Spaces are gendered. Spaces are based on class. Spaces are based on caste. Spaces call for heated debates on who dominates them. In India (as well in other countries across the world), spaces are largely structured in a way that makes some people feel marginalised and, simultaneously, some people feel emboldened.
Going back to the time when the world was dominated by agricultural and hunting-gathering tribes, we can say that men and women had almost equal access to the public spaces, even though there was a systematic division of labour. Since the industrial revolution and rise of capitalism, the division of labour has given rise to a public space that has been contested in terms of dominance and ease of access.
Historical division of public and private spaces based on gender
There is nothing new to the fact that historically, since the inception of the structured division of labour, women were confined to the boundaries of the household, while men were given access to the outside world. For women, the world was supposed to be all about being married into a heterosexual relationship, serving the sexual desires of their male partners, doing the household chores, and reproducing children, mainly males, to keep the line of descent alive. The men of the households were expected to go out, work and earn for their families. This is how, over the years, public spaces were gradually taken over by men, leaving little room for women.
Caste-based gendered public spaces
Since caste is an intrinsic factor that reigns over the Indian society, women’s access to public spaces has been largely based on this factor. Hence, for the women of non-dominant castes, the experience in public spaces have been different from the women belonging to the dominant castes. For the dominant castes, its has always been about preserving the “purity” of their women, which is practised by making them stay at home and adhering to numerous social norms. The ‘purdah system’ was a typical practice of the dominant castes, by virtue of which they claimed to be ‘protecting their women’ and keeping them away from getting ‘polluted’.
But, for women from the non-dominant castes, it was and is a different situation. They had no option but to leave their homes for work, mostly for people from the dominant castes. However, the Brahmanical assumption behind this is that Dalit women apparently did not have any “honour” to protect and they still faced the wrath of dominant caste men in public spaces due to their social status. They had to, on an everyday basis, deal with both sexism and casteism in public spaces.
Non-dominant caste women had no option but to leave their homes for work, mostly for people from the dominant castes.
Present day scenario and struggles of women in public spaces
Today, in most of the big Indian cities, it is common to see women gradually coming out of their homes and populating public spaces. However, this comes with numerous challenges as these spaces have been male-dominated for decades. It is still mainly men that are seen dominating these spaces, with women fighting to make room for themselves.
The most common public places of male dominance are the streets and the public vehicles. On the streets, one would mostly find men walking around openly and ‘loitering’, while women mostly stick to their regular routine of travel from home to the place of intention and vice versa. Moreover, it is a common sight that there are more men than women, out on the streets.
Women are required to break the taboo and fight for their rights to leave their homes. In the book called ‘Why Loiter’, Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade have described their experiences in terms of being outspoken travelling women across North India. They say that there are certain lines of control that must be followed by women, which goes back to the idea of distinguishing them between the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. Once the taboo is overcome, women have to further deal with the perils of harassment and objectification in public spaces.
In public vehicles, sexual harassment and a lack of physical, personal space for women becomes a pertinent problem. ‘Manspreading’ is a worldwide phenomenon that keeps women from being comfortable in public spaces, especially in public transport. Even if one gets off the roads, it is men that are most visible outside the boundaries of households, which is evident in the fact that there are far more men than women in offices, shops, marketplaces, warehouses and retail stores. This is because more men are employed in such places, apart from the consistent factor that men visit these public spaces more than women do.
There is such a lack of women in public spaces that our minds have been conditioned to even hear male voices in most places. Apparently, sports are only for men. Hence, it is the men who are hired for commenting on live matches. Also, it is the men’s matches that are aired and spoken about, often making society forget that women are doing the same, without being noticed and paid as much as sportsmen.
The fact that we place our community’s honour in our women’s vaginas speaks volumes about their freedom.
Cutting across caste and class borders, women’s requirement to ‘protect’ themselves, lest they should call for ‘unwanted attention’ or lose their ‘purity’ (in the case of dominant caste women) has been considered primary, in our society. The fact that we place our community’s honour in our women’s vaginas speaks volumes about their freedom. Drawing reference to this factor, very often we see public religious institutions barring women from entering certain structures and worshipping certain gods, especially when they are menstruating. The perfect example to look at is the recent Sabrimala controversy that had taken the country by storm, because of the fact that women were to be allowed inside the religious building, breaking an age-old taboo.
However, women in many larger cities are gradually breaking these barriers by going out and moving about in groups, ‘loitering’ around in public spaces ‘owned’ by men. This involves a potential danger and risk of being harassed by conformists. But these women are determined to break the taboos by drawing on feminist lines.
Women in Mumbai are attempting to leave their mark in the public spaces, by crowding near the tea stalls and other common hang-out spots in the city. More about this can be read in the “Gender and Space” project publication (based on which the book ‘Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets’ was written), conducted by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade.
In September 2018, in Russia, there was an incident reported, in which a female law student went on to combat manspreading in trains, by pouring bleach on the crotches of men who were seen doing the same. The activist has termed manspreading as a form of gender aggression. In the 21st century, we are gradually, however, seeing some positive change, and thus there is something to hope for!
Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade)