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Genre et Construction de la Géographie

Yves Raibaud
Kamala Marius

Cinquième Partie. Espaces du Sud

Negotiating Gendered Urban Space: Experiences of Women across Classes in India

Gopa Samanta et Sil Pallabi

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1Although ‘Space’ has always been a core issue of concern in the analysis of Geography, ‘Gender’ issues are still much under-researched by the Geographers in India (Lahiri-Dutt, 2010). However, in the last two decades, simultaneous with the move towards problematising ‘gender’ as a stable category of analysis in social theory, there has been movement towards re-conceptualising space (Ranade, 2007). The analysis of gender and space together helps us to understand how gender relations play constitutive roles in the production and reproduction of social relations as well as of social space. We, therefore, hire the concept of social space as defined by Lefebvre (1991: 73) ‘the outcome of past actions and which permits fresh action to occur’ to understand the changing gender relations and the redefinition of urban space through the actions taken up by women in the cities. Gender differences not only reflect and express complex economic and social relationships of power, but also the social norms of masculinity and femininity make considerable differences in the lived experiences of women and men in the society (Geetha, 2002). The gender differences do not affect women uniformly across class, caste and location (rural and urban). The multidimensional gender differences affect Indian women differently and there is an emergent need to identify and analyse this different levels of inequality and experiences based on gender.

2In the analysis of gender relations, the research often categorizes space of women into public and private, and therefore, there is considerable volume of research in India to analyse the gender differences either within the private space i. e. within family or in the public space. Very few studies have been done to understand the interlinked processes of power play between these two worlds (private and public) controlling women’s lives and space as a whole. Another trend of gender research in India is to focus either on rural women or on women living in Indian metro cities leaving out women who are living in small and medium cities (Lahiri-Dutt and Sil, 2004). Since the experiences of women living in small and medium cities are considerably different from those of metro cities, defining ‘urban women’ as a single category of research is problematic in Indian scenario. The gender relations are more complex in these small and medium cities as they are still in transition from feudal traditional rural society to an advanced modern metropolitan, and their urban spaces are highly dominated by masculinity.

3In the above context, this paper puts emphasis on women of small and medium cities in India. We are trying to understand how these women negotiate both their private and public space together to produce their own space by pushing back the social and cultural norms without overtly challenging the existing rules (such as gender division of labour) set by the patriarchy. Large quantitative changes in societal values are believed to occur through collective movements of women, and as a result, small qualitative changes brought about by individual woman in their families and in workplaces remain invisible (Lahiri-Dutt and Sil, 2004). In this paper, we are trying to understand how these changes are taking place at an individual level through negotiations done by these women both inside the family and in the workplace to expand their social space in the city. Our perspectives of this study also differ from the existing literature in the sense that we do not to see women of Indian cities as victims, ignoring their inputs, but to look at women’s agency and ingenuities in negotiating space for themselves in the surviving patriarchy. This paper examines the strategies by which both the middle class and the poor class urban women are expanding their social spaces through negotiating patriarchal resistances and analyses how these actions and strategies taken up by women is helping to redefine urban spaces in small city context.

Urban Public Space and Gender

4Masculinizing and feminizing practices associated with the body are at the heart of the social construction of gender identity and creating public/private and indoor/outdoor divide of space for men and women. Urban gendered spaces are areas of a city identified by the predominance of one sex (Spain, 2005). The existing systems of gender inequality in societies get established in the public space of the cities that almost universally elevate men’s status above women’s. Women seldom occupy the public realm. They rarely make decisions applicable to an entire community, nor do they control the use of force or influence economic policy (Rosaldo 1980; Ryan 1990). In almost each and every cities of West Bengal, there is an urban planner in the Urban Local Body (ULB), however, our field observations reveal that very few of them are women. Therefore, in the pattern of planning for the cities and their public spaces, the necessity of women is ignored.

5Public space is usually visualized to be a deeply connected subsection of public sphere and it reflects the divisions and hierarchies of it. Female gendered spaces are important for the public realm because they give women an identity outside the family and provide a safe space in which to establish economic independence (Spain 2005). Such spaces usher women into public and are important contributors to an egalitarian city. In Indian cities, it is the masculinity which dominates the public space in almost all cities starting from metropolis to the small and medium cities, and female gendered spaces are utterly insignificant in proportion. Democratization of city space questioning the discrimination of class, community and gender is of utmost importance today (Smith, 1989; Phadke, 2007). However, the reality is far from ideal, and the Indian cities are divided in a number of small spaces segregating citizens on the basis of class, caste and gender. In the globalizing phase, the State always talks about ‘inclusive cities’ and is excluding poor, underprivileged and women from a number of public spaces from the cities.

