That’s a question in India.
When one travels as a woman or indeed as someone who is not an upper caste, middle or upper class, Hindu, heterosexual, able-bodied, young male, one has to be just that little bit more careful because one is marked, by one’s location at some margin or the other, sometime multiple margins intersecting with each other or running parallel to each other often vying for first place.
A trip with a woman friend in the Hindi heartland first alerted me to how much one strategizes as a woman to be able to access public space. My travel diary from this trip became the foundation stone for a research project on women’s access to public space in Mumbai.
It’s dangerous, you see, because public space is where there might always be Stranger Semen floating around that could find its way into the hussy walking around in the open.
As a woman you are marked as automatically out of place in most public spaces, struggling hard to be invisible and still have a good time. In a variety of languages the terms used for transgressive women in public space are related to the act of being on the streets without purpose – strolling, roaming, wandering, straying, rambling – all terms that Rebecca Solnit (Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 2000) points out suggest that women’s travel is invariably sexual or that their sexuality is inevitably transgressive when it travels. It is the transgression associated with purposeless wandering that we took on when we suggested that one way for women to stake a claim to public space was to loiter. To hang out without intent and without necessarily doing anything productive in public space to suggest that women’s access to the public was not dependent on having something to do.
I actually knew a woman who thought this way (a neighbor, who has now moved away). She once asked me if I felt self-conscious walking around outside without a dog. I think I stared at her in befuddlement. She told me she did. If she wasn’t escorting a dog who needed exercise, she felt conspicuous and weird.
This year, three years after our book was published we encountered a group of women who had taken the ideas of our book and run with them, or more accurately loitered with them! An amorphous and expanding group of women led by Neha Singh and Devina Kapoor were loitering for pleasure in the city. They were hanging out in parks and at chai-tapris; they were riding bicycles in different parts of the city and reclaiming the night too. Most significantly for us they were articulating this as a political movement and posting pictures as an invitation to others to join them. They called it Why Loiter: The Movement. They have been loitering for five months now, every Sunday and they are already talking of expanding the movement. These young women have taken the ideas of the book and were having such fun with them while articulating a radical politics of change.
Good, but it’s sad that they have to.