Shrinking spaces: Encounters of homeless women on roads

In Karachi, a shortage of public spaces for women

Nida Kirmani does not believe in a women-only world. She wants to live in a world where “women, men, people from non-binary genders can be in spaces together and can choose to relate to each other in whatever way they want, as friends, as colleagues and even romantically in a way that’s safe and respectful.”

Kirmani is a self-proclaimed feminist, a sociologist by training and is currently a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). “But we are far from that right now,” she laments.

With regard to the prejudice between the two genders, she decries that men in our society occupy every inch of a public sphere, but a woman is only searching for corners and private spaces just because she feels perilous and insecure in a public space.

As per the ‘Women’s Work and Movement in the Public Sphere,’ report compiled by the World Bank, there are many limitations on women’s mobility, which has created a huge impact on female activity. Socio-cultural attitudes restrict movement of women outside their home or immediate environment. These attitudes are based on the protectionist approach, i.e. rooted in concerns for female safety and family honor.

Girls at Dhabas – a feminist social movement – was among the first few feminists’ collective that talked about reclaiming public spaces for women. Atiya Abbas, 29, is one of the brains behind the collective. She explains that the idea was for women to be able to have fun and enjoy without a purpose.  “Whenever we women step out of our houses it’s always for a purpose like going to school, university, work or going to buy something. There is never this idea that you are just stepping out of your home because you feel like it. You feel like taking a walk or you feel like sitting at a park and reading a book. So, GAD wants to change this perception, they want women and non-binary bodies to sit and have fun without a purpose,” she said.

Architect and heritage consultant Marvi Mazhar has a slightly different take. At dhabas such as Chai Deewari and Chai Wala, she says, females are asked to sit in the family section while men can sit anywhere they want. “It’s just a suggestion – they are not forcing you to sit there, it’s not a rule, it’s not written in the constitution, but we will still sit in the family section, why? Because we will feel ‘uncomfortable,’” she said.

Despite belonging to an opulent family, Abbas still understands the mobility problems faced by underprivileged women. “We are privileged women but that doesn’t mean we do not understand the problems of mobility for women of all classes from lower, middle to elite class. The idea of public space affects all of us and it is our access to it that we are questioning.”

For Mazhar, there are some set norms that need to be shifted around and that can only happen through interventions and counter questioning. “Until and unless you will not counter question the diligent powers why they are doing something, you will never get the answer. Just like a poor person is powerless in front of the government, you will also become powerless even if you are highly qualified and educated. You need to question them,” she said.

The architect also shed light on the problems of single and independent women who wish to live alone in Karachi. “Apartments don’t give lease to independent women. I am an unmarried woman, if I rent out an apartment for lease they will never give me. Why? Why won’t they give it to a single woman? These things need to be questioned,” said Mazhar.

According to Kirmani, in urban Pakistan, few women are visible on the streets which portrays that public spaces for women are shrinking. Women in Defence Housing Authority (DHA) which is one of the most affluent areas of Karachi are more afraid of being at public spaces than women in Liyari, which is the oldest and smallest town in the city.

When women are on the roads, they appear to be in a hurry to get indoors to the perceived safety of work places or homes. “You go from your car to your office, institute or some café, you hardly go out and walk on the streets,” said Kirmani. “I live two streets away from The Second Floor (T2F) Café and I am 40 years old but my parents feel nervous if I walk from there to here. They say don’t walk, take the car, take the driver, but why? I feel so stupid. Why should I bring my car when it’s just 5 minutes away from my home?” she said.

The sociologist has observed that the women walking around in Defence are mostly domestic workers. “I don’t think there are any public spaces for women where they can feel comfortable,” she said.  “I walk in Nisar Shaheed Park every morning and I am the only one who wears a shirt and trouser. I am all covered up, but I still feel uncomfortable because people do stare at you if you’re in that kind of dressing.”

The LUMS professor went on to say that she would feel odd if she would just sit in the park to relax and do nothing – something men always seem to be doing. It’s not acceptable for a woman to hang around like that in a park or Dhaba. “I think there are more privatized spaces for women like malls and cinemas but no public spaces,” she said.

A 19-year-old Karachi University student, cyclist and boxer at Lyari Girls Café, Naila Naz , has been learning boxing and cycling on the unforgivingly wrecked roads of Liyari, just because she wanted to feel physically independent. “I always wanted to do cycling on roads and open spaces rather than closed spaces, but it’s not acceptable in Lyari,” she said. Naz is learning boxing because she does not want to rely on anyone when it comes to her security and she yearns to travel alone on her bike without being afraid. “If I want to be independent then I should be able to defend myself as we girls don’t feel safe in this city,” she said.

Talking about travelling, Naz said she goes to KU by bus. There is little or no space for females in buses. “I don’t understand why there is such less space for females in public buses.  There are only 6-7 seats for females and for males there are 14-16. Why so much inequality? I have to stand in the bus every single day. Sometimes I am lucky to get a seat if I wake up 2 hours before my actual time in the morning. But whenever I am going back home, I always stand in the bus. Men never give us seats. When there are seats in the men’s section and if we sit there, the conductor asks us to leave the seat.”

Speaking about the Café, social organizer Zulekha Dawood explained that it was set up to create a safe space for women and help them learn different skills like makeup, hairstyling, arts and crafts, football, bike riding  and boxing.  Unfortunately, some of the girls are harassed while cycling. Men pass comments, stop their way and tell them that cycles are made for males not females. “They say, this is not Defence this is Lyari, go and sit at home,” said Dawood. Little do they know, that this doesn’t happen in Defence, women in Lyari are more found in public spaces than in Defence, as per Kirmani.

According to Dawood, men from religious parties stop women from riding bicycles.  “Once a man kicked a 15-year-old girl from behind while she was cycling,” she said. “People were present there but nobody said anything to them, we could only shout,” she added.

Dawood’s goal is to make all Lyari girls learn cycling and travel independently to their schools and colleges. “We wear hijab while cycling, we are not even dressed indecently but still we face harassment,” she said. 

Such harassment issues are not only faced by the females of Lyari but also by the women who live in developed places of Karachi like Clifton. Ayra Ahmed, 26, who travels to office on her bike, has faced a lot of criticism and intimidation from random men on the roads. “Just because of these filthy comments and to save myself from these ogles I started dressing up like a man while I’m riding my bike,” she said. The female biker wears a long and loose jacket with jeans and joggers, along with a helmet so that nobody can notice her on the road. “Fortunately, I have the advantage of a slim figure so people are hardly able to recognize whether it’s a male biker or a female,” said Ahmed.

Apart from ogling and passing comments, men have other means also to harass women. While doing a citizen journalism course from Society for International Education (SIE), Dawood had to do a photo essay assignment and for that she went out with her friend. While they were taking pictures on the streets of Khadda Market, two men started making a video. As soon as they rushed towards them, they ran away. “These things will not stop us from coming out of our houses, we are not scared of these misogynist men anymore,” she said.

According to Kirmani, in 10-20 years, women will be at a place where they will say that it’s okay for men and women to be there at a public space and women will feel comfortable.

“No one is going to give you the space, you have to get it yourself and no one is going to give you the rights unless you want to take them and take the responsibility of it,” said Naz, the cyclist from Lyari.

She also has a message for women at large: “We have to be together for our rights and our survival.  I want women to think big, they are just in their little spaces and they do not want to come out of it.” \lsdp

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