The spaces we do not own

Ever since I was little, I have wished for invisibility as a super power. The idea of being able to don a cloak of invisibility fills me with the molten, amber warmth of comfort. I have never been comfortable in public spaces. There has always been a pervasive need to own my own space.

When I am in my own space, I relax. I unwind and grow like a wine stain on paper, encompassing the calm, white space. Ownership of my own space is comfort. It is safety. I have always attributed this to my introverted nature but of course, my personality does not exist in isolation.

We are all affected by power dynamics at play and nowhere are these dynamics more apparent than in public spaces. Ownership of space and feeling comfortable in a space is directly linked to one’s conditioning and the level of power that one has in society.

On countless occasions, I try to build a quiet space for myself in public. I have noticed that whenever men occupy these public spaces around me, they stretch out their limbs, speak at unrestricted volumes and generally occupy spaces like they own them. This manspreading is the direct result of being raised and conditioned in a way that encourages self assurance and confidence.

However, I and countless other women have not been raised to be confident or assertive. We are raised to be demure and quiet. We are raised to be insecure, forever uncertain of ourselves. We learn from a very young age that we must sit in an appropriate manner. We learn to be hyper vigilant in public spaces because safety is a constant concern.

We learn that the way in which we occupy space has consequences. We learn that to be a woman alone in a public space is like an invitation for the disruption of solitude. We learn that unless we are accompanied by a man, we cannot expect safety or to be left alone.

If you’re a woman then chances are that you know what I’m talking about. You’re in a public place. Perhaps a cafe, perhaps a bar, perhaps you are walking down the street. Your body makes a distinct shape in the air. You are present in the physical sense. But you cannot relax in the space, cannot unwind. Marionette strings have attached themselves to your limbs. You feel like a peeled lychee, fresh, soft and vulnerable to the world.

It is difficult, as a woman, to feel comfortable in a public space. It is the reason I joined a female gym and the reason I tend to haunt events and businesses operated by women. It is the reason I always pick train carriages where other women are present, the reason most of my places of work so far have been primarily female.

Perhaps the latter has not been a conscious choice but I have always been drawn towards female oriented spaces and over time it has become apparent to me that while this is a choice I make, it is also a compulsion, the direct result of the feeling that I cannot be comfortable in public spaces where men are present.

It is also the reason I have always been a firm believer in the necessity of safe spaces for women as well as for minorities and disenfranchised group.

Critiques of the need for safe spaces are quick to point out that safe spaces are nothing but echo chambers that reinforce the ideological divide, that the creation of safe spaces is directly linked to unwillingness to engage with those who may hold different opinions. Many claim that safe spaces only reinforce what they view as the toxicity of identity politics.

Arguments like this have a very twisted foundation. Firstly, just because I am a Feminist or a person of colour or socially and politically progressive does not automatically place the onus on me to engage with people who are fundamentally not on my side, especially if doing so comes at the cost of my physical or mental wellbeing.

Secondly, as a woman of color regardless or whether or not I set out to seek debate, I will end up engaging with those who have ideological differences with me. This is an inescapable part of being not just an activist but of existing in a society that is not fundamentally geared towards your needs, that forces you to fight for the things that come easy to other privileged sections of society.

Considering this, sometimes I am exhausted. Sometimes, it becomes essential to find a space that is safe and welcoming, both as a woman and as a person of colour. I know that others in my position feel the same way. Given this context, the importance of having safe spaces is undeniable.

Why is the world so reluctant to carve us a sliver of a space that we might call our own? It’s not going to lead to the creation of an Amazonian society or the weeping of the ideological divide.

The push back against safe spaces implies that there is an element of escapism and unreality to them, as though we are creating a fantasy world that is not sustainable and is ideologically self indulgent.

However, this misunderstands the entire premise that safe spaces are based upon. Safe spaces are more than simply a space where it is easy to reach a consensus. Sometimes, safe spaces are less of a want and more of a need. We do not desire safe spaces, no one does. It is a matter of compulsion rather than desire.

Safe spaces are necessary for the mental health of women and others who might occupy them. If it weren’t for safe spaces, there would be very few public places that I would actually feel comfortable in.

Other criticisms point out that the creation of safe spaces belongs to a ‘paternalistic’ kind of Feminism whereby women are seen as being objects that need to be protected rather than strong individuals capable of protecting themselves.

While I firmly believe in empowering women and teaching them self defense, hyper vigilance is an unfortunate consequence of being a woman in a public space. For many women, this is not simply a shadow around the corner. It is often based upon experiences of trauma or simply a feeling of anxiety that might arise when man-spreading is rampant.

It is important to be realistic about how exhausting the this hyper vigilance and anxiety can be and how tiring it gets to defend our need for equality and safety. If anything, I wish there were more safe spaces. I wish there were women only train carriages and cafes and bars. I am certainly not suggesting that segregation is a solution of any kind.

Perhaps the very fact that this need for safe spaces exists is reflective of a fundamental flaw in our society. However, the reality is that for many women existence in a public place comes with an element of hyper vigilance. Rather than trying to push back against this reality, it is far more effective to face it and acknowledge our need for these spaces.

Sometimes, to exist in public spaces is to be unwittingly turned into an object for consumption. Sometimes, we don’t want to be ogled, catcalled or approached. Sometimes we don’t want to be spoken over or have our space invaded. Sometimes, I’m tired of trying to occupy public spaces as a woman. Similarly, sometimes I’m tired of defending the expression of issues that I face as a person of color.

Sometimes I long for safety, as we all do, and there is nothing wrong with that.

These streets, these cafes, these bars, they are not my kingdoms. I long to be small, to occupy as little space as possible. I long for invisibility.

But nevertheless, the next time I’m in a cafe, I try. I try to expand, to sit up straight, to be comfortable. When there are men around me or when I feel keenly that I do not belong, when I feel the invasion of space coming I try instead to colonise.

I imagine a little saffron flag that I plant in from of me and tell myself that temporarily, this space is my own, even though it was never meant to be. I imagine it says to the world, I am here, I am visible, I am safe and for the moment, this space is mine as much as it is yours.

A man walks in and orders a coffee. He is loud. He is confident. He sits next to me and takes up far, far too much space. My saffron flag disappears. I think about how to him, the world is a safe space.

I slide on my coat like a second skin and wonder what that feels like.

Image: Sabri Tuzscu


Neha Mulay is an English major, a radical deconstructionist and an ardent Feminist. Her writing has appeared in Overland and Demos Journal. She has a self indulgent blog.

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