Sameera Khan is a Mumbai-based independent journalist, researcher and co-author of the critically acclaimed book, Why Loiter?:Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets which examines women’s access to public space. A journalist for three decades, she is a former Assistant Editor of The Times of India (Mumbai) and till recently taught a masters level journalism course at the School for Media & Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She has been a columnist, who has written a regular column on women and the city in The Hindu. For the last decade, she has also been a media trainer, guiding journalists on how to cover violence against women, particularly rape. She won the National Laadli Media Award for Gender Sensitivity 2020 for her consistent engagement as a teacher, trainer, researcher and a journalist in promoting sensitive reporting on gender-based violence. In March 2021, she co-authored the research study, Locating Gender Perspectives in COVID-19 Reportage in India: An Analysis of Print Media (March to September 2020). Sameera believes that “the most marginalised in any community – be it women or religious minorities or lower castes – benefit the most when societies and spaces are not homogenous, but instead intensely diverse and inclusive.”
Shikha Aleya (SA): Hi Sameera, many thanks for the time and energy you’re contributing to this interview. To begin, what are some of the most significant changes for people in public spaces since the book, Why Loiter?: Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets, was published a decade ago? We read in this 2021 article in the context of the 10th anniversary of the book: “…we have seen an unequivocal shift in the conversation of what constitutes women’s fundamental rights to the city”. Please tell us, what are some of the things that stand out the most for you?
Sameera Khan (SK): Since Why Loiter? was published a decade ago, the most fundamental shift in India has been in the increased awareness and recognition of the rights of women and trans people to more fully access the city and public spaces. Though some of this recognition is by institutional structures and policy/planning bodies – and you see this in the inclusion of aspects of gender in the Mumbai Development Plan (DP) 2031, and in attempts to improve commuting in the city for women – most of this recognition is by different civil society groups, especially those involving young people and in particular, young women. Even more importantly, there is now an acknowledgement of women’s right to pleasure in the city. When Shilpa Phadke, Shilpa Ranade, and I first researched the issue of women and public space in the city during 2003-2006, and spoke of pleasure and loitering in the city as a way to lay claim to the city as citizens, we were dismissed, even amongst feminist friends, as demanding too much and as demanding something trivial. But what has been amazing to witness is how quickly young women in particular, took to the ideas of Why Loiter? and pushed them even further, creating new movements to expand women’s rights to the public, including the right to be out late at night, to stretch the curfew at women’s hostels, to demand extended access to women’s toilets, to public transport etc.
The other thing that has been fascinating to witness in the last few years, is how protesting bodies have chosen to occupy and claim public space for long durations of time. Such as old and young Muslim women who sat publicly in protest in places like Shaheen Bagh (Delhi), Mumbai Bagh (Mumbai), Bilal Bagh (Bengaluru) in late 2019 and early 2020, protesting the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), taking on the might of the state. Such as the farmers, including many women farmers, who publicly protested the Farm bills introduced by the central government by physically sitting at the borders of the capital city for a year (2020-21) facing all kinds of inhospitable weather and circumstances. That they did this at a time when cities are in fact refashioning themselves and zoning out their poor and labouring classes from using the street, forces us to question who rightfully belongs to public space and who does public space belong to.
Another thing of significance to note is that even as women, minorities and students have pushed the envelope with regard to asserting their right to the public, they have faced a violent backlash in several ways – including increased sexual assaults, clampdown on consensual relationships, and strong laws such as those relating to sedition and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) being used against them.
SA: Both, loitering and claiming public space, have many aspects, thank you for sharing. Please tell us what leaps to mind when you think about the intersections between sexuality, different kinds of spaces, and our identities.
SK: Here I will only briefly say that increasingly many women, marginalised groups, including trans people, experience online digital spaces as similarly threatening and violent as offline public spaces. They are trolled, bullied and shamed online for their identity and for speaking out and many as a result self-censor themselves or feel forced to withdraw. In recent times, outspoken Indian Muslim minority women have found themselves even more vulnerable – with apps such as Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai putting up their photographs and details and ‘auctioning’ them off.
SA: Sameera, this question is set in the larger context of crises, such as the Covid-19 pandemic, or the ongoing conflicts in various parts of the world today. While these are large and complex conversations, please share a small sense of the insights you have gained over the decades, of the less visible, or invisible spaces, inhabited by people affected by crises.
SK: I would like to focus on three sites of crisis that I have recently witnessed where certain spaces and people were made visible and others remained invisible, even when they were right in front of your eyes:
- During the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the media shared with us voices and images of the many working-class migrants fleeing cities for their villages, walking for miles on end, suffering heat and hunger. But these stories and images of desperate people rarely included women and children, their voices and bodies were most often missing. If women were at all captured in this migrant crisis on the roads of India, it was mostly as wives and daughters of male migrants, rarely categorized as economic migrants and labouring bodies by themselves. Similarly, in the pandemic when loss of employment was discussed, rarely did stories focus on women or trans persons. Apart from male bodies, all other bodies were invisibilised even as we collectively faced a grave human crisis. More details are in the study of media reportage and the pandemic that I did with Sweta Singh – Locating Gender Perspectives in COVID-19 Reportage in India: An Analysis of Print Media (March to September 2020).
- Classroom/University as centre of crisis – In the recent hijab ban issue in Karnataka, Muslim women attending pre-university classes at government institutions in certain parts of the state were denied entry due to their wearing the hijab. These girls stood at the gates of their educational institutions begging to be let in with their head-scarves. An interim court order made some of these colleges force both Muslim women teachers and students to take off their hijabs at their gates. Now a final Karnataka High Court order has totally banned all religious symbols, including the hijab. The Muslim women students who wear the hijab are still standing at the gates waiting to be let in to study and take their examinations. The hijab has been visibilised but the long journey that these Muslim girls, most often first-generation learners, in small town Karnataka have made to mainstream university has been invalidated and made invisible.
- The farmers protests/ the Shaheen Bagh Muslim women’s protests – this whole crisis visibly unfolded in public space. I see these as positive affirmations of minority women and farmers occupying public space to make their voices heard in the city in the face of state inaction and apathy.
SA: Thank you for that swift encapsulation Sameera, there’s a lot to reflect on in those points. A last question! In your life, how have the spaces you have inhabited, or helped create, interacted with your identity both personally and professionally? How can spaces be made, and kept, inclusive, safe and self-affirming, by each of us, for each other and ourselves?
SK: I believe that it was due to the fact that I grew up in Mumbai in the 1980s in a heterogeneous suburban space that accommodated people from different religious communities and cultural milieux, that I felt freer to explore the world around me. I was very rarely made conscious of my identity as a minority woman. This I believed allowed me to dream out of the box and believe that I could choose the future I wanted for myself. But after Mumbai witnessed severe communal violence in 1992-93, I found that I was often reduced to my identity as a minority Muslim woman. This was also true in the professional spaces that I occupied – often being the only Muslim woman in the newsroom of an English-medium newspaper. Increasingly, as the politics of this country gets stridently majoritarian, I find that the baggage of my minority religious identity cannot be separated from me. Sometimes it means that I am treated as a token representative of my community and gender and sometimes I am ‘othered’ and stereotyped due to my community and gender.
I strongly believe that we need to encourage diversity in all its forms – age, gender, sexuality, able-disabled, across castes and religious communities – in all spaces. I believe the most marginalised in any community – be it women or religious minorities or lower castes – benefit the most when societies and spaces are not homogenous, but instead intensely diverse and inclusive.
Cover Image: Courtesy of Sameera Khan