces than men. The use of public space for women does not venture into recreational activities but is intended to be purely for transit (Munshi, 2014).
In more recent times, the permissible entrance of women of menstrual age in places of worship has come into play. With the decision by the Indian Supreme Court on letting women of all ages enter the temple being rolled out, there has been a massive uproar on both ends of the argument. While many women fight for the right to equality and to utilize the public place of worship, many also side with the older laws quoting religion and morals as a cause for not entering such spaces willingly (UCA News).
The ban on women was rooted in the belief that women would prove as distractions to the men attempting to make business deals.
Though rare, many bars and places that serve alcohol, in India, still have local policies that dismiss single women from entering these spaces (Hindustan Times). Often these policies exist to ensure no illegal sexual transaction can take place. Unfortunately, on the many occasions these forms of public discrimination have been battled, forms of authority have sided with the establishments citing the safety of women.
Thomson Reuters has, in a recent poll, categorized India as the most unsafe country for women. The primary cause of concern for women is violence in public. Violence is also hunger, a lack of basic services and an unjust legal system. It is discrimination based on ethnicity, birthplace, religion, sexual orientation, caste, class and age. It would seem that despite the struggle to gain agency, women have been unable to establish public spaces as a right that they too are obligated to.
These spaces can be incorporated via a gendered perspective on urban planning and incorporating an inclusive view on gender, where all castes, classes and genders feel equally obligated to a public space. Current research and theory look at gender as a binary and excludes the non-binary gender identities and becomes a blind spot in modern day feminism and gender-focused urban planning.
Brandimarte, C. (1995). To Make the Whole World Homelike”: Gender, Space, and America’s Tea Room Movement. Retrieved from JSTOR
Cohen, S. (2019, March 20). No Unescorted Ladies Will Be Served. Retrieved from JSTOR Daily
Munshi, A. (2014, October 4). Gender and Use of Public Spaces. Retrieved from CEPT Portfolio
No Single Women Policy in Gurugram. (2018, Oct). Retrieved from Hindustan Times
Strickland, C. (2019, March 6). The Top Secret Feminist History of Tea Rooms. Retrieved from JSTOR Daily
Temple Dispute Sparks Gender Equality Debate In India. (n.d.). Retrieved from UCA News
Thomson and Reuters. (n.d.). Retrieved from 2018 Poll
Featured image used for representation purpose only. Image source: Destination Tea