What I Talk About When I Talk About Walking in the Streets of Dhaka
There is not much to love about being a woman on the streets of Dhaka. Let's call a spade a spade—Dhaka streets are not pedestrian-friendly, irrespective of one's gender. Missing or broken pavements, gaping holes to catch you off guard, footpaths overtaken by hawkers, vendors, makeshift shops of all sorts, piled up construction materials, spilled-over garbage, bikers and even rickshaws carrying passengers looking to cut across heavy traffic—you name any inconvenience, the phenomenal streets of Dhaka has it. Yet, there's no dearth of people on the street. Pedestrians, beggars, peddlers… even elephants adapt and claim the streets of Dhaka, but not its women.
The now iconic morning procession of female garment workers striding confidently to work, or women bikers of all ages reclaiming the streets of Dhaka might trick you into believing otherwise. After all, it's a formidable sight—a spectacle in itself. The problem lies exactly here. Women, no matter how strong or weak, able and willing to walk, whether alone or in packs, are never a part of the street—they always stand out! The city streets exist as if in opposition to its women, and quite passive-aggressively so.
Yet, I, a woman, want to walk the streets of Dhaka. As unambitious as it may sound, all I want is to mind my business (or mind no business at all) on the streets. But women, idling around or simply loitering, is a social anomaly. Very often, I'm told that all I need is to reclaim my rights to the street, no matter what. Dear people, I invite you all to walk the streets of Dhaka with a woman, if not as one, to understand the futility of this zealous provocation.
Growing up in Dhaka, I have always lived a life of apprehension, anticipating the worst on the go. I remember making trips to a crowded Nilkhet or New Market during Eid with a bag, clutched close to my bosom to avert the slithering groping hands from apparently unsuspecting men in the crowd. This would surely enrage but not surprise me. Invasion of your private space in public is all but expected and you prepare yourself accordingly. Preparation is the key, I was told.
Alas! Even with all the preparations, a woman can only do this much: ward off the evil hand, not the evil eye! People on the street, it seems, feel entitled to stare at you. There are all types of stares—the inappropriately inquisitive kind, sheer disapproving kind, judging-you-silently kind, the leering kind, and the most common just-like-that kind. All of these are cast upon you without any discretion or secrecy, but with such confidence and relentless determination that it makes you question your right to the city.
My daily mandatory walks nowadays involve strutting to and from two offices of the university where I teach. As I walk past the motley crowd engaged in diverse activities centering a mini make-shift bazaar, complete with vegetable vendors, chicken, fish, fruit sellers, tea shop, food carts and an idlers' corner, I feel an invisible, yet palpable weight on me. And I'm constantly reminded of my gender. Often, I increase the pace of my walk and take the street instead, avoiding the pavement altogether. The faces change, but not the stare. Once I remember feeling so uncomfortable that I had to take a sneak peek at my own attire to ensure everything was in place, and that I was not inviting the stares.
“They are harmless and don't really do anything to you!” some would comment, invalidating my reaction as misplaced and excessive. It's this widespread perception of staring as “non-action”—and a non-violent one at that—which indirectly endorses this pervasive practice. The perceived harmlessness derives from its comparison to the much graver “actions” that directly threaten woman's safety, I soon realised.
Still angry and frustrated, and this time in a different neighbourhood, I decided to just avert my gaze and look sideways only to witness another nuisance—urinating men in public. I quickly looked the other way, feeling ashamed for being privy, however accidentally, to this display of a lack of civic sense. I was almost blaming myself for being present in the wrong place at the wrong time, while the man relived himself, and walked away at a leisurely pace, unperturbed as ever.
One may argue, citizens relieving themselves in public are a given, since there are not enough public toilets. Does the same argument hold true for women, as well? Of course not, you'd say. The city infrastructure is an indication that public spaces are primarily thought of as male spaces and hence not designed around the needs of women, making their presence as awkward as that of an unwanted guest.
The dilemma of being a woman in Dhaka streets is that the city won't acknowledge you, yet it won't let you dissociate from it. A woman always shows up against the city, even when she is at her best and apparently empowered self. Women whizzing past on scooties or bicycles are a happy sight, no doubt, but as I watch the watcher, gawking at them, my new found hope deflates. I follow the gazer some more, as they scan the women from head to toe for whatever is visible (and invisible) to the mortal eye. Women, in all their fierceness, still remain the spectacle in both their action and non-action.
Nowadays, talks on women-friendly cities are on the rise. It sounds all good, but with a caveat—the discourse starts and ends with issues of safety and violence alone. It gets women six to nine reserved seats in a public transport alongside children and disabled passengers, which is a surefire sign of our limited understanding of the gendered nature of the use of the city. I'm not saying that safety is unimportant, but I'm also concerned that in this clamour for safety alone, many other rights to the city and urban experiences that women are entitled to, are thwarted. This prioritisation helps naturalise the dichotomous positioning of public and private along the line of stereotypical gender roles. The city that comes out of such discourses is even more male than before. It's time we make some effort to know in how many diverse ways women want to experience the city, if we really intend to make the city women-friendly.
What's in it for me? No! I don't want the equal rights to pee, defecate, spit or drill others with my piercing eyes when I'm out in public. All I want is to walk the streets of Dhaka, taking in the urban spectacle or do nothing! I want to have the right to choose to either blend in or stand out. I want to be seen on my own terms. I want to walk the streets, without having to carry the burden of my gender. I want to feel at home.
Tabassum Zaman is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies and Journalism at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). An English graduate from the University of Dhaka, she holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from the National University of Singapore.