Sexing the City - Research Center for Material Culture
17 September 2016

Sexing the City

Conference | 15-17 Sept 2016 | RCMC

In 2015, five feminists were detained in China for more than a month; their public activism for more female toilets, against domestic violence and for safer subways, appeared to challenge the authorities too much. Meanwhile, in India, calls for a safe city for women continue to dominate public debate. Asian cities are changing at an unprecedented speed, along with their gendered social fabrics. Simultaneously, forces against changing gender roles also multiply, summoning a return to traditional (often regarded as ‘Asian’) values that invokes banishing women back to the private sphere. 

Sexing the City

Such dynamics can be seen in the rapidly transforming cities of Delhi and Shanghai that have become a site for changing family patterns and the undoing of ‘traditional’ social contracts as a result of migration, new work opportunities, delayed marriage, divorce, open homosexuality, and a growing leisure and consumer society. Reflecting moral panics centered on discourses of ‘westernisation’ and alleged disruption of public spaces, the resulting subjectivities are precarious, marked by asymmetrical power relations. Gendered imaginaries of emancipation are therefore contested in the light of a variety of cultural practices that impact women’s multiple lifeworlds.

In Sexing the City we wish to unpack the gendered dimensions of rapid urban changes taking place today through the themes of autonomy, respectability and precarity. With our focus on Delhi and Shanghai we seek to examine how different groups face different and/or similar struggles. For example, in Delhi a female motor bike club explores new and shared forms of navigating urban space; in Shanghai, creative female workers jump from job to job braving stigmatization by the outside world as overtly ambitious and ‘left-over’ women (shengnü); in both Shanghai and Delhi, migrant women face precarity in terms of labour and in terms of romance. Moreover, queer women date gay men in China to pacify their parents’ wish for a heterosexual marriage, while the GLTBQ community in Delhi is facing legal measures against same sex practices. Sexing the City aims to unravel this proliferation of new gendered and sexed dynamics and subjectivities within recurring and persistent heteronormative discourses. It also brings a gendered focus to key debates in urban studies such as urban comparativism.


We use the transitive form “Sexing” to underline the continuity of this process, while highlighting its instability. We address questions such as: How to live, love and make love in times of precarity? How to feel safe while navigating the city autonomously? How to remain ‘respectable,’ and according to whose criteria? How to resist heteronormative and patriarchal forces that continue to haunt the cityscape? How and when and who can claim the right to the city? What impact creative forms of protest can have? And is it possible to compare cities through a gendered lens? Indeed, though our focus is on Asia, these are questions that are as relevant for Europe today.

Sexing the City comprises discussion and debate including keynote presentations from prof. Raminder Kaur (University of Sussex, UK) and prof. Jennifer Robinson (University College London, UK), film screenings of “Women” by Walker Lee (Shanghai), depicting the lives and loves of young urbanites in China and an art exhibition featuring the artists Li Xiaofei (Shanghai), Guo Qingling (Shanghai), and Sheba Chhachhi (Delhi). 


  • Heidelberg University
  • University of Amsterdam
  • Birckbeck College (University of London)
  • Fei Contemporary Art Foundation (Shanghai)
  • Goethe Institut (New Delhi)
  • The National Museum of World Cultures/Research Center for Material Culture (Amsterdam and Leiden)


Sexing the City is the final conference of the project HERA SINGLE, a three-year research project funded by Humanities in the European Research Area.