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Centre for the Study of Culture and Society


Gender and culture Module 3

Gender and Space

 This module looks at the ways in which cities are constructed, focusing on debates around questions of gendered safety and risk. It looks at how even as debates about women’s presence is public space take place, they are simultaneously debates about the construction of a particular class at this point in relation to globalization.

If the 19th century represents a point at which the Aryan woman was being located as the ubiquitous Indian woman (Uma Chakravarti, XXXX), then in many ways the last two decades have meant contestations about who the contemporary modern Indian woman is. Using the lens of public space, this module interrogates not just the woman question in late 20th and early 21st century India but also the crystallization of the contemporary middle class. This module focuses only on urban public spaces, and is particularly relevant to metros.

The module is structured in six sections:

  1. Space as Gendered
  2. Private and Public Space
  3. Contested City Public Spaces
  4. Gendered Discourse of Safety in the City
  5. Global Cities and the Place of Women
  6. The Right to Risk

1. Space as Gendered

In the last two decades, as the category ‘gender’ has been questioned and challenged as a stable category of analysis, simultaneously there has been a new way of conceptualising space. The analysis has shifted its focus from seeing space as a neutral setting against which social events and processes take place to seeing space as something that is both influenced by and influencing society and social structures. The focus has increasingly shifted to understanding how socio-spatial constructs are implicated in the production and reproduction of various social relations and in the construction of various hierarchies.

Among the scholars who engaged in this discussion of space as a social construct was Henri Lefebvre, (The Production of Space, 1991). Lefebvre writes:

“social space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity—their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder” (p.73)

Further that “social space is produced and reproduced in connection with the forces of production (and with the relations of production).” These “forces…are not taking over a pre-existing, empty or neutral space, or a space determined solely by geography, climate, anthropology…” (p.77).

Doreen Massey (Space Place and Gender, 1994) suggests the identities of ‘place’ are seen as being always unfixed, contested and multiple.

Rosa Ainley suggests that gendered space is in a constant process of becoming; where gender is something we do rather than something we are (New Frontiers of Space, Bodies and Gender, 1998).

We also need to acknowledge that space is not just gendered. Spaces, both private and public, are hierarchically ordered through various inclusions and exclusions. In the context of access to public and other kinds of spaces the power structures that operate include: gender, class, caste, ethnicity, religion, age and physical ability.


Activity: Examine the space of your college and look at the various ways in which this space is constructed by and in turn constructs gender relations. Think about the spaces that men and women occupy at different times. Then also think of how these spaces are not just gendered but also classed.

2.   Private and Public Space

We often use the terms public and private spaces as if there were clear defining lines between the two. This is not the case at all. In fact notions of public and private space blur into each other where what is public for one may well be very private for another. Think for instance of the ways in which couples carve out spaces of intense privacy for themselves in busy parks.

Further, for instance women are often “allowed” to access public spaces on the condition that they constantly demonstrate through symbolic markers that they actually belong in the private. These markers include among others symbols of matrimony or particular ways of dressing that are defined as modest in that cultural context at that time. Think for instance of these functioning as veils that demonstrate that the woman is actually in a private space of her own making. When such a woman marked as private accesses public space, she renders it simultaneously public and private.

The public and private then must be seen as categories that move in complex ways between one and the other. In scholarly terms then it is hard to use the terms public and private without being aware that they do not mean any one thing. Nonetheless one often uses them because narratives around public space are often conducted in very strong binaries of boundaries, especially those between public and private, and it is difficult to avoid using these terminologies.

Using these categories one must also be aware that the understanding of what is constructed as public and what is constructed as private changes over time. Notions of the gendered public and private are also deeply marked by class and economic and political issues.

For instance, geographer Linda McDowell speaking in relation to Britain, points out how the ideal of domesticity glosses over the fact that almost a third of all women have been in paid employment since 1881. She suggests that the domestic ideal for the middle class implied a more leisurely existence, only because it depended on the labour of working class women. McDowell suggests that the focus should be on the changing relationship between “patriarchy and the organisation of domestic labour” which would lead to “questions about why and which areas of reproduction became socialised and which became privatised”. This she averred would lead to “a more satisfactory focus than the over simple dichotomy between the public and the private sectors, work and home, that is common in much feminist urban analysis”.

Activity: Interview your mother/aunt and grandmother/aunt in regard to the spaces they were allowed to access as women in their teens and early 20s. Think about how the understanding of women’s location has changed over time.

Activity: Write a diary for one week about the various public and private spaces you traverse – what makes these spaces appear public or private?

Activity: View the documentary film ‘Freedom Before 11’ and discuss how women in hostels are seen as in need of protection in order to clearly define the blurry public-private boundaries.

