Planning public spaces


By C.S. Lakshmi

LONG ago when I was house hunting in Mumbai, the estate agents would tell me, "You must come with your husband to see the flat, Madam. Only you will know if the kitchen is okay." And once, when I had written the script and dialogues for a film and the Director told me I must come for the shooting to help him, the Assistant Director told me encouragingly, "Yes, you must come and ensure we get good food to eat." There is this notion that whatever a woman is, her real talents are centred on the kitchen region. Linked to this notion is the idea that a woman's place is the home and it is here that she is safe and protected. The moment she takes decisions to leave the confines of her home danger awaits her and for whatever happens to her outside her house, she alone is responsible.

Long ago a senior Tamil writer — a male writer, of course — wrote a story of an educated girl wanting to be independent and taking a tram to go out and how she feels offended by the behaviour of men in the tram. She decides that she had not got educated to take up a job and be subjected to this and decides to get married. This myth of the domestic space being safe for a woman has been broken so many times when cases of domestic violence and dowry deaths have been brought to public notice. And yet, cities and public spaces are planned in a way that does not take into account women occupying these public spaces as a matter of their right as citizens. When PUKAR, an organisation in Mumbai, began doing research on women and public space in a city, its researchers often walked into different police stations asking questions. One invariable reaction that they got from most of the police stations was why women should be out in the public space when they had no work there. And it is this attitude that is behind the way the rape of a minor girl in a police chowky in Marine Drive has been perceived. What was she doing there sitting in Marine Drive with two boys? This "she asked for it" kind of attitude is one of the ways of pushing women out of the public spaces where they rightfully belong like anyone else and pushing them into private spaces where many think they ought to belong.

In the Marine Drive rape case, the police department has defended itself saying that the concerned policeman was a pervert and that this incident is only an aberration. The department has also in a way excused his act saying that he was drunk. And then comes the Samana editorial that suggests that women invite sexual assault through what Samana considers provocative clothing. Not only that; Samana suggests that women should not be out in a public space in the first place. That women don't belong in public spaces is at the bottom of all civic plans. When a city and its facilities are planned the imagined citizens walking on the roads and using the facilities are always men. A woman unsupported by a man walking on the roads and living on her own and travelling on her own is not even in the minds of the planners. A friend who runs an NGO once told me that she went to a government school to give a talk on the importance of education for girls. After the talk a girl got up and told her that their school had the best lab and a wonderful library but it had no toilets for girls with proper water facilities. If a girl wants to get educated, would she not need a toilet to continue her studies after she comes of age? Girls come from a long distance to get educated and often during their periods they become the laughing stock in co-ed schools if their skirts get stained. Should not women's organisations look into this, asked the girl. My friend said that it was like a slap on her face. Another friend narrated a similar experience of a friend of hers working in a government office in a small town. There were no proper toilet facilities for women. When she went and complained to her boss, he asked her "But why do women need proper toilets?" She hesitated for a minute and then told him, "This you must ask your wife."

When I travelled for my fieldwork in big and small cities, my plans for travel were done with toilet facilities as an important consideration. If one was taking a bus from one town to another, the first thing to remember is, to drink water for quenching your thirst is fine but it also means emptying your bladder. I often wondered how women vendors, shopkeepers, housemaids and others who were out of their houses for a whole day managed. When I was a child I often wondered what Sita did in the jungles when she had to attend to nature calls. Did being a pativrata mean controlling one's urine also, I questioned in my mind. I never asked anyone, for, a girl was not supposed to speak about all this. I must say that a girl expressing her need to use a toilet can bring a highly romantic relationship flying up in the sky back to earth. I speak from personal experience. We were on our way back to Delhi after meeting my would-be in-laws. We were in an express bus that did not stop anywhere after a particular point. It had stopped for 10 minutes at that point but the toilets were overflowing and there was no place to even place one's feet. I decided not to use it. After about half an hour I said that I had to relieve myself urgently. The person who had said that he would like to share his life with me looked shocked and embarrassed. After a while, on my insistence, he approached the driver and whispered in his ears something. The driver stopped the bus near some bushes and loudly declared without mincing words, "Jinjinko peeshaab karna hai utharjayiye" (Those who want to pass urine, get down). I saw my friend trying to hide himself in his seat out of embarrassment, for, I was the only person who got up when the driver gave the call. Ever since then, taking care of my need to use a toilet has become a part of the romance of our marriage.

When we visit people in Mumbai one has to often go a long way which takes a couple of hours and the first thing you want to do is rush to the bathroom. The task of making this possible is that of my partner in life. I become loquacious when I am desperately trying to hold my bladder. Once, when we were visiting a friend, I was chatting for a while when I found my partner standing by me. He whispered in my ears, "The toilet is clean. It is to your left. Please go." "How did you know I had to go?" I asked. "Because you are talking nonsense," he said in a voice which spoke of years of experience.

I talk about toilets as not just a facility but as an attitude towards women. When a city with roads, buildings, parks, schools, hospitals, colleges and offices are planned, not only is gender not part of the plan but everyday life in a city is not taken into consideration. Everyday life involves movement of girls and women in public spaces. Not only should their ordinary needs be met, but the planners must first accept the fact that public spaces are for women also. It is the absence of women in the city plan that makes a city inconvenient for women and also unsafe.

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).

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