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Monday, November 23, 2020

A Fine Balance: What are the claims of women to public space

The pandemic has brought public life to an unprecedented standstill. A historian reimagines and re-examines form and functionality in the cities which nurture us

Written by Janaki Nair | New Delhi | Updated: November 23, 2020 3:49:00 pm
A Fine Balance: What are the claims of women to public spaceHow do women navigate a predominantly “man-made” environment, both within and outside the home — itself surprising, given that women architecture students outnumber men in contemporary India, though fewer women practise architecture. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Public life, as we knew it, has come to an unprecedented standstill, and private life has been intensified to the point of tyranny, due to the current health emergency. Even the lines that radically divided unpaid domestic labour from “work for wages”, usually outside the home (though only for some classes), have been dramatically redrawn. What better moment to critically re-examine and reimagine private life and domesticity, and also reassert the claims of women to public space?

To start with, how do women navigate a predominantly “man-made” environment, both within and outside the home — itself surprising, given that women architecture students outnumber men in contemporary India, though fewer women practise architecture. How can architects, planners and environmental experts be made to collaborate in ways that extend respect to the lived experiences, and the challenges faced by women, here not to be understood as a homogenous whole?

Perhaps, this is an appropriate moment to engage in a reverie about new ways of living in cities. Let’s begin by returning to the dreams of 19th and early 20th century utopian thinkers — bourgeois dreamers no doubt — who reconceptualised domestic life and space. The main aim was to reduce the repetitive drudgeries of household labour: who wished to produce approximately 1,095 meals per year, in addition to planning and cleaning up after that?

So the answer of some utopian planners of the US, such as Marie Howland in the 1870s, and Alice Constance Austin in the 1890s, was to socialise domestic work, and collectivise laundry, cooking, and childcare. This involved the design of “kitchenless” houses, though food consumption still remained a privatised affair. Freeing women for a more public life was only an implicit goal, since the designs did not necessarily reset gender relations, or assign a greater role for men in domestic life. Women remained principally housewives, though with fewer responsibilities. Some thinkers even abhorred those women who looked for a career outside. Even the left-oriented Bauhaus architects of the early 20th century aimed for greater efficiency in housework, by deploying the principles of scientific management to increase the efficiency of the household through the use of more domestic appliances, but only in order to free women for their roles as spouses and mothers.

In other cases, women moved from being passive clients to active agents, though in a low-key, understated way: “Vrouwen Adviescomissies” (VACs) were begun in the immediate postwar years in the Netherlands (in the 1940s and continue to the present day) when there was a serious housing shortage. Public provisioning of housing was not just for the working class or the urban poor but for the middle class as well. The VACs suggested changes to plans that were not envisaged by (usually) male builders, “walking” through plans, cutting up and rearranging them from more practical points of use, to the elderly, the physically challenged, the single woman. These, too, were largely non-feminist interventions, a search for practical conveniences within closely guarded domestic spaces.

Utopian ideals, meanwhile, changed dramatically as a result of the war and revolution, which brought huge numbers of hitherto closeted women out of their homes to work in industry/fields/munition factories, if only temporarily. Ideas about collectivising housework took stronger root only in the socialist world, where the (state support for) socialisation of housework was tied to the eventual “withering away” of the family, especially in the 1920s. Collective kitchens and crèches were daring ideas in their time, and women were fully a part of the workforce. But the Zhenotdel or Women’s Bureau (the women’s department of the Secretariat of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party) was abolished in 1930 when Joseph Stalin declared that the women’s question had been “answered” (in some accounts, because the potato peeler had been invented!). In its place came an organisation of “activist wives”, who now performed what was largely an extension of housekeeping in the public sphere: checking the cleanliness of hostels, beautifying gardens, supervising crèches. Women in Residents’ Welfare Associations in India today likewise play a disproportionate role as “social housekeepers”, extending their skills at home to the life of neighbourhoods, though within a framework of enclaved democracy.

Housing design in the modern city is increasingly being homogenised, driven exclusively by real estate concerns, rather than by aesthetics, social justice, or gaining equal public access, leave alone the achievement of relative gender equality. Housing needs of single women, childless couples, the elderly or the home worker (say the beedi roller) rarely impinge on planning imaginations, for whom all solutions may be scaled as “BHKs”.

It is no indulgence, therefore, to return to that earlier generation of dreamers who were concerned about reducing the monotony and drudgery of housework. Sometimes, they proposed simple solutions, such as round rooms (which had no dust-gathering corners) or at least rounded room edges. Given our entrenched inequalities, we will have to look hard at spaces and temporalities, well beyond the private/daytime, to generate a “good city form”. The unfinished project, which took shape following the nationwide outcry against the December 2012 gangrape and murder, and continues to generate only the rather tame demand for better-lit roads, must be revived. The water pumps, the footpaths, the public toilets, the street corners, in addition to parks, places of worship and recreational spaces, must all be part of the new reverie.

(Janaki Nair is retired professor, history, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

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