3. Contested City Public Spaces

Public spaces in the city are zones of contestation where various power relations are played out. One of the arguments in relation to public space is that it needs to be policed else it will get taken over by those who are seen to be a danger to society.

Open spaces like parks are often seen as an invitation for what is often termed ‘anti-social-activity’. The assumption is that if spaces are provided then people – that is those who do not really belong to the city – will somehow misuse them.

For instance one article in the Hindu said: “In the absence of illumination, many of the parks are taken over by criminals and anti-social elements after nightfall. Hordes of beggars, lepers, drug pushers and sex workers invade the precincts. The ornamental lamps that adorned the once verdant parks in the city have either been stolen or damaged. Burnt-out bulbs are seldom replaced and street lamps in the vicinity do not function. Saplings planted by Corporation gardeners are often stolen. Citizens complain that the parks double up as operating bases for burglars.”(The Hindu, Tuesday, Sep 09, 2003)

The response to the presence of ‘anti-social activity’ or ‘elements’ has been to either not have parks at all or to turn them into spaces which are watched and policed in order to keep them beautiful. Citizens groups want to take over parks and reorder them to comply to a notion of middle class aesthetics and morality. Here the preservation of a certain kind of middle class aesthetic of order – timings for the when the spaces open and close, rules about taking edibles to the park, lists of rules put up in the park, the presence of a visible security – is taken simultaneously to be a marker of not just beauty but also of morality.

Writing about Fortress Los Angeles, Mike Davis (1992) points to the aggressive use of outdoor sprinklers in parks. He offers the example of Skid Row Park, where to ensure that the park could not be used for over-night camping sprinklers were programmed to come on at random times during the night. The measure was copied by stores to drive people away from the footpaths at night.

The provision of parks is underscored not by the principle of inclusion but by the idea of exclusion.


Another clear instance of how space is contested in the way in which couples in public space are perceived. In relation to parks and other open spaces like sea-fronts and promenades, couples too are seen as a source of disorder.

In December 2005, in Meerut (Uttar Pradesh), the police humiliated couples (including students and married couples) in Gandhi park in the city. A group of policewomen slapped couples in full view of television cameras.  The crack-down, called “Operation Majnu”, was purportedly a drive in Meerut against eve-teasing in public but in fact targeted consenting couples. Following this, the Uttar Pradesh government suspended the additional superintendent of police and the circle officer of the city and ordered a high level inquiry into the incidents. (Press Trust of India, Meerut, December 21, 2005). When couples are arrested often for ‘indecent behaviour’ it is the women who are sought to be shamed by asking whether their parents know what they are up to.

Akshay Khanna (2005) points out that “if private spaces are difficult to come by for heterosexual love, they simply do not exist for a vast number of same-sex desiring people. As such public parks, or 'cruising areas' as they are also called, are often the only spaces where queer people may meet other queer people. The public park, in other words, is as much a space for socializing and romance for heterosexual couples as it is for same-sex desire. This is one of the reasons that a large part of the government's 'outreach' work for HIV/AIDS prevention amongst 'men who have sex with men' is located in public parks”. He suggests that in the Meerut case at least the right of the heterosexual couples to be there has been supported. Two policewomen have been suspended; the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Women have both taken up the case suo moto. The media and politicians across the spectrum have opposed the 'moral policing'. For those couples seeking same-sex intimacy no such support is forthcoming.


Activity: Go through old newspaper reports on the internet and look at the times couples have been harassed by the police in public spaces in various cities. Make a list of these instances and the dates. Also analyse the language in which the media has covered these events.

Activity: View the film ‘Morality TV and Loving Jihad’ and discuss how the policing of couples is connected to other issues of class and gender. 

4. Gendered Discourse of Safety in the City

Does this then mean that women are not welcome in the city at all? Not at all. Women, particularly in their roles as professionals and consumers, are more than welcome into the city as their presence signals a desirable modernity and makes a claim for the city as a global city, one where women are safe. The question is whether the discourse of safety is one that expands access to public spaces for women unconditionally. The answer must be an unequivocal no.

First of all, this notion of safe cities is aimed not at everyone or even at all women but at a particular kind of woman, the middle class woman. And not just any middle class woman but, the middle-class, Hindu, upper-caste, able-bodied, heterosexual, married or marriageable woman. Shilpa Phadke writes:

“Its (the discourses’) focus on middle class women rather than working class or poor women allows the discourse to be only about women and therefore about gendered safety. A discussion on working class or poor women would compel an engagement with concerns of not only gendered safety but also class safety, one that would then mean contending with the question of working class and poor men’s access to public space as well. Bringing the discussion to focus squarely on the middle class woman helps to unravel the fact that the discourse of safety is in the interests of not even the women for whom it is ostensibly meant but rather serves to reinforce the boundaries of class and gender in access to public space.” (Dangerous Liaisons, 2007)

The exclusion of women from public space cannot be seen in isolation. As I have suggested in the preceding sections, the exclusion of women from public space is linked critically to the exclusion of other marginal citizens. Also as suggested in the discussion on parks this safety for women is juxtaposed against the presence of some other ‘Others’. These others include the poor, slum dwellers, bar dancers, sex workers, hawkers, loiterers, Muslim men, unemployed men all of whom must be banished from public space so that it is rendered safe for middle class women.

