Bombay Showcase

Occupy public spaces

MUMBAI, MAHARASHTRA, 25/12/2015: Women in Public place.Photo: Vivek Bendre   | Photo Credit: Vivek Bendre

One quick glance at a street corner in India will reveal that it’s rare to see women, in large or even small groups just talking with no apparent motive.

Four years ago in 2011, when sociologist Shilpa Phadke, journalist Sameera Khan and architect Shilpa Ranade launched their book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, they wanted to highlight that Mumbai’s women do not have uncontested access to public space. According to the dictionary, the word loiter means to ‘stand or wait around without apparent purpose’.

An extract from the book says, “Commuting to work, ferrying children to school or going shopping are seen as acceptable reasons for women to access public space. However, being in public space without any apparent reason is not so easy even for the bindaas Bombay Girl. It is when women ‘get above themselves’, that the invisible boundaries become apparent. As every Bombay girl knows, her freedom is subject to her knowing the ‘limits’, restrictions that often do not apply in quite the same way to her brothers.”

Since the book launch, Why Loiter? has now spiralled into an online and offline movement across cities and even borders that continues to draw attention to the importance of women’s need to visibly ‘loiter about’ in gardens, fairs, trains (after hours) and just about anywhere.

This year, for the second consecutive time, an invigorating social media campaign is taking place on Twitter and Facebook that involves conversations, videos and Tweetchats on the art of loitering.

The initiative also invites videos from people on their attempts to loiter. “There are also plans to paint murals in Pakistan, and write blogposts about loitering, explains Phadke. “We’re leaving it all to develop as it does.” She adds, “We started this last year after the Uber cab rape case when there was victim-blaming with people shrilly asking why the victim fell asleep in the cab. We thought there was a need to respond by asserting women’s right to be in public space, to sleep if we liked; and also to have fun. We invited women to post pictures of themselves having a good time in public space.”

It’s an ongoing two-week campaign that will culminate on January 1, 2016. “We chose December 16 as the start date for obvious reasons related to the gang rape and murder of a young physiotherapy student in 2012,” says Phadke, when asked about the significance of the date. The current posters, tweets and general enthusiasm are a manifestation of the response that takes off from the book’s thoughts and ideas. “People have read the book and made its ideas their own,” says Phadke. “Neha Singh began a group of loitering women in Mumbai. She is now set to conduct a workshop with CREA (an organisation who is also partnering with us on #WhyLoiter) in early January. People are doing really exciting things with the idea of risk and loitering and it is a source of incredible pleasure for us.”

Phadke underscores the organic growth of the #WhyLoiter initiative. They’re also collaborating with other feminist organisations like Blank Noise, Feminism in India, Prajnya, Queer Feminist India, Girls at Dhabas (from Pakistan), The Fearless Collective, Point of View and CREA. Even individuals are contributing. She adds, “Aditi Mittal is creating a video for us.”

The cross-border conversations have simply grown out of shared concerns. Phadke elucidates, “There's the shared experience of the peculiarities of South Asian notions of izzat and honour which mean that we need few explanations and our experiences in India and Pakistan are legible to each other without footnotes and citations. What began as a mutual admiration society has grown into a collaborative endeavour. We are also now collaborating with the Karachi chapter of the Fearless Collective, an organisation that was started in India by Shilo Shiv Suleman.” But post December 2012, is there any visible change in the way women are embracing public spaces? “The good part is that young women are taking the fight to the street and protesting by actually occupying public space as with Pinjra Tod, Girls at Dhabas or the Loitering Gang in Mumbai,” affirms Phadke. “Change is inevitable, but this time it feels like women are not willing to let things happen. Young women today do want a relationship with their cities and are not afraid to fight for it. I have tremendous respect for their grit and audacity.”

Are there any plans to rewrite the book? Phadke answers, “We hope to write a new introduction, and re-launch it with a new publisher. The book, with its strengths and limitations, will remain more or less the same.” And, how can women make the city their own? Pat comes the reply, “Loiter. Loiter. Loiter.”

Send your blogposts, videos and photographs to hashtagwhyloiter@gmail.com to be a part of the #WhyLoiter campaign.


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Printable version | Aug 1, 2021 1:06:49 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/entertainment/occupy-public-spaces/article8036282.ece

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