by Anushri Muthusamy
“The city is an organized memory, and in history, women are the forgotten”
- Hannah Arendt
You are given a land and you’re asked to build a town, village, or city from scratch, What comes to your mind? The roads? The street lights? Buildings and bridges? Where to locate trees and, problematically, where to cut them for your new skyscrapers? Administrative offices? Houses? The film Nomadland nudges the notion ‘A house is not a home’ What does it mean? Some even say “Home” is more of a feeling than a place, so what makes a place feel home? How are homes different from houses? The sense of home roots from a variety of ventricles like, the cultural construct of a place, a sense of belonging, the feeling of safety, accessibility to opportunities etc. The question of safety is exponentially heavy when carried by women, differently abled people and other non-binary gender compared to abled straight men. Cities or urban spaces are designed by architects, urban planners, engineers and policymakers – fields which are historically dominated by men. Women lacked representation and participation in urban designing and planning. Cities are undisturbed water bodies reflecting the minds of their people, likewise, civilizations establish environments screening the ideologies and the values of people building them. Humans were subjected to specific gender roles that mapped down to domestic care for women and men working outdoors. This very notion laid down the framework of nuclear families and neutral design as the foundation in planning urban spaces, heterogenous abled men were set to be the central users of cities. Can viewing a city through a gender lens or laying inclusive principles while building a city still be a faraway utopian dream?
Sultana’s dream was written by Rokeya Shkhawat Hossain a Bengali Muslim feminist thinker and writer in the early 20th century. It was the time when the land was not just captivated by patriarchy but also colonization. This short story is a feminist sci-fi utopia which profoundly paints a picture of the reverse purdah system and land laid by the ladies. The tale begins with the protagonist Sultana finding herself in an easy chair thinking about womanhood in India, suddenly she wakes up to her friend-like figure whom Sultana meets for the first time and calls her sister Sara. She looks at those gleaming diamond-like stars and the moon but still felt safe to take a stroll in the streets when sister Sara invited her to her Gardens. She felt less nervous when she finds out that men don’t walk out in the streets here in the city. Then, sister Sara explains that “this is Ladyland free from sin and harm. Virtue herself reigns here” Sultana is amazed by how the place was immersed with nature and beauty, flowers and faith, plants and power, homes and hopes.
Sister Sara would say “your Calcutta could become a nicer garden than this if only your countrymen wanted to make it so. They would think it useless to give so much attention to horticulture when they have so many other things to do. When Sultana asked where the men were, sister Sara explained men are kept indoors just like how women are kept inside Zenanas in India, here we call it Mardanas (the Urdu word Mard meaning man) Sultana is awe-struck by the scientific advancements and how social matters are managed by women along with prioritizing welfare subjects in the state such as health, education, agriculture and environment. The place shed importance to work-life balance where women only had to work for two to three hours a day and engage in other life activities to make them feel alive and happy. Social safety is never a question in Ladyland because no such element posed a threat in the city, it was safe no matter if it was day or night. Sate craft is not compromised, of course, the defence demanded dynamics but it was just not pertaining to physical power but highlighted the vigour of scientific intelligence and strategic thinking using fewer arms where the muscles of the military relied to mental maneuverers. This witty female fiction contains a historic essence relating to the status of women in cities and politics. It is a mirror reflecting reversal mystiques of social systems and city administration, it underlays the concept of how one gender is given the stage to design a city that encapsulates emotive features and physical structures, benefiting just one dominant section of the society. It is no secret that patriarchy painted pictures of pointless gender norms and kept women devoted to domestic duties, discriminated the queer community, and the differently abled poor were labelled “helpless poor” leaving abled men as the sole users of the city. Rokeya Shkhawat constructs the narrative of ‘prevention over protection’, the conventional idea of safety is engineered to increase protection than to nurture freedom by dismantling the societal factors from which the citizens need to be protected from. The dreamland replicates the physical and societal design of a city through a gendered lens, but should it always be a dream? Must it always be a dream to feel safe? Should it take a toll on the abled men to create concussive space for other genders and vulnerable communities? In
In India, the cities are treacherously divided between different socio-economic groups, It's alarmingly common how those lower in the social hierarchy are seen as ‘danger’ in our society. The prejudiced notion has been pushed by mainstream media, political oppressors, and many other influential figures. The intersectional issue of safety among gendered minorities living in these spaces will always remain a question mark. Why must Sultana dream of a land of caged men to feel free? Why does “women-centric” infrastructure exclude men? Why do all our social urban policies focus on protection when you can pause the play with prevent button? Everyday questions like these often go soundless, run without motion, and leave stagnant stains from futile conventional notions. Injecting inclusive stakeholder participation will navigate directly to the decision-makers of cities. The Ladyland casts creamy visions of comfort and life but the utopian dream is a sound call for more equitable corridors of cities, certainly not my mounting maternal metropolis or mandating our men within Mardanas but by improving the sense of belonging, making public infrastructure and services equally accessible along with inducting inclusive participation in design making and policy planning, budlings are not just concrete and glasses but beliefs and minds of the makers. The gaps between geography and gender stem several subcultures of urban problems and decide the mobility or available options for women, queer community and differently-abled people in conurbations. Jane Jacobs in her book-The life and death of great American cities eloquently explains that “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”
Sultana’s dream 1905-http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/sultana/dream/dream.html
Jane Jacob’s The life and death of great American cities-
About the Writer:
Anushri Muthusamy is a research associate at a public policy think tank. She is passionate about history, society, politics, cities, and cultures. She has previously published articles on indigenous political poetries and the financial dynamics of gender. Writes poems on cities, gender and ideas of memory.