Lab | Log

Women in the City: Examining Mumbai’s Gender Issues

Women and Social Spaces

One of the things I find most interesting about the Lab is the manner in which local issues naturally come up and become, without intentional curation, recurring themes in discussion. As with the Liegendschaftsfondpolitik in Berlin, for instance, these tend to be issues that weigh heavily on people’s minds and affect many aspects of city life, yet often are being poorly addressed by official channels. In Mumbai, women’s issues became among the most pressing and widespread ones to arise during the Lab’s run.

There were, of course, several Lab events that dealt with women’s issues head on, such as Women and Social Spaces, Pop-Up Garden, or Invoking Justice. But in many other instances, women’s issues cropped up as part of discussions around a wide variety of other topics—from public space to water and sanitation. It occurred to me that in a city like Mumbai, where both gender roles and inequality remain prevalent, women act, in some respects, as a sort of indicator species for the health of various city systems. In much the way that the bikeability of a city is often measured by the amount of women riding because they tend to be more averse to risk than men, for a variety of reasons women often feel the effects of unhealthy systems in Mumbai more strongly than men do.

For example, if access to water is an issue, it is often the women of the house who are required to obtain, transport, purify, and use it. If sanitation is a problem, women are the ones who tend to require more privacy using the toilet. While one frequently sees men going to the bathroom in the open in Mumbai, it is almost unheard of to see women doing so—never mind when they need to deal with, say, menstruation. If space is scarce, it is the women who have trouble finding places to speak privately with the children. And, even worse, if the spaces that do exist are dangerous, women are naturally the most vulnerable, and simply will not go. These are some examples of day-to-day realities in Mumbai that arose in more general discussions.

In talking about this, of course, it would be impossible not to acknowledge the fact that during the time the Lab was in Mumbai, there was an explosive and widespread outcry regarding women’s right to safety all over urban India in response to the now infamous Delhi rape case, and several other violent incidents around the same time. Though the Lab’s programs were planned long before the incident occurred, there was an undeniable tension in the air around these issues, and they were clearly at the forefront of many people’s minds. How much this influenced the conversation, I cannot necessarily say.

Even with this factoring in, however, as a researcher frequently working in women’s issues and health, Lab Team member Aisha Dasgupta found this surfacing of women’s issues throughout the course of the Lab an interesting and notable phenomenon. “Comparing it to New York or Berlin, I’m not at all surprised that it was cropping up so much in India—there are gross obvious inequalities there that would be weird not to talk about,” she said when I called her recently back at her home in Malawi. “The phenomenon, especially of the middle class women having more standing in society, having more control, being more vocal, is a relatively new phenomenon. I think this is the case the world over, probably, but perhaps especially so in Mumbai. So trying to figure out the woman’s place, the woman’s role—we’re still trying to figure it out, men and women alike. For me, it was fun seeing it being discussed, addressed, critiqued, etc., in the Lab. It was nice to see that those discussions are alive and kicking,” she said.

In some instances, the conversation became perhaps almost too lively, like that which ensued after the screening of Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City). What was intended to be a discussion about the role of gender in public space erupted when some men from the community (the film was screened at Sambhaji Park in the northern suburb of Mulund) began screaming at the panelists that the woman’s place is in the home, and that they should not be insinuating otherwise. Perhaps even more interesting about that event was the fact that women were almost entirely absent by the end: the event had started later than intended, and by the time it concluded, the women in attendance had already gone home to cook dinner.

Does anyone out there have other examples of how women’s equality or rights issues come to the forefront through urban politics in their cities? Other thoughts? Join me in a further discussion on this in the comment thread below.

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Photo: UnCommonSense