Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

CONGRATULATIONS to Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade on the release of ‘Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets.’ Keep reading for a short write-up on the book as well as an exclusive interview with the authors.

In ‘Why Loiter?’ the authors argue that though political and economic visibility has brought women increased access to urban public space, this has not automatically translated into a greater claim to public space. Based on more than three years of research in Mumbai, this book not only maps women’s exclusion from several public spaces, but also attempts to understand how women from different localities, classes and communities negotiate with real and implied risks of being in public everyday.

Why Loiter? argues that loitering should be celebrated, not reviled, as an act that offers possibilities for a more inclusive city where all people have a right to city public spaces. The ideas and insights of this book will resonate with the experiences of women in other Indian cities and the world, especially those that are re-envisioning themselves as global cities.


First of all, congratulations on the release of your book! What drew you personally to this issue of women’s access to public space in Mumbai?
Shilpa Phadke: As is discussed in the book – on a trip to north India with a woman friend I began thinking about how much one needs to strategise to be out in public space. Returning to Mumbai, I realized that I strategised almost as much in my own so-called ‘friendly city’ for women except that I’d stopped noticing it; it had become part of my taken-for-granted everyday activities.  I began writing notes on this and talking to other women especially on the train, and find my narratives were replicated. The idea of exploring women’s access to public space in Mumbai was born.

Shilpa Ranade: I started working on the project after it had already been conceptualized. Personally, living in an American campus for two years where I did not have to strategize daily about what I was wearing, how I was walking, who I was with, made me acutely aware of how uncomfortable I was in public space once I came back home. I also noticed how that discomfort actually prevented me from accessing space at times. Ironically, although the fear of actual rape loomed much larger in America than it ever did for me in India (there was a serial rapist at large around my campus), it did not limit my sense of freedom in the way that the small everyday acts self-policing did here. That is when I started articulating the gendered politics of public spaces.

Sameera Khan: Ever since I started commuting from my suburban home to college in Mumbai at the age of 16, I started to realize how much strategy and negotiation was involved while moving through the city. But it was only in my mid-20s when I was in in graduate school in New York that I realized that this was not the way things had to be, and that they could be different. I loved the fact that there were open spaces even though NYC was a big city, and that as a woman I could hang out in those spaces feeling at ease and fairly comfortable. I could sit in a park on a Sunday morning all alone, sip my coffee, eat an apple, wander, loll about, read a book with hardly anybody staring at me or looking interested in what I wore, did, didn’t do etc. The gendered gaze though not absent was more tempered or toned down. So the interest was in women and public space started there and initially, I helped plan some of the ideas related to pedagogical aspects of the gender and space project. Gradually, I got more involved in the project and got into it full-time.

What was the most interesting finding of this study?
Shilpa Phadke: Some things stand out:
1. We found that public space is deeply hierarchical and not just women but a whole host of other groups (hawkers, bar dancers, sex workers, lower class unemployed men, Muslim men) are seen as illegitimate users of it.
2. We found that for women it seemed more important to protect their reputations than to produce actual safety. For example, women would get dropped off at a distance from their buildings if they were coming home late at night with their boyfriends, so people would not see the boyfriend and ‘talk.’ In this sense it was more important not to be ‘talked about’ than to be dropped outside their homes which would have been safer.
3. We realized that in Mumbai it was acceptable to work or shop in public but not to have fun, especially at night.

Sameera Khan: For me, the fact that we were studying the everyday negotiations of women with public space was most interesting. Most fascinating was the fact that not only did women have to produce safety for themselves every time they were out of the home but also that they always had to establish a purpose for being out and always had to remain spotlessly respectable. That women in Mumbai, this ‘most friendly’ of Indian cities, had to constantly shoulder this burden and had unconsciously made it such a part of themselves over time was interesting.

Why did you choose the word ‘loiter?’ To you, what does the possibility of women loitering around Mumbai represent?
Shilpa Phadke: Loitering represents the possibility of moving towards a much more inclusive city. Loitering also represents the possibility to simply have fun in the city and to see the quest for pleasure as an important element of enshrining women’s rights in public space. If we take loitering seriously, and if a critical mass of people take loitering seriously, it has the capacity to transform our cities making them more inclusive, diverse and just simply more exciting. Loitering is our vision for a more inclusive city. It is a vision that finds resonance particularly among young women. Every time we mentioned “loitering” in a workshop with students, the women’s eyes would light up and we knew that we weren’t just building castles in the sky. Given a chance, many people enjoy loitering.

Sameera Khan: By loitering we can lay claim to the city in a way that is both pleasurable and political. We can break this idea of women always being mere commuters through public space, and always having to establish purpose. We can be in public with no visible purpose and have fun and just that idea is so exciting.

Shilpa Ranade: The act of loitering represents a sense of comfort and belonging to the city that is extremely desirable. Yet as our research showed us, women just do not loiter. We therefore use loitering as an interrogative tool to query the question of women’s access to public space. By playing with the possibility of loitering – pleasure without purpose – we try to deconstruct the rhetoric of women’s equal access and visibility in a city like Mumbai.

How have the rise of capitalism, the increase of women in the workplace and other such changes contributed to attitudes towards women on the street?
Shilpa Phadke: Mumbai, relative to other cities, has always had a larger number of women in the workforce, both white and blue collar. One of the wonderful things about this city is how late shops are open, especially in the bazaars abutting the suburban railway stations. Also, the acknowledgment that women work late hours is seen in the fact that one can always buy homemade chapattis and vegetables at various shops in these bazaars – so that women who come home late don’t need to go home and cook.

