The Doryteuthis opalescens, an Eastern Pacific Ocean species of squid, has the ability to create the illusion of testes, to escape unwanted male attention. Sometimes I wish I had the same illusory power. Most days, walking out of my home, I worry about the number of eyes following my body as I scurry along to find the easiest way to vanish from public view. Usually, that is a rickshaw or an Uber, unless the path for the day is a walk. Thoughts like “Are my legs too hairy?”, “Are my boobs jiggling?”, “Can my hair cover the movement of my body or part of my face?” course through all women as we enter a public space. Apart from thousands of years of patriarchy and systematic gendered oppression, the cause of this discomfort could lie in the fact that public spaces are fundamentally male in nature.
They are nerve-wracking places for women to be present. While a woman has to cover up (and is still scanned by ogling eyes) and be careful about the way she is seen in public, men have it easier when it comes to being in a public space. Why? It’s because I do not know a man who has had to worry about the hair from his armpits playing peekaboo, his butt moving any which way or him being whistled at if he walks home alone at night. Public spaces have been dominated by men, and although scores of women come out every day in public, the spaces still are, in essence, created by and for men. When was Give me some space Can ‘woman spreading’ help reclaim public spaces for women? By Rachna Baruah the last time you saw a lone woman aimlessly strolling to a tea stall for a daily dose of gossip, or her hunched over a bike by the road to meet with her pals in the evening? Never, right?
Women, even the strongest of them, feel vulnerable in public. It starts from physical changes they make — like rounded shoulders and pointed elbows — to mental fatigue, like the worry of looking over our shoulders and being wary of every person around us. On a recent flight, I was seated between two men, and while they were perfect gentlemen, I couldn’t help but notice my body instinctively curl up to ensure that any unwarranted touch was minimal — perhaps it’s rooted in the time I was cornered by a man in a train pantry somewhere in the middle of Egypt. Agreed that all genders can face physical and sexual dangers, but the ones faced in public spaces are far higher for women, compared to men.
Consider this — when a woman is attacked in a barely lit alley, who do we blame? “Why were you there at that hour, wearing what you were?” Women usually cannot go out late at night by themselves, because we are to be blamed if somebody attacks us. Forget about going for a run in the park at night, because a potential rapist might take advantage. We cannot exist in a public space without a male chaperone. Women also constantly scan areas for huddled men, underpasses or oncoming anonymous people.
To make public spaces more female-friendly, there are several physicals as well as cultural measures that can help. For men, it starts with fine-tuning their mindsets, to not think of every woman as a sexualised object. Also, conscious efforts to not man spread or ogle every time a woman is seen in a public space would be great. Infrastructurally too, more well-lit, well-connected and safer spaces can help women to feel less vulnerable. Maybe more female architects in teams that plan these spaces can bring more diversity and inclusivity to the planning process. Taking a cue from the practice of manspreading, women have started “womenspreading”, a movement to reclaim their constrained space. I recollect a time when a man next to me in a metro took up more space than required, and his legs spilt over to my side. While initially, I folded my legs to take less space, I thought to myself: “This ends now”, and proceeded to mimic his posture. Soon enough, with our knees fighting for more space and the absurdity of a woman sitting the way he was, he stood defeated – literally. Change starts from every single person that defies the norm, and it starts with you.