Women and Public Spaces

The following is a speech I delivered at NGAGE 2021, an event conducted by the Bangalore-based NGO Durga India, where I was the keynote speaker.

I have been invited here to answer the question- ‘How I experience public spaces as a woman.’

To get into this however, I think it is first important to identify what exactly is a public space for a woman. This is a tricky concept because to me I have always felt like my presence, my womanly existence makes any space I enter, public.

To explain, there is a constant eye on women. Everything we do, eat, wear, speak, there’s an eye on it all. An eye that is waiting to taunt, to blame–
“He raped her, because she was wearing this”, “He hit her, because she provoked him”, “They went to war, because she laughed”, “He sinned, because she gave him an apple.”

So there is something about a woman’s presence that makes every space she occupies automatically public, because suddenly it is open to comments from everyone.

So when we put it this way, the question then transforms to how I live through my daily experiences as a woman. How I survive knowing full well that I am being watched and observed.

The truth is, I survive in fear.

There is fear in walking out into the streets at any time of day, fear of laughing a little too loud, fear of wearing certain clothes, fear of just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And yet even in this fear, I am privileged. I was groped on the streets at 4PM in the afternoon while taking a road I take every day. The man came to me on his Yulu bike, groped me, and then went to the end of the street and flashed me the middle finger. I was frozen still. He then proceeded to imitate the penetrative action by pushing his finger into his curled-up hand.

After this incident occurred, I did not wish to go out at all. It was too scary. In fact, in a month or two I even shifted to another country. But for many other women, such occurrences are a constant reality. It is a chance they have to take every day in order to survive.

Based on your ethnicity, religion, sexuality, abilities, caste, and overall appearance, your experience in a public space can become worse and worse. And this is precisely why we need to stress the need for intersectionality today.

We need to be aware of these differences, acknowledge them, and most importantly address them. The feminist movement in our country will only progress if we begin to accept that there are certain systemic issues that contribute to making issues worse. Because it is not progress unless we are all progressing.

Incidents like nudes being leaked, which occur every other day, or the Sulli Deals incident which occurred a while ago where Muslim women were ‘auctioned’ off online bring forth another perspective in the case of women and public spaces, which is that the private becomes the public in the case of women.

There is a tendency to view our bodies as public property, which is why we are assaulted, our nudes leaked, and even our most private experiences tailored to fit public consumption.

And so this watchful eye that is waiting to critique everything we do, combined with the burden of heavy expectations that dictate everything we do work together to exclude us from many public spaces.

The phenomenal feminist writer, Virginia Woolf, wrote at a time when women were not encouraged to speak, read, write, or even think. There is a fierce speech she delivered called ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ where she talks about how she was denied entry into libraries and certain university spaces simply because they were meant only for men and she was a woman.

Fast forward to today, there are no more restrictions in place that prohibit women from entering any place. But it still silently exists, and it is very visible if you really open your eyes. I would still think twice before entering a tea shop if it was filled with men. In fact, any space with a male majority automatically causes me to rethink- “Do I really need to go here right now? is there an alternative place? is this really urgent? can it be pushed to another time?”

This is a sad bitter truth. And it may seem small when I put it only in my perspective, but think on a larger scale. Every day, there are so many women who make the same decision to avoid certain spaces after being intimidated by the overwhelming number of men present. This also means that every day, a huge chunk of our population is excluded from certain spaces.

It is men occupying more spaces, and women adjusting further by slipping into the shadows.

What makes writers like Virgina Woolf great is that despite not having space, they created their space. They fought for it in their own ways.

Today, by attending this platform I think we have all taken a huge first step into creating this space, and for that, I would like to congratulate us all.

But I would also like to urge you all to keep creating more safe spaces, and more importantly, to talk about the fear you experience, because we can only solve an issue if we first acknowledge its presence.


On Physical Abuse

Physical abuse against women has been happening for so many generations that one may even refer to it as a part of culture or tradition. The only reason it hasn’t been proudly acknowledged in public today is because of the progress that feminist movements have been able to achieve.

When a man abuses a woman, it is an act of power. Abusive men are quick to justify their actions by claiming that they lost control. A listener may infer this statement as- the abuser lost control over himself, but what he really means is that he lost control over the woman- his woman. His patriarchal (male) privilege of owning all the women in his family was lost, even if just for a minute.

The patriarchal society we find ourselves in today has dictated specific expectations with regard to the way a woman must act at all times. Take for example, how loud should a woman’s voice be? loud enough that she is heard by all household members when they are called for mealtime, soft enough to be ignored when they don’t want food yet. And never so loud that it can be heard outside the house. If you watch old Disney films like Bambi or Cinderella, listen to the voices of the female characters- it’s soft, reserved, and almost never angry unless she is chiding her children. An indoctrination of patriarchal expectations from a young age is what I find this to be.

When women don’t match the strictly prescribed code of conduct, i.e. if they are stubborn, arrogant, quick to anger, loud, or even physically consume a little more space than what is designated, they are met with backlash. If snarky comments don’t work, physical abuse is the next stop.

To accompany this male entitlement are those who support the men- who enable them. Together they attempt to justify the abuse, mostly done by blaming the survivor for not following patriarchal rules.

This support is further extended by encouraging the survivor of abuse to maintain silence and fall back into the patriarchal system- commonly done by outsiders and extended family. Or by their own silence- i.e. ignoring the issue- commonly done by the immediate family. They assume this silence to be a position of neutrality. It helps them gather favour in the eyes of the abuser who holds much power in society, while also enabling him- it is like the nod or wink that the protagonist’s best friend-turned-villain shows to the other villains while hugging or pretending to safeguard the protagonist. They are the Brutus, the Judas.

If the survivor resists and continues to fight, they try to discourage them by appealing to emotions, to spare a thought for the greater common good- “think of the family”, “think of the baby.” It seems babies are only meant for emotional blackmail. It is astonishing that we are more okay with the idea of a baby being raised by a patriarchal, abusive man, rather than trying to raise the baby in a more feminist world by:

1. Obtaining justice for the survivor,

2. Raising the baby in an environment where no patriarchal beliefs are tolerated.

The final blow is an expectation that the survivor will forgive the abuser with a compassion that was forgotten/ deemed unnecessary when the abuse was taking place. That forced forgiveness, contrary to all your “be the bigger person” nonsense, is a silent hand back of the power she had fought for. It is an even bigger slap.

If after all this the survivor persists in her aim for justice, she is met with hostility and banishment from her own family. With no support, she is forced to think twice- was it my fault? am I making a big deal?

Then, she has to fight herself and her family.