Their gender marks them as objects of the male gaze. Never invisible and always seeking anonymity. Is it even possible to blend in? It becomes a question of either attracting the male gaze or escaping it. A choice to be made between being unremarkable or worth being remarked upon. Défense d’afficher. Do not advertise. And yet there she is. Elle s’affiche. She stands tall. She stands tall among people who question her place.
History of women in Urban Spaces
The mid-1800s saw a gradual rise in the popularity of department stores. These stores began to be seen as an appropriate public space for women, away from the unsavory elements of the street. Although limited in its nature, it was a sense of freedom they had longed for. Spaces of consumption were women’s first claimed public spaces.
In the early twentieth century, cinema and other activities became increasingly popular. By entering the workforce, women helped the war effort. Their presence in the public realm was confirmed. The emergence of safe semi-public spaces such as cafes and tea rooms began to rise, where they could spend their alone time without being harassed. Ladies’ lavatories soon became a part of the urban fabric.
However, these claims also fostered the notion that women have certain roles to play as members of society. Freedom to be in the urban space was limited to the concept of proper spaces for women. Even today, the little freedom offered to women is a product of these myopic thought processes.
The idea of a flâneur emerges in Charles Baudelaire’s writings as a gentleman who is a passionate spectator of the city seeking to become one with the crowd. He is at the center of all the action, yet inconspicuous. He is one of many faces. Men are reluctant to imagine a female flâneur. This comes from their inability to imagine women acting in ways not befitting of their status. While walking in public, women are more likely to be considered sex workers rather than having another purpose for being in public. A flâneuse is not a mere female flâneur, she is freedom personified. She explores the city, peers in dark corners, and finds herself in secret courtyards. She uses the city to perform, hide, and seek fame or anonymity. Liberating herself from the chains imposed by society, she uses the city to find herself.
A culture where vehicles are the only method of travel and where citizens do not walk is bad for women. An authoritarian narrative propagated where women venture out of their homes only for what is necessary, so they don’t wander off. While the layout of the traditional American suburb may seem convenient on the outside, its sinister undertone reinforces her boundaries. The neat grid, the nearby shopping center, and the endless loops of parkways is where the American dream tames the American adventure of the open road. These spaces distract children and men from their longings for adventure and escape. But more than children and men, it imposes a check on the traveling habits of women.
Seen as exciting, at the same time fearful, streets are where people claim the city. Unfortunately, these claims are often shot down by authorities. Public space claims need to be coterminous; a claim made by one should also acknowledge the other’s right to that space. Friendly spaces in a city are claimed by all citizens irrespective of circumstances. These spaces create eyes on the street, contributing to a general sense of belonging and safety. Introducing sitting spaces would invite more people to linger in public, resulting in busy streets. Attracting a friendly presence on the streets creates a safe and approachable environment for different groups, especially women. Some scholars claim that the presence of hawkers renders the streets friendlier. For instance, the roads alongside the Hutatma Chowk in fort used to have many street booksellers. On the other hand, contexts such as empty streets, design factors such as enclosed footpaths without an escape route, and the lack of infrastructure like transport, toilets, and adequate street lighting create unfriendly spaces.
Regarding women’s access to public space in Mumbai, several people suggested that among the factors that contributed to making a space safe were a certain level of crowds, open shops, and in general, a sense of activity. Women often notice an optimum level of people or “crowds,” in the real sense of strangers, who best facilitate access. Too few people would make the streets appear deserted and therefore not very safe. On the other hand, too many people, for example, during rush hour at Churchgate station in Mumbai, would provide more opportunities for sneaking in a pinch or grabbing valuables without being caught, so one has to be careful. The notion of the optimum suggests that there are enough people to make you feel comfortable but not so many that it makes you uncomfortable. If one thinks through this idea of the optimum, it might help understand the notion of mutual coexistence in public spaces with strangers perceived as being a mixture of friendly, neutral, and unfriendly.
‘Let me walk. Let me go at my own pace. Let me feel life as it moves through me and around me. Give me drama. Give me unexpected curvilinear corners. Give me unsettling churches and beautiful storefronts and parks I can lie down in. The city turns you on and gets you going, moving, thinking, wanting, engaging. The city is life itself.’
10, L.K.J. (2020) The rise of the Feminized City, Literary Hub. Available at: https://lithub.com/the-rise-of-the-feminized-city/
Elkin, L. (2016) Flaneuse: Women walk the city in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London. London: Chatto & Windus.
Phadke, S., Khan, S. and Ranade, S. (2011) Why Loiter?: Women and risk on Mumbai streets. New Delhi: Penguin Books.