The Madrid transport authorities have spoken: no more manspreading. Last month, like New York before it, the Spanish capital put up signs on buses and subways, discouraging men from lolling, sprawling, and generally taking up more than their fair share of room on public transport. Every woman who’d ever shrunk in her seat to avoid this tedious type of urban sprawl rejoiced. Madrid’s new stickers are an attempt to curb a practice with a long history, as Slate recently noted. In her 1979 book Let’s Take Back Our Space, the German photographer Marianne Wax traced manspreading back from ‘70s ads to Renaissance statuary (think of the splay of Michaelangelo’s David), all the way back to the Greeks and Egyptians.
Today, manspreading sits at the sillier end of a crucial contemporary issue—the tussle over how men and women share public space, and with it, over women’s rights to move freely through the world without harassment. Long-term global trends show that more women are on the move, whether as migrants, as students, or as workers outside the home. This seismic shift in the labor forces shows up in a range of cultural changes. One reason for the rise in women wearing hijabs in Muslim-majority countries is the rise in women heading to work: how to persuade your father and brothers that your honor—and that of your family—won’t be compromised when you’re riding crammed public transport in Cairo or Kampala? Agree to cover your head, thus creating a sort of mobile protection, allowing you to access the city.
Women’s growing insistence on access to public spaces has met with resistance, of course, from those who see the status quo threatened. Fundamentalists of all religions, doubtless nostalgic for the days when women were safely kept at home, scold women for not caring for their children, or for not covering up. In Saudi Arabia, the dominant culture limits their movements by law, forbidding them from driving cars or traveling freely without a male guardian. The Saudi curbs on women’s right to public areas are extreme, of course, and a number of the Kingdom’s women have ﬂouted the driving rules by taking the wheel themselves. But it’s telling to think about other, subtler ways that genders are contesting public space. Think, for instance, of the sea of pink pussy hats in streets and squares across the United States this January, worn by women pushing back on President Trump’s claims to free access to women’s bodies, whether by grabbing their vaginas, or his administration’s threats to roll back access to birth control and abortion. Women took to the streets to remind their new leader where exactly the lines between public and private should be: streets are public spaces, and women’s bodies private ones.
Manspreaders, catcallers, and political parties advocating women’s traditional roles harrass not just women, but their national economies. Think about it: what kind of hit does a country’s GDP take when women are scared to walk outside alone or ride buses? It’s hard to quantify exactly, but it pays to look at the example of India. Development experts have recently puzzled over why, despite Indian women’s rising literacy and education rates, women’s participation in paid labor has plummeted in recent years, dropping from 34 percent in 1999-00 to 27 percent in 2011-2012.
Fear of safety in public spaces was one of the reasons cited for the drop in labour rates. A 2012 study from a branch of the Indian chamber of commerce found that 82 percent of Indian women were cutting back on working hours, leaving their work-places early to avoid traveling after dark, or even quitting due to the perceived dangers of traveling to work.
It’s not just female labor rates hurt by the perception of cities as hostile and dangerous places for women, but whole industries: after the high-proﬁle rape of a young woman in a Delhi cab in 2012, female tourism to India plummeted 35 percent.
The rape triggered a national debate, and a ﬂurry of technological solutions, including apps that turn women’s phones into ‘panic buttons,’ and ‘smart jewelry,’ programmed to send alarms to a woman’s friends and family. But as a thoughtful report from Meher Soni of the Observer Research Foundation noted, “these solutions make it the woman’s responsibility to be safe; she is expected to be always on a state of hyper-alertness in a public place—and then make the panic button or some other gadget work in case of a threat to her safety. Implicit here is the “maleness” of the public sphere, where the woman never really ﬁts in without her safety tools.”
Luckily, there are activists pushing back in India, and throughout Asia and beyond, savvy city planners and international organizations advocating for gender mainstreaming in transport and city design. This winter saw the Facebook hashtag #IWillGoOut culminate in marches in 21 Indian cities, with women and girls demanding their rights to public spaces without suﬀering harassment. The United Nations ‘Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces’ program has encouraged cities across the world to design urban areas with women’s safety in mind. Under the program, Cairo sent out youth ambassadors to teach at schools about gender equality, and Quito strengthened its laws on harrassment in public. Other cities are promoting transport projects that reﬂect women’s travel routes as well as men’s. After Vienna, Austria, surveyed how men and women used their city’s streets and transport system in 1999, they found that while men tended to use transport to get to and from work, women’s trips were much less linear, according to a piece on CityLab.com. Women’s days, shaped not by a single job but by many, were dotted with trips to schools, grocery shopping, and caring for relatives. Their transport patterns were usually range of trips of varying lengths. Women walked more than men. The city responded by putting in additional lighting for added safety, by building bigger sidewalks, and building ramps for people pushing strollers or wheelchairs.
Vienna’s a pioneer in thinking about women in public spaces, but apparently, it still hasn’t stamped out manspreading. That could change: a recent post on Instagram called for the Austrian city to stamp it out, “in solidarity with Madrid.”