Public space is not just for men

The silencing of women in public is an everyday occurrence, writes Shelina Janmohamed – but it's so obvious we don't even notice anymore

Even moving around in the daytime can be risky for some women, writes Shelina Janmohamed (Photo by Subhendu Sarkar/LightRocket via Getty Images)
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The picture of a woman on a beach in France apparently being forced to disrobe by armed police officers sent a chill into the hearts of women everywhere.

It exposed a brutal truth: women in the public space are constantly policed. Space does not belong to women, and they are reminded of it not just through blatant shows of state force and politics, but also through far more insidious and subtle forms of social control.

To put it bluntly, the woman on the French beach was persecuted for being a Muslim woman and for being a person of colour, but at the end of the day for being a woman.

To understand how widespread these attempts are at policing women in the public space, and how it affects our lives, you will have to look at it from a woman’s perspective.

It’s the fear of walking in the dark. But it’s also the fear of walking in the daylight. How heartbreaking was the case of the two sisters in India who were gang-raped and hung from a tree for doing nothing other than finding a private place for a comfort break.

Catcalling – despite the perpetrators’ claim about it being complimentary – is intrusive and aggressive. It affects your life if you have to think about which streets to walk down, or if you will be assaulted while going about your daily business.

More subtle ways are also used to push women out of the public space. I’ve been told many times to remove my photo from Facebook, because people might use it for unpleasant purposes. As if it’s my fault that I simply exist.

These are people who do not know me and who have no connection with me, yet feel entitled to intrude into my space and dictate to me what to do. They told me to remove my non-offensive, non-provocative headshot “for my own good” – as though I were a child – and then these same men go on to ask me if I would marry them, or they would make lewd comments. In some countries’ political campaigns, where knowing the person you are voting for is key to casting your ballot, the pictures of female candidates are sometimes replaced by a picture of a flower or their husbands’.

It exists even in our attitudes when we are asked whether it is husbands and fathers who have demanded headscarves be worn. Or being put in another room without access to events, expression or facilities.

Far too many women face these forms of policing in public spaces, so much so that we don’t even bother to mention them anymore they are part of our ordinary life. But they take their toll. There is constant worry about how to behave, what to speak and the exclusion from where important decisions are made. There is frustration at being in meetings where you speak but no one seems to listen. Then there are cases of the prevention from participating in public discourse, of online trolling and of rape threats.

What’s more concerning is the implicit notion that you are an affront to the public space and you do not deserve to be there, to be normal, that the space is not yours, that you are there on sufferance, that if you transgress your permissions you will be punished and excluded. The threat of being denied what little “privilege” women have forces them to comply.

Everyone should be comfortable, welcomed and equal in public. After all, the public space belongs to everyone, and that includes women.

Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World