One more optimistic days, when I look at the few women who have come with their friends to restaurants in old city parts and seem unfazed by the male dominance around them, it makes me wonder, “Have the missing women returned?” While the scanty number still prevents me from concluding ‘Yes’, many would agree that the picture we see is an emerging one, and women are slowly reclaiming the spaces that were once completely male.
When Zareen Zuberi, a 28-year-old engineer decided to have a taste of the popular Tunday kebabs in old Lucknow with her sisters,( for the first time without any male member), she was delighted. “Somehow, the evening was an important part of growing up. It was a good experience as the staff treated us well. The section dedicated to families also contributed to making us feel more comfortable.”
Upon asking social activist Shabnam Hashmi, “Why don’t the women go to tea joints as much in old Delhi”, her first reaction was, “I know a woman who owns a tea joint in Purani Dilli.” Her reaction made me smile, as though the world in all its inequalities, still has some hope. From looking through crevices to moving out, reclaiming urban spaces, to creating their own spaces, women have certainly come a long way.
Like the disappearance of women from urban spaces, their resurgence too can be ascribed to many factors. One of them being financial independence.
Asheesh Mamgain, a city-based writer says, “I think every social aspect is in a way connected to Economics. Thus, the financial independence of women has played a part here. The streets and the markets are still male-dominated, yet some women are unbothered by it and go. I feel that those who go out of their homes for work or education are also the ones who go to restaurants and tea joints to enjoy with their friends.”
For feminist author and journalist Damini Yadav, walking on the streets, alone or with a group, is part of her personality. Comfortable in her own company, she calls it her stubbornness or plain attitude to go wherever she wants, whenever. “If there is a gaze, I make sure to stare harder to make them uncomfortable if anyone dares come in my way.”
As I set on this voyage to find the missing women from iconic food places and tea stalls, I realize that many have taken the same path before me. Realizing the need for women to reclaim spaces for them to be safe for all, many organizations have come to the fore to launch interesting campaigns.
Pinjra Tod, a Delhi student collective that first started to reassess hostel curfew for women. They raise experiences such as restricted accessibility and mobility, moral policing, lack of sufficient hostels, fee-hikes and the non-existence/non-functioning of sexual harassment complaints committee cells in the universities of Delhi. A 2015 campaign started by them under the name, ‘Bus Teri Meri, Chal Saheli’ encouraged women to use buses at night as a way of normalising the idea that women use public transport during late hours too.
The issues of streets being unequal are not just limited to the country but our subcontinent. Addressing the same issues, a collective of feminists called ‘Girls at Dhabas’ is trying to raise a conversation around women’s negotiation of public spaces in Pakistan.
In their description, they say, “We are concerned with the gradual disappearance of women from the public scene and seek to redefine public spaces for women, as well as engage with the issues pertinent to gender and class in relation to the public sphere.”
In the hindsight, although things are changing in metropolitans, a lot needs to change in rur-ban areas. If any woman, is unable to go to a place just because she feels unsafe, it is an issue. When we look at solutions for making these iconic food joints/tea stalls inclusive for all, there exists a need for collective action and sensitization of all. “In the past, women’s movements have been led by just women. This needs to change,” says Shabnam Hashmi. CitySpidey reached out to some men who offered some solutions to this gender conundrum-
Himanshu Bisht, a graphic designer in Delhi says, “I think the cause of it exists in our upbringing. Our parents never ask boys to make tea, and never ask girls to go out to bring vegetables. This regulates the way we see the world and grow up. For it to change, our upbringing will first have to change.”
Saurabh, a part-time photographer and student says, “Most of the time, these iconic food places are in congested areas and isolated from the streets. That is probably why women feel unsafe. I think to change this, women’s safety is the biggest concern to be addressed. Fear of law makes people behave. Apart from that, educating and sensitizing everyone will play a crucial role in solving many social problems.”
Shazil Hussain, an aspiring auto journalist says, “If it’s a problem then the existing conditions must change. For it to change, I think the women can make a conscious choice to go to these food joints. They can go in groups so that safety can be ensured. It could make it more inclusive for other women. The men and the staff should make sure that they are not uncomfortable.”
Finally, a newly married woman I met the other day on the Delhi Metro, says, “I think whatever is stopping women from going out to enjoy is not their limitation, but the society’s fault.”
Despite knowing that society cannot change in a day, addressing problems is the first step. As we arrive at the end of June, we hope all spaces: all restaurants, all joints and streets become accessible not just for men and women but for all genders.