Here’s How The Pakistani Working Women Are Changing Their Game In Public Spaces

Imagine a woman walking through the winding streets of the walled city of Lahore. She’s carrying three bags filled with her household groceries as she hurries to her home, a home she shares with her husband’s two brothers and their wives and children. She wants to be home before sunset; indoors, before the men come out to the courtyard a few feet from the entrance to the house; a courtyard known as “Bhaiyyon Ka Maidan” – The Courtyard of Brothers – where women are not allowed.  She cannot be seen loitering in the very place that would be considered the threshold of her house.

With men and women constituting relatively equal parts of a society, the presence of women outside a four-walled structure seems as though it should not be a rare sight, but a common, everyday occurrence.  However, South Asia along with other parts of the world appears to be obsessed with keeping women in check. This is primarily because cities have always been designed with the assumption that the public domain was to be occupied and used by men while the indoors was the realm of women.

Architecture and urban design require an assumption of what the average user of a said space looks and behaves like in order to produce designs that cater to their needs. That measure has almost always been the average, healthy male. When it comes to the perception of gender, men in society appear to be gender-less, i.e. their gender is the norm and being female is a deviation from that norm.

Source: Timetoast

This constitutes to the fact that any inconveniences experienced by ‘other’ groups such as the elderly, children, the disabled and women are resultant of the ‘one-size-fits-all’ design approach that is flawed in its core principles in order to find the exact mathematical proportions of the human body to improve the functionality and appearance of built structures, following the long tradition of Da Vinci and Alberti, Le Corbusier developed the Modular Man.

This system was originally built around was the standard height of an average French man-5’9” which was later changed to 6’ in 1946 because “in English detective novels, the good-looking men, such as policemen, are always six feet tall! This standard for the architectural design was and still is widely used around the world resulting in a built environment skewed towards men’s needs.

Source: Liberation School

In Mark Wigley’s reflection of Leon Battista Alberti’s description of the 15th-century European household and the gendered division of spaces within, he describes the way wives were integral to the household, but in truth no more than a manager of the servants. She was given access to things needed to complete the tasks assigned to her but no more than that. It wasn’t until the early to mid-1900s that the attitude towards women’s role in society began changing and more women started appearing in colleges and then the workforce.

This too was a gradual progression in the west as women were either working in factories or as dressmakers and later doing clerical or secretarial jobs which lasted only until marriage or unless the household required additional income. The 1950-1970s was an era that began a revolution as more and more women worked towards getting higher education and began the pursuit of a career in fields such as medicine, law, and business alongside having a family. This struggle continues on till today, with many eastern countries perhaps still a few decades behind. Women have become an integral part of the workforce around the world but continue to face the age-old barriers of ideology that they left behind nearly a century ago.

The urban landscape that they navigate is still hostile; catering to men, inconsiderate of women’s place and presence and sustaining the gender stratification. Men and women move in urban space differently and this needs to be acknowledged in terms of its design. Since men have traditionally been the breadwinners of the family, it is fairly common to expect them not to take up many household responsibilities. This means that they are free to allow their jobs to consume a large continuous portion of their day.

Women, due to their biological and traditional nature of birthing and being the primary caretaker of their children, are unable to invest their complete time and attention to their careers. Mothers tend to use their time in fragments-work, school, domestic tasks and healthcare-all demand slices of her time and therefore, it’s likelier for them to have a fragmented pattern of movement with them traveling shorter distances for shorter lengths of time compared to men.

Source: ABC

In order to facilitate this, accessibility is key; this means wide, stroller-friendly pedestrian sidewalks, safe and convenient public transport and the ease of driving or biking. In most cities around the world, however, tall curbs, missing sidewalks, poorly lit alleyways, and in developing countries, no pedestrian signals making crossing the traffic laden roads perilous to cross with a stroller present as significant hindrances in a woman’s daily commute. Therefore, men are still likelier to be seen cycling and driving. According to a University of Michigan researcher, men make up 59 percent of drivers on the road even though a slightly higher number of women hold driving licenses.

