Shama Khan Aqeel is a blur of black as she zips past me in the garden. I am sitting on a bench under trees so high they give an illusion of vastness to an otherwise rather small park. A little later, I see her doing stretches; the burqa doesn’t seem to limit her. I look for a moment to ask her for a photograph. Flushed and flustered, she agrees.
The 34-year-old homemaker regularly visits this park in the heart of Mumbai, Baby Garden, to exercise. She says it’s a convenient alternative to the gym. It’s also comfortable because only women are allowed in.
Located in Agripada, near Mumbai Central station, the park is surrounded by high-rises with mainly Muslim residents, but is accessible to poorer localities such as Madanpura as well. In the evenings, you will find women strolling there, sneakers jutting out underneath burqas, or working out on the gym equipment. Others sit chatting in twos and threes, some feeling free enough to prop up their feet.
Worldwide, there has been a growing consciousness that female-only spaces can help women feel confident, safe, free, and validated in areas typically controlled by men, such as co-working spaces, clubs and gyms. Of course, the idea is still subject to its own logic of inclusion, and segregated spaces are not an alternative to safe spaces for all. When it comes to the public sphere, though, gender-segregated spaces like a ladies-only park can be a boon across religion, class and community.
Kalpana Kajrolkar, who works as a cook in a doctor’s household, takes a stroll in Baby Garden before going to work. She uses the gym equipment or just sits awhile, enjoying the early morning peace. “It feels relaxing,” she says. She feels uneasy relaxing at home. “The park is free, I can come and sit. I can even do some exercises while I am here.” She tells me how the garden caretaker ensures men don’t sneak in, not even chaiwalas.
Besides enabling sports and play, segregated public spaces are also spots where women can just loiter. Shaikh Nisrin, an 18-year-old student, visits the park just to sit on a bench. For her, it’s not a place to meet friends or make new ones, but somewhere to be when home gets too stifling. “There are lots of people at home, so I come here to get away and be with myself,” she says. “Everybody here keeps to themselves, no one disturbs me.”
The comfort is evident. But other than this, what purpose can gender-segregated public spaces such as parks really serve? “The idea of women in the public space just isn’t there,” says Vibhuti Patel, vice-president of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies and a professor who retired from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. “Everything is controlled by men.” In today’s context, where women are still not allowed public space, she sees the allotment of spaces exclusively for them as a progressive move—even if some view it as an age-old, regressive articulation that women need “protection”.
In January, researchers Harini Nagendra and Amrita Sen published an article for The Third Eye on their study, across several cities, of how different groups (men, women, etc) access spaces of nature. They found that in Delhi, women did not visit parks too often, either alone or in groups, whereas men did so quite frequently, often alone. For women, safety, security and child-centric facilities such as play zones are important. The women surveyed also noted that it was important to have a social network for meetings in the park, since domestic life, especially in urban areas, could be isolating.
This is an idea Patel echoes. Enabling a space for women alone is believing that “women also have a right (to a space) to enjoy, play, sit and loiter. They can meet other women here too. Otherwise, women are quite isolated. You need a social space too where you can meet other women, discuss, exchange (ideas).”
I meet Seema Khan, a 42-year-old homemaker, one evening as she sits chatting with her sister-in-law while her daughter plays nearby. She visits Baby Garden, close to her home, often. “We come to sit here, talk and meet new people. We are free and at ease,” she says. I ask if she would still visit if men were allowed in. The answer, a resounding no from Khan and her sister-in-law. The fact that the park is female-only is crucial to women, especially Muslim women, using it.
Kajrolkar tells me domestic helpers frequent the garden too, to eat lunch, sit or sleep, undisturbed and safe.
Baby Garden is neither the first nor the only such park in India. In May 2019, a park in Sector 10A in Gurugram, Haryana, was turned women-only simply to counter rising cases of harassment. Other cities too have created such spaces for safety reasons.
Anuradha Parmar, executive director at the Urban Design Research Institute, Mumbai, refers to a women’s-only football ground in Mumbra that has helped girls reclaim public spaces. She is clear, however, that she is not endorsing gender-segregated spaces as an alternative to safe, accessible spaces for everyone. “If a neighbourhood does not have open places where women feel comfortable, then yes, maybe a segregated space can provide that. It depends on what need (the open space) is fulfilling.” Ultimately, the goal should lead away from segregation.
If there isn’t enough space, Parmar suggests time slots be allotted for the use of public areas. “Does (a public space) really need to be for women at all times? Do we have that luxury?” she asks.
Baby Garden, though, will continue being a women’s-only park for the foreseeable future. Recently, the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation announced a revamp, “with the intent to create a space where mothers can come with their babies”: a separate room for mothers to breastfeed, a play zone, a designated space for yoga. It’s a testament to the park’s popularity.
“It feels as if the park is our own,” says Seema Khan.
Tasneem Pocketwala writes on culture, identity, gender, cities and books. She is based in Mumbai.