Course:GEOG352/2019/Deconstructing Gender Experience in Delhi's Public Spaces

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Aerial view of Delhi
File:Delhi Street.jpg
Daily interaction on Delhi's streets

Delhi, India’s capital territory, is a massive metropolitan area in the country’s north. India is the seventh largest country in the world by area and with more than 1.3 billion people; it is the second most populous country in the world. Delhi has a population of 25 million, making it the second most swarmed city after Mumbai and the most packed urban agglomeration in the country. Women’s access to different public spaces in the city is generally more limited than men[1]. This is due to strong symbolic dimensions surrounding the “forbidden” and “permitted” use of spaces governed by patriarchal power relations and norms of female propriety. Limited female mobility jeopardizes women’s prospects of benefitting from “urban prosperity” because many women and girls face verbal, sexual, physical harassment and assault resulting in physical harm, psychological anxiety and fear of moving around in the city. In Delhi, significant political and social change has altered the urban experiences for both men and women throughout its history. Various experiences in the urban setting have resulted from the application of home/world, spiritual/material, and feminine/masculine dichotomies that have developed from the mid nineteenth century onwards and this has a direct influence on men and women's roles in organizing life, both inside and outside the home[2]. Therefore, as an important representation, it is both politically and socially significant to understand Delhi's view on the relation of gender and class in the public spaces. These historic social dichotomies can be further explained through specific everyday examples, aiding the understanding of the modern gendered experience of life within Delhi’s urban spaces.  


Cities are designed to accommodate their populations, giving their residents access to an array of public spaces to utilize and occupy. However, the ways in which minority groups navigate and experience public spaces may differ from the experience of a dominant group; this discrimination-based experience may be due to a variety of factors including but not limited to: religion, culture, class, gender, sex, etc. Due to Delhi's climbing sexual assault rates, this section will explore the ways that gender influences the male and female urban experience in public spaces.

Varied Experiences of Public Space

Cities are a particular form of social life that allows for and encourages different understandings and usages of public spaces that are deeply gendered, both  in access and in right to public space. Generally, the female urban experience  greatly differs from that of males. Women navigate public spaces with a greater degree of fear compared to men, due to their physical and social vulnerability [3]. In places with higher degrees of gender discrimination, the fear factor increases and has a much greater impact on the female urban experience and the ways in which women navigate their public spaces.

Although the degree of fear and vulnerability that women feel in public spaces varies from place to place, the fear is universal. For instance, it is found that 55% of women in the United States, 52% of women in Finland, and 73% of women in India fear walking alone at night [4][5]. However, even within a particular place, the fear and vulnerability that women feel in public spaces is not equal amongst all women, as their individual experiences are further dependent on their race/ethnicity, class, age and sexuality [4]. Women generally fear assault and harassment, but lesbians and women of colour fear -  in addition to assault and harassment -  bashing, hate crimes, and discrimination based on their sexuality and/or racial identity [4]. The harassment and assault that women fear in public places are not unfounded, but the narrative that perpetuates the belief that women are safer at home, in the private sphere than in the public sphere, is untrue; as women are far more likely to be sexually assaulted in private spaces and by people they know[6].

Men dominate both the public and private sphere, as society appoints men as head of their families, in addition to nominating them as primary breadwinners, thus resulting in their domination of both spheres [7]. This dichotomy has influenced urban planning and has created a built environment that has tied women to the home (in the private sphere), separate from urban places (in the public sphere), making suburbs synonymous with women and cities synonymous with men.

Men are said to experience less fear and vulnerability in public spaces, three to five times less fear than women in that context [8]. However, the male perception of “fear” is seen to be largely based on a man’s confidence in his physical ability; attributing a lack of fear to personal strength[4]. In addition, the male urban experience also depends on the individual man’s race/ethnicity, class, age and sexuality[8]. For instance, in the United States, white men may engage in their public spaces more liberally while black men may feel more limited due to a cultural fear and distrust for law enforcement.

The “public” aspect of public spaces is unwelcoming to most women due to their actual vulnerability, in addition to societies construction of feminine gender identities which reinforces the idea that public spaces are dangerous for women [4][4]. This fear and perception of danger in public spaces may encourage women to continue to adhere to gendered social norms, maintaining their initial position in the private sphere, preserving male dominated public spaces [4].

