Are Old Town’s Public Spaces Really “Public”?

Written by Eman Farhan
The Lyceum School, Karachi

With the rise of feminism across the globe and onto our social media timelines, women’s rights are a topic many feel strongly about (including myself). To be truly socially conscious, it is important for one to observe the role and dynamics of women in local spaces and contexts, particularly ones with a history. On my trip to Old Town, I found myself observing not only the presence- but the lack of women in public spaces.

Two interns entering an old building in Old Town’s inner city.

Two interns entering an old building in Old Town’s inner city.

Old Town is full to the brim with heritage and history. You can see it in each crack in the pavement, each pink/pastel shade painted building. Surrounded by colonial architecture, some that is almost crumbling, there are shopkeepers, vendors, business owners who have been running family businesses passed down from generation to generation. Amidst the hustle and bustle of city life, I could only see a handful of women. While interviewing shopkeepers and guards, there were no women in the history they told us. Buildings and businesses all kept, owned, maintained, broken down by men.

It is no surprise, considering the conservative norms of society that most of the population adheres to- a woman’s job is to take care of her home and family. Now, due to the rise of the middle class, one sees this norm being broken very often- there are many working, successful women in Karachi. Working class women also toil day and night to make a living as domestic help and seamstresses. But how many middle- and working-class women did I see on the streets, using public transport, sitting and chatting under the shade of the huge indigenous tree at a dhaba?


Public, as the name suggests, must include the women of a particular area. Yet, I could only see a select few in these “public” spaces. Mostly on the side of an occasional road, waiting to be picked up by a male family member. Nearing a dhaba, I could hear the hearty laughs of shopkeepers off duty while they had their chai, and felt that women have an equal right to sit in the same space and laugh and talk loudly over cups of chai. Out of fear, and the fear of being “out of place” is what holds women back. It is not a womans “place” to be in the same social setting (other than the home) as a man, so men dominate the streets. All I could think of was how vital women’s public presence and narratives are. Imagine the mounds of history we can not unearth because these women are not present in the public to share it with us. Women deserve the simple experience of walking down the street without fear, of hitching a bus without analyzing each step, of existing, with comfort, in their city’s public spaces.

However, I found that the Heritage Walk is an empowering initiative as it gave me the insight and opportunity to walk through my city’s streets, an act of reclaiming public spaces on its own. With continued visibility that this program brings and the history it unfolds, change is but a few steps away.