How does a woman walk in a city in the daytime and at night? Does she walk head held up high? Does she think her hair is showing through her headscarf, her knee-length skirt too short? Will that be commented on by someone on the street?
Does she walk under what Shilpa Phadke calls the ‘tyranny of purpose’? Walking from point A to B because she has to look like she is doing something important, like getting into work or getting the food shopping done for the family? Female flaneurs, after all, are less tolerated than men, more suspicious, and often punished for utilising public spaces in the ‘wrong’ way.
If the city, as urban sociologist Robert Park suggests, is “man’s most consistent and the whole, his most successful attempt to remake the world he lives in more after his heart’s desire,” it therefore an fair argument to say that cities are not made for women. If anything, the city, from its many rebirths and reinventions, is an expression of power and domination that is familiarly masculine in its quotidian manifestation.
This short essay is about several dimensions of women’s right to the city, not least women’s right to mobility in the city. The right to mobility in the city is a major prerequisite to the right to the city, the right to belong anywhere in the city. Women’s mobility in urban spaces is often more complex than that of men. Often saddled with more domestic responsibilities, women are on the move to supermarkets and school runs while negotiating the use of the family automobile.
Looking at women more intersectionally, age, ethnicity, gender presentation, migrant status, socioeconomic class, and (dis)ability makes urban mobility a more complex if urgent issue. We all want to get to our destination eventually. If possible, in the fastest and most convenient way. But different kinds of women and (trans)men are more likely to prioritise safety and accessibility than the average privileged (cis)man.
If women are the more economically disadvantaged in society, they are more likely to do more walking and take public transport. When they shoulder more domestic responsibilities, they make more complex transport-related decisions and may actually spend more time (purposefully) on the go.
Inclusive cities are not merely safe for women. In fact, many cities are not inclusive because of both the deliberate and unintended emphasis on an often paternalistic and draconian notion of ‘safety.’ Safety measures have resulted in increased policing, surveillance, and even total exclusion of certain groups of people from participating in public life. Protective safety measures are also behind gender-segregation in public spaces and transportation. While welcomed by some, such measures address short-term safety, marginalise women, and grant perceived and would-be perpetrators freedom.
Aspects of inclusive cities for women have already been materialised in clean and better lighting in train stations, bus shelters, and underpasses. Well-maintained public toilets for women is another implicit indicator. Women’s safety audits are conducted have been conducted in India, Bangladesh, and Colombia. Privately owned car-free days that are complimented with affordable and physically accessible public transport have been implemented with varying success in Colombia and Indonesia. With all things considered, all will benefit, especially women, in shorter commuting times and distances between home and work, home and recreational pursuits.
Inclusive cities are more than about both radical and ‘common-sensical’ infrastructural adjustments. They transcend notions of gendered ‘safety’ and instead emphasise an engagement with and even the embrace of risk. Not to say that women of the city should put themselves willingly at risk, but rather a discourse on urban inclusivity should consider risk as something that can be managed on individual terms.
The right to undertake risk is part of a woman’s right to the city, an experience that involves encounters with strangers including those that make others feel uncomfortable. In inclusive cities, not only can women walk freely alone without fear but they are allowed to roam the city, be serendipitous and be lost without fear or repercussion.
In the city for women, a woman can sit alone in parks, linger, run, jog, without much diminished fear at any time of the day. Women too can be flaneurs and have the right to loiter. Rather than just prioritise safety and freedom from harassment, women can prioritise speed and convenience of mobility. Women’s mobility is not just about getting from point A to B, but also about social mobility. Greater physical mobility for women is conducive for social mobility and self-actualisation.
There is more to cities than to create them after one’s heart’s desire. For Robert Park, “if the city is the world which man [sic] created, it is the world in which he is henceforth condemned to live. Thus, indirectly, and without clear sense of the nature of his task,in making the city man has remade himself.” To this view, Marxist academic David Harvey argues that the city may be the concrete expression of its makers’ values, hopes, and fears. This creates opportunities for the reinvention of cities to better reflect its inhabitants and the reclaim the right to public spaces for the pursuit of happiness.
Robert Park (1967) On Social Control and Collective Behaviour.
Shilpa Phadke (2010) Gendered usage of public spaces: a case study of Mumbai, Delhi: Background Report for ‘Addressing Gender-based Violence in Public Spaces’ Project, Centre for Equality and Inclusion, India.
Carolyn Whitzman (2012) Women’s safety and everyday mobility in Building Inclusive Cities: