A Question Of Space

Several innovative projects across India are mapping the gendered explorations of women travellers, their tales, and how they navigate their way through the world
Several women-led organisations across India are working to highlight narratives of women exploring space and boundaries
Several women-led organisations across India are working to highlight narratives of women exploring space and boundariesPhoto: Shutterstock

The theme for International Women's Day 2024 is "Inspire Inclusion." The campaign aims to forge a more inclusive world for women collectively because while some battles for gender equality have been won, many remain. One of the starkest differences is how men can navigate and explore the world—their experience differs significantly from a woman's. While urban women can travel actively, worries about their safety, convenience, and appearance prevent them from freely exploring, cycling, and walking the way men can.

Are We There Yet?

And it is not just the safety aspects; there are many layers to the idea of women exploring spaces. "Just walk around any city or town, and you will see that few memorialise women, in the naming of public spaces like streets, in the many statues scattered around," says Koel Pandey, an advertising professional based in Kolkata. "Women have been overlooked and completely underrepresented in the naming of places. Naming places and streets after significant persons is a way to show the social rank and hierarchy in our lives and spaces."

This glaring discrepancy is reflected in the studies done by various global organisations. The European Data Journalism Network (EDJNet), a network of media organisations from Europe producing data-driven coverage of issues, studied 1,45,933 streets in 30 major European cities. The findings of the study were startling. On average, 91 per cent of streets are named after men. Even in Stockholm, which has the smallest gender gap, streets named after men still account for more than 80 per cent.

A mural in Lucknow by Fearless Collective
A mural in Lucknow by Fearless Collective

Similarly, Mapbox, a US-based provider of customised maps, has created an interactive map highlighting the scarcity of streets named after women in major cities worldwide. The group analysed seven cities—London, Paris, San Francisco, Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, and Bangalore. Their research revealed that, on average, only 27.5 per cent of the streets surveyed were named after women.

These statistics are in stark contrast to the rise in travel companies that are bringing together women who want to travel together and explore new places.

"While women have made excellent progress towards freedom and access to spaces, there is still a vast difference between how they live and the stories in media about women breaking all barriers," says Mrinalini Roy, a 20-something freelance new media writer based in Mumbai.

The Freedom Of Explorations

Several women-led organisations across India are working to highlight these narratives of women exploring space and boundaries, looking at who has access to what spaces, with what limitations, and why.

Street art in Sri Lanka by Fearless Collective
Street art in Sri Lanka by Fearless Collective

"The word 'explorer' implies an exploration of the unknown," said Jasmeen Patheja, the founder and director of Blank Noise, an organisation that works with communities to design and innovate methodologies for social change. "The unknown is intrinsic to 'exploration' because it involves discovering place and self. We must offer and rely on newer narratives of trust in our right to be explorers. And to know the difference in how men and women experience travel."

Blank Noise has been conducting a series of interviews with women across cities and towns in India on places they like to explore on their own. Responses varied, but most women said they do not go anywhere alone for pleasure. "There is always a purpose to 'going somewhere.' The idea of being an explorer, a wanderer, and to claim that as a woman, is a growing idea," said Patheja.

Blank Noise's numerous public and participatory projects attempt to address that. For instance, 'I Never Ask For It' bears garment and audio testimonies of victim blame and fear. "It (the project) allows us to raise questions on the right to be defenceless, to say we are done defending because for too long we have been raised to carry the burden of preparedness," said Patheja.

'Women Walk At Midnight' encourages women to explore at night
'Women Walk At Midnight' encourages women to explore at night

In The Midnight Hour

Several other initiatives are drawing attention to women's relationship with public spaces. For instance, the 'I Will Go Out' campaign, launched in 2016 in response to sexual harassment cases during New Year's Eve celebrations in Bengaluru, has organised marches advocating for safe public spaces for women.

The 'Why Loiter' movement has involved women intentionally "loitering" around cities, sharing photos on Twitter with the #WhyLoiter hashtag.

"Loitering is a non-normative activity. It is a way of asserting presence, of saying we are here, this is our space as much as it is anyone else's," write Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade in their book of the same name, "Why Loiter?"

A mural by Blank Noise, based on a poem by Patheja
A mural by Blank Noise, based on a poem by Patheja

The 'Women Walk at Midnight' project is a unique cross-city dialogue between women exploring spaces late at night in different cities. They have chapters in Delhi, Bangalore, Faridabad, Guwahati, and Cape Town.

Bringing art to the conversation is Fearless Collective, which was started by artist Shilo Shiv Suleman in 2012. They create public art interventions with women and misrepresented communities across the world.

"It's high time that women go out on the streets and reclaim their public space and represent their own stories fearlessly," says Suleman. She believes India needs more female artists on the streets, making way for critical social justice conversations and transforming corners of fear and trauma into a canvas of beautiful art.

*Quotes have been edited for grammar and clarity

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