Ever since I stopped watching Grey’s Anatomy, I’ve turned to Pinterest for my daily dose of lessons on life and love. All my free time is spent on this insanely addictive app, and a few days ago, I found a quote that really stayed with me :
“The older I get, the more I see how women are described as having gone mad, when what they’ve actually become is knowledgeable, and powerful, and fucking furious.”
I can’t even begin to explain the many ways in which this is true. The things I’ve experienced, read and watched in the last one year have made me fucking furious, and rightly so. For the sake of keeping this post at a reasonable length, I want to talk about one particular book that has made a huge impact on my life, and I suggest you all read it- “Why Loiter”, by Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade, and Sameera Khan.
This book focuses on the way in which 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 realize the many ways in which I have to manufacture respectability every single time I step 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-just to name a few. The question of safety is entangled with the concept of being a “good girl”– maybe if I wear a duppatta 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 realized 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 looked back on all the times I waited for a friend specifically at a bus stop, obviously so that I looked like I was waiting for a bus, and not just standing around. I thought back to all the times I called a friend while walking on the road, or fiddled with my phone, just so that I looked like I was “doing something”. I thought back to the times when I got onto a bus and tried to make myself invisible, just so that I wouldn’t “attract attention.”
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 (the lack of infrastructure for the differently abled calls for a separate, lengthy discussion). It further points out the lack of sanitation infrastructure for women in Mumbai. 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 pee; at least not after dark, or maybe that they shouldn’t be in public after dark anyway.
When I was younger, I remember resenting having to take public transport. I thought girls my age who had access to cars at all times had so much added freedom-and as I’ve started travelling by car more, I realised that this is simply not true-reading this book as made me think about my own behaviour so much more closely-yes, now I can dress pretty much however I want to. I don’t have to think twice about wearing a skirt or a dress, and that’s great-but I soon realised what the book was saying- now I get out of my house, get into a car, get off at a mall or a restaurant, get back into the car and I go home- I am in public, without ever truly engaging in 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”-access to a car does give us a limited sense of freedom-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. I am grateful to them, obviously-in the six months I spent in Delhi I must’ve taken the “general” compartment in the metro (funny how “general”=men), just a handful of times, and it won’t be a stretch to say that those few times were fraught with anxiety. However, the focus needs to be on making spaces inclusive, not creating exclusive spaces for women.
So I’d ask all the women reading this to think back to all the times you’ve seen groups of men loitering on the street-just talking, having a smoke, relaxing- at any point of the day or night. The next time you witness this, notice the ease in their body language. Men feel like they belong in public. They don’t need a purpose to be out. They can take a stroll at 10 pm in their shorts. They can go downstairs for a smoke at 3 am. 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 or in a narrow lane. 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 a group of girlfriends 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 stroll, to watch a sunset, to watch the world go by-to have fun.