My apologies to Gurudev for the title, but I have a feeling he too would whole-heartedly endorse this view that true “freedom” can only be achieved when everyone has equal rights, be it voting, driving, working, choosing, leading or simply loitering.
For anyone sniggering even a bit, let me point out the (if I may call it that) value or importance of the often taken completely for granted act of loitering! According to the dictionary, loitering (verb) means “to stand or walk around somewhere for no obvious reason.”
The moot point to note here is “for no obvious reason,” and the section that needs to ponder this is – Women. See, immediately the connotation changes because women, for all practical purposes “do not loiter.” The fact that even if they want to, they cannot loiter is what needs elaboration, dissection and discussion.
I can already see women nodding in agreement, most of the women anyways. Seriously, when was the last time you loitered away from your "private domesticated world?”
A channel on social media had recently asked a fun question, something on the lines of – what is the one thing that men do, which you want to do? The responses were hilarious from “peeing in public” to “sitting with legs wide apart” to “mansplaining.” But the outright winner was this desperate urge in a majority of women to just be able to “loiter” in public spaces, to claim public spaces as their own especially at night, to be able to walk on the streets without a purpose or care or fear. Aren’t we public too? Women make up for roughly half of this country's population. So then, why do we feel restricted when it comes to such a mundane activity as loitering?
When I moved to Mumbai two years ago, one of the first books that I picked up to get a feel of the city I was to make my own was, by Shilpa Phadke. Coming from the north, Gurgaon to be specific, what attracted me to the book was the open acknowledgement in the title that the “Mumbai Myth” was just that, a myth! Haven’t we all been fed the recurring theme of a “safe” Mumbai, a place where women can roam free even at 3 am at night, even though events in the past few years have made national and international headlines to the contrary.
By questioning “the myth that Mumbai is a paradise for women in public,” this book places a very crucial perspective before us of the ground realities, something I witnesses and assessed for myself in the past two years proving beyond a doubt that underneath a thin veneer of ‘safety and inclusivity’ is the dark underbelly of severe “social, political and infrastructural constraints,’ that end up robbing a woman of that very freedom she is supposed to be enjoying in a throbbing megapolis.
If you have any doubts, just tell me:
1. Can a woman step out of the house beyond “curfew hours” to just walkabout in the neighbourhood streets without any obvious purpose? But don't we see men often do just that, out of sheer habit and entitlement because they don’t have to explain their dress or deed?
2. Can a woman just claim a park bench or a lie down on a beach seat and just be by herself for as long as she wants without being stared at, commented on, harassed and even maybe questioned as to her purpose for such seemingly innocent behaviour?
3. Can a woman get up one day and feel truly liberated from the recurrent nightmare of being pestered, sexually harassed or verbally abused or even groped or raped if she chooses to just “loiter” down any street, deep in thought, alone, dressed casually, carefree and in chappals? Can she dare to step out of her house without a defensive chunni or bag or book covering her breasts? Or a knife or stone in her purse for protection alongside that practised aggression waiting just below the deceptively calm surface?
You don’t have to tell me, because I know the answer to these questions. The only spaces where women are apparently free to loiter are private spaces masquerading as public spaces. Take my condo for instance. The very reason that I am ready to pay the kind of rent I pay for it is that this space gives me the so-called freedom to “loiter” even at 12 pm, all alone in the “walking area” within the residential complex. Yet, not a day goes by when I don’t thank the lord for this small mercy. Call it fettered freedom if you will, but that’s the best the world has to offer as far as women are concerned. This, however, is a pleasure reserved for privileged women; the rest continue within the cloistered confines of conservatism hoisted onto them in the form of domestic duties, dress codes, class habitus, manufactured respectability, patriarchal traditions and repressed sexuality.
The street behind my condo, for example, is a narrow thoroughfare cutting though a rather large slum cluster. Every evening it glows with thelas selling every kind of treat from pakoras, kababs, vada pav, idli, chaat, kathi rolls, bhajia, namkeen to pastries, toffees, chai, ice cream, kulfi, kheer, mithai, fresh juice and cut fruits. I pass this street almost every day as a short cut to my house, and COVID or no COVID, rain or no rain, summer or winter, the one constant is the complete absence of women at any of these stalls be it buying or openly eating and enjoying the treats. It’s always and always men, young, old, married, not married, boys, kids – all men – eating, chatting, laughing, having fun.
Why is that? Where are the women? Don’t they want to taste that tantalising gol-gappa? Don’t they crave a sweetmeat? Don’t they want to throw back their heads and share a laugh with their GFs?
Obviously they do! But can they – is the question?
The worst or most shocking part is that these rules of female behaviour are all often unwritten and often unsaid, yet passed down generation upon generation as life laws to be adhered to in order to survive in this world that evidently belongs to men. So much so that they are a part of the female DNA by now, and “loitering” is a strict no-no here.
Gender, it is said is not something we are, but something we do – think about it the next time you step out of your house to claim a public space that is rightfully yours, as much as it is the next man’s.
In other words – If it has to be done – then just do it.