Gendering the City

Women and the CityThe second Planned Violence workshop that will take place at JNU in Delhi on 24-25 October 2014 will foreground, among other topics, some of the questions, challenges and spatial predicaments with which cities of both the global south and north confront women. Entitled ‘Planning Modernity: Colonial Continuities, Postcolonial Disjunctions’, the second workshop aims to investigate in particular the cultural production of space in a city that epitomizes some of the broader trends of colonial urban planning. Lutyens’ and Baker’s design and development of New Delhi (1911) formalized an apartheid-style architecture of segregation and division. These infrastructural demarcations and exclusionary layouts continued to regulate movement and social behaviour into postcolonial times, though they were and are also, on many occasions, challenged and transgressed.

Looking ahead to these discussions, Ruvani Ranasinha and Elleke Boehmer here begin to consider, through a series of questions and quotations, how the faultlines of gender, and its intersections with religious and ethnic groupings, informed the construction of urban space in the particular case of Delhi but also in South Asia and across the world more generally. Building on existing work on the role gender and gendered power relations play in the everyday lives of people in cities both in the global south and the north, the workshop will further explore how the planning of cities can not only construct and regulate,but also transform gender and gender relations.In just the last few years, the prevalence of a patriarchal, militarized and social violence against women—especially in Delhi but also across South Asia more broadly—has become a much discussed problem in India’s public sphere, and not only in urban areas, embodied especially in the form in which it is most often expressed: rape, and the attempted rape, of women. This introduces an important qualification in our understanding of women’s urban experience as against men’s, namely, that the quintessentially cosmopolitan experience of the flâneur is predicated on an exclusively masculine terrain of relatively free movement through urban space. Whether we are considering Delhi or Johannesburg, London or Paris, there are bars to women wandering in these ways.

Ruvani Ranasinha’s research is closely concerned with how South Asian women writers negotiate these relationships between postcolonialism, feminism and urban geographies and the issues of gendered structural and physical violence that are at stake in these relationships. Elleke Boehmer’s work explores inter alia the shaping effect of national, urban and domestic space on women’s bodies and texts.

Our questions include:

—How does the burgeoning southern city itself create and motivate sites of violence against women?

—How and in what ways does city planning discriminate on the grounds of gender in respect of women’s freedom to move through urban spaces?

—What gendered practices are rendered invisible by forms of planning?

—Although urbanization provides opportunities to women for employment, education and mobility, especially with the influx of people from rural areas, what are the particular challenges it poses in relation to women’s health, housing and social violence.  How is the fear of violence experienced differently by men and women?

—In what ways does the concept of the global city as a gendered, patriarchal entity complicate the neo-imperial dichotomies also informing urban spatial politics?

—What is the role of literature in conceptualizing and re-conceptualizing of gendered violence in urban space?

Gender, the City and Literature

The following extracts from a selection of literary texts are included here to speak to this final question in the months leading up to our Delhi workshop.

Street, Old Delhi (Dominic Davies, 2013)

Street, Old Delhi (Dominic Davies, 2013)

Below are descriptions of the attacks on Rana and the Ayah in Lahore at the time of Partition, from Bapsi Sidhwa’s The Ice-Candy Man or Cracking India (London: William Heinemann, 1988), both of which underscore the gendered nature of communal violence in urban settings, as does the next extract from Devi’s The River Churning.

The quotations from Sidhwa and Devi are followed by an evocation of Meena’s slow suicide from consuming rat poison, which appears in Katherine Boo’s lacerating account of Annawadi slum in Mumbai, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012). Meena is among the very few characters in Boo’s documentary narrative who have the potential to find an exit from the ceaseless grind of slum life, yet she chooses death, introjecting the violence of the domestic beatings to which she regularly is subject, as this seems to her the one active choice she can make about her life.  She herself gives little to no explanation of her actions, though some of the women later conclude: ‘She was fed up with what the world had to offer’ (p. 189).


cracking-indiaBapsi Sidhwa, The Ice-Candy Man or Cracking India (London: William Heinemann, 1988):


No one minded the semi-naked spectre as he looked in doors with his knowing, wide-set peasant eyes as men copulated with wailing children –old and young women. He saw a naked woman, her light Kashmiri skin bruised with purple splotches and cuts, hanging head down from a ceiling fan. And looked on with a child’s boundless acceptance and curiosity as jeering men set her long hair on fire. He saw babies, snatched from their mothers, smashed against walls and their howling mothers brutally raped and killed. (pp. 218-19)


Her lips are drawn away from her teeth, and the resisting curve of her throat opens her mouth like the dead child’s screamless mouth. Her violet sari slips off her shoulder, and her breasts strain at her sari-blouse stretching the cloth so that the white stitching at the seams shows. A sleeve tears under her arm.