6The access to and control of space, public and private is an important marker of power and status. It is also an important entry point into understanding various kinds of hierarchies existing in the society. The regulation of women’s access to city space is connected to what one might call a notion of ‘defilability’ of both spaces and women themselves (Phadke, 2002). To understand how these work, we need to dwell upon the ‘gender’ in ‘gendered spaces’ not as an adjective of space, but as a verb to en-gender space (Ranade, 2007). The process of making gendered spaces is defined by Low (2006) as genderization of spaces which is effected through the organisation of perception. The genderization of perception leads to a choice of place and placing a practice that reproduces structural principles of society (including gender). In other words, gender may be seen as inscribed, via body practices, in the production of spaces.

7Spaces, therefore, must be seen as orderings/arrangements that are inherently dynamic and contested. In recent years, the studies in social geography and sociology conceived spaces as processual, relationally ordered system. Following Low (2006) it can be said that spaces are, first, an expression of the possibility of pluralities; second, they point to the possibility of overlapping and reciprocal relations; and third, for this very reason they are always open and indefinite with respect to future formations. Accordingly in this research we are trying to look at the changes in the space for women both in the public and in the private realm and how the interplay of these two spaces are restructuring the society as well redefining the urban space for women through the production of individual cliché spaces.

Methodology and Data Sources

8In the present paper we are trying to understand the production of urban social space through a cross sectional analysis of the experiences of women in small city context. For empirical research we have selected Burdwan city located in the eastern part of India (having more than 3,00,000 population). The selection has been on the ground that most of the studies on women and cities in India are based on big and metropolitan cities leaving out the middle sized ones that have experienced changes in different ways. Burdwan is a non-industrial city, the society of which is more conservative and tradition-bound than that of the metropolitan cites, as the city is dominated by the rural migrants from the rich farmers’ families located in the surrounding areas. We have interviewed 80 women out of which 40 belong to the poor class and another 40 belong to the middle class. Among the middle class women, 15 samples are selected from formal sector workers and 25 from informal sector to have a representative participation of the mass of women workers in the city.

9We have selected women from different classes and from different sectors in the city: middle class and poor class, formal and informal sectors. For representative sample from middle class women in formal sector, we have selected women professionals having higher education (Ph. D) who are engaged in college (UG) teaching. From middle class informal sector, we have selected women who are engaged in self employed category of work, as it is the most representative sample in that category. In the poor class category, we have selected women vendors, especially the marginal sellers of vegetables and other food items in the daily urban market. The selection of the research participants has been done on the basis of their willingness to our verbal invitation and availability of their time.

10Questions posed to the respondents during interviews were mostly open-ended to explore their own experience of negotiating family as well as public space in the city, which are usually dominated by masculinity. Timeuse survey was done to analyse the levels of hardship they experience each and every single day to negotiate family on one hand and the workplace on the other. Following Reinharz (1992), we tried to document the lives and activities of these women, explore their own experiences from their own point of view and understand their actions to create their own space in the highly gendered city. We used interviews to add depth and richness to the survey findings rather than to generalize about a population.

The context: Class, Gender and Urban Space

11Classes (upper, middle and poor), based on socio-economic status of family, play a dominant role in the production of women’s space in Indian cities. Among these three classes, although upper and poor classes are defined on the basis of economic criteria, middle class is a purely social class in Indian context. In this study we are focusing on the women from two classes: middle (the social class) and poor (economic class). Following Mukhopadhyay’s (1988) we define middle class as the respectable class tied together by a similar lifestyle, customs, ethics and idealism. Middle class in our study represent a social class in the city including a number of economic subgroups such as agricultural land owners, businessmen and families engaged in formal and informal service sector activities.

12The urban middle class in India is more concerned with tradition on one hand and modernity on the other thus lying in transition between feudal and modern society and the conflict between tradition and modernity becomes problematical when it comes to negotiating gender roles in the society. The women of this middle class are subject to greater degree of patriarchy than the poor-class women (Bardhan, 1987) and are placed firmly within ideologies of family status, and social control and protection (Datta, 1999). The housekeeping including caring children and elderly members in the family and of keeping family samman (social prestige) by restricting their own mobility to the public spaces are the traditional responsibilities of the middle class women in Indian cities. These bindings and control are stricter in small cities like Burdwan than larger metropolitan cities as the former has been less affected by the waves of modernisation and enlightenment (Lahiri-Dutt and Sil, 2004).