A Focus on Gender and Class in India

Although race can play a significant role in countries across the globe, there is a discriminatory focus on gender, class and caste in particular within India. Most women in India are no longer confined to their traditional domestic spheres and are actively engaged and participating in the workplace, thus bringing them into public spaces. Women who earn more, and who are of higher classes, have now allocated the private sphere work towards paid domestic help [9]. It is found that lower class women in India are more likely to break away from their gender roles, due to having to navigate the constraints of their private and public spheres. Middle and upper class women who work in male-dominated workplaces and live in households where female employment may be optional, and who are parents in communities where intense parenting is valued, are more likely to endorse feminine ideals[9].

Case Study: Safety and Accessability for Women in Public Spaces of Delhi

Public Space at Rajiv Chowk (Popularly Known as Connaught Place)

Connaught place from above

Connaught Place is popularly known as C.P. and it's official name is Rajiv Chowk, named after India's late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. If you look at the map of Delhi, you will see a big circle in the centre with radial roads spreading out in all directions which tells you about it's distinct identity. Connaught Place is one of the largest financial, commercial and business centres in Delhi and houses the headquarters of several noted Indian firms. As of July 2018, Connaught Place was the ninth most expensive office location in the world with an annual rent of USD 153 per sq. ft.[10]

It is popular with shoppers and tourists because of its central location, its metro station, it's diverse shops, and it's restaurants and bars. It also has an underground shopping centre called Palika Bazaar where you will find shops selling more affordable electronic products, clothes, pirated CD/DVDs, and much more. It is an area that attracts thousands of people on a daily basis for both business and leisure. In an area like Connaught Place, one might expect both women and men to access and utilize the public spaces equally. However, only men are seen spread out, stretching their arms and legs, lying down, whenever and wherever, with absolute comfort[11].

In spite of being one of world’s most busy and commercially active areas, C.P. is not the most bright and lively. There are several patches and narrow lanes which become dark and deserted after sunset. Some of these lanes are also pre-occupied by unscrupulous men, making these spaces unsafe and inaccessible for women. The service industry in Connaught Place consisting of some of the city’s best hotels and restaurants operate till late at night but the female workers often have to negotiate early day-time shifts or compromise on daily wages since the working environment is not safe[12].

Paan shop at Connaught Place

There are many benches and concrete slabs all around the inner and outer circle's in C.P. for people to sit and relax casually. But these areas are largely occupied by males only, sometimes small groups of females, females accompanied by their husbands or partners or families, but almost never a solo female. The pedestrian subway in Connaught Place is always considered an unsafe zone for women as they are dark and deserted at night. In several media reports women have shared that they will rather take the risk of crossing the busy road by foot than take the subway alone[13]. Paan and cigarette shops are also considered highly unsafe. However, both in the case of alcohol shops and paan shops, gender and class intersect with each other and give a complex picture. A paan shop located in the well-lit corridors of C.P's inner circle selling imported cigars, cigarettes, lighters, chewing gums etc are considered relatively safe for modern young girls. While the shops located at narrow lanes or under the trees or pavements, selling local tobacco products including bidis remain a complete no-go zone for women to go alone[14]. While buying a cigarette from a well-lit sophisticated shop maybe less of a taboo, women smoking in public is still a very un-womanly act and may invite a whole range of uncomfortable behaviour from men who think smoking in public is purely their domain. Young women of Connaught Place who would like to smoke a cigarette often have to do so in more hidden areas of C.P. as a result of this gendered social conflict.

Men relaxing outside at Connaught Place

Parking areas in general in Delhi are considered unsafe for women as several crimes are reported as taking place in the parking areas. This is the case in C.P. as well with most of the parking lots being seen as unsafe. In 2013, a teenage girl was allegedly gang-raped by three to four unidentified men and dumped at a parking lot in Connaught Place[15]. Even during day time, women have to navigate through the parking lot as men loiter in these areas and ogle at women[16]. Therefore, gender is of central importance in constructing the space of the Connaught Place. It is indisputably gendered as masculine, and much of what goes on there center's around constructions of masculinity and young men's perceptions of women more generally.

