Indian women lack privilege to roam around city spaces, Gurugram is no exception
Cities are spaces to be explored and discovered. A flâneur is a person who walks the city for pleasure, a stroller, “a man who saunters around observing society”. In the 19th century, the flâneur was a romantic figure in many European cities. A few years ago, a British journalist chose to be a flâneur in Delhi and walked the city in concentric circles and wrote about his experiences in “Adventures in a Mega City”. When I read the book, I was struck by how it is near impossible for a woman to decide to do something similar in any Indian city. Unlike the flâneur, the flâneuse carries an element of transgression as she is not meant to be seen wandering the city. Being a wanderer requires walking around the city, often without any clear aim. Virginia Woolf called this “street haunting”.
The privilege of moving around the city without purpose is a right largely given to men in Indian cities. Shilpa Phadke and her co-authors in the book “Why Loiter” speak about this poignantly. Their research shows that women are expected to occupy and use public spaces only when they have a purpose.
Women, especially “respectable women”, always have a purpose to be in public spaces, either to go to work, college, market and other defined places. Women in public spaces are almost always moving and not standing in one place, but for some exceptions such as waiting for a school bus. This is what the authors term, the tyranny of purpose. After all, we can’t have women standing around by a paan wala or hanging around a tea stall just chatting with friend(s). In Gurugram, we see men hanging around in many public spaces, including at the numerous liquor vends that dot the city.
In the past few years, some young women have challenged this by consciously hanging around in parks and streets. One such campaign by the group Blank Noise is Meet to Sleep, where women are encouraged to sleep in parks and take pictures and post on social media. How often have we seen them sleeping in public parks in all our cities? Across the border, young women in Pakistan have started a movement called Girls at Dhabas where women hang out in dhabas around the city and post pictures of it to create an awareness about the exclusive nature of public spaces in our cities. This exclusion of women stems from the notions of respectability and the constant fear of violence women face in all our cities.
Gurugram is no exception to this. Incidents of sexual harassment, stalking and even more serious forms of sexual assault often force women to limit their movement around the city, especially after dark. Data shows that there were 159 and 156 cases of rape in Gurugram in 2016 and 2017, respectively. A cursory glance at this publication will show that cases of harassment and stalking are a regular feature. It is also very likely that cases of sexual harassment are under-reported and passed off as an occupational hazard of living in the city.
There are almost no places where women can enjoy or streets where they can be flâneuses. Even Leisure Valley, a public park, is not a place where women could walk comfortably. The response to this social problem has been privatization of spaces where women are given the freedom to walk behind high, guarded walls. But there is nothing to discover in walking around a building in circles. The flâneuse is constantly discovering and stumbling upon the interesting and tucked-away beauty of cities.
Cities can be beautiful, not only in the interaction with nature, but even in the built environment which is a testament to human creativity.
Flânerie, when done by women, carries an element of disruption and in that, the city itself gets redefined.
(Kalpana Viswanath works on issues of women’s safety and rights in cities)