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Why Should Women Loiter?

The book Why Loiter?: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, written in 2011 by Shilpa Phadke, generated widespread debate around women’s presence in public parks, squares, and gardens in India. The book argues that women in Indian cities are discouraged from loitering in these public spaces and advocates for their right to partake in them. Phadke’s writing soon sparked a movement among students at local universities. During the height of the movement, the ratio of men to women seen in public was drastically imbalanced. Women could not “loiter” outside without attracting negative attention and were instead forced to walk a “straight line between home and school, home and office, home and her friend or relative’s home, from one ‘sheltered’ space to another” writes Phadke. Disquiet surrounding women in public spaces often stems from concerns for their safety. But even greater than society’s concerns about gender-based violence in public spaces is the fear that she who loiters is morally compromised and jeopardizes her family’s reputation. “Girls from good families don’t loiter around,” and those women that do loiter contaminate the purity of public spaces and bring shame to their families. The author of Why Loiter? writes:

“Respectable’ women could be potentially defiled in a public space, while ‘non-respectable’ women are themselves a potential source of contamination to the ‘purity’ of public spaces and, therefore, the city. For the so-called ‘respectable’ woman, this classification is always fraught with some amount of tension, for should she transgress the carefully policed ‘inside-outside’ boundaries permitted to her, she could so easily slip into becoming the ‘public woman’ – the threat to the sacrality of public space.”

The concept of reclaiming what was rightfully hers propelled Shilpa Phadke and her co-authors to start a revolution to purposefully place women in places that were “wrong” for them. After Phadke’s book was published in 2011, students from multiple universities began gathering in large groups to frequent male-dominated areas within the city and assert their right to enjoy these public places. Students from Aligarh Muslim University spent time in areas frequented by men, such as tea stalls and the streets, to claim their space in the city. By night, women in Mumbai walked down Marine Drive while Delhi women walked down Chandni Chowk.

Although the movement's height was in 2015, it has significantly impacted women's ability to partake in public spaces. Women are more likely to frequent public spaces during the day and enjoy their time in public rather than living in fear of what may happen to them. While the movement didn’t make public spaces safer by removing threats of violence and harassment against women, it gave them the right to choose where they could spend their time. Phadke describes this as flipping the safety argument on its head and talking about how the denial of access to public spaces is the worst thing that can happen to women.

Women have a right to take up space in the city without needing a “legitimate” reason to be out in public such as work, shopping, etc. Instead of being continuously denied access to the city, women should be allowed to engage in the risks associated with going out in public and to take up space without needing to explain themselves.

Movements like "Why Loiter?" help eradicate the stigma around the ideal “good woman” and allow women to choose their desired experiences. Women deserve the right, like men, to spend time in the public sphere without bearing the weight of their family’s reputation on their shoulders or feeling vulnerable to danger.

For more information about the "Why Loiter?" movement, check out Phadke’s book Why Loiter? as well as her TedTalk.


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