Why Loiter?

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Shilpa Phadke

The Bombay night breeze is a force of nature. In 2011, I ride the last local from Govandi to CST and stand in the doorway of the train. The wind pushes against me. A city of lights surges ahead, unaware of my presence. I walk to Marine Drive, share a plate of raw mango and starfruit with my girlfriends, and watch the Arabian Sea crash on concrete tetrapods. To be outdoors and invisible, in our bodies, is a luxury. Shilpa Phadke, an associate professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, is no stranger to inhabiting public spaces. In 2011, she wrote the seminal book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. More than a decade after its publication, Phadke tells The Peacock that loitering is more relevant than ever. “The people who are most uncomfortable in public spaces are children. They are beginning to be seen as sexual objects by men on the street. At that age, you’re learning to navigate the world and you’re constantly being told to ignore the stares.” I assume it gets easier with age. Phadke agrees. “As you get older, you feel a much greater sense of belonging to your body.” Phadke finds that women who choose to allow their hair to gray naturally get more respect from younger men, but not necessarily from men their own age. With the passage of time, a woman’s confidence increases while a man’s confidence decreases. “Our research shows that men are used to navigating public space as if they own it. As they age, they worry that someone will pickpocket them or that they will fall. Whereas women, through a lifetime of looking over shoulders, by the time they are in their sixties, they’re like, I’ve got this.” Phadke’s interest in public reclamation evokes Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. In this book, Laing embraces walking to combat the alienation of living in a metropolis. She writes, “Sometimes as I walked, roaming under the stanchions of the Williamsburg Bridge or following the East River all the way to the silvery hulk of the U.N., I could forget my sorry self, becoming instead as porous and borderless as the mist, pleasurably adrift on the currents of the city.” Has the pandemic changed our engagement with public spaces? The various protests about that took place during the first wave of COVID-19 infections, Phadke notes, were being led by women. “It came out of the larger struggle of women’s access to public space, particularly since 2012, but really, over this entire century. This culminated in a protest by women claiming citizenship on behalf of everybody.” The academic cites the protests of Shaheen Bagh and Pinjara Tod. “We need to hold on to that moment now that we’ve headed back into public spaces.” Phadke enthuses about Ann (2022), an Irish film she saw at this year’s International Film Festival of India, about a pregnant teenage girl in a rural setting in the 1980s. “There’s a conversation about her happening and there’s no acknowledgement that she’s pregnant, and it’s all being played out in public. It’s fascinating, because Ireland didn’t allow abortion. It also becomes really edgy, because the US is in the process of taking away abortion rights.” At IFFI yesterday, Phadke was a part of a session titled “Breaking the Screen Ceiling: Gender and Work in Hindi Cinema.” She reported the findings of a US-funded research project in partnership with TISS’ School of Media and Cultural Studies (SMCS) on gender, both in front of and behind the camera. The study reveals that over the past seven decades, there have been only four Ministers of Information and Broadcasting and four Chairpersons of the Central Board of Film Certification that were women. In this film ecosystem, Dr. Lakshmi Lingam, Dean of SMCS, says there is a dire need for a clear strategy to close the gender gap. It is possible for a woman to sit in a park or go for a walk on the beach. “But I don’t think our infrastructure is geared towards her access to that space,” Phadke says, “you have to steal it.” Delhi, I mention to Phadke, has taught me how to confront my sexual harassers, regardless of their age or status. Living in Goa has offered a relative sense of safety. “The question we should be asking,” Phadke responds, “is not one of safety but one of access. Once upon a time, Goa’s public transport was better than it is now. More privatization has meant less access. This anxiety about tourists being attacked also frames a discourse of fear. Really, which woman is truly safe in her home? One, what are the fears being discussed and two, what is Goa doing about its infrastructure and its public transport? Addressing these issues could be transformative.”

Source: The Peacock Written By: Pragya Bhagat

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