Public spaces consist of places for social encounter and exchange, political action and participation in public life; it serves as an important marker for democratic rights and social inclusion. Streets, parks, squares and public buildings are described to be as public spaces that are open to the public and accessible for everyone.
However, the actual use and experience of space differs since gender, class, age, caste and ethnicity shape our experience of public space. The picture gets even further complicated when we talk about these public spaces in an urban context. The fast growing cities and the overall urbanization we have witnessed across India creates an urban social structure with different spatial arrangement of different social groups in the cities. This new urban fabric is formed and reproduced through processes of industrialization, migration to the cities, privatization of services and labour market. Thus there are constant interplays of these factors that define interactions and negotiations made by women while using these public spaces. Arguing along the lines of right to city space where there is equal access and it ideally belongs to all the citizens.
State’s accountability and un-gendered lens
Talking about the state’s accountability to ensure and protect constitutional rights of women, the crucial question which we should be asking is- does the state deny access to public spaces? Is the State building up policies, programs and attitudinal changes to encounter the sexist culture and encourage women to access public spaces without restrictions? Is the state gender blind?
The existing discourse views citizens with an un-gendered lens. Infrastructural planning is done assuming all the citizens to be upper/middle class, upper caste, Hindu, able-bodied, heterosexual, young male. Marginalized groups, like women, are pushed to the periphery of democracy and justice. Though there has been an emerging paradigm to ensure safe public spaces for women, what is more important is that women have the right to actively be a part of these public spaces, not protected from them. Hence it’s essential for a long sighted approach to be shifted from protectionism to equal rights.
Provisions, constitutional or parliamentary, acts and policies are meaningless when a woman is raped, harassed, molested. Women fear their safety every single day, fear moving out in public spaces, and limit themselves, their careers, their education and their lives every passing second. Why is it that the rights of women have to be sought, despite it being an equal right? Why do public spaces inhibit the mobility and security of women? Why is it that the system brushes off its responsibility when a woman is harassed by saying she should mind the clothes she wears or not step out in the dark. Why are women treated as separate entities despite the fact that they are just as equal as other genders?
Creating infrastructure that can extend a level playing field for all sections of society in an urban space requires political will, increased accountability and inclusion. When seeing the risk of accessing public space in a broad way, we see that the risks associated with the lack of infrastructure like good roads, street lighting and adequate public transport are largely imposed by inappropriate urban planning.
Social Inclusion and building allies
Women’s experiences are diverse and different when it comes to their public participation, right to access and violence on streets. They are defined by their socio-economic and religious background. We cannot talk about equal rights for women if we cannot take into account the coexistence of various identities within the category of gender. As Audre Lorde puts it,
‘It is not those differences between us that are separating us. It is rather our refusal to recognize those differences’.
Many groups and social forces have been lobbying for women’s equal access to public spaces, but we need to devise newer ways to use differences to enrich our visions and our joint struggles. This is where we band together with different sections of women along with men as allies on a singular issue with multi-faceted reality. Only this alliance would challenge male socialization practice, burst gender stereotypes myths, table class-caste-religious realities of different women, create empathy for victims and emphasize the value of consent in private and public life.
Women’s access to public spaces: Let’s get started in Delhi
According to United Nations Women’s Survey 2011, statistics say that nearly 80% of women in Delhi fear for their safety in the city. Nine out of 10 women in the national capital feel that Delhi is unsafe or very unsafe for them. Two-thirds have experienced misbehaviour on the city’s streets. Two-thirds work in offices where there is no mechanism to deal with sexual harassment, providing a stark picture of the daily experience of women and girls
With the above discussed perspectives on women’s access to public spaces, Haiyya kick-started a campaign on the same issue in Malviya Nagar focusing areas like Hauz Rani, Khirki Village and Khirki Extension. The campaign has been designed with a two part approach, where we together
1. Fight the cultural power structures and sexist mindset of the communities.
2. Target governance to be more accountable at ensuring safe spaces for women.
For our political system and democracy to be truly just, it is essential that we act as change-makers in our own communities, neighbourhoods and networks by reaching out to those accountable in guaranteeing our basic and constitutional right to equality and freedom of movement in public spaces irrespective of our gender. Haiyya’s campaign around women’s access to public space is based on the principles of ascertaining (again, check the definition of ascertain) the very basic right of equal and unrestrained access to public spaces for women through community organizing to realize collective and sustainable action.
We wish to create a core team of community leaders representing different socio-economic sections of society coming together for a singular cause. For our democracy to be truly participative and effective, it is essential that we educate ourselves about the injustice we are served directly on our plates, for us to voice and stand up to change it. The political will to bring about the necessary changes in our society to make it human and habitable will stem from the change in our mindsets to do something about it
The capital may have the reputation of being India’s most unsafe city for women, but the protests against sexual assault that have rocked the country and forced the government to enact new legislation were initiated and led by women in Delhi who are not taking the violation of their basic rights lightly. Sexual harassment and violence in public spaces will not be tolerated and we need to join hands and work together to change existing attitudes and behaviours that perpetuate violence against women. This is everyone’s responsibility — men, women, families and friends. In their fight to demand what is rightfully theirs and to reclaim a city that is equally theirs, Haiyya joins hands with Delhi through this campaign. What are your ideas on claiming equal rights for women in Delhi?