In what ways do women experience a male-dominated space differently from men? Under what conditions is the presence of women in public space accepted in large cities?

This week’s extracts are about:

  1. Women’s experiences of a village market in Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand in 1996
  2. What patterns of women’s presence in public spaces in Mumbai can tell us about the constraints they face

From Agricultural Change and Gendered Spaces in a Central Himalayan Valley, Manjari Mehta (1996):

The commercial area, with its numerous shops and flow of vehicular as well as pedestrian traffic throughout the day, has in a relatively short period of time developed into the local center of trade and socializing. It is also very much a man’s world. At tea stalls and merchants’ shops, men have an opportunity to exchange local news and gossip. Radios, newspapers, travelers recently returned from the plains, and truck and bus drivers coming in from other parts of the hills and plains, also serve as conduits for local, regional, and national news. Thus, within the relative confines imposed by its mountain environment, the local commercial center offers men the opportunity to participate in social networks that connect them to communities well beyond their membership in particular villages.

Even though the area is not formally closed off to them, women experience the local market in a completely different way. The intrinsic “maleness” of this area is palpable. Even women whose days are spent traversing long distances between forests, fields and homesteads are affected by this. Women cannot use public spaces of the market in the same casual manner as men; rather, their interactions are restricted to practical activities and shaped by a series of unspoken “rules” which dictate how they should behave. These constraints have far-reaching implications both for their actual and perceived economic and political roles within the local community.

Tehri Garhwal
Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand

It is, for instance, not appropriate for women to sit in tea shops: not only do women admit to feeling uncomfortable in such a mileau, but they also consider the idea of paying for something which can be prepared as home an “unnecessary” and “pointless” expense (it is worth noting that men do not think of refreshments as an extravagant luxury). Similarly, it would be highly improper for women, after making their purchases, to linger to gossip with traders.

These seclusion norms have practical consequences for all women. In terms of their roles as agriculturalists, women’s circumscribed access to the central artery of the village economy is particularly significant. Limited mobility affects women’s ability to attend to domestic provisioning and agricultural needs. Women’s limited ability to initiate commercial interactions and negotiations, along with their limited control over money, affects their ability to participate actively in various aspects of agricultural decision-making […] and reinforces their dependence on men to perform key tasks related to women’s own work.

From Why Loiter? Radical Possibilities for Gendered Dissent, Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade and Sameera Khan (2009):

As educated, employed, middle-class, urban Indian women in our thirties, when we express a desire to seek pleasure in the city by loitering it might seem problematic to some. For loitering, the lack of demonstration of a visible purpose, is usually perceived as a marginal, sometimes downright anti-social, even extra-legal, act of being in public city space.

Women’s demeanour in public is almost always full of a sense of purpose; one rarely sees them sitting in a park, standing at a street corner smoking or simply watching the world go by as men might. Our research demonstrates that women’s access to public space involves a complex series of strategies involving appropriate clothing, symbolic markers, bulky accessories, and contained body language designed to demonstrate that despite their apparent transgression into public space, they remain respectable women, essentially located in the private. Women are also required to reflect respectability in the contained way in which they hold their bodies such as occupying the least possible space in public transport.

Since education and employment are legitimate reasons to be in public space, women in Mumbai often use their identity as students or workers in order to enhance access to public space. Women also legitimize their presence in public space by exploiting acceptable notions of femininity that connect them to motherhood and religion. In our mapping of a large public playground in the mill-district in Mumbai, for example, we found that the only time women were found ‘hanging out’ was around the time the school, flanking the playground, ends for the day. Similarly, older women often form bhajan mandalis (groups that chant devotional songs) and gather in public parks.

Women in Mumbai

The tyranny of manufacturing purpose then regulates women’s access to the public. In our research mapping the paths of women and men in Nariman Point (a business district) in Mumbai, we observed that during lunchtime, most women who come down from their offices to get lunch (relatively few compared to men) go straight to the vendor, pick up their food and head back inside. Men on the other hand dawdle outside, not only eating at the stalls but often hanging around on the street, before and after eating.

The right to public space (rather than conditional access) can only come when all women can walk the streets without being compelled to demonstrate purpose or respectability, without being categorised into public or private women.  What would change if women preferred to exercise a right to public space rather than demand provisional access, or demanded pleasure without rationale or access without boundaries, or chose to loiter?

Imagine varied street corners full of women sitting around talking, strolling, feeding children, exchanging recipes and books or planning the neighbourhood festival. Imagine street corners full of young women watching the world go by as they sip tea and discuss politics, soap operas and the latest financial budget. Imagine street corners full of older women contemplating the state of the world and reminiscing about their lives. Imagine street corners full of female domestic workers planning their next strike for a raise in minimum wage. If one can imagine all of this, one can imagine a radically altered city.

Bonus Content

Watch a 10 minute talk by Shilpa Phadke on the restrictive aspects of the idea of safety for women.


Mehta, Manjari. “Agricultural Change and Gendered Spaces in a Central Himalayan Valley.” Feminist Political Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experiences, 1996.

Phadke, Shilpa, et al. “Why Loiter? Radical Possibilities for Gendered Dissent.” Dissent and Cultural Resistance in Asia’s Cities, 2009.