The use of public space for entertainment entails important class and gender dimensions. In the separation between public and private space in India[17], the act of meeting and spending time outdoors echoes a belonging to the lower middle class. The upper class may use Connaught Place for the purpose of shopping and visiting one of the popular restaurants or bars, but they do not use its open space for their enjoyment. The occupation of the street is thus already a statement of one's position in society, of proudly belonging to a "plain middle class". Hanging around in the market may also be interpreted as an act of resistance to, or at least the demarcation of, their difference from the much criticized ''westernized" upper class. At the same time, this occupation of public space is also a statement of masculinity. Not only would it be more difficult for women to hang out here undisturbed but also, and more importantly, the practices of men are deliberately built on the assumption of their freedom from the claims of women (the wife of the plain middle-class man with kids is seen as an offender diminishing her husband's masculinity). Women are the objects of a sexualized gaze that, though a social system built on power inequality, contributes to how a man's position in society is defined[18].

Gender experiences in Public Transport through the Delhi Gang Rape Case

Large scale protest in Delhi following the 2012 rape case

On December 16th, 2012 a couple (some say friends) was assaulted on the bus in South Delhi, at about 9:10(IST)[19]. They were tricked on a private bus that they believed was part of the city's public fleet as there was six others already onboard, including the driver and one minor. However, the bus started to divert from the route after a while, and the other passengers onboard started to harass the female victim[20]. The male victim tried to defend his companion, but he was beaten repeatedly until he was unconscious[19][20]. Then the rest of passengers (including the minor) dragged the female victim to the back of the bus and raped her[19][20]. The crime committed was particularly violent, as the medical report stated there were extreme damages on the woman's abdomen, intestines and genitals[21]. As the incident came to an end, the attackers dragged both victims out on the road, and the driver deliberately tried to drive over the female victim, but she was pulled away by her friend. The victims were found by others at around 11pm(IST), and sent for emergency treatment to the Safdarjung Hospital.[22] The male suffered no major injuries, but the female victim suffered severe physical damage, and passed away after several surgeries and weeks of treatments[23][24].

Public/International Reaction

Bangalore protests in reaction to the Delhi rape case

After the assault was reported, it resulted in a huge protest all over the city, the country, while also raising international attention. Thousands of people went out to protest, there were student protesters gathered in front of the Raisina Hill[25], others silently marched in Kolkata[26]. Protests were also joined online; many social media users (on Facebook, WhatsApp, etc.) changed their profile images to a black dot to mourn for the victim[27]. Also, tens of thousands people signed petitions demanding justice for the victim[27]. It also led to a significant debate on gender inequality and safety in public spaces throughout South Asia[28].

The debate focuses on wether it should be women's responsibility to keep themselves safe, or if it is the responsibility of the public body more generally[28]. The women-centred side of the debate focuses on safer time periods of going out, appropriate dress, seeking safety precautions, and the right response in the case of danger. While the public-centred side focuses on current flaws on policies or education that may result in such crimes against women being committed. Most protests were on the public-centred side, since in this case, the female victim was; 1. a decent and hard working medical student with a prominent future, 2. appropriately dressed, 3. out at a reasonable time, 4. accompanied by others (a strong young male, especially), and 5. did everything she could do to fight the attackers.

Political/Social Effect

After the victim's death, protests were staged throughout India in the cities of Bengaluru, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Kochi, Thiruvananthapuram, Bhubaneswar and Visakhapatnam[29]. The public-centred side won the most support, and people start to bring back their attention to the political flaws and possible amendments[30][31][32]. The case also sparked many new thoughts and discussions over the traditional gender role and the gender inequality in public space.

Several legal changes were made, including a change in the highest punishment of rape to be raised to the death penalty[33][34], and a lowering of the Juvenile age in sexual assault cases[35]. Other policies were also provided in areas such as; creating a database for criminals that committed sexual assaults, promoting sex education and gender equality classes, and creating a security task force that only serves women in late hours[36][37].

