Gender and Public Space: Mapping Palimpsests of Art, Design, and Agency in Shahbag, Dhaka

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2803

Article | Open Access

Gender and Public Space: Mapping Palimpsests of Art, Design, and Agency in Shahbag, Dhaka


  • Salma Begum Department of Architecture, KU Leuven, Belgium
  • Jinat Hossain Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, KU Leuven, Belgium
  • Jeroen Stevens Department of Architecture, KU Leuven, Belgium


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Abstract:  Public space is an essential social infrastructure for the continuous negotiation of city life and democracy because it offers (ideally) an interactive platform for people from diverse social and cultural backgrounds and the forms of public life they cherish. This contribution inquires how public space’s design and materiality play a fundamental role in popular struggles for social justice. By focusing on the differentiated access of women to public space, the role of gender in its design, and appropriation through a feminist intersectionality lens, this article aims to understand better the complex interplay between urban space and its non‐human material agency vis‐à‐vis citizen mobilizations, movements, and socially engaged art interventions. Drawing from extensive participant observation and spatial analysis, the exemplary public space of Shahbag Chattwar (a public square/plaza) will shed light on the “gendered spatiality” of pivotal popular mobilizations and reclamations from the historical momentum of the 1952 language movement, over the 2013 contemporary Shahbag protests, and to the 2020 anti‐metro rail protests at the Dhaka University campus. Analyzing urban space as a “palimpsest,” this research reflects on both historic and ongoing scenarios of popular protests as they repeatedly occupy public space and leave spatial traces through spatial design and art. In sum, the article seeks to gain insight into public space as a principal site of contestation and negotiation of juxtaposed layers of gendered dynamics, civil rights, secularism, and fundamentalism.

Keywords:  art and architecture; gender; palimpsest; public space; Shahbag

Published:   30 November 2021


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/si.v9i4.4368


© Salma Begum, Jinat Hossain, Jeroen Stevens. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.