Thursday, May 26th, 2022 14:03:58

Women Imagining The City

Updated: August 20, 2011 11:37 am

Being a woman in Delhi is often an intimidating, frightening, worrisome and, at the least, uncomfortable experience. Imagine being able to walk around the city freely, to find a comfortable and safe space to sit for a while, maybe eat lunch, a clean public toilet round the corner, a hassle-free bus ride back home. Doesn’t really sound like too much to ask for, does it? Yet, it is unimaginable in Delhi.

                Delhi is among the fastest growing cities in the country. It encompasses a variety of spaces, locales and modes of living. Women’s experience of the city is ambiguous holding both danger and opportunity. Delhi fares poorly on many indicators of gender equity. There are only three women in the 70-member Delhi Legislative Assembly at the moment; the Delhi Police have only 7 per cent women. The 2001 census pointed out that the sex ratio was 821. The National Crime Records Bureau data for the past several years show that Delhi accounts for about 30 per cent of reported rape in all mega cities in India and 30-35 per cent of all abductions and kidnapping of women. Despite being promoted as a cosmopolitan, global city, the reality is that it is a hard place for women.

Whose city?

Historically, Delhi has never enjoyed the reputation of being an inclusive or egalitarian city. Urban sprawls (mega regions which encompass large cities and neighbouring satellite areas) are now the predominant form of urban growth in the developing world. The 2010 UN-HABITAT report, State of the World’s Cities, tells us that this results in two types of development: growth of large peri-urban areas with illegal and informal land use that have little or no infrastructure or services; and suburban sprawl with commercial and residential complexes for the middle and upper classes connected by individual rather than public transport. Clearly this is the emerging pattern in Delhi. It is now part of the National Capital Region which includes the satellite cities in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, covering an area of 33,572 square kilometres and making it one of the largest urban agglomerations in the world.

                The promotion of a ‘world-class lifestyle’ outside the city creates enclaves of prosperity. These also promote deep divisions and inequalities. As cities become more unequal, there is greater risk of social and political tensions. We can clearly see these patterns in Delhi-where unbelievable wealth and consumption combines with tremendous poverty and deprivation… But wealth apart, many factorsgender, class and ethnic identity being the most commonlead to exclusion and discrimination.

                Delhi is an amalgamation of various forms of architecture and planning: the Mughal, the British colonial, post-Independence and, more recently, the post-liberalization and the growth of satellite cities. It is no doubt, in parts, a diverse and beautiful city. But who is this city for? Who has the right to access all that the city has to offer? Who can lay claim to its streets? The city has wide tree-lined avenues in parts that are probably least walked in. Most other parts have non-existent pavements. And where they exist, they are mostly unusable for many reasons: parked cars that eat up walking space, dug up pavements or just sheer filth.

                Looking at the city through a gendered lens, it is difficult to even peer beyond the violence and daily harassment that girls and women face. The constant staring, brushing past and comments received are women’s primary experience of the city. Several studies have shown that harassment, violence and the fear of violence are often the primary experience women have of this beautiful capital city. In a public-perception survey of 13,000 people in preparing the first Delhi Human Development Report in 2005, women’s safety was listed among the top three problems in the city (along with employment and housing).

                Girls in this city learn very early that it is a jungle out there. They learn to avert their gaze, carry safety pins as defence weapons, and not stay out after dark, among other things. We all learn our strategies-when to retaliate and when to walk away.

                ‘Since childhood we are told: “Never walk too close to a car, walk away, walk fast, look on all sodes, observe shadows.” And we think: Excuse me! Can I just walk on this road?

                In addition, some women face an additional burden of being perceived as outsiders. This is most true of women from the Northeast. A large number of men and women from the north-eastern states come here to study, find work and build a life for themselves. They are perceived as outsiders because their facial features are often different from typical ‘Indian’ looks. The women are seen as easy sexual targets because they look like foreigners. This makes them vulnerable to landlords, neighbours and others. Data from a Northeast helpline set up in 2007 showed that in the first year 41 per cent of the calls made were for sexual abuse, 12 per cent for rape and 9 per cent for murder, probably in connection with sexual assault. The case of an Indian Institute of Technology student who murdered a young woman from the Northeast after she rejected his romantic advances symbolizes the extreme forms of violence that unfold in Delhi.

