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  • Writer's pictureMallika Gupta

Zara hat ke, zara bach ke…

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

Ah! To be a teen in the time of Bollywood; it shows you colourful dreams and paints picturesque imageries in your mind, redefining ideas of freedom and fun. Like Ranbir Kapoor as ‘Bunny,’ loudly declaring “main udna chahta hun, daudna chahtu hai,” you want to fly and run. Or like Kangana Ranaut’s Banno you wish to saunter while your “swaager laage sexy.” Or even like Alia Bhatt, you dream of country tours with broodingly beautiful abductors and background music celebrating freedom.

But while I, like the rest of you, aspire to do all this, how do I explain to Bunny, that when I go to run, men stare at every part of my body? Or to Banno that I dare not look sexy and walk with a confident sway, because that isn’t allowed in this man’s world and even to Alia, that I’m afraid my abductor won’t be as kind or compassionate as Randeep Hooda was with you? For every time I step out into my city, the song that plays in my mind is not one of freedom but instead of a warming along the lines of “Ai dil hai mushakil jeena yaha, Zara hat ke zara bach ke…“ Because I’m a girl who wants to have fun, but the city isn’t a fun place for me. Not the streets, not the public transport and not even the gardens.

At first glance, gardens aren’t actually all that tragic. For example, one early March morning, I walked in to the Parimal Garden in Ahmedabad and there they were- women of all ages; jogging, walking, chatting, exercising and basically optimization all that the garden had to offer. Seeing their smiling, happy faces, six months of research and all 7000 words that I had written about the ‘spatial manifestation of patriarchy’ and the ‘everyday violence against Indian women’ flew right out of my window and into one of the garden’s beautiful lily ponds.

However, if this garden was truly gender neutral, one would be forced to question many tiny details that appear on closer inspection. Why for one, are groups of elderly women only found sitting in 2-3 well-lit areas with benches, in comparison to large groups of men scattered all over the 3.6 hectares of the garden, sprawling on the grass and the seats. Or perhaps, why do the young female walkers, avoid the aesthetic routes around the lily pond, sticking only to the stark peripheral route, despite the inner routes being lined with ‘beautiful’ shrubbery so tall and lush, that one cannot even see through them. Why is it that in the hour after sunset, the number of women in the garden declines drastically from nearly hundred to none? If one were truly to start interpreting patterns here, (the 7000 words have now washed up on the bank, and are drying themselves in the Sun) one would also question the density of female distribution over the garden, and the tendency to be near light, with close access to exits and even motivated by the presence of children.

Unfortunately, that is the crux of gendered public spaces in our country, that at first glance they do not appear gendered at all. They do not appear with large signboards telling women to ‘KEEP OUT!’ But instead develop slowly, when subtle structures of patriarchy are put to use to restrict women’s access to public space, beyond a specified time or purpose. These subtle cues results in the development of mental images in women regarding what a dangerous space looks or feels like.

It is for this reason that the design of spaces like public gardens holds a unique potential to break out from societal expectations and catalyze social reform for women. Gardens such as the one at Parimal are intentionally designed spaces, if not entirely built, with a singular function of providing leisure. And leisure is often the area of experience that women draw onto, to carve out some autonomy for themselves. Celebrated academician and author, Shilpa Phadke, draws upon her decade of experience in gender studies to emphasize, that in addition to safety, the ability of women to openly seek leisure is of utmost importance for building relationships with the city. From this perspective, leisure ceases to be time to be passed or killed, and becomes a vital process in the lives of women.

Thus, a space that successfully accommodates the leisure needs of a woman, not only provides to her, provisions for physical exercise, social interaction and mental appeasement, but also a safe and inclusive space for self-expression. Here, the design of socially inclined public spaces such as gardens gain precedent, and must include sensitive, inclusive design strategies. It is only then, when women are able to seek leisure in the public, that they feel a sense of belonging with the city and thus discover identities, beyond those defined by the men around them.

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