13Up to 1990s, middle class women in the cities were option-less as there was very few income generating opportunities left for them except doing permanent jobs in the formal public sector. Since late 1990s the globalisation process has started to affect the lives of middle class in Indian cities especially the women and their work (Mazumdar, 2007; Ganguli Scrase and Scrase, 2009) to a large extent. This globalisation factor has also brought a number of income opportunities to these women in the form of informal employment to the private sector as well as self-employment in a number of activities serving increasing consumer demands. These jobs are neither dependent on feminine skills nor can be categorized into conventional home-based occupation (Lahiri-Dutt and Sil, 2004). Although the numbers of opportunities for women were less in smaller cities like Burdwan compared to big metropolis such as Kolkata, the women in Burdwan did not miss the even limited opportunities and started redefining their social space through productive activities in the city.

14In contrast to the situation of middle class, the poor class women have to cope with poverty and malnutrition, lack of access to urban basic services such as water and sanitation, unhygienic environmental conditions and ill health which put together create extreme hardship. In India, very few studies have been done on urban poverty with a focus on gender dimension and there is a trend in mixing these two distinct forms of disadvantages ‘poverty’ and ‘gender’ into the notion of ‘feminisation of poverty’(Rustagi, Sarkar and Joddar, 2009). Although the visibility of poor women in the public space have increased to a certain extent in the metropolitan cities, it is basically for ill paid and uncertain jobs, self-employed category of work, home based work at piece rate and casual labouring (Ghosh, 1998, Nair, 2009). In small and medium cities like Burdwan, the women are still not having enough opportunities for an earning. The works available for poor women in Burdwan are monthly salary based domestic help either as cook or as maid servants, and self employed marginal vending of vegetables and other food items. In our research we have focused on the women vendors as the representative research participants as they negotiate highly masculine gendered urban space called ‘market place’.

Redefining Urban Public Space

15Sociologist Lyn Lofland (1998) identified three types of urban space for women: the private realm of the household and family, the parochial realm of the neighborhood, and the public realm of the city, where women are treated as strangers. Women have been traditionally relegated to the private realm and when they venture into the city, they are recognized as strangers engaged in civic life (Spain, 2005). The inequality between sexes and the systematic discrimination that women and girls face in a patriarchal system limit their movements and ability to negotiate public spaces in cities and this limitation affects women’s lives in a numerous ways—right and access to education, to paid work and the freedom to move around (Viswanath and Tandon Mehrotra, 2007).

16In recent years, feminist geographers have been increasingly interested in both how gender relations are produced in the workplace, as well as the process by which women move into and out of different sectors of the labour market (Boyer, 2006). Most of the studies on women and work have observed that women from the upper and middle class families are often bounded by social taboos which prevent them from exploring income generating areas, which are usually dominated by the men in cities. Most of our research participants have mentioned that their abilities have often been suppressed psychologically by their family members to restrict themselves within home.

17The public space in the cities of India is dominated by masculine space both in visibility/mobility and in the participation of work. The women in cities go out of the house only when they have a particular purpose (Phadke, 2005) and in most cases those are for either paid work (formal, informal, salaried and self employed) or unpaid work such as dropping and picking up children, escorting elderly family members to banks or health institutions, shopping etc. and sometimes for enjoyment like going to cinema hall or visiting friends and fairs. Most of our research participants mentioned that they never spent time anywhere in the city on their own except for going to see a film along with female friends. Women do not have the right just to ‘hang out’ or occupy public spaces without a purpose or a clear destination (Viswanath and Tandon Mehrotra, 2008), which puts women to negotiating the time (day) and space (safe) of their movement in the city. In Indian society, they are trained not to put themselves in a risky environment as their honour is the honour of the family and they have to protect their respectability as well as that of her family. For this reason, women often create a restricted world that further limits their opportunities (Wesely and Gaarder, 2004). We observed that there is a high variation in the presence of women in the city’s public space depending on the time of the day. It is in the day time, when we see more women in city’s public space which decreases as night approaches. Although it is thought that safety and security are the main reasons behind this absence of women on the city streets in the late evening, it is actually the social factors which limit their movement (Phadke, 2007; Valentine, 1992). Bandana (32 years old and single woman) who often works up to late evening in the city remarks that ‘I often work up to 10 pm in the evening and I run my bicycle on the city streets but I never felt that the city is unsafe for women up to that time although I hardly see any other single woman moving in the city by that time’. Therefore, it is not always the actual risk of safety, rather it is the ‘fear of risk’ which family tries to impose on women.