                The poor, who also struggle to belong to this city, often face tremendous hostility and outright violence. The homeless are among the most dispossessed and bear the brunt of the processes of ‘development’. In 2009 a night shelter on Pusa Road in central Delhi was demolished at the height of winter, forcing icy homelessness upon 250 people. Construction for the Commonwealth Games was the reason for this demolition. The women from the shelter were left to face the natural elements and also the people who had the potential of unleashing violence and abuse upon them. Although women make up almost 10 per cent of the homeless in the city, the only shelter solely for women in Yamuna Pushta was closed down in 2007. Since then, homeless women have been left at the mercy of the streets or temporary shelters. In addition to the lack of a place to rest and some warmth, women face the additional vulnerability to sexual abuse when sleeping in the open.

Cities as male spaces

Cities as they developed have always been seen as male spaces primarily. Even global cities like London and New York, host to ethnic, political and social diversity, were not very welcoming of women in all public spaces earlier. The entry of large numbers of women into the workplace changed the dynamics, though they were initially restricted to ‘women’s jobs’ and even separate spaces. For many bourgeois women, the newly developing industrial city also offered the space of the department store and tea rooms, parks and promenades.

                Even so, the streets were not spaces that women could comfortably access unless they were able to clearly demonstrate their purpose in using them.

                Behaviour on the streets of Victorian cities was governed by strict social codes for men and women, for the working class and middle class, for blacks and whites. For women the implications often revolved around their sexuality. One of the most common terms for prostitute after all is “streetwalker”.

                Even today, it is not uncommon for women in Delhi to find cars slowing down by them when they are waiting on the roadside. Many women say they prefer waiting at bus stops even when not waiting for a bus, because it signals respectability to the public and shows that they are not a ‘woman of the street’. The presence of women implies a moral threat to the public, especially women on their own or women out at night both seen as inappropriate. In a study of women’s place in cities, particularly in the Western world during the period of industrialization and urbanization, the historian Elizabeth Wilson writes:

                For although women along with minorities, children, the poor are still not full citizens in the sense that they have never been granted full and free access to the streets, industrial life still drew them into public life and they have survived and flourished in the interstices of the city, negotiating the contradictions of the city in their own particular way.

                Indian cities have similar cultural histories. Here the culprit is often seen as westernisation, bringing in decadent social and cultural mores, represented most starkly by changes in gender roles and women’s increasing assertiveness. Some of the more public cases of moral policing include the assault on women in a pub by right-wing activists in Mangalore, college students in Lucknow being banned from wearing jeans, and young lovers being attacked in parks in Kanpur. Delhi is also not exempt from such policing.

                Spaces that women can legitimately use include markets and parks, with clear rules of usage. You will find women of all ages briskly walking, young mothers socialising while their children play and elderly women sitting on benches during the morning or in the evening in parks near residential areas. But only at certain times. You will rarely find women in parks in the late evening or even the afternoon. You certainly will not find them resting after lunch on the lawns over Palika Bazaar! Only a few places such as India Gate become spaces that are accessible and accessed by all kinds of people, both women and men. The presence of vendors, people of all classes and ages, and the fact that it is well maintained and well policed (being located in the vicinity of the corridors of power!) make it safe to hang out in.

Public infrastructure

Safe and comfortable public transport is a dream of many. Delhi’s women all have a story to tell about travelling in a Delhi Transport Corporation or Blueline bus. In ‘How Secure or Insecure Are Women in the City of Delhi’, a study conducted by the National Institute of Criminology and Forensic Science, 50 per cent of the respondents said they considered buses to be the most unsafe for women. Several other studies also corroborate that women are pushed against, ‘touched and sexually molested while riding in buses, especially ‘the crowded ones.’ In addition, it is rare to get support from bystanders or the conductor if a woman raises her voice.

                The Delhi Metro provided the promise of a better option. It is now possible to get to the university or Chandni Chowk in a Metro and arrive in good time after a comfortable journey (unlike when I used to go to the university almost twenty years ago. But we did have the U-specials )… Meanwhile, low-floor buses have been introduced and the design of the new bus stops too is women-friendly. To my pleasant surprise, I even saw a poster the other day at a bus stop about women’s rights!