Shilpa Phadke further argues: “This then sets up the central fallacious opposition around which people are excluded from public space – that between the ‘vagrant’ man (read: lower class often unemployed male cast as migrant outsider) and our central protagonist the middle class woman. The rationale for denying women access to public space is the danger posed by the lower class unemployed man. Both the person perceived to be the potential molester and the potential victim of the act of molestation are both denied legitimate access to public space on these grounds. This line of thinking casts both lower class men and all women as outsiders to public space and the anxieties attached to women’s presence are simultaneously expressions of the anxiety attendant upon the presence of the lower class man.


The discourse of safety for women is actually the discourse of sexual safety. The concern is not that women will be killed or even run over by vehicles but that they will be sexually assaulted. This focus on sexual safety is rooted in conservative class and community structures, particularly those of sexual endogamy. This notion of safety encompasses not just sexual assault but also undesirable sexual liaisons even if they are consensual. Situating the discussion in relation to safety rather than ‘sexual endogamy’ isolates the question of gendered risk, pushing the question of both class safety and (unwanted) cross-class-sexual-affiliations out of the frame of concern. The discourse of gendered safety then is inextricably linked to the manufacture of respectability and immediately excludes an overt discussion of the anxieties attached to a mixing of classes, especially to any association between lower class men and middle class women.” (Dangerous Liaisons, 2007)


Where then might Muslim women, the women of the ‘others,’ be located in this discourse?

Sameera Khan writes:

It is commonly perceived that Muslim women are more marginalized and have less access to the world outside their homes than women of other communities. But as our research in Mumbai revealed, the restrictions imposed on Muslim women’s mobility and access to public space were actually quite similar to the curbs exerted on women from other communities. These included controls on timings, purpose, place, dress, and companions, with similar concerns voiced regarding their sexual safety and respectability. … Since their community is one that particularly feels under threat and surveillance, the issues surrounding Muslim women’s access to the public and sexual safety become all the more complex. … The fact that their entire community is looked upon with hostility and habitually fears violence, means that Muslim women not only have less of a chance to venture out of community boundaries but also that their movements and behaviour are more closely policed by their families and their community. (Negotiating the Mohalla, 2007)


Activity: Examine the cases where there has been violence against romantic couples belonging to different castes or religions. Think about why these couples are seen to be a threat to ‘Indian culture’.


5. Global Cities and the Place of Women

While it is true that women are barred from public space, not all women are barred in the same way. Through their access to both economic capital through private infrastructure and cultural capital through education, middle class women have greater access to public space.

As suggested earlier there are spaces where middle class women as consumers and professionals are welcomed, such as the new spaces of consumption – shopping malls and coffee shops, where the presence of a certain kind of woman is a marker of the modernity of the city and its claim to global status. It is important at this point to underscore that these are not ‘public’ spaces, but privatised spaces that masquerade as public spaces, where entry is ostensibly open but in reality regulated through various subtle and overt acts of (intentional and unintentional) intimidation and exclusion. The suggested safety of middle class women in these spaces defines particular spaces in the city as desirable places for the middle classes to live, work or be entertained in. The presence and the performance of a class habitus of these women are very important in the construction of the global city. (Phadke 2007)

These spaces allow them to be in the ‘public’ in particular ways that permit visibility without compromising respectability. This however, comes with a price tag attached and we are not merely referring to the cost of the coffee. The private and the public are no longer clearly distinct but embedded within one another in the same space, creating a potential ambiguity and therefore the need for women to continuously demonstrate their respectability.

The fact that women’s access even to such places of new consumption is fragile is demonstrated by an incident in an up-market neighbourhood of Mumbai. In May 2006, the local police in Lokhandwala in Andheri West alleged that they had received complaints that women sex-workers were fixing up clients in the open seating spaces outside some popular neighbourhood coffee shops. As a result, the police prohibited the coffee shops from serving customers in the outer open area outside their restaurants. The connotation was clear: any woman sitting in these spaces could be perceived as soliciting. This accusation was met with outrage, but nonetheless many women stopped sitting outside. Even in these spaces then, women have to carefully monitor their own movements and demeanour.

