Fighting for Women’s Right to Public Spaces

by Vani Viswanathan

Why is it important to demand the right of women to “loiter” in public? What does it mean in a country where women need to fight bitter battles for a range of (basic) freedoms? In an interview with Vani Viswanathan, Neha Singh, who founded the Why Loiter? movement in Mumbai, discusses women’s right to public spaces for leisure and pleasure too.
About the “Why Loiter?” movement: Founded by Neha Singh, the movement is based on the book “Why Loiter? – Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets” by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade. Presenting an original take on women’s safety in the cities of twenty-first century India, Why Loiter? maps the exclusions and negotiations that women from different classes and communities encounter in the nation’s urban public spaces. Going beyond the problem of the real and implied risks associated with women’s presence in public, the authors draw from feminist theory to argue that only by celebrating loitering “a radical act for most Indian women” can a truly equal, global city be created.
The “Why Loiter?” movement began with a few women starting to reclaiming public spaces by loitering in them, in May 2014. The group works on the pleasure principle and loiters across public spaces in Mumbai, in the day and at night, on foot, on cycles, in small groups and large groups, making the sight of women ‘doing nothing’ a normal and natural phenomenon. The movement has now spread to Jaipur, Delhi, Aligarh and cities in Pakistan. The Why loiter? online campaign has received several thousand photos and posts from women across the world and the blog has had more than 25,000 viewers from across the world.

The basics first. We hear that in a country where even women out on the road ‘for a purpose’ (work, school, college) are molested/raped, being out for pleasure is the last thing to worry about. WHY is loitering an important right for women?
The right to occupy public spaces is an unconditional and fundamental right for women. For years we have tried to justify women’s visibility or access to public spaces with reasons like, she has to be outside to access education or make a living or to shop for groceries, but the right to loiter says that just like men occupy public spaces unconditionally and uninhibitedly, women must occupy spaces in the day and night, for work or for pleasure, alone or in a group, wearing clothes of their own choice and behaving as they please, whether they appear ‘respectable’ or not, whether their being visible is sanctioned and approved by society or not, and the state, the police and society still have absolutely no right to violate her physically, sexually or psychologically. Among other things, this is a direct protest to victim blaming, where whenever a woman faces sexual violence in a public space, there are a million questions raised, putting the onus of the incident on the woman.

The pleasure principle also makes loitering a sustained, long term and peaceful resistance, rather than, say, a public outcry after a sexual attack, which usually leads to short sighted and knee jerk reactions by the state to pacify the public sentiment.

The act of loitering aims to normalize women’s visibility in public spaces and break norms of respectability, ‘safe and unsafe’, ‘good enough reason or not’ and change society’s perception of a woman in a public space. This will have far reaching effects in terms of physical safety for women, their social, physical, cognitive and economic growth. It will account for a progressive mindset change in all of society, will eradicate victim blaming and self blaming. It will force the state machinery to create infrastructure that supports women’s accessibility and safety in public spaces like street lights, public toilets, helplines, patrolling etc.

How does the right to loiter sit within the larger movement for gender equality – i.e., how do you place this with regard to other ‘basic’ rights for sanitation, reproductive choices or a life free from domestic violence?
Basic sanitation, reproductive rights, fight against domestic violence and the right to reclaim public spaces are not separate rights. They all lie under the same spectrum, which is to be treated as individuals that have equal right to social, economical and political opportunities. The right to loiter is based on the pleasure principle, it is the most basic and yet the most evolved way of reaching equality in a society, and pushes the envelope of the society to stop looking at women in the boxes of sexual violence, reproduction and sanitation and force them to see women as evolved, creative, free spirited, inspirational, adventurous, intelligent, productive beings that demand that their cities, villages, towns belong as much to them in every respect, unconditionally, as they belong to men. When men and society in general starts viewing women as wholesome beings occupying 50% of all spaces, they will also be open and accepting of women’s right to reproduction, sanitation, and fight against domestic violence.