It’s also worth mentioning the last two decades and globalization here. Globalisation appears to open up spaces for some women – the new spaces of consumption: malls, coffee shops and multiplexes. This space may provide a certain degree of enjoyment to the middle-class women it invites in, but is nonetheless a restricted space, dependent on women conforming to certain codes of femininity and middle-classness. What globalisation also does is deepen the divisions between those who can afford these ‘spaces” and those who cannot. It also makes the poor now responsible for their poverty. And so if the poor cannot afford these new spaces of consumption, the city administration can ignore its responsibility of providing recreational public spaces for all since the middle-classes are taken care of by these new spaces of consumption.

We all have a part to play in this struggle. What do you think members of the press could do to further this cause?
Shilpa Phadke: I think that the press needs to be careful about using alarmist tones when it discusses violence against women in public space.

Sameera Khan:
1. The press needs to stop reporting just events and also needs to look at the processes at work. It needs to bring in historical, political and economic context when discussing violence against women.
2. It needs to take a serious look at the violence in domestic situations and not make the home seem like an unquestionably ‘safe’ haven.
3. .The press has to consider the issue of class and not only be obsessed with the coverage of the middle-class and ignore the reality of working class
4. Finally, it has to recognize that as equal citizens women have complete and full rights to public space and that questions of morality, honour and “what was she doing there” or “why she was with six men” have no relevance and bearing when discussing violence against women.

How does class play into these issues?
Shilpa Phadke: Class is integral to the hierarchies in public space. For instance, middle-class women have much greater legitimacy in public space than lower-class men. Also, the pressures of sexual endogamy are reflected in the fear that a woman will fall in love with the wrong kind of man, such as a man of another class. One of the ways society seeks to prevent this is to stop women from accessing public space, except in the most functional of ways. From the point of view of families, a woman being sexually assaulted in public space and a woman publicly ‘choosing’ to be sexually involved with the wrong kind of man (wrong class, wrong caste, wrong religion) are almost comparable offences. This situation ironically renders both lower-class men (as potential perpetrators of violence) and middle-class women (as potential victims of violence) forever outsiders to public space.

The book uses middle-class women as a way of entering into debate. The point we are making is that a call for middle-class women’s safety in the city is woefully inadequate as it is conditional on women producing a sense of purpose and respectability in public space. Fundamentally, the case we are making is for ALL marginal citizens – women across class and morality lines including bar dancers, sex workers, hawkers, north Indian migrant men – to be in public spaces without being seen only as potential perpetrators or victims of violence. We are aware that these groups may not be friendly to each other, but what we envision is a city life based on respect for difference; not that all groups accessing public space should be friendly to each other but that there should be no question that all groups have an equal right to be in public space.

Sameera Khan: We are making a case for the access for all classes, groups, communities, male and female, able-bodied or not. We are saying that if the middle-class are said to have it all, and middle-class women are said to be the ones with most privileges, namely education, employment and the power of consumption, then let’s look at whether they also have more access to public space. We found that they don’t have ideal and unconditional access to public space, it is conditional on them being able to also produce purpose for being in public
space, and conditional on them producing respectability.

Although this is a women’s issue, the onus shouldn’t entirely fall on women to make Mumbai’s streets safer and more accessible. How can men play a part in making the streets of Mumbai safer for women?
Shilpa Phadke: I think the book looks to both women and men to change things.

Sameera Khan: As urban planners and policy makers, women and men can plan cities which accommodate the needs of women and men, abled bodied and differently abled, and so on. As law enforcers, women and men can be more sensitive and less moralistic when dealing with cases of violence against women. And as fathers, brothers and husbands, men need to understand, and really deeply understand, that the same freedoms that apply to them should also apply to all women – to the women they know as daughters, sisters and girlfriends/wives, and also to the women they do not know but encounter on the city’s streets.

What would a Mumbai that is safe for women look like? What do you envision is possible? What would our city of dreams look like?
Shilpa Phadke: I don’t think any of us can say it any better than we do in our book:
“Imagine an Indian city with street corners full of women: chatting, laughing, breast-feeding, exchanging corporate notes or planning protest meetings. 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. Imagine women in saris, jeans, salwars and skirts sitting at the nukkad reflecting on world politics and dissecting the rising sensex. If you can imagine this, you’re imagining a radically different city.”

Click here to buy the book.

8 responses to “Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets

  1. What you are talking about is something completely overlooked in day to day life by men and women alike. Have you ever looked at a world map and imagined why north points upwards. “Where else, is it supposed to?”, you would say. Well!!! That’s just the standard we have followed for decades. But the world map makes complete sense the other side up as well. However, it just is not thought about and is unacceptable without pondering for even the blink of an eye. Women loitering!!! I’m sure that it sounds completely unreal to most of us even at a conceptual level. It’s more like a “pigs fly” kind of a thing. Its less about changing things and more about changing people. We’ll need to feed them with some mumbo jumbo to get things done. Cos for the better good and reason is the last thing that people adhere to.

  2. This has been such a alyered article, and the interview put into words so many things I have struggled to articulate just as most Indian women.

    Looking forward to getting the book and perhaps meeting the authors too. As an architects, this especially interests me to see it from a socio-economic, anthropological view point of our cities and its people, men and women both, just as it. should be.

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