Public transportation is a desirable alternative but, where available, it is a breeding ground for sexual harassment. The mere quality of the space: enclosed, moving, no place to run, male-dominated and tightly packed, sometimes with no way to prove who the offender was, becomes a convenient arena for frustrated men to hunt women for sport. A 2016 Wall Street Journal report claimed that sexual assault (not including rape) had increased by 50% between 2015 and 2016 in the New York City subway. The New York Daily News, in a 2014 article, exposed one such pervert who planned acts of harassment on his way to work for each day but was never arrested.

Source: US News & World Report

Public spaces such as parks and squares can theoretically be seen as areas of relief for women; however, in practice, it is quite often the reverse. Women often feel unsafe in outdoor spaces, especially after dark. Some parks are even gated for security but as a public space, it limits their accessibility and the likelihood of women taking ownership of the space. Entertainment districts intended to promote sophistication within society and a healthy work-life balance have become no more than playgrounds for men to drink, urinate, vomit and harass women.

While in public spaces, women often have difficulty in attaining basic amenities such as access to public toilets. Men often muse at why the women’s toilet line is so much longer than theirs and often brush it off with an off-handed remark about their lack of respect for time or ‘feminine needs’ such as powdering their noses. The truth is that while men can conveniently relieve themselves quickly, standing up and merely unzipping their pants, women have it harder when answering the call of nature.

Source: World Moms Network

If men find the wait too long, no eyebrows will be raised if they choose to relieve themselves behind a few bushes. Women, however, are held to a higher moral code and face a higher risk to their safety, which is why they wait patiently in long lines. Additionally, biological factors such as menstruation and breastfeeding affect their toilet visit frequencies and durations.

Due to the inconvenience, women often dehydrate themselves during the times when they are out to reduce their frequency of visiting the toilets. In 2016, the rape and murder of a South African woman brought to light the fear many women live in of going to the toilets at night. The township outside of Cape Town is an informal settlement that had public toilets installed by the government, which are the only place for women to relieve themselves for miles.

According to a Yale economists study in 2015, 635 cases of sexual assault are linked to women walking to the toilet. While this may be an extreme example, in places poorly equipped with sanitary facilities, many women run the risk of migraines, urinary tract infections, reproductive tract infections and kidney damage from severe dehydration (as they limit their daily water intake) because of the mere reason that they have no place to relieve themselves with safety and dignity.

As women struggle to secure the rights to occupy the spaces outside of the home, the ever-present male dominance forbids it. And although more women are gaining access to the public sphere despite all the inconveniences they face on a daily basis, it is still merely a need-based permit. Women in the public eye constantly struggle with the endless stream of jeers in the form of cat-calls and the persistent questioning stares: “why are you here?”

Source: Daily Mail Online

For a woman to be in public she must have a purpose in being there, which thus implies that women in public are always in transit. They are outdoors because they are commuting to work, to buy groceries for the household or to take their kids to the local school. In patriarchal and religious societies it is easy to find justification for such a structure and is thus, widely accepted and deemed appropriate. However, with this frame of reference, it is easy to blame women when they experience assault, difficulty or even mere discomfort when outside their designated space. Regardless of any unfortunate occurrence, the ever-prevalent question that they will be asked by their friends, parents, brothers, husbands and even the police would be, “Why were you there?”

In many countries around the world, including Algeria, Egypt, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, there is a legal prohibition on women from working during nighttime. In India, for example, a work curfew depending on the nature of the work was set at 7 pm, 8:30 pm, 9:30 pm and 10 pm in factories and commercial establishments. Although this has been done in order to protect women from being exposed to a higher risk of crime, the result of this restriction is, in fact, counterproductive as this gives attackers plausible justification as the victim did not have reason to be in public at all.

