Researching ‘womenability’: how women experience cities

August 01, 2016 12:00 am | Updated 05:49 am IST - MUMBAI:

Audrey Noeltner (right) and Julien Fernandez in Mumbai on Sunday.—Photo: Rajneesh Londhe

Audrey Noeltner (right) and Julien Fernandez in Mumbai on Sunday.—Photo: Rajneesh Londhe

Mumbaikars are used to seeing women studying, working, playing and partying at all hours of every day in this vast, bustling metropolis.

But for French urban planner Audrey Noeltner, one thing struck her: “The first thing I said to my friend when I came here was, ‘Where are the women?’ You just see a lot of men everywhere. I feel like men are constantly staring at me. I think that could be because of my foreign looks, but then I did not experience the same level of male gaze in China.”

Ms. Noeltner, with Julien Fernandez and Charline Ouarraki, runs an independent project that wants to create guidelines for boosting women’s presence and participation in cities and facilitating a gender-based approach to urban policy making. “Our project is about gender equality in public spaces, making cities more enjoyable for women,” she says, “It means being able to go to cafes, play sports, breastfeed babies, use public transport and freely display affection to lovers, even of the same sex.”

Ms. Noeltner and Mr. Fernandez are on a 15-city tour, visiting cities which have woman mayors, meeting women councillors, NGOs, urban planners and common citizens. They have covered cities in Europe, US, South America, New Zealand and Asia before arriving in Mumbai, from where they will head to Africa next. They plan to make a documentary with the interviews conducted so far and form a forum to highlight the idea of what they call “womenability”: how women experience cities.

In Mumbai, they, with NGO Safecity - Pin The Creeps, will take an ‘exploratory walk’ from Khar West on Thursday to hear how women negotiate the city. They also plan to meet Mayor Snehal Ambekar. “We want to find out if cities are better for women when there is a woman mayor,” Mr. Fernandez said, “We ask the mayors about their political journey and what they do to promote women’s safety.”

Ms. Noeltner’s experience of sexual harassment in Paris streets made her look for solutions to the problem. “In France, women’s strategy to avoid harassment is plugging the ears with headphones. If I am sitting alone, I am taken for a prostitute. Nearly 70 per cent of public equipment — for example, skateboards — is used by boys.”

From the cities they have visited, Ms. Noeltner was specially fascinated by Malmö, Sweden. “It was the first time I saw as many girls playing soccer as boys. In the morning, as many men were taking their children to school on bicycles as women. You could see the gender equality. The Chinese city of Kaifeng also had a good number of women freely exercising in the open, breastfeeding or playing Dominoes. In Argentina, feminist graffiti — the political vision and activism of women — was everywhere on the walls.”

Acknowledging the role of cultural factors and patriarchy, the researchers stress on the role of urban planners, architects and policy makers in addressing the needs of women. “There is a need to listen to what women want,” Ms. Noeltner says. “Gender mainstreaming and gender budgeting can help understand to what extent money is spent on public utilities for men and women. We should ensure access to public bathrooms, that the environment is not hostile for women, that there are lights, benches, not very high fences in parks [lest escaping a situation gets difficult]. It is not just a question of women’s safety. We have to first acknowledge the inequality in public space.”

The writer is a freelance journalist

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