Where the streets have no (female) names
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New Delhi: Within about 10km from each other in central Delhi lie three roads named after women. Once you have crossed leafy Amrita Shergill Marg, made your way past Kasturba Gandhi Marg and stopped at Mother Teresa Crescent Road, you’ll have to look pretty hard to find another named after a woman.
The roads named after Shergill, a celebrated painter, Mahatma Gandhi’s wife Kasturba and the canonized Nobel peace prize laureate used to be called, respectively, Ratendone Road, Curzon Road and Willingdon Crescent—a throwback to the British Raj.
Things haven’t changed much. Surrounding the three roads are, for instance, APJ Abdul Kalam Road, Akbar Road, Maharishi Raman Marg, Dr Zakir Hussain Marg, Lodhi Road and Sri Aurobindo Marg.
You may still stumble upon an Aruna Asaf Ali Marg (named after a prominent freedom fighter and the first mayor of Delhi) or a Sunanda Bhandare Marg, but the fact remains that New Delhi exists—like most cities—in a manscape.
“We are essentially so horribly patriarchal that the idea doesn’t even strike us that we need to recognize the contribution of women who form around 50% of our population. When it comes to deciding names, it is essentially the north Indian, upper caste male that determines who will be memorialized,” says Sohail Hashmi, a local historian of Delhi and filmmaker.
Names of streets, monuments and roads not only mark out a city with prominent people associated with it, they also introduce a city to visitors. They are significant markers of how a society looks at itself, a reflection of a city’s history, and what it values of its past.
Delhi streets are full of men’s names—almost always men of power. For women, with a few exceptions, the names are of those who have had some kind of a relationship with a man in a position of power—either as a wife, as in the case of Kasturba Gandhi (though she played a prominent role in the Independence struggle it was as Gandhi’s wife), or a mother—like in the case of Rajmata Vijayaraje Scindia Marg, named after a politician and mother to Rajasthan chief minister Vasundhara Raje Scindia and the late cabinet minister, Madhavrao Scindia.
“Of all these names, the only one which has beaten sexism is the Sunanda Bhandare Marg. She was the woman who pioneered the work in the field of building judicial sensitivity on gender-related issues. The other names are a product of a feudal, patriarchal mindset. Rani Jhansi was a royalty, and the road after her, seems more like tokenism,” says Hashmi.
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An interactive map from Mapbox (a mapping platform) developer Aruna Sankaranarayanan and her colleagues shows the scarcity of ‘female streets’ in major cities around the world. The group mapped London, Paris, San Francisco, Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai, and Bengaluru. They found that, on an average, only 27.5% of the studied streets had female names.
The practice of naming roads and streets is a fairly recent development. It wasn’t so long ago that while places and villages had names in Delhi, the streets didn’t. When they were named, the selection wasn’t necessarily based on the person’s service to the country or city.
“It was not Aristotle, Kalidas and Shakespeare whom roads were named after, but Prithviraj, Asoka, Ferozeshah Tughlaq, Akbar and Aurangzeb. Dynasties shared space in Lodi Road and Tughlaq Road, though every Viceroy got a look in and, in a fit of generosity, so did the French Dupleix and the Portuguese Albuquerque. The Raja of Jaipur had contributed the land for the capital (Jaisinghpura and Raisina), therefore Rajas Man Singh and Jai Singh got a road apiece,” according to historian Narayani Gupta’s essay in the book Celebrating Delhi.
Naming a street
To name a street or a road in Delhi, a proposal has to be made by an association or an entity registered under the Societies Registration Act. This passes through a string of public officials. Each proposal is accompanied by a brief note on the accomplishments of the individual whose name is proposed, particularly their services to the nation and Delhi.
“History is written by men and so have street and road names. It’s not like there is a lack of women that we don’t have enough streets and roads named after them. It is the mindset. Am sure if you go through the city’s history, you will find many women worthy of this honour,” says Kalpana Viswanath, a researcher who has been working on issues of violence against women and safer cities for women, being a part of the NGO Jagori.
Be it Sarojini Nagar, named after Sarojini Naidu, or Sarai Jullena, named after Juliana Dias De Costa, a woman of Portuguese descent who was tutor to the sons of Aurangzeb, the city does have some fading reminders of the women in its history. But overall, the blues (male streets), as seen on Sankaranarayanan’s map, dominate the pinks of women. Aurangzeb Road in plush Lutyen’s Delhi was recently changed to Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Road, just a month after East Delhi BJP MP Maheish Girri proposed the move to “correct the mistakes made in our history”. If changes can be made based to ‘rectify’ history, as Viswanath puts it, it is high time Delhi corrects the sexism in its street names as well.