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Interview: Shilpa Phadke

Back profile of two women walking on the street

‘Why would you want to loiter?’ is an excellent question to ask feminist researcher, parent, educator and activist Dr. Shilpa Phadke. Shilpa believes loitering, just being, just hanging out in public places, is about ‘claiming the city with your body’. One of the co-authors of the book, ‘Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets’ published in 2011, Shilpa has authored several essays and journals on issues of feminist parenting, gender and the politics of space, the right to take risks and related thoughts and concepts. She is currently an Associate Professor, and the Chairperson of the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Culture, School of Media and Cultural Studies, at TISS, Mumbai.

Shikha Aleya: Shilpa, thank you for taking time out for this interview. To begin, please tell us your thoughts on the familiar concepts of women’s safety and the impact on women’s freedom and autonomy.

Shilpa Phadke: Safety as a discourse, the set of ideas about how things ought to be, is really a trap for women, indeed for all marginal citizens. Safety is inevitably conditional upon women being respectable and demonstrating purpose in public and just as inevitably pitted against the rights of other marginal citizens. So the discourse would argue that women are unsafe because of unemployed migrant men thus in one fell stroke rendering both women and poor men outsiders to public space – i.e. women must not be in the public because they might be attacked, and poor men in public are viewed with suspicion because they are potential perpetrators. The immediate casualty is women’s freedom, and autonomy in public all for “our own good” of course.

If indeed there was a genuine commitment to women’s freedom then we’d see greater efforts to provide infrastructure: public transport, toilets, street lighting. We would see better and more effective policing where women’s complaints of street sexual harassment are registered and taken seriously, not brushed off as routine. We would see the recognition that women have the right to access public space as citizens.

SA: How do concepts of stranger violence and of structural violence impact freedom, sexuality and rights?

SP: What we see in the contemporary discourse of safety is a focus on stranger violence. Media narratives of danger tend to focus disproportionately on the violence that awaits women in the public especially after dark. Despite the fact, that across the world the largest proportion of attacks against women take place in private and are committed by people known to them, we never ask women not to be at home, a space which is often most dangerous for women, in fact we urge women to return to that very space. The anxiety over stranger violence is both the anxiety that young women might be assaulted by strangers in public but also simultaneously the fear that women will form consenting relationships with unsuitable men. Not giving women access to public space addresses both anxieties that of women being attacked against their will and also that of women making sexual choices as consenting adults, at the same time, even as it restricts women to private spaces. The case of Hadiya, for instance makes it clear that when women make choices regarding marriage of their own free will against their families wishes there is a huge price extracted. 

SA: In your essay, ‘If Women Could Risk Pleasure: Reinterpreting Violence in Public Space’, you have spoken of including ‘social, community, family restrictions and self-policing that might not hitherto have been viewed as violence at all’ – could you tell us more about self-policing in this context?

SP: When we examine what is commonly regarded as violence it is often violence by strangers or spontaneous violence that is recognized. Everyday structural violence in the restrictions that women face, in being told you are impure when you menstruate, in being told you must marry within your caste group to preserve the ‘honour’ of the family, in being told that they will not be allowed to go out when they want to are not seen as violence but are often regarded as protectionism, even love, and in women’s “best interests”. Women often internalize these strictures and police ourselves: how we walk, what we wear, how loudly we talk or laugh, we learn that it is our bodies that “entice” men and that it is “our responsibility” to keep ourselves safe. This is simply victim blaming but it is never regarded as such. It is often seen as “good advice”. The recent comment Kirron Kher that the young woman in Chandigarh who was gang raped ought not to have got into a shared rickshaw with three men and her subsequent response that she was merely telling women to be cautious is an example of such ideologies.

SA: Would it be correct to say that we do not focus enough on the right to take risks, or risk-taking behavior, in the context of women’s freedom, as perhaps we do in other fields, such as entrepreneurship or finance? What would be the key principles of positive risk taking from a feminist perspective?

SP: Absolutely. In the world of high finance risk taking is a macho act often rewarded handsomely in monetary terms and might enhance the reputation of the person who does so. For women however, the simple act of taking a walk at night is often seen as being “fraught with all the wrong kind of risks”, especially risks to reputation. In our research on public space we found that women were often far more concerned about risk to reputation than actual physical risk which is tragic commentary on how the discourse of safety is constructed. What women need in order to access public space as citizens is the right to take risks without being censured for them.

Risk is for many exciting, thrilling and women, as much as anyone else has the decide to make choices about what risks we want to take. However, nobody should be forced to take the kind of urban risks that come with lack of inadequate infrastructure. For instance, the lack of adequate public transport may be seen as a key reason why the young physiotherapy student in Delhi ended up taking a bus that was out for a joy ride. In a system of monitored public transport, no bus can be taken out “for a joyride”.

A feminist utopia would be a moment when if one has the desire to step out at midnight one could simply do so without a thought just as if it were 9 am in the morning.

SA: What would be the possible impact of women’s risk taking, by way of claiming public spaces equally, on broader issues of sexuality and rights?  

SP: If we could see public spaces as belonging to everyone to women, to the poor, the migrants, the unemployed, the queer, the transgender, the hawkers, the sex workers, then what we have potentially is a transformed city as we’ve argued in our book, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets.

SA: Shilpa, please share some of your experiences as a feminist parent – how do you handle issues of freedom and sexuality in conversation and in practice?

SP: This is a hard one to respond to in few words. Basically my attempt as a feminist parent has been to give my daughter the sense that she has choices and that her body belongs to her. This means for instance, respecting her right to refuse hugs from anyone, including her parents. My attempt has also been to speak the truth when asked questions, so I told her about periods when she asked about what my sanitary towel was as a three or four year old. (Sorry environmentalists. I think I might be too old to make the transition to the menstrual cup!).

At some point I told her the sperm and the egg story when she asked how babies were made. Here I made it a point to suggest that it’s the egg that chooses the sperm, responding to Emily Martin’s critique of the heterosexual romance tropes of the typical sperm invades egg narrative. She didn’t ask more questions so I left it at that. A few months ago, on a family picnic seated in the last seats of a bus she asked me one day, “But mama, the sperm and the egg – how do they meet?” It was all I could do not to splutter. For the first time in my life I told her, “I’ll tell you when we go home”! I have tried in general not to suggest to her that sexuality cannot be spoken about in public. But there are limits as I discovered. I certainly did not want to be conducting sexuality education 101 in the back of a bus that had 70+ year old aunts in it! Then I waited for her to ask again, and when she did I told her. I worried I might be giving her too much information to process and told her to stop me if she didn’t want to know more. Luckily it seems as if she has processed it. What I have impressed upon her again and again is that she is not to try and educate her classmates and friends since that is a job for their parents. (I hope in doing so I have not suggested to her that this is some hush hush subject). It’s always a minefield and one never knows if one is doing the right thing.

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