Back in early 2017, I was home, in a quiet small town in Kerala — a tropical state in Southern India with lush greenery. While I enjoy tranquility, I also miss being a flâneuse, a woman who wanders the city taking in the urban spectacle. But here is the thing: in smaller towns in Kerala or, for that matter, in the whole of India, women remain in transitions in outdoor spaces. They are either going in and out of shops that line streets, in and out of schools or in and out of public offices. They bustle quickly along the streets, like the streets do not belong to them. Any place where a stop or a moment to sit can happen — a pull-up tea shop, a shade under a tree, the very rare landscaped green spaces, a bench, a temple ground, a rugged sea front or even just a well-paved sidewalk — are all transitioned even faster than usual because it is usually taken up by men.
Then I happened to pay a visit to one of the many sprouting shopping malls. Given my love for the outdoors, I am not a great fan of the mall — it is a visual and sensory maze designed to make sure you remain inside, indoors for extended hours. If it was up to me, I would tear apart the mall and iron out all its content onto street fronts, adding to an even greater and richer sensory experience. But the urge to do so gave in, here in this small town. In the mall I felt a sense of secure independence from the immediate outside: there were more women here, walking a slower pace, sitting down at the mall food courts and having a chat, admiring aisle after aisle of organized commodities in the supermarket. Everyone, women and men, had a different behavior in the mall.
To understand this difference in behavior, allow me to paint a picture of the streets of this town. Most of these bustling town centers are packed with lines of one or two storey shops. There are no well-defined sidewalks. People and cars walk hand in hand with each other. The streets throb with the cacophony of horns mixed with call-outs of vendors and shopkeepers, predominately men, who in Jane Jacobs’s terminology would be the “eyes of the street”. Let me add to that — eyes, voice and ears of the streets as well. With this and the position that men enjoy in such social systems, the streets become a platform for them to be the way they want to be. They wait, sit, squat, observe, group up or ogle at passersby and if the passerby in question is a woman, especially a younger woman by herself, then some may resort to showcasing their talents of whistling, singing, or flirting. But all this changes within a shopping mall and I attribute it to two reasons — the light and the structure of the space.
Let me elaborate. Lights in a mall are chosen and placed to make the products and the mall itself appealing. A dark and shady mall becomes an enclosed and rather suspicious place to be in. Thus the lights are intentionally picked to be blazingly white and uniformly light the mall up. This makes everyone conscious, like one was in a spotlight. Second, the shops are stacked vertically around a central atrium, making sure the sight lines can intersect among all floors and all angles. This is also a marketing strategy: the more visible you can make shops at different floors, the more you force the flow of customers to all the shops in the mall. In short, a shopping mall is a design concept intended to make you walk longer, so that you can see more, stay more and spend more. But it is these very strategies that also induce a more formal etiquette in the mall, here and wherever one is found. There is an urge to dress better and behave better because of this sense of being watched.
The change is simple: men unfamiliar with this feeling outdoors suddenly tame down their “street instincts”. And women, ever so used to being watched, feel at ease for once: to gather, to talk, to stroll and just be. After a taste of this freedom, it is only a matter of time until women make the streets their own.
The rise of the department store, in the 1850s and 60s, did much to normalise the appearance of women in public; by the 1870s, some guidebooks to London were already beginning to feature ‘places in London where ladies can conveniently lunch when in town for a day’s shopping and unattended by a gentleman’ — Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse