"On juxtaposing Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) with Phadke et.al’s Why Loiter? (2014) the contestations that emerge in terms of women’s access to public and private spaces becomes visible," writes Ashna Abi.
Virginia Woolf writes in her essay A Room of One’s Own, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” In the essay rendered in quasi fictional style with personal anecdotes, she mentions a few experiences of her being driven away from public spaces at her university: once, from the library, and at another instance, from a park, by men. Throughout the essay, Woolf emphasizes the power play that operates within ‘spaces’, both public and private.
“I must have opened it, for instantly there issued, like a guardian angel who regretted in a low voice as he waved me back that ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction. That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep forever. Never will I wake those echoes, never will I ask for that hospitality again, I vowed as I descended the steps in anger.” (A Room, Chapter 1)
As Woolf imagines a radical possibility of the life of Shakespeare’s sister and empathizes with the struggles she might have had to undergo to have a career in writing, she also emphasizes the relevance of having a room of one's own’. Having a private space to engage in the creative process uninterrupted by the gender roles and duties that women are bound to perform in their everyday lives seemed a luxury at that point of time.
The ‘room’ in Woolf’s writing can be seen as a metaphor. The ‘room’ is much beyond a physical space, it is a psychological construct. The room of a woman’s own represents a sense of privacy and liberty which comes with financial independence. Often, societies are less accommodative towards independent, assertive women, even hostile, one could argue. Hence, it would require women to create ‘rooms’ for themselves by engaging in constant dialogue with the existing superstructures.
On the other hand, the room can also eventually become a space of confinement, restricting women’s physical and psychological mobility within the ‘protected boundaries’ of home. Phadke, et.al writes, “Post industrialization in Europe, with an increase in wealth it became possible for urban middle class women to withdraw into a private domesticated world, making the private-public divide an aspirational value.” Later, the aspirational value translates into a norm that prevents women from accessing spaces outside homes, constantly reminding their status of ‘unwantedness’ in public spheres. (Why Loiter?)
Apparently, Woolf writes her essay A Room of One’s Own in this context. For instance, in chapter six of the essay, set in London in the midst of urban chaos, the female protagonist is portrayed as an observer of the flow of life in London rather than directly engaging in the public sphere. Figuratively, this aligns with the popular imagination of domestic spaces as operational spaces for women and public spaces as male-dominated territory. (A Room, Chapter - 6)
However, by embracing the flow of the city on the one hand and the exclusivity of a private space on the other, Woolf emphasizes on an individual’s liberty to be able to experience both irrespective of their gender. One must have the agency to actively engage in public life and a space that allows one the luxury to be a passive observer of the city in its multitude.
From personal to public space
The essay A Room of One’s Own aligns with the phrase ‘personal is political’ which emerged much later in the history of feminist writing. A woman's decision to remain in a private space which she owns or not or to access and enjoy being in public spaces would have implications on the larger politics behind the configuration of these boundaries. As spaces are socially constructed and ideologically bound, the politics of space determines the way societies are organized and the way they operate. This is where ‘Why Loiter?’ by Phadke et.al (2014) gains relevance. The authors write:
“Imagine our streets full of women talking, strolling, laughing and gesticulating. Imagine parks and benches dotted with young women sitting alone. Imagine street corners taken over by older women reflecting on the state of the world. Imagine maidans occupied by women workers planning their next strike for a raise in minimum wages. If one can imagine all of these, one can imagine a radically different city.” (Why Loiter?)
The discussions of ‘space’ in the book Why Loiter? (2014) revolves around issues of women’s access to public spaces based on the study conducted across Mumbai. The study suggested that women in Mumbai have conditional access to public spaces, contrary to the popular imagination.
Although many women have managed to ‘create their own rooms’ , their access to public spaces have remained conditional with an upgradation in class status.The access to public space is more legitimate for respectable women, which results in restricting the mobilities and postures of female bodies. The author writes,
“For women, respectability is fundamentally defined by the division between public and private spaces. Being respectable for women means demonstrating linkages to private space even when they are in public space.” (Why Loiter?)
Hence attempts to manufacture respectability and purpose for their presence in public space becomes an everyday battle for women in general and urban middle class women in particular.
Anxieties about female sexuality is deep rooted in culture
Woolf writes, “No girl could have walked to London and stood at a stage door and forced her way into the presence of actor-managers without doing herself a violence and suffering an anguish which may have been irrational- for chastity may be a fetish invented by certain societies for unknown reasons - but were none the less inevitable. Chastity had then, it has even now, a religious importance in a woman's life, and has wrapped itself round with nerves and instincts that to cut it free and bring it to the light of day demands courage of the rarest. (A Room, Chapter 3)
Women in India have also been historically denied entry to public spaces, especially spaces of worship citing cultural reasons. The recent controversy around the Supreme Court verdict on Sabarimala temple in Kerala, granting the right for women to enter the temple was one such instance of challenging such ‘traditions’.
Women’s sexuality has often been projected as a threat to the larger society and the idea has been reaffirmed through religious scriptures and myths across cultures. Attempts to control even the sizes, processes and movements of women’s bodies is a typical characteristic of highly sexist, patriarchal society. Kavita Krishnan argues in an article (EPW, 2006) that,
“Eve’s apple, Pandora’s box, Medusa’s hair and her petrifying gaze, Dirghajeevi’s long tongue (representing her unsatiable sexuality), Kali biting her tongue to chastise herself as she is about to step on her husband - all suggest how different cultures have often shared fears and anxieties about female sexuality.”
