Travel

Occupy public spaces

We live in times when the average urban dweller’s participation in processes of change is largely limited to rants on social media, signing online petitions, or sometimes, when truly outraged, say by a molestation or gangrape in their city, by showing up at a public demonstration. So, there is something quite striking about sustained and repetitive action indulged in by groups of women across a few Indian cities. These women gather together in any public space week after week, sometimes every few weeks, to ostensibly do nothing at all.

Or as they put it: to loiter.

They sit on the grass in the local municipal park. Laugh loudly as they walk down the seaside promenade. Hire cycles and take a long early morning ride through the city. Play badminton in a deserted neighbourhood lane. Drink chai at the local dhaba or tapri (shanty tea stalls), where only men seem to occupy every space. Start walking the metropolis at midnight, ending a few hours short of dawn.

These are the ‘Why Loiter’ girls, so named after the book – Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets (2011) that I co-authored with sociologist Shilpa Phadke and architect Shilpa Ranade —that inspired their initiative. But the Why Loiter (WL) movement is not led by authors of the book but by its readers. This May 2017, the WL movement in Mumbai, started by Neha Singh and Devina Kapoor, celebrates three years of asserting the rights of women and other marginalised groups, including trans, queer, differently-abled and others, to seek pleasure and fun in public spaces by precisely doing just that.

Jaipur (where WL women landed up at country-liquor den), Aligarh (where WL girls entered all-male college cafés) and Pune (where loiterers recently met up at Swargate bus stand) have joined the movement. And the Pakistan-based Girls at Dhabas has been influenced enough to loiter on that side of the border.

Interested, but not sure why women occupying a public space for a few hours every week to loiter is relevant?

Precisely because this is an image that we rarely see even in our more progressive cities, where women form no more than 20% of the crowd even at peak hours. While studying/working women are an acceptable presence in public, most of their interaction with that space is limited to purposeful strides from Point A to Point B in the fastest time possible, while drawing the least amount of attention to themselves. By encouraging women to loiter and linger, one disrupts the lines of order and purpose that make women feel out-of-place in a public space, and makes a foray towards laying claim as full citizens to the city’s roads, fpromenades and parks.

Typically, public space is perceived as a space of danger and hostility for women. As episodes of violence in public thrust women back into the private, while increasing the policing of their movements, these loitering women attempt to change the way we view cities and public space. Just imagine your local park or street if more women occupied that space all of the time. While violence against women, both public and private, is a real threat, young women today don’t want to be mere spectators in public spaces. Middle-class and working-class women both desire to experience the joy of public spaces without questions of morality and respectability being thrown their way. The WL movement is opening up a new conversation about women finding pleasure in public spaces despite the spectre of violence. In the last three years, the Mumbai loiterers have chatted with policemen, autowallahs, hawkers, sex-workers. And not all of those chats were negative or hostile. They might not have unlocked the door yet, but they have opened a window. As Neha Singh, initiator of the WL movement said in a recent blogpost the key to moving forward is sustaining our actions. Loiter, and then loiter some more. Repeat. The very act changes you and perhaps things around as well.

Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based journalist, researcher and co-author, Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 9:53:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/occupy-public-spaces/article18529297.ece

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