BENGALURU: A book that has made a huge impact on my life is, Why Loiter: Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets, by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade, and Sameera Khan.
This book focuses on how women in particular access public spaces in Mumbai, but I think all of us can relate to it, no matter where we live. It made me realise the many ways in which I have to manufacture respectability every single time I go out of my house and the process starts even before I step out of my front door. First, I have to think about whether I have access to a car, what time of day it is, which area I am going to, who I am going with etc. The question of safety is entangled with the concept of being a 'good girl.' Maybe if I wear a dupatta over my top, no one will grope me. Maybe if I wear a loose t-shirt, no one will notice me. Maybe if I don’t make eye contact with any man on the street, I won’t be leched at.
After reading the book, I realised how women tend to take up as little space as possible in public. We make ourselves seem smaller than we are to avoid harassment, yes, but also because of a larger culture in which women aren’t seen as having an equal right to a highly masculinised public space.
More often than not, we need to demonstrate a purpose for being out in public. This took me sometime to understand, until I remembered all the times when I waited for a friend specifically at a bus stop, so that it would look like I was waiting for a bus and not just standing around.
All the times I called a friend while walking on the road, or fiddled with my phone, just so I looked like I was, “doing something.”
As the book eloquently points out, different bodies access public spaces differently, but public spaces in India are designed keeping in mind a physically able male. It further points out the lack of sanitation infrastructure for women.
There are hardly any public toilets for women, and the ones that do exist shut by 9 pm. I started observing my own city and I don’t think I noticed a single toilet for women on the streets, not one that we would actually consider using anyway. Either this implies that women don’t need to 'go,' at least not after dark, or maybe that they shouldn’t be in public after dark anyway.
What the book made me realise is that even though I get out of my house, get into a car, get off at a mall or a restaurant, get back into the car and go home, I never truly engage with a public space. All I’m doing is going from one private space to another, without really being in public at all.
It is of course wonderful to be able to travel without the possibility of someone bumping into you and rubbing up against you “by mistake,” but wouldn’t it be even better if we could use public transport more comfortably? If we didn’t have to rely on cars and drivers? Isn’t that the goal of public transport, to make the city accessible to everyone? And no, separate compartments, autos, seats for women are not a long term solution. However, the focus needs to be on making spaces inclusive, not creating exclusive spaces for women.
Remember all the times you’ve seen groups of men loitering on the street, just talking, having a smoke, relaxing.Notice the ease in their body language. Men feel like they belong in public. They don’t need a purpose to take a stroll at 10 pm in their shorts. They can go out and buy cigarettes or alcohol without being given as much as a second look. And that’s fine. The question I’m asking here is: why not us?I shouldn’t need a reason to walk down the street. I shouldn’t need a reason to stand around on a foot path.
I shouldn’t have to pretend to text while waiting for a friend outside my house. I should be able to sit in a park with friends in shorts and a tank top without the nagging feeling of being watched. I don’t just demand the right to access public spaces, to go to school, college or office. I demand the right to access public spaces for the sake of pleasure, to take a stroll, to watch a sunset, to watch the world go by.
Shamolie blogs at https://bicyclewithoutafish.wordpress.com