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Who's afraid of women loitering?

Amid the ongoing debate on gender issues and cases of sexual assault, how accustomed are you to the idea of a woman, dressed the way she wants, out on the streets at a time she chooses, unapologetic about ‘loitering’? A new campaign, #WhyLoiter, urges women across the country to loiter in the places they like and document themselves while doing so, writes Kareena Gianani

In 2010, when 24-year old Devina Kapoor came to Mumbai from Sitapur, a little-known town near Lucknow, she was elated at the newfound freedom the city offered. The production officer at the National
Centre for the Performing Arts travelled from Borivli to Churchgate every day, and says she cherished the independence.

Devina Kapoor, Neha Singh and their friends, who formed a Why Loiter gang in April, loiter in public spaces around Mumbai
Devina Kapoor, Neha Singh and their friends, who formed a Why Loiter gang in April, loiter in public spaces around Mumbai

“But I never saw the city on my own, because I didn’t have the courage,” she remembers.

Last year, Kapoor read the book, Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets, by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade.

It was epiphanic. “Everything about being a woman and the limited access to public spaces we have, to the way we strategise our movements in public spaces — every woman feels it but doesn’t always
vocalise it, and there it was all, all written down in the book,” she says.

This is why they loiter
On Wednesday, Kapoor, her friend Neha Singh, and the three authors of the book launched the #WhyLoiter campaign, wherein they invite women to choose a public place of their choice, loiter, and share a photograph of them doing so with the hashtag, #whyloiter on social media.

Phadke says between 2011 (when the book was released) and now, there is a greater public debate on women and the city, especially since the December 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder. “However, much of it continues to be focused on the violence that awaits women in public space and the approach is one of protectionism which we find basically both flawed and inadequate,” explains Ranade.

Increasingly, she adds, women (particularly the younger lot) and people of marginalised genders have become more aware than ever not just of violence but of the restrictions we face in accessing public space.

“This campaign is a response to the kind of victim-blaming we have seen over and again and most recently in the Uber case in the shrill voices that looked askance at the act of daring to fall asleep in a cab,” she elaborates.

Kapoor became a part of the campaign in her own, not-so-small way this April. Deeply spurred by the book’s idea, she created a WhatsApp group, explaining the concept of ‘loitering’ to her friends, and soon, at least 55 of them began loitering around the city’s public spaces — chatting in parks, reading on promenades, out on the streets.

“We do it in groups around the city.

Women don’t go out because it is unsafe, but our idea is — the more out there you are, the safer our public spaces will be,” says Kapoor.

Phadke explains that the campaign is directed toward anyone who wishes to endorse the right of all marginal people to public space.

“We focus on women and other marginal genders but also welcome men to participate,” she says.

Claiming the right to city
The campaign argues that what women have a right to the city, a right to take risks in the city. “This doesn’t necessarily mean that we will never be attacked, for even our homes are not safe, but that if we are attacked our right to be in that place will be unquestioned.

What we must claim is the right to the city.

This of course does not mean that city administrations are not responsible for providing public transport, public toilets, lighting, public parks and we must lobby for these to be provided. We should
not be forced to take risks because of inadequate infrastructure,” explains Phadke.

Kapoor, who has been loitering since April, says the experiences are bittersweet.

The ideal reaction was that of her father, who, after being aghast that his young daughter was out on the streets even late at night as part of the campaign, supported her after understanding the concept and announced it on the Why Loiter blog. “On other days, we have tried to photograph a man who was masturbating in front of us on a Juhu street (he fled) and another time, a man tried to hail an autorickshaw for us because “women from good families shouldn’t loiter”,” says Kapoor with a smile.

To participate in the campaign, log on to www.facebook.com/whyloiter

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