To Loiter Is to Reclaim Our Space in the City

To Loiter Is to Reclaim Our Space in the City

A few weeks ago, I was waiting for a friend on the bridge of a South Bombay train stop. I waited and waited – 15 minutes, a half-hour. And the longer I stood there, the more stares I received. I played with my mobile, checking WhatsApp and Facebook, but I just couldn’t ignore all the glances that were coming my way. By the time my friend arrived – nearly an hour late! – I was unnerved, fuming. Could I really not just stand and wait in peace without attracting attention?

loitering mumbai woman in public space

Image via lecercle

As women in Mumbai (and the world over, really), we’re used to getting stared at, to warding off the “buri nazar”, stray glances, leering looks, curious once-overs. And we learn to cope. Some of us lower a pardah veil to protect ourselves from this unwanted gaze, some of us put on sunglasses. We put in headphones and clutch our mobiles like they are our best friend, WhatsApping and SMSing to ignore the world around us. More importantly, we strategize how we move through space – taking routes we know, only going out when we need to, traveling with friends, always moving from point A to point B with a purpose.

“Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets,” opens with these powerful images:

Imagine an Indian city with street corners full of women: chatting, laughing, breast-feeding, exchanging corporate notes, organizing 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…If you can imagine this, you’re imagining a radically different city.

While Mumbai is often considered to be India’s “safest city,” the book’s authors show that there are serious limitations on how women can move through it. In fact, they argue Mumbai’s streets and public spaces are de facto male spaces.

We’ve all come across groups of guys just chilling at the corner, on their bikes, outside a restaurant. They take up space as if it’s their right (Guys, don’t be defensive – I envy you!), while we women try to move through space without attracting too much attention, lest “something” happen.

It’s so easy and understandable that as women, we’d pull back and find comfortable spaces to occupy. We hang out at people’s houses, or we go to the local coffee shop or a movie or a mall. But what if instead of retreating to private spaces, we decided to lay claim to public spaces?

What if we hung out for hours on the rocks at Carter Road with our girlfriends? Or stood drinking garam garam cutting chai by ourselves? What if we went out to eat vada pav after midnight – without any guy friends to accompany us?

Sure, it’s not easy. But that’s exactly why it’s so necessary. Loitering – just being out and about, yoon hi,  without a specific purpose – is a way of reclaiming our city on our own terms. It’s a practice of courageously, yet subtly, saying “This space is mine too” when the stares indicate that we should be somewhere else.

So I’m gonna take tea at my local chai stall late at night and watch the world go by. I’m going to ride back home by train after 10 pm, even when friends say “Shouldn’t you take a taxi?” I’m going to hold the space for all women in Mumbai to move through this city when, where, and in the manner they choose.

Because if we don’t occupy space, no one’s gonna make space for us.

Your Turn

This Thursday, June 12, join Badal ja! for a nighttime walk to assert our right to occupy any public space in the city, any time. RSVP here: Small Steps for Safety.