18The market places of the city in the day time and in the evening are visited by women as customers. Our field study shows that the main market place in the city has 355 shops among which 4 are run by women owners. Among these four women, three are widows, who have taken up the family business on the sudden death of their husbands, and the other one is single upon whom there is a relative relaxation of social norms. This observation explains that doing a formal business in a city market is still a distant dream for women. Aparna (40 years old married woman) explains the problems of opening a shop in the main market ‘I wanted to open a shop in the main market area but for that I needed a higher amount of capital to invest. My family (husband and father-in-law) denied to give me that support as they wanted me to be at home and gave me only that much money with which I could only run a business from home’. Sangeeta (doctor’s wife) stated that ‘My family has a social prestige in the town as my husband and my father-in-law are both doctors here. They gave me enough money to do a business but on condition that I shall run my beauty parlour in the ground floor of our house. Therefore, sometimes it is lack of access to capital and sometimes the social taboos, which limit middle class women to enter into the masculine market spaces in the city. Women are very often accepting these conditions posed by their families as a process of negotiation to do something on their own to expand their own individual spaces as well as to redefine the urban public space.

19The women in informal sector experienced the problem of ‘male gaze’ in their workplace at the initial stage of their work. It was always a nuisance to them, but ultimately with the passage of time, they have overcome the problem by establishing a friendly relation with their male colleagues in their work place besides creating their own support network among women colleagues. This is the innovative process adopted by women in making their workspace more women friendly. Some of the women have also stated that they have got some men who help them out in several circumstances related to their work. However, there are a number of women who still have to face difficulties in workplace as they do not socialize much with their male colleagues. This observation proves that controlling women’s lives even in passive ways as friends by helping them and advising them in each and every step is the power of masculinity dominating the public spaces. A few women have also mentioned that they have faced sexual harassment by their male colleagues and also by male customers. Women who do small business feel humiliated when their wholesale suppliers often underestimate their capacity to repay. These men also see them as ‘loose women’ and try to take advantage of them. In spite of all these factors coming on the way of expanding their space in the public, women never gave up working in an unfriendly workspace. They have always tried to make the workspace better through the process of adjustments sometimes by ignoring the bad comments, sometimes by reacting to those and sometimes working together as a group in which one woman helps the other.

20In the category of women college teachers located in 10 cities of southern Bengal, we have found that although the number and visibility of women is relatively higher in their workplace (around 30 %), it is the men who are mostly in the governing body (GB) of the colleges to act as the decision makers. All the posts of teacher council’s secretary are held by male. In 3 out of 15 colleges, there are women in the post of assistant teacher council’s secretary (subordinate to the male secretary). The teachers’ representation in governing body from women teachers are absent in case of 8 colleges and in the rest 7 colleges there is only one woman teacher in the governing body in spite of their representation in the college in between 30 and 40 percent. As a consequence of this poor representation of women in the decision making body of the colleges, women’s needs (separate common rooms for women, separate toilets for women teachers and girls students with running water and regular cleaning facility) are not being prioritized. The conditions of working environment are relatively better in the colleges where there are women in the decision making bodies. In the colleges without women representative in GB, the women constantly negotiate with their male colleagues to make their demands met by the GB. In many cases women have succeeded to make their demand heard by the decision makers just by the process of persuasion of repeated requests to their male colleagues.

21The question of women vendors in negotiating workspace is around extreme marginality. In eight market areas which we investigated in the city, the number of women vendors is negligible in comparison to the men vendors (two per cent on an average). They are always seen at the periphery of the market, whereas the main areas are always occupied by men. This is because the men drive the women out by using foul language to which the women remain silent to cope with this situation and leave the better place to male vendors. They also face difficulty in competing with the men who attract customer with their louder voice. In spite of facing those challenges, women vendors in the market are continuing to do their business and the number of women is increasing steadily in all the markets in the city. Although their earning is much less than that of their male colleagues, women vendors are successful in making their place in the markets even if it is marginal in nature.

