“Why Was She Walking Outside In The Night?” On Women & Gendered Spaces

Posted: October 4, 2017

Public spaces technically belong to everyone, but they become gendered spaces – often out of bounds due to concerns of safety.

Simone de Beauvoir once remarked, “Let her swim, climb mountain peaks, pilot an airplane, battle against the elements, take risks, go out for adventure, and she will not feel before the world the timidity which I have referred to.”

Access to public spaces has always been a feminist issue – in presenting them options other than the private realm of their homes; access is a very important choice for the modern woman.

Today when we discuss incidents of rape across India, at least somebody is quick to point out that the young woman in question must have been walking outside in the night. There is a certain practicality implied in the statement; why was the young lady outside in the night when she could have been safe in her home? Questions of agency are quickly ridiculed and a movie cannot be considered an important reason to be outside in the night. Spaces are therefore gendered in many ways according to type, time, situation, company, purpose etc.

If women today hesitate to use public spaces such as parks or restrooms, it is at least partly due to a vulnerability that draws on a gendered practicality: it is practical to be safe, it is practical to work out inside, it is safer inside my home…

The ‘shadow of sexual assault’ is a powerful metaphor because it resonates in powerful, violent imagery and narratives and grief, but it also serves as a cautionary tale to women. The cautionary tale is brutally honest and asks you to be ‘practical’. Can pepper spray be enough? Will you be able to use it very quickly and also escape? I expressed interest in taking self-defense classes to a male friend, an MMA enthusiast but he replied quite casually that they won’t be useful against men – something about ‘limits’.

The living body of the metaphor is certainly grief. Parents are carriers of this seed; telephone conversations of all my female friends with their parents have them pleading with their children to be careful, begging them to not go outside after dark. Grief is thus not gendered; parents want you to exercise caution for survival. They want their children to grow up without being traumatised; how can you blame them for love?

However against all this overwhelming evidence, young women still want to go out, they want to run in public parks, swim in public swimming pools, and use restrooms as they wish. The desire to access public spaces is a very fundamental one – not as some people like to frame it- ‘rebellious’ or ‘feminist’.

In using public spaces women strive to get beyond their gendered roles, for an equality of use and enjoyment. Public spaces are intimately connected with the ‘everyday’, which in multiple ways organize our daily lives in shaping the ways we use them.

The famous philosopher of ‘everyday’, Michel de Certeau upholds tactics such as walking that defy the institutional power of the city. For Certeau, the walker deploys tactics in crisscrossing and taking shortcuts against the planned grid of the city. Are such tactics available to women? Would tactics of usage further put women at risk?

Why isn’t access to public spaces considered essential to women? Is feminism ‘practical’ only in expanding career horizons and furthering education? Can we fault feminism in doing so?

Image credits Carol Mitchell, used via Flickr under a Creative Commons license 2.0

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Susan Haris is a feminist and animal rights activist based in Delhi.

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