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Cities for women

December 09, 2018


The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.
The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

PROGRESSIVE planners around the world are now trying to replace personal cars with cycles, pedestrians and transit. How­ever, a very strong argument against such an arrangement in Pakistan is gender: cars are a way for women to safely access public spaces.

It would take monumental obliviousness to dismiss concerns about public safety for women. The truth is that our cities — markets, sidewalks, buses, streets, offices — are extremely unsafe. How does this impact women’s interaction with the city? This is a conversation long overdue. Our cities restrict women’s personal, social and economic opportunities by being hostile to their public presence. It is no secret that many girls drop out of school or college when they outgrow their local educational institute. This problem is very pronounced even in peri-urban areas close to our major cities, and all the more so in rural areas.

This lack of access extends to economic opportunities. There is one key question that a gendered analysis of mobility must ask: how do women manage their commute (whether for education, employment, or other activities)? This directly feeds into the next question: what, and where, are the opportunities accessible to women?

The first question has different answers on paper and in real life. Women are extremely uncomfortable in, and actively discouraged from, using public transport. Unlike men, they cannot ride their motorcycle or scooter. Instead, many women prefer to make private (or pooled) arrangements on more expensive modes including rickshaws and taxis. Many have male family members drop them in their car or on their motorcycle. Some, who can afford to, drive.

Our cities are hostile to women’s public presence.

Consider the implications of such arrangements. Unlike men, women are rarely independent in their professional lives: they must adjust their hours, responsibilities, and opportunities to keep safe or suit their male family members’ schedules; many give up careers altogether when such an arrangement is not possible. They cannot relocate to new places — and are forced to give up opportunities — if they cannot afford independent modes of commute.

Next, consider the direct costs of these constraints. The Women’s Mobility Project at the Centre for Economic Research in Pakistan, where I worked, found that women spend many times more on commute than men because cheap alternatives are simply not accessible. Where male family members drop them, working (or studying) women have added time and financial costs for their families. This means that women bear higher costs of engaging in formal employment or education in addition to the social burdens placed on them.

A commute-time metric (eg a one-hour commute circle) is clearly ill equipped to determine opportunities that women can access. In this situation, the argument is that private cars are enablers for women to access public spaces and take up jobs, coursework, or other activities. This may be true for a specific class, but how many women can afford cars? If they could, wouldn’t women whose brothers drop them buy cars already? This proposition benefits women above a certain threshold of wealth, and therefore lies at the intersection of class and gender.

Because women are disproportionately impacted by accessibility constraints, they also stand to gain more from a safe transit system. But our public transport systems don’t exist or are far from safe spaces, and a second suggestion — something we have experimented with multiple times — is to provide segregated transport facilities where women can travel away from the unruly hands, prying eyes, caustic remarks, and shameless whistling.

Doing so creates safe commuting arrangements but does nothing about all other public spaces that are also unsafe. Instead of addressing root causes (eg toxic masculinity), it ‘solves’ the problem by hiding it from our immediate line of vision. The question becomes, do we want to make our cities safe for women or do we want to put them in separate, compartmentalised spaces that work for them alone?

Considering historical inequities and how hard we make life for women, separate transport arrangements are still an attractive proposition. Commuting is an everyday need and we can’t expect women to wait while we fight a society that refuses to fix itself. Other arguments against segregated facilities like costs and logistics are merely symptoms of poor planning and political grandstanding, and can be solved just by doing our homework better.

In any event, we — men — are in no position to argue considering we are collectively responsible for creating these problems. We must recognise the malice of gender-blind strategies and adopt inclusive, gendered approaches that include due representation and leadership for women— not only because that allows for socioeconomic development, but because it is the right thing to do.

The writer is a PhD student in urban/regional planning at the University of Illinois.

Twitter: @faizaanq

Published in Dawn, December 9th, 2018