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Not going places

“Women must always manufacture safety, purpose and respectability while negotiating Mumbai’s public spaces,” says Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets.

mumbai Updated: Feb 13, 2011 01:45 IST

“Women must always manufacture safety, purpose and respectability while negotiating Mumbai’s public spaces,” says Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. “They can never just enjoy them.” Think about it, and you’ll realise it’s true.

A woman will never stand at a street corner, sipping tea. Instead, she will stride along a street briskly, holding a bag or file or shawl before her.

If she is waiting for someone, she will seek the shelter and respectability of a bus stop.

If she has a few hours to kill, she will slip into the respectable role of consumer and pay exorbitant sums for a coffee or sandwich at a café just so she does not have to sit on a park bench by herself.

Why Loiter? questions this denial of equal access. The book is the product of three years of research funded by the Indo-Dutch Programme on Alternative Development, and was co-authored by sociologist Shilpa Phadke, journalist Khan and architect Shilpa Ranade, all associates at urban research collective PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action and Research).

Excerpts from an exclusive interview…

Why Loiter? is the result of three years of research and then another three years of assessment and compilation. What did the research include?

Shilpa Phadke: At a basic level, interviews, questionnaires, focus-group discussions and participant observation. We also conducted workshops in colleges across the city, talking to young women about how they negotiate public spaces. Shilpa Ranade: We also held a photography exhibition that included audio and video documentaries, had roundtable discussions.

Sameera Khan: We also studied the ethnography of public spaces like parks, toilets and railway stations. And we studied 14 geographic locations across the city in great detail, with the help of about 12 research assistants. These areas included commercial and residential zones, middle-class suburbs and slum neighbourhoods so we could get a cross-section of Mumbai.

What was the most startling realisation for you? What was your most remarkable experience during your research?

Shilpa Phadke: Two things: One was how few women there actually are on the streets. I thought there were more, but our counts showed that the maximum at any given time was 28%. Among the most exciting parts of the research were the journeys we made on the last train from Churchgate to Virar, talking to women who took that train regularly: The bar dancers, the junior artistes, the train vendors.

Shilpa Ranade: The most startling revelation for me was becoming conscious of how much I myself was conditioned to negotiate public space every day as a woman. How strategising had become second nature to me and that this was something most men did not have to do.

In what ways is the kind of discomfort different for women of different classes?

Shilpa Phadke: Middle-class women have much greater claim to public space — though they may find obstacles in accessing it — than lower-class men, who are often looked at with suspicion. Lower-class women as much as middle-class women articulate the desire for public space.

Do you think more working women is the answer — with their greater confidence and willingness to confront a problem rather than hide? Or does the solution necessarily involve men, and a much deeper paradigm shift in the female mindset?

Shilpa Ranade: Working women give women a visibility, which is positive. Being financially independent also gives women more control over their lives, which might translate into their occupation of public space. But so long as their access is entrenched within patriarchal binaries of public/private, good woman/bad woman, the discrimination will be perpetuated.

Have liberalisation, development and the presence of more women in the workplace changed the level or nature of discomfort women feel in public spaces? If so, how?

Shilpa Ranade: To an extent. The visibility of women in the public sphere, even if it is only for work, has surely made the presence of women in public space more acceptable. At the same time, since this access remains conditional to having to prove purpose and respectability, women remain conditional users of public space.

How does Mumbai compare with global cities around the world in terms of comfort levels of women in public spaces?

Shilpa Phadke: Mumbai actually does not do all that badly, though of course it could do much, much better. It might be interesting if it had the efficiency of New York City, the insouciance of Amsterdam, the nightlife of the Khan-el-Khalili in Cairo and the women-only bus conductors of Bangkok.

Shilpa Ranade: Its long history of social reform, working women and efficient public transportation contribute significantly to this. The cosmopolitan live-and-let-live, commercial spirit of the city adds its bit to this. But Mumbai does not compare very favourably with cities like New York, Zurich or Singapore. The simple fact that you can go and sit in a park alone and not be looked at is a freedom I yearn for in Mumbai.

Why did you choose to study Mumbai, which is seen as a particularly woman-friendly city, especially compared to other Indian cities?

Sameera Khan: Precisely because we wanted to look at what kind of access women had in one of our most woman-friendly cities, to examine how good is it really, can it be improved and can we replicate it.

The truth is even Mumbai is designed for the upper-class, able-bodied, Hindu, heterosexual man. Gays, senior citizens, the disabled, the poor and minorities all make do. And this is reflected in everything from the lighting and access staircases to the attitudes of law enforcers.

What does this mean for women, and for the city itself?

Sameera Khan: For women, this means they pass through rather than enjoy public spaces. And they always carry their private sphere with them — whether it is a mangalsutra to show that they are spoken for, a large handbag to shield themselves or a shawl or jacket to seem more ‘respectable’ in public. You have to show that you are a good little woman, worthy of protection by society.

For the city, this means a different kind of citizenship. Involvement is much more in cities where you can just hang out and access the city for pleasure.