Public spaces become exclusive of certain women and men
The process of conditioning the access to spaces would start from having unsaid curfews for women to be on streets.The dominant discourse arguing for protectionism and surveillance of women in India is built on narratives that cite ‘lack of safety of women in public spaces’. A fundamental question to be asked here is, Are public spaces really unsafe for women? If so, who makes it unsafe and how?
A woman is often judged based on the way she is dressed, whom she is with, what time of the night she is out and so on. These patriarchal societal norms curb individual freedom by violating the right to privacy. It stoops to a level where even in cases of sexual assault, a woman is required to prove her ‘respectability’ by justifying her presence at the site of the attack.
“From the perspective of communities and families, the preservation of women’s respectability and honour implicitly outweighs the value placed on their actual safety.” (Why Loiter) The attacks on women are often seen as attacks on their virginity and family honour rather than as a violation of an individual’s right to life. Therefore, it becomes more of a requirement for middle class Hindu families to ‘protect their females from being in contact with undesirable urban dwellers.’
Brahminical patriarchy operates by controlling both the potential victim - the caste hindu woman and the potential threat mostly the lower caste, poor, muslim or dalit men. Besides restricting the mobility of middle class urban women, brahminical patriarchal agendas ensure that slum dwellers, dalits and the urban poor males are also excluded from accessing the public spaces. They are often perceived with an air of suspicion and are subjected to constant policing and violence. The prevalent Islamophobic sentiments makes poor Muslim males highly vulnerable to this form of criminalization.
Besides, urban spaces have also been highly discriminatory towards sex workers and the visibly queer especially the trans women, often shooing them away from corrupting ‘respectable women’ or subjecting them to violence as they do not merge with mainstream imaginations.
The politics of design of public spaces operates in such a way that it is exclusionary towards women, especially disabled, old and poor women, as their participation is ‘undesirable’ in the city's public spaces’. For instance, the absence of properly maintained loos and feeding rooms, inadequate streetlights and pavements, along with infrequent public transport, render public spaces unwelcome for women, thus discouraging women from accessing those. Ideally, specially abled individuals should be consulted to design user friendly public spaces to which all of us have equal entitlements to.The above mentioned infrastructural oversights are the result of a limited imagination that designs public spaces to cater to the needs of largely privileged, able-bodied men.
Women’s right to pleasure
As the authors of Why Loiter argue, a capitalist, consumerist, urban culture requires a continuous improvement in urban design, constantly endeavouring to make the city more efficient. This has resulted in the emergence of privately owned, expensive, exclusive and luxurious consumerist spaces which includes gated communities, malls, coffee shops, night clubs, pubs, ultimately creating ‘multiple private worlds within a city, with minimal intersections of each other’. Women with higher purchasing power tend to depend on these private spaces to spend their leisure time as these are considered relatively low-risk, exclusive towards the ‘undesirable’ classes, and welcoming to those who can afford them.
In India of the post-neoliberalisation era, women tend to ‘buy’ fun from private enclosures and travel to foreign countries for holidays where they are seemingly ‘strangers’. They tend to give up travelling in public transport including local buses, trains or trams and use cabs instead, often forgetting and sometimes ignoring the real bargain.
Eventhough, women have successfully found ‘comfortable rooms’ to fit in , these ‘illusionary rooms’ act as glass barriers which prevent them from experiencing the real world in all its flavors, tastes and colors. For women to be able to enjoy public spaces in solace or loiter in groups irrespective of what hour of the night it is, would require an assertion individual freedoms. As opposed to the idea of lack of productivity of loitering in public spaces, the act of loitering might bring together women and would help them establish their belongingness to the city as well.
Women irrespective of their caste, class, age, sexual orientations and capabilities have equal rights to pleasure. Women having pleasure is often perceived as a threat across cultures which is evident from the number of cases of genital mutilations, violence against lesbian couples and honour killings incase of intecaste marriages known so far.
Reclaiming public spaces and demanding inclusivity would have a major impact on the way we collectively imagine the city. Women should come forward and assert their right to take risks and breakaway from being stereotyped as vulnerable beings who should be domesticated and protected. What needs to change is the hostility and male gaze prevalent in our society which is highly intrusive of a female’s private and public lives.
Although upwardly-mobile urban women have been able to own their ‘private rooms’ after generations of struggle, these rooms have mostly become aesthetically appealing, artificially lit and hence conditioned spaces. It is high time to break the glass barriers, come out into the public spaces and occupy the city.
- Akşehir, Mahinur. “Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own and the Spaces of the City”: The First Annual London Studies Conference, University of London, London, England, July 2011.
- Krishnan, Kavita. (2006). Sacred Spaces, Secular Norms and Women's Rights . Economic and Political Weekly, 41(27/28), 2969-2971.
- Phadke, Shipa. et al. “Why Loiter?”. Repro India ltd, New Delhi. Reprint. 2014.
- Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Selected Works of Virginia Woolf. London. 1929. Pdf.
- Blurb : Ashna Abi analyses gendered access to public spaces through the books A Room of One’s Own (Virginia Woolf) and Why Loiter? (Shilpa Phadke).
Ashna Abi is currently pursuing her Master’s in Development from Azim Premji University. Her areas of interest include Urban Sustainability with a focus of Solid Waste Management and Gender Studies. Besides participating in upcycling initiatives she goes for travels solely relying on local public transportation both for the cause of the planet. Apart from these she likes reading Urban Geography theories and also enjoys haiku jamming.
This essay was written for the ‘Art and Cultural Resistance’ course at Azim Premji University.