Class is an important determinant not only of access to public space, of who might be seen where, but also of how notions of threat and ideas of risk are constructed in relation to public space, contextualised around unspoken, but no less real,  boundaries that control these spaces. The intersection of class and morality complicates not only women’s negotiations of risk but also the kind of visibility they may have access to and the modes through which they are represented.


These spaces however circumscribed they are also continue to be contested.

More recently members of a group calling themselves the Sri Ram Sene attacked women in a pub in Mangalore citing the desecration of Indian culture.


Activity: Track the recent Pink Chaddi campaign as the response to the assault on women in a Mangalore pub. How successful do you think this campaign is? What are the limitations of this campaign?

Activity: Examine the bar dancers’ legal case in Mumbai and think about why they chose to focus on issues of livelihood. 

6. The Right to Risk

“So what is risk and how does modern 21st century urban living calibrate risk? Ulrich Beck (1992) suggests that we now live in societies where risk is manufactured and managed and even deliberately undertaken for the sake of benefits conceived of in advance. Similarly, Anthony Giddens (1991) suggests that the institutionalisation of risk is a fundamental character of modern society where risks are endlessly analysed, profiled and reflected upon.

The question here is how then can one situate the precise nature of the risk question in relation to women in public space? How are different risks understood and ranked in relation to women’s access of public space. I would like to enumerate the various possible risks to women in relation to public space:

  1. The risk of potential physical assault when women do access public space. This includes the risk to life, the physical and psychological trauma of injury. (These are risks shared by men.)
  2. The risk to ‘reputation’ of accessing public space against a normative order that defines women’s proper place as being in the private spaces of the home. This includes the risks of loss of matrimonial opportunity and a questioning of sexual virtue.
  3. The risk of being blamed for being in public space at all if a woman is assaulted, particularly sexually assaulted, in public space. This includes the risk of the improbability of getting justice except in a few cases.
  4. The risk, should women choose not to access public space more than minimally, of loss of opportunity to engage city spaces and the loss of the experience of public spaces. It also includes the risk of accepting the gendered status hierarchies of access to public space and in doing so reinforcing them.

The first three are risks associated with accessing public space, the fourth is a risk related to not accessing public space.” (Phadke 2007)


The city is often cast as a space of risk and danger for women particularly in ways that do not think about the violence enacted on men in public space. Concerns about violence in public space are expressed most often in relation to the woman as the vulnerable victim of attack. The concern is not that women will be killed or even run over by vehicles but that they will be sexually assaulted.

“There is a public face to the insistence on sexual safety in the way in which questions of risk play out when women are actually assaulted in public space. Before we engage further in this discussion it is important to point out that the perception of risk has little to do with the actual possibility of danger. Statistics regularly show that when it comes to actual violence, women are victims of violence more in their homes than outside. Men on the other hand face far more incidents of actual violent behaviour in public space. Yet the narrative of danger in public space is unequivocally centred around the figure of the woman. This might have something to do with the fact that non-sexual physical violence is seen as more acceptable than sexual violence which violates the respectability of the woman and in turn brings dishonour to the community. Furthermore the overt attention on gender based violence in public space, actively discounts class, caste and religion based violence that takes place simultaneously.” (Phadke 2007)

“If one were to turn the safety argument on its head, one might argue that what women need in order to maximise our access to public space as citizens – is not the provision of safety, for even so called safe environments are not necessarily comfortable for women, but the right to engage risk. I argue that what women need in order to maximize their access to public space as citizens is not greater surveillance or protectionism (however well meaning), but the right to engage risk.

If we were to argue that the worst thing to befall women in relation to public space is to be denied access to it, we would place ourselves and the debate in an entirely different discourse – the discourse of rights, not protectionism. Seeking the right to take risks rather than making a claim for safety and protection would entail an altogether different kind of engagement. Given that for men, ‘risky’ behaviour is seen as acceptable, even desirable, claiming this right for women would undermine the very definition of appropriate feminine public behaviour.

As feminists, while one seeks safety for women in public space, to seek it in relation to women’s chastity or sexual virtue can only provide conditional protection and not the right to public space. A feminist demand for public space located in an understanding of rights would clearly distinguish it from a more paternalistic claim to safety (therefore protection) in public space. What we might seek then is an equality of risk – that is not that women should never be attacked but that when they are, they should receive a citizen’s right to redress and their right to be in that space be unquestioned.” (Phadke 2007).

When feminists claim the right to public space, implicit in this demand must be the claim to public space for all marginal citizens for it is only when this right is uncontested for all that it will be unconditional.


Activity: Examine the ways in which the media covers violence again men and violence against women in public space. What is the difference in tone?

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