Source: Governance Now

Imagine in a world like this, a woman comes home after a party, having had a great time. She enjoys the company of her friends, her co-workers, good food and music. She arrives home safe and happy from her night-out, a little after 2 am. Undoubtedly, a parent, a brother or a husband is furious with her. She will be yelled at, perhaps beaten and will be restricted from going out again. This kind of assault is shrouded with the label of love.

One of the major reasons gender stratification prevails is because public infrastructure, cities, and housing are not designed with women in mind or even involved in the process of decision making regarding urban design.  Recent statistics show that, in the UK, the number of women in architecture fell from 28% to 21% between 2009 and 2011. Even in countries with women in positions of authority, it is almost always men making the decisions about the urban landscape. Men also dominate the urbanist writing sphere in the UK and elsewhere. Since urban spaces ‘belong to men’ the role of their planning is also dominated by them.

As caretakers, homemakers or as working professionals, women need the same reliance and security offered to a man when accessing public spaces, public transport or public toilets. Through years of design reinforced to cater to the needs of men in public spaces, design-oriented towards women is absent. Ana Falú highlights the fact that women’s family careers are often not recognized in the workplace and therefore their contribution to both the reproductive and productive spheres is rendered invisible. It is omissions such as these that become central factors to the organization of urban spaces and create obstacles for women.


When more urban landscapes are designed with women in mind alongside men, cities would begin to change in form. From a male-driven policy perspective, ideas such as women-only subway cars for example in Mumbai or Guangzhou or legal curfews on working hours are deemed appropriate solutions to the problem. But in reality, they create more boundaries that are liable to be violated. With these limitations, there may be a plausible justification for abuse when these limits are crossed. They are tools that can be used against them, restricting them more rather than freeing them.

There is a dire need for women to be more involved in urban design at every stage of the process, from taking into consideration their requirements at the time of site survey before developing a project, understanding the way women use space (whether exclusive spaces are required) and giving women more opportunities in design based workplaces in order to understand what makes them feel comfortable in public space. Participatory and adaptable methods to design should also be encouraged.

Source: Small Business – – Houston Chronicle

This can result in neighborhoods that would be planned with kindergartens, doctor’s offices and green spaces in close proximity to allow women to multitask throughout the day. Wider sidewalks and ramps for women with strollers or young children and the disabled would dramatically enhance accessibility. Better connectivity through public transport and carefully designed women’s toilets considering the time took per woman and the number of women using the particular facility is necessary among other measures to create safe, healthy and happy cities for all.

A universal design strategy is an approach being developed and applied around the world including Third World countries such as Kenya. It is a method that challenges the “one-size-fits-all” approach by aiming to create buildings, spaces, and products that are accessible to all people regardless of their gender, age or ability. In order to create ease in the use of spaces, it employs techniques of reducing elements that can be perceived as barriers, the flexibility of use, tools for assistance and options when and where applicable. The method can and should be developed adapting to different cultures, their needs and make the best with the resources available to them.

The urban landscape, as the home, should feel like a place where men and women alike can feel a sense of ownership and belonging. It is no secret when tracing the habits of mankind through time and geography that women have always been treated as secondary to men everywhere. Biology made that possible as women were limited by their burdens of carrying children and being physically weaker. Staying in the comfort of the home where all amenities were at arm’s length with the outdoor tasks managed by men made for a workable setup that benefited both parties.

Today, however, this system is obsolete. Men no longer carry out tasks like hunting and protecting their families against wild animals; the outdoor tasks now mean commuting to an office and sitting behind desk-something women can do equally well and with the increasing cost of living, is becoming a necessity. If this is what modern society is then it is our responsibility as designers and developers to help the urban landscape evolve to accommodate these changes.

Why is the system in place ensuring and sustaining the gender stratification? Why do we act like it is something that cannot be overcome and changed? Because it can, it has and it should. “Successful, vibrant, happy cities arise out of the visions of many, not the powerful few” – Jane Jacobs