The men drag her in grotesque strides to the cart and their harsh hands, supporting her with careless intimacy, lift her into it. Four men stand pressed against her, propping her body upright, their lips stretched in triumphant grimaces. (pp. 194-95)

river-churningJyotirmoyee Devi’s The River Churning, trans. Enakshi Chatterjee (New Delhi: Kali Books, 1995) further tackles the complex intersections between gender, urban violence, and communalism:

Sutara started after her when suddenly she heard her sister scream and fall to the ground. From near the shed where Mother was wrenching the flap door open she heard a shrill cry. ‘I’m coming,’she called.

But she could not make it. Dark shadowy figures surrounded her, some tried to grab her by the hand.

In the light of the spreading fire everything was now visible. One of the ruffians went after Mother but another stopped him, ‘Leave her, it’s their mother, let her go.’But Didi did not stir. Was she dead?

What happened to Didi? Sutara couldn’t tell. She wanted to reach mother and began to run, but stumbled and fell. Then everything went blank. (p.8)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (London: Portobello, 2012), pp. 187-9:

[Meena had] thought it through—had consumed two tubes of rat poison on two other days, but had started to vomit, which led her this time to mix the poison with milk. She hoped the milk would keep the poison in her stomach long enough to kill her.

This was one decision about her life she got to make.  It wasn’t a choice easily shared with a best friend.

Meena sat again with a heaviness that had nothing to do with her weight. A woman materialised with a bowl of water and salt. ‘This will make her vomit,’ she said, tipping back Meena’s head.  She swallowed. Everyone waited. Dry heaves. Nothing.

Water and laundry soap, another woman suggested, running home to chop up a foul-smelling bar of Madhumati. Meena held her nose as the second brew went down her throat.  Finally, she vomited a jet of bright green froth.

‘I feel better,’ Meena announced, eventually. ‘It’s all out.’ Her face slick with sweat, she stood unsteadily, and her mother led her inside to sleep off the effects of the poison. As the door shut behind them, the women of the slumlane exhaled. Feminine discretion had averted a scene, perhaps saved a wedding. Meena’s future in-laws might not come to hear that they’d chosen an impetuous bride.

On the first night of Navratri, as the young people of Annawardi, minus Manju, danced in the illuminated clearing, Meena answer the question of a police offer who had come to her bedside at Cooper Hospital. Had anyone incited her to attempt suicide? ‘I blame no one,’ said Meena.  ‘I decided for myself.’

On the third night of Navratri, Meena stopped talking, at which point Cooper Hospital doctors extracted five thousand rupees from her parents in the name of ‘imported injections’.

On the sixth day, Meena was dead.

‘She was fed up with what the world had to offer,’ the Tamil women concluded.


Suggested Further Reading:

Ahmed, Rehana, Morey, Peter and Yaquin, Amina (eds.), Culture, Diaspora and Modernity in Muslim Writing, (eds.) (London: Routledge, 2012).

Chandavarkar, Rajnarayan, History, Culture and the Indian City (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Grewal, Inderpal and Kaplan, Caren (eds.), Scattered Hegemonies: Postmodernity and Transnational Feminist Practices (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).

Jarvis, Helen, Kantor, Paula and Cloke, Jonathan (eds.) Cities and Gender (London: Routledge 2009).

Massey, Doreen, Space, Place and Gender (Cambridge: Polity Press 1994).

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade, Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity (Durham: Duke University Press 2004).

Rajan, Rajeswari Sunder, Real & Imagined Women: Gender, Culture and Postcolonialism (London: Routledge, 1996).

Sangari, Kumkum, ‘Gendered violence, national boundaries and cultures’ in Constellations of Violence: feminist interventions in South Asia, eds. Radhika Coomaraswamy and Nimanthi Perera (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2008).

Sanyal, Romola and Desai, Renu (eds.), Urbanizing Citizenship: Contested Spaces in Indian Cities (New Delhi: Sage 2011).

Sassen, Saskia, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991).

—. Globalization and Its Discontents: Essays On The New Mobility of People and Money. (New York: The New York Press, 1998).

Varma, Rashmi, The Postcolonial City and its subjects: London, Nairobi and Bombay (Routledge 2012).

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