As I walked along the market, I saw many joints offering the cosy comfort of the town's favourite drink- tea. Long rows of plastic chairs were aligned to welcome visitors. Yet, none of them were occupied by women.
I remember being a Master’s student in a small town in Western UP. Like a small fictitious island, we would cross the same places time and again. The town had designated markets for everything, even trivial works like obtaining a printed copy. Somewhat uncomfortable by the presence of no women, and occasional glances of men on bikes and regular visitors of those tea joints, I would slowly retrace my way without having tea.
Virginia Woolf in her work ‘A room of one’s own’ talks about the need for individual spaces and financial power for women to enjoy creative freedom. She highlights the importance of having a space to be emancipated from the clutches of domesticity. Cut to the present, I see city spaces dominated by men while women remain missing (partially or completely) more than often, from tea stalls and iconic food joints in the old part of cities.
When you enter these restaurant, at first you would be dazed by the everyday chaos that sets them apart from urban cafes, it is almost a rehearsed trick wherein the khansama would throw the roti and the waiter even at a distance will never miss it on his plate. All the workers are men. Among the visitors too, there is the tired employee, hoards of boys enjoying the food with their friends, few families with women and children, and yet fewer, groups of women without a male companion.
As learnt, even if they go, many feel uncomfortable by the sheer absence of women at these joints. Injila Salman, 24, a fashion merchandiser in Delhi says, “It was a tea joint in one of the densely populated parts of the city. I was waiting for someone. Despite it being a hub of popular and affordable cafes, there were simply no women in the vicinity. It made me uncomfortable.”
The first time that I forced my female friends to go to the old part of the city to enjoy the famous kebabs, one told me, “The food was amazing, but I felt uncomfortable. I think it would have been better if a male member was accompanying us.”
Looking at these accounts, I wonder, why doesn’t the mouth-watering flavour of these fine curries and flavourful teas invite women as much as men? Where are the gangs of women bunking classes to enjoy tea and setting aside some work for carefree dinners? What is making them uncomfortable?
A brief investigation tells me that the reason for these missing women at these joints/restaurants is a mix of socio-political reasons emanating from an unequal and patriarchal society, which ought to be addressed.
Damini Yadav, a journalist, and feminist author says, “Who do they say is the responsibility to cook? Of course, women. Yet, when we go to cafes, it is always a man cooking. For centuries, men have dictated what, how much and for whom will the women cook.”
She continues, “Going to cafes, and restaurants or simply enjoying meals outside has been considered a male privilege forever. Women who are expected to be caretakers of the family are told to stay in. Plus, naturally too, if any untoward gaze or action breaches her security, she would herself stop going there.”
Social activist and Human Rights campaigner Shabnam Hashmi says, “Why just recreational spaces, women are missing from all spaces. Women are missing in policy making which trickles down to society. The said tea joints and iconic restaurants remain open till late hours and the women many times themselves are reluctant to go, as they feel unsafe. And as the number of women goes down, streets do get unsafe.”
Ishita Roy, 23, a journalism student from Delhi says, “Every girl in India has grown up hearing ‘don’t go out, ‘don’t go out with men or it is unsafe outside’. This results in strong conditioning that tells women that going out to eat can be unwelcoming. Even if they go out, there is constant surveillance of the society.”
She continues, “Very often, enjoying tea also involves smoking and that for women is also a cultural hazard apart from health. There have been times when I have been insecure in food joints. This emanates from the sheer absence of women, and a male gaze that can make one uncomfortable.”
Shazil Hussain, 27, an aspiring auto journalist says, “I think the concept of small tea joints began as something to serve workers who would be doing day jobs which they worked under the sun, that is why they were dominated by men. Now, they have come up to serve youth. I would agree that yes there are fewer women at restaurants and tea stalls. Honestly, the women I know would not prefer going there as they're unhygienic. However. I can't deny that it is also because, in many cultures, men are supposed to be the providers, and then they are the ones who move out. Women are expected to take domestic roles. It is also true that our cities and our society impose more restrictions on women.”
Scholars Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade in their book “Why Loiter?” talk about the need for women to loiter as a way to reclaim male-dominated public spaces. They suggest that the current cities have reinforced gender relations in a society where women are kept safe in private spaces and try to limit their right to space rather than making public spaces safe for them. Here, the unavailability of unbiased public areas, infrastructure, and city designs play a significant role that actively prevents the participation of women in shaping the future of the cities.
In the second part of this article, we will explore how youth and women-led organisations are working towards reclaiming urban spaces and what are the solutions for making them more inclusive for women.