Lessons Learned

According to the United Nations[38], women and girls account for half of the world's population. Gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but also a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. In the past decades, due to the development of economy and the popularization of education, the issue of gender equality has been paid more attention by people. However, we still have a long way to go to fully realize the equal rights between men and women and to protect women from the threat of gender discrimination and violence. Delhi is a city that is generally unwelcoming towards women as its public spaces tend to be dominated by men, which poses a potential threat to the safety and security of women, as well as hinders women from equal access to public space. Therefore, in order to combat this issue of inequality, Delhi has employed several strategies, including gendered segregational methods that offer women private spaces in public areas - increasing their comfort as well as allowing them to benefit and utilize the public space[39]. Up to now, 49 countries still don’t have adequate strategies or laws to protect women from violence occurred in both private and public spaces. The methods adopted by Delhi in order to combat violence, harassment and assault towards women could be used in alternative urban contexts that are also struggling with a great degree of gender inequality in public and private spaces. Additionally, each country should formulate its own policies to protect women's rights and interests according to its own social problems. Strategies that could be applied by other countries are as follows:

  • Setting up special areas for women in public spaces (e.g. public transportation, hospitals, washrooms etc.)
  • Making laws specifically for sexual assault of minors. (e.g. lower the age of Juveniles in the case of sexual assault from 18 to 16).
  • In terms of technology, establish special databases for rapists and link them to national network in order to monitor them and focus on their activities in public places.


Reference List

  1. Chant, S., 2013. Cities through a “gender lens”: a golden “urban age” for women in the global South?. Environment and Urbanization, 25(1), pp. 9-29.
  2. Sangari, Kumkum. Recasting Women: Essays In Indian Colonial History. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990. p. 243-244.
  3. Yavuz, Welch, Nialy, Eric (Summer 2009). "Addressing Fear of Crime in Public Space: Gender Differences in Reaction to Safety Measures in Train Transit". Urban Studies. 47(12): 2493 – via Sage.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Day, Kristin (Summer 2010). "Masculinity and Women's Fear in Public Space in Irvine California". Feminist Geography. 8:2: 116 – via Tandfonline. line feed character in |title= at position 32 (help)
  5. Madan, Nalla, Manish, Mahesh (Spring 2018). "Sexual Harassment in Public Spaces: Examining Gender Differences in Perceived Seriousness and Victimization". International Criminal Justice Review. 26 – via Sage.
  6. "Perpetrators of Sexual Violence: Statistics". RAINN. 2016. Retrieved 08/04/2019. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  7. Bondi, Liz (Spring 2013). "GENDER, CLASS, AND URBAN SPACE: PUBLIC AND PRIVATE SPACE IN CONTEMPORARY URBAN LANDSCAPES". Urban Geography. 19:2: 163–185 – via tandfonline. line feed character in |title= at position 39 (help)
  8. 8.0 8.1 Chomiak, Debbi Lorraine (Fall 2014). "NAVIGATING PUBLIC SPACE, NEGOTIATING PATRIARCHY: DAILY EXPERIENCES OF WOMEN IN A CANADIAN URBAN CONTEXT". THE UNIVERSITY OF NEW BRUNSWICK: 12. line feed character in |title= at position 49 (help)
  9. 9.0 9.1 McGinn, Oh, Kathleen, Eunsil (2017). "Gender, social class, and women's employment" (PDF). ScienceDirect. 18: 85 – via Elsevier.
  10. "'Connaught Place world's 9th most expensive office location'". The Hindu. ISSN 0971-751X. Retrieved 2018-07-15; "New Delhi's Connaught Place world's 9th most expensive office location with annual rent of $153 per sq ft: CBRE". The Financial Express. 2018-07-11. Retrieved 2018-07-15; "Connaught Place Is Ranked The World's 9th Most Expensive Office Location". News18. Retrieved 2018-07-15)
  11. Favero, P. (2003). Phantasms in a "Starry" Place: Space and Identification in a Central New Delhi Market. Cultural Anthropology, 18(4), pp.551-584.
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  15. Teenage girl abducted, raped and then dumped at Connaught Place – Firstpost) [online] Available at:
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  17. Chatterjee, Partha 1993 The Nation and Its Fragments. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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This urbanization resource was created by Phoebe DeLucco, Dhruvi Lakhani, Max Whiffin, Shirley Jia, Zhang Jingran. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.