How Do Men and Women Rest in Public Spaces? Gender Tells All

Resting at a bus stop or a juice stall? You’d be shocked how at how differently men and women behave, finds a study.

Published
Women
5 min read
Women in public spaces. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)

How differently does an Indian woman behave in a public space in comparison to a man? What are the factors that come into play for her, especially when she wants to rest a bit in public?

These are some of the questions that were explored in a study by Centre of Environmental Planning and Technology (Cept) in Ahmedabad recently.

The group, comprising of India’s Dipika Shripad Lele, Norway’s Vilde Livsdatter and Australia’s Kieran Maguire, chose the concept of ‘rest’ in urban spaces and how different genders perceive them.

How differently does an Indian woman behave in a public space in comparison to a man? (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
How differently does an Indian woman behave in a public space in comparison to a man? (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Interestingly, the findings confirm the sexist stereotype Indians are well aware of; men are confident and rest almost anywhere in a public space while women prefer moving in groups or walking past by-lanes hurriedly. The way Indian women sit or lean to rest in public is also more careful in comparison to men, reflecting the patriarchal nature of society.

Where are Women More at Ease?

The team came up with generalisations that are unique to India, irrespective of locations.

The study finds that men are more relaxed, comfortable and social in most public spaces. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
The study finds that men are more relaxed, comfortable and social in most public spaces. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Talking about rest specifically, we can say that women tend to feel uneasy resting, waiting or sitting alone, whereas when they are in a group, they are at ease. Also, women try to find a nook or corner that is even slightly out of the public eye in a marketplace to wait.
Dipika Shripad Lele, Masters student in planning, Cept University
Women tend to feel uneasy resting, waiting or sitting alone, whereas when they are in a group, they are at ease. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Women tend to feel uneasy resting, waiting or sitting alone, whereas when they are in a group, they are at ease. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)

The study titled ‘Gender, Urban spaces and Resting places’ focused on a busy marketplace area of Old Amdavad called Dhalgarwad. The popular fabric market was broken down into five parts; public, private and transitional (space between public and private) spaces, a nimbupani stall and a sugarcane juice stall with informal seating.

The market place was interesting because it was tightly knit with residential buildings, blurring the lines of public and private space. We conducted mapping exercises of all these spaces at various times of the day, interviewed the locals and referred to studies done on the subject.
Dipika Shripad Lele
 Women shopping in the market place are often seen in big groups, who prefer to rest or stop once in a while to discuss their shopping and bargains. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Women shopping in the market place are often seen in big groups, who prefer to rest or stop once in a while to discuss their shopping and bargains. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)

The study finds that men are more relaxed, comfortable and social in most public spaces. Women are observed to be more at ease in the residential lanes, where they spend time chatting with friends or acquaintances. Those shopping in the market place are often seen in big groups, who prefer to rest or stop once in a while to discuss their shopping and bargains.

It also finds that transitional spaces are occupied by men more than women, who tend to increase their pace while walking through these lanes. One of the students – Vilde Livsdatter – who has studied urban spaces in both Norway and Denmark, agrees that this is a common observation everywhere:

Transitional spaces are occupied by men more than women, who tend to increase their pace while walking through these lanes. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Transitional spaces are occupied by men more than women, who tend to increase their pace while walking through these lanes. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
I think that if big groups of men occupy a place, women don’t rest near them. That is the only time when the difference between genders is greatly noticeable. Women may not feel that comfortable around a gathering of men as the latter’s social behaviour changes, leading to a piqued sexual interest.”

Making Public Spaces More Accessible to Women

Gender and space is a widely discussed topic in the urban design circle – especially with the advent of smart cities. Professor Madhavi Desai, a senior faculty with Cept University, has authored a book that addresses this gap in gender-sensitive approaches among built environment professionals called ‘Gender and the Built Environment in India’.

Gender and space is a widely discussed topic in the urban design circle – especially with the advent of smart cities. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Gender and space is a widely discussed topic in the urban design circle – especially with the advent of smart cities. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Indian cities have increasingly become less accessible to the marginalised population – including the physically challenged, children and women. It is now accepted that along with class, caste and religion, gender plays a highly significant role in the structure, use and shape of urban spaces as the ability to access space is a function of status and power.
Madhavi Desai, senior faculty with Cept University

She adds, “Often urban and suburban spaces are designed to support stereotypical male activities. Our standard planning methodologies reflect a patriarchal bias. In reality, men and women experience and identify with the city differently as they negotiate physical/social/political spaces.”

In the case of children, however, gender did not come into play at all as children tend to gravitate towards areas that women are comfortable in. Most of them are found near women, a sign that can be associated with the fact that mothers and grandmothers spend more time with kids at home.

Most children are found near women, a sign that can be associated with the fact that mothers and grandmothers spend more time with kids at home. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Most children are found near women, a sign that can be associated with the fact that mothers and grandmothers spend more time with kids at home. (Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)

So, what can make Indian women comfortable in urban spaces? Lele and team – who completed their project under Professor Kiran M Keswani – suggest open, well-lit, interactive urban spaces. Small design interventions can be introduced in places where women feel uncomfortable – for instance, installation lights in shady by-lanes can work wonders.

But, as Desai points out:

“In spite of the dominant engagement with the urban realm at theoretical, practical and policy levels in India, this issue has not been well-examined. Therefore, concerns about gender have largely remained vague and invisible, even in the smart city agenda.”
Small design interventions can be introduced in places where women feel uncomfortable – for instance, installation lights in shady by-lanes can work wonders.(Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)
Small design interventions can be introduced in places where women feel uncomfortable – for instance, installation lights in shady by-lanes can work wonders.(Photo Courtesy: Vilde Livsdatter)

(Runa Mukherjee Parikh has written on women, culture, social issues, education and animals, with The Times of India, India Today and IBN Live. When not hounding for stories, she can be found petting dogs, watching sitcoms or travelling. A big believer in ‘animals come before humans’, she is currently struggling to make sense of her Bengali-Gujarati lifestyle in Ahmedabad.)

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