In Zanzibar, known for its beautiful beaches, tourism has pushed women out of public spaces once designated as female-only spaces. A new project called Reclaim Women's Space, however, is working to change that, the Guardian reports.
The island of Zanzibar, located off the coast of Tanzania, is 99% Muslim. And while not explicitly required in Islam, in Stone Town — the oldest part of Zanzibar City — men and women have traditionally socialized in separate public spaces as a cultural practice. Before tourism flourished Zanzibar, there were several all-female beaches and parks on the island.
However, today, the places where women onced gathered and socialized are now dominated by vendors and tourists, limiting their access to these public spaces, while neighborhood courtyards and squares have become male-oriented meeting places.
Reclaim Women's Space is a local effort aiming to empower women to work together to take back public spaces that have been overrun or co-opted for other purposes and to create new spaces that better serve their communities.
Using a technique called "memory mapping," Reclaim Women's Space asks women from across several generations to draw memories of their favorite public spaces in Stone Town and imagine ones they would like to see in the future.
The project employs female engineers and also hosts skills classes that teach women everything from masonry to how to run a business, the Guardian reports.
"The space for economic activities overtook the needs of the women," Munira, the coordinator for Reclaim Women's Space told the Guardian, adding that a number of factors including population growth, globalization, and immigration have caused women to retreat from the public sphere.
"If you go outside, you see a lot of things. You can open your mind. You can learn something," she says. "You can make a friend. And a friend can help you just by sharing the idea... Alone, you have only one mind," Madina Haji, one of the engineers involved in Reclaim Women's Space told the Guardian.
Haji and her team are working to create new public spaces that are welcoming to women and their families, since men do not typically bring their children out with them.
"Women have to go work, while at the same time they are still responsible for their homes," she says. "Whereas the men, they will go to work and after that they have time for social gatherings," Haji told the Guardian.
One of Reclaim Women's Space's first projects was to create a community center near the Old Fort, a space that has been particularly impacted by tourism.
Women's access to the public sphere is about much more than having a place to chat with friends — it is symbolic of the economic, social, and political power they hold in society, and their ability to share ideas and solve problems communally.
In Tanzania, a country where only 16% of women have bank accounts and just 11% own a home, but nearly a quarter of girls are married as children, reclaiming public spaces for women could be a catalyst for advancing gender equality.
"We want to empower women to stand on their own," Haji told the Guardian. "Maybe we can have a president called Aisha one day," she said.