Negotiating and Refashioning Private Space

22Earning, even if it is of small amount, sometimes has a significant value in women’s life and that is why income is considered as one of the important empowering tools for women. Our research participants both from middle and from poor classes, are happy about their earning. The additional dimension of earning for women is the associated mobility in the city outside home, which they value much. There is wide variation in the levels of income among women from different classes and from different categories of work. The average monthly income of college teachers vary between Rs. 40,000 to 60,000. For the middle class informal workers, the income varies between less than Rs. 3,000 to more than Rs. 20,000. The women vendors usually earn between Rs. 2,000 to Rs. 5,000 per month depending on the capital investment, nature of commodity sold, and the time spent for work. Whatever be the income level of these women, all contribute a certain share of their income to the family. The poor women usually do the expenditure for the daily food, clothes, health care and education of their children. The middle class women sometimes give a certain amount to their husbands on monthly basis or there is a division of the expenditure to be done in the family. Many of them contribute lump sum to increase family assets rather than pay regularly. We also observed some cases, where the major share of the income is taken away by their husband. A few women are there who can enjoy their entire income for their own self.

23Whatever be the mode of operation of holding income or spending it, all women expressed their happiness for this access to income. If we try to measure the levels of empowerment, then it is very difficult to say that they have become empowered in the true sense of the term. To be a sustained process of change, women’s empowerment has to-and in fact does-orient itself towards ‘critical others’ who can support and help sustain that empowerment (Chopra, 2006). However, they feel that they have achieved a high level of emancipation as their social space both in the private and in the public realm has improved much. Buying small things like Sunday’s newspaper and Women’s magazine or food from the city restaurant from their own income have changed the quality of their life. Many women commented that they used to feel bad to ask money from their husbands because of the queries and sometime insult too, which were very humiliating. Durgarani Sarkar (a poor woman vendor) stated ‘I was brutally beaten up by my drunken husband on asking money for my clothes once. On that very day, I decided to earn something. I started working as a vendor with only Rs. 200 which I took as loan from my brother. Now I bear all the household expenses as my husband spends the major share of his income for buying country liquor.’ In the process of negotiating private space, there is no remarkable change/reduction in the burden of their household activities (Sil, 2010). Rather it has increased their burden of work since they are doing domestic work as well as working outside for earning. However, the women are ready to shoulder that heaviest burden as they themselves consider that household chore is women’s prerogative.

24Another significant change in the women’s lives is the development of social network outside the family with whom they can share their joys and sorrows. This social network of these women often turns into social capital when women get genuine help from the other women in terms of money, labour and mental support. This social network is the new social space for women in cities, which has been created by them. They also can enjoy their time with their women colleagues. But they still have the problem of socialising with their male counterparts because of the social norms existing in small city context. However, the women think that the day will come soon when they will be able to do many things which they cannot do now as the situation has changed a lot for them compared to the prevalent situation before they started working in the public.


25This research observed that the women’s lives and their spaces both in public and in private spheres in small and medium cities of India are changing, but slowly, in comparison to that of the big metro cities. The social space has been enhanced whereas the economic empowerment is still a distant reality for most of them. Tradition and social norms still have strong impact on women’s lives and therefore, little change has taken place in dress code, pattern of acceptable behaviour and gender roles in the family. Each and every woman is playing the double role of maintaining houses besides putting hard labour for their earning as there is no change in the men’s roles within the private space. However, going out for work, by pushing the boundary drawn by the society and family to limit their lives, is perceived as a big achievement by the women. Sense of financial independence, confidence and capacity building, and developing social network have improved and expanded the social space for women in small and medium cities. They have created their own space through negotiation at workspace as well as in the family in a rather compromising way. Their strategies of negotiation are very indigenous and through these non-coercive strategies, they are redefining urban space which contests masculine agencies and entitlements of urban space existing in small cities of India.

26Finally, the present empirical research proves that there is no point of looking at women as ‘victim’and this negative approach of dealing women’s issues needs to be interrogated in future research. Rather, we can analyse the innumerable and subtle ways in which they are fighting their own struggle with less coercion and more negotiations, and developing their agencies through a number of actions (production and consumption) to produce their social spaces in cities of India. The paper also interrogates the popular way of analyzing women’s issues in cities into private and public space separately. Our study observed that both the spheres of space are very much interlinked and any change in one space affect the other to a considerable extent.



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Reader in Geography, The University of Burdwan, West Bengal, India.

Assistant Professor in Geography, Vivekananda Mahavidyalaya, Burdwan, West Bengal, India.

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