The first question anyone brings up when talking about women’s right to be in public is that the public space isn’t safe (and that it’s not safe for men either). How do you explain women’s right to risk?
Well, its a catch 22 situation, where one says that women shouldn’t be in public spaces for their own safety, thus removing the presence of women from public spaces and in effect, making public spaces even more dangerous for women. Eventually this ‘solution’ to avoiding risks will make women invisible in public spaces.

The solution, according to Why Loiter? is to do the exact opposite. To be so visible that no place remains unsafe. To occupy spaces that are considered unsafe and in such large numbers that even those spaces become safe, vibrant and lively. In fact, if there are more and more women that come out on the streets, the streets will become safer for everybody, including for men, children, the transgender, the religious minorities, the disabled etc. Sanitizing spaces, putting guards, barbed wires, iron gates, ticketed entries, excluding people of a certain class/caste/minority/sexuality, in order to make them ‘safe’ for women, actually makes the spaces more dangerous for women. The more open, free and accepting of all kinds of communities a space is, the safer it is for women.

Case in point is the Shivaji park in Dadar (Mumbai), which has an almost non existent boundary wall, no guards, no gated entries, no tickets is by far the safest public space for women in Bombay, mainly because it is always occupied by several hundred people who roam around freely. Because of the low boundary wall, the road is easily accessible in a jump. In contrast to this is the Oval maidan, which has a ten feet high sharp edged iron fencing all around and has just one entry and exit points that are guarded. One never sees women strolling there since the strict sanitation alienates the space for many.

Privatization of spaces and denial of access to certain sections of society makes spaces dangerous for women. Another case in point, after the hawkers and book sellers were removed from the fort area of South Bombay, the area became desolate and dangerous for women, who earlier would stroll around till late browsing through books, eating pani puri and chatting on the roads, safe because of the sheer numbers of hawkers and food stalls.

Why Loiter? believes that the only way to make spaces safe is to access the right to risk, in large numbers, and occupy these spaces during day and night, thus making it accessible and safe for the entire society, and normalize women’s and other minorities’ presence in these spaces.

Women from all socio-economic backgrounds have the right to loiter. How can the movement become inclusive?
Since the movement started very organically and through word of mouth, it included women that were my friends, friends of friends and acquaintances. Since we put up all photos and stories from our loitering sessions on social media and the whyloiter blog, we started getting a lot of enquiries from women unknown to us. Thus our reach grew, but still restricted itself to a certain socio economic class that has access to social media. But since its second year into being, the group has reached out to universities, groups and women in different cities, including Jaipur, Aligarh, Delhi and cities in Pakistan.

The authors of the book and I have been conducting workshops with college students and also with women’s and girls’ groups across the country. Recently we tied up with a Delhi-based NGO called CREA to conduct a two-day workshop on reclaiming public spaces and loitering with fifty tribal girls in Jharkhand. We have also produced a play called ‘Loitering’ that is co produced by the National Center for Performing Arts and we plan to show the play across the country in schools, colleges, women’s organisations and alternative spaces.

Apart from these ways of reaching out, the very act of loitering in public spaces that are free and open to all creates a gradual change in the minds of all that are watching, irrespective of class/caste/religion and inspires others to do the same.

What is your take on women-only spaces – be it in local trains or like we heard recently, a women-only liquor shop in Delhi? How do these support or detract from the movement for women’s right to equal access to public spaces?
I personally think that reserved coaches in trains and buses encourage women to access public spaces without the fear of harassment, although this situation should be a transition from being a patriarchal and regressive society to one that is evolved and progressive. The ideal situation would be to have no division of public spaces based on gender, including in washrooms and changing rooms, like it is in some countries in Europe, but since the situation for women in India is far from the ideal currently, I personally feel creating reservations of space in public transport is essential for women to step out and access public spaces.

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