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What's the roaming charge?

PREETI MEHRA | Updated on June 23, 2011

Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets By Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade Publisher: Penguin Price: Rs 299



Having spent 13 years virtually ‘loitering' on the streets of Mumbai, I just had to pick up the book and see what the three women writers had found out. And then, having spent many more years in Delhi, before and after my Mumbai years, I too had a lot to say about both experiences

But first, the book. The concept of associating women with pleasurable hours is in itself a welcome break. In our country, numerous tomes have been written on women and labour, female infanticide, women and work, women and marginalisation, women and... many, many more things. But women and wanting pleasure? That's always been a big no-no. A woman should only be seen going about some work, be it related to labour, office, home or society — but work it must be, for her to be out of home.

And far from the western call of “ take back the night” with women demanding a claim on their nights, women in the country — and this time it hardly matters whether they live in the urban or rural areas — in all strata of society find it difficult to even have a claim on their mornings, afternoons and evenings.

So then, it comes as a pleasant surprise that three young, progressive women (feminists or not, it doesn't matter) spend three years researching women in public urban spaces. And their argument that though access to public spaces may have increased over the years, by no standards have women managed to have equal claim over these spaces cannot but ring true.

What is different about this book, and makes it an important document on women's freedom, is their research into different communities and the conclusion that in each one the women face diverse societal constraints. But with innovation being the name of the game, in each one they have fun in their own way. Be it the ‘good Christian girls' of Bandra whose “sexual virtue counts a lot in the marriage market”, or the burqa clad who live in mixed communities or, for that matter, the hipster-halter clad rich girls of the city. However, subtle or outright, policing is always a part of their lives.

The authors ask the question: why not loiter? And when they state that over the last decade Mumbai has become a less safe city for women in people's perception, it is a sad thought for those like me who watch the harsh reality for women in the Capital and extol the virtues of living in Mumbai and being able to come back from anywhere after midnight sans an escort. That was the Bombay (not yet renamed Mumbai) I used to know, where you had to play it safe, yes, but it was possible to take for granted a safe journey home after a late-night outing without the trappings of private transport.

The concept of ‘loitering', as understood by the authors, too is close to the heart of those who have looked for just such outlets in a country where women's work is seen (and accepted, or rather taken for granted) more than the person herself. “Loitering as an act is about the purposeless occupation of public space — something that precludes the possibility of creating sanitised homogenous spaces. It is precisely this ambiguity that makes loitering potentially liberating. Loitering mocks the authority of any one group of people to determine the future of the city by speaking with multiple visceral bodies and through the indeterminate nature of the identity of the loiterer,” says the book, emphasising its purposelessness being outside the purview of the global market of packaged goods and hence seen as a threat to the global order of production.

In the same vein they argue, and rightly so, that loitering is central to citizenship and that for women to loiter represents the possibility of redefining the terms of their access to public space, “not as dependants seeking patronage, but as citizens claiming their rights.”

The three authors are not asking for the moon, though in our society it may seem so. They simply want all women to have the space to do as they please without ogling young and old hanger-on men or the disapproving looks of the family and community. They have an interesting take on gender, age and public spaces. Worth reading in its original form.

They ponder on how when boys become men, their space expands; their sphere of access spreads further and further away from home into the larger city, and their confidence grows simultaneously. But as they go into middle age and then old age, with their bodies becoming less able, the space contracts.

For women, it happens the other way round. Middle-aged and older women suddenly feel fewer restrictions, as fear of unsuitable alliances diminish and their notional access to public space expands in comparison to that of young women.

All said and done, the book says it as it is — that women have the raw end of the fun stick, and if they demand an equal right to loiter, like for everything else, here too it involves a struggle. A struggle not only for safety in these public spaces, but a struggle to enter these spaces without familial policing or societal disapproval.

“Imagine an Indian city with street corners full of women: chatting, laughing, breastfeeding, exchanging corporate notes or planning protest meetings. If one can imagine that, one can imagine a radically altered city,” say the writers. A must-read, just as loitering is a must-do.

Published on June 23, 2011

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