                Poor public amenities are one of the more unpleasant features of this city. Public toilets for women are almost non-existent. A study showed that only 4 per cent of public toilets in the city have facilities for women. Of course, the state of the toilets is another story. The problem is more acute in slums and resettlement areas since private toilets in individual homes are non-existent. Women and girls face tremendous hardships both in using public toilets that are poorly maintained and in going to open spaces. Sexual abuse is always a threat since they often go during the early hours and at night for reasons of privacy. The May 2005 incident in Dhaula Kuan where a woman was raped when she went out in the open represents the extreme violence that women face. Lack of usable toilets for girls in schools, not at all uncommon in Delhi, also has several repercussions on their health and mobility.

                Delhi has several women-only spaces around the city, both historical and contemporary. There is the Zenana Park in Daryaganj which is still in use. More recently, an all-women train was launched between Delhi and Pa1wa1 for the benefit of women commuters; women-only buses are being debated; the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) has opened a new park exclusively for women in Rohini. Women-only spaces provoke different reactions. Many men feel such spaces are unjustified; some women too say they do not want special privileges. But often the sheer comfort of a women-only space can make a world of difference. In September 2009 a New York Times report quoted one regular woman commuter who started using the ‘ladies special’ train as saying: ‘It’s so nice here,’ said a teacher, who has commuted by train for 17 years. The regular trains were thronged with vegetable sellers, pickpockets and lots of men. ‘Here on this train,’ she said, as if describing a miracle, ‘you can board anywhere and sit freely’.

                Gender interacts with other vulnerabilities to structure women’s experience of the city. Where you live, how you move about, where you come from, all impact how you experience the city. Class certainly plays a big role in this. Using public transport exposes you to the possibility of harassment much more than using private transport. There are fewer amenities and services in a slum or a resettlement. But in Delhi, class privilege is not enough to protect a woman from gendered violence as the killings of Sowmya Viswanathan, Jigeesha Ghosh and Jessica Lal show. Their privileged class locations made sure their cases came into the limelight, but they did not shield them from extreme violence. But there are signs that women are not taking the violence lying down. In 2009 a street survey of 1000 women found that 43 per cent reported confronting the perpetrator and not turning away.

Claiming our spaces: Women’s ‘right’ to the city

None of this has kept girls or women off the streets of Delhi. You see them everywhere: girls walking to school or at bus stops (all bundled up on winter mornings) or the numerous ‘aunties’ walking vigorously in the mornings and evenings (sometimes alone, sometimes in large groups with excited conversations) or women in cafes and cinemas and markets and malls.

                Delhi offers opportunity for so many people, women included. One study of migrant women workers in the city in 2002 showed that while a large number of them looked back at the village with nostalgia, most did not really want to go back. Thousands of women from all kinds of social and economic backgrounds come to this city from all parts of the country to study and find work. They believe they belong here.

                Middle-class women have been able to claim certain new spaces which have opened up: the mall, the cafe, the pub, the cinema hall. Women are able to visit these on their own or with other women. These globalized spaces of consumption are perceived as safe, and women who are on their own here are not looked at askance. No doubt these are class-biased spaces and in their very constitution and architecture exclude certain others, but at least they provide some women access to new safe spaces.

                Women from the working class have also discovered some spaces for themselves. A common sight in many parts of the city, including its suburbs, is domestic workers riding to work on bicycles. Riding a bicycle allows them the freedom to move around in pursuit of their economic goals without being dependent on men or on public transport.

                While Delhi is not an easy city for women to live, study and work in, many barriers have been broken and more continue to be smashed. The increasing presence of women in educational institutions, workplaces, streets, shopping areas and recreational areas is testament to the fact that they are claiming their right to the city and have in this process altered the nature of the city itself and what is and is not seen as acceptable.

                There is, of course, a long way to go before women are able to truly access the city with complete confidence. The city, its people and institutions have to change in fundamental ways for this to happen. The big challenge will be to transform people’s attitude towards women as citizens with equal rights. Other shifts are also needed, such as better-planned public spaces, effective policing, clean and safe public toilets. But none of this can become a reality until the average Delhi dweller takes more personal responsibility for making this a safer and more caring city.

Courtesy: Finding Delhi, published by Penguin Viking

By Kalpana Viswanath

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