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Public spaces technically belong to everyone, but they become gendered spaces - often out of bounds due to concerns of safety.
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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Mostly Normal is a book of innocence, longing, filial love, angst and acceptance, encapsulating a gamut of human emotions within its lightweight edifice. The book touches the human heart and will stay with you.
Some books enthral you till the last page, and then there are those that you stop reading after turning a few pages. Some books are a one-time read, while you carry some books with you long after you have read them. Then, once in a while, a book hits you so close to home that you find it difficult to slot into any category.
I will put Priyadeep Kaur’s Mostly Normal (BookSoul Reads, 2022) in this last bracket.
At a little less than hundred pages, Mostly Normal is a testimony of the power of words to inspire, irrespective of their length.
Most women do not get to live their lives the way they want, on their own terms. So why should they be tied down in their old age?
Every morning, while dropping the kids at the bus stop, I find a grandfather waiting with his granddaughter. I see him again when I fetch the kids. This has been the pattern for the last few years.
He is seen actively participating in his granddaughter’s activities, from morning and evening walks to attending her parent-teachers meeting, sending her for extracurricular activities to even planning her birthday party. He is admired by all. He is appreciated for making himself useful in his old age. People rave that the doting grandfather is doing his duty towards his children and grandchildren. The much-admired grandfather is also a widower, having lost his wife years ago to chronic disease. It’s also to be noted that both his son and daughter-in-law are working parents.
Every day, the onlookers appreciate his sense of duty and dedication. They say that this is how the elderly should keep themselves occupied. They should bring up their grandchildren while their children go off to work.
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