Now we’ll defy the law. We’ll loiter : Introduction to the book Why Loiter?

Why Loiter? by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade looks at how women’s access to public space is shaped in the context of globalization and privatization. The study explores how both the cultural transformation and spatial transformation of Mumbai has sought to retain traditional structure of entitlement to space which holds women in private sphere while men occupy the public space.

Mumbai is one of the urban cities where the right to public resources and work, won by decades of women’s struggles in India, are seen to be exercised at will. The study which germinated out of the authors’ own “strategizing even in my own city in order to be able to access public space” debunks this myth by asking “If Bombay Girls apparently have unrestricted access to public space, then why are there still few of them as compared to men at any given time or place?”. The authors state that women’s access to public space are still defined in terms of safety on one hand and “character” of women at another. Both of these structure how women of different classes, caste, religion and sexuality have right to public space and safety.

Once a city of working class with the textile mills, the city has morphed into a center of commerce and capital. This has been accompanied by dispossession where the marginal sections of the society whether by class, caste, religion or sexuality are seen as unwanted elements or “outsiders”. The Imagined Mumbai is explained in the form of an advertisement by Amitabh Bachan pointing to two Indias, “one that is straining to the leash eager to forge ahead and take its place in the world” and the “other India that is the leash”, the other referring to the marginal section and the safety of women are constantly ‘threatened’ by these “unwanted elements”. According to the authors, “”In reality, both women and “other” men are outsiders to public space, and the exclusion of women from public space is inextricably linked to the exclusion and vilification of other marginal citizens”.

The increasing privatization of space has put public resources in the hands of capital, whether its pavements becoming parking spaces, or parks being taken over by residential associations. This has also furthered keeping those who are called “low class men” from the public space articulated as concern for safety of women. Yet in a study done with architectural women students where the students are confronted with a beautiful wooded park and a crowded slum settlement bursting at the street, the students confess to the feeling of safety felt in the crowded slum street as opposed to the wooded park.

The anxiety for safety is exploited by capital which seeks to create safety for women in shopping malls, coffee shops and pubs. While this defines the parameters of fun for women, even this notion of safety is to be had only for those who can afford to buy this privilege. In these private spaces, women from various classes interact as suppliers of labour power and consumers of the products of labour power. At the one end are the women from upper class who step from one private space to another. At the other end are the women in working class living “schizophrenic worlds” coming to work in salwar kameezes and change into skirts/trousers at the stores to create a world of empathetic attitude to their women consumers. These are women living in chawls and slums where the constraints of private space tend to spread into the alleys of their homes thus extending the private space for women.

The notion of safety and honor are defined in terms of the good girls of the society who accept the overall patriarchic structure of the society and bad girls who do not. Women’s access and posture in public space defines and is in turn constructed by the socially  defined goodness of the girl.  The first construct deals attire of the girl clearly declaring the class, race, religion and the marital status of the girl.  The second construct deals with the need to “demonstrate a visible purpose” for women to access the public space. The authors demonstrate how these are emphasized and entrenched through the reactions on various instances of violence and attitudes in public. For instance, when a gender based violation is reported publicly, there is an invariable coverage on what the woman/women wear and what is their stated purpose to be at the public place.

Acknowledging that women push the envelope by subverting these process nevertheless end up entrenching the overall patriarchy, the authors push for the strategy of loitering by daring us to “imagine footpaths spilling over with old and young women watching the world go by as they sip tea, and discuss love, cricket and the latest blockbuster”. By placing this question at the beginning, they force us to ask the question, “Have I ever loitered in the public space?”. As the authors word it so well, when I leave my home, I have already mapped the bus routes in my mind, the toilets(both public and private)  on the routes, the time I would spend in each place and when I would return home. This process has been so internalized for women that one is surprised when the book challenges us to critique this process.

However the authors do not venture more into the realm of private space where women’s entitlement is not questioned i.e the home and how even that is limiting for women or if these new strategies can challenge the traditional structures the entitlement in private space. And if the doubt arises whether women’s loitering would create a public space for all, the authors contend that women themselves are divided in terms of class, sexuality, caste and religion. When the new feminism fights for public space for these different groups, the authors imagine that it will be transformed to public space for all. While that remains to be seen, ‘we will defy the law. We will loiter’.

The title is taken from a line in the fiction ‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

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