When women choose to loiter, we are refusing to be put into the little boxes that society would like us to be in
One reads in the news of the victims of a terrorist attack in Istanbul on New Year’s eve being blamed for being hedonistic and partying on New Year’s eve.
Relatively speaking, women, particularly upper-middle-class women, have greater legitimacy in the new privatized spaces of consumption like shopping malls and coffee shops than in public spaces like parks or promenades. However, these are far from uncontested spaces, as the women attacked by the Sri Ram Sena in a Mangaluru pub found out in 2009. In 2012, assistant commissioner of police Vasant Dhoble arrested women who were having a good time at a pub in Mumbai, accusing them of prostitution.
When women drink and make merry to have a good time there is a great deal of anxiety not just in India but across the world. If women drink too much they are often warned of dire consequences and told they are asking for trouble. When men drink too much this often becomes an excuse for anything untoward or even illegal that they might do. Apparently women are entitled to not just less pay than men for equal work but also a lower share of fun, if any.
In a workshop I did with my collaborators as part of a research study on women’s access to public spaces, students conducted a small survey of the leisure time men and women have. This survey, while not statistically relevant, nonetheless demonstrated that while young men and women in their 20s had similar leisure and recreation time and activities, women in their 30s and 40s had far less leisure time than men in their age group.
If alcohol produces deep anxieties, the idea that women might have sex for fun creates unparalleled paranoia, especially coupled with the fear that women might choose to have this fun with men of the wrong class, caste or religion. The bogey of love jihad and the violence visited upon couples who dare to love across caste lines are testimony to this. And woe betide women if they place those resources that societies most value about them—their reproductive capacities—at risk.
Remember the brouhaha that followed in 2013 when it was suggested that women were using the emergency contraceptive pill (ECP) as a regular form of contraception? The media went ballistic, predicting doom for women’s reproductive health. Interestingly, while high doses of hormone are presumably not good for anyone, there is no evidence to suggest that the regular use of ECP has long-term health consequences. However, body-building hormones that are freely available and consumed do not seem to elicit the same level of concern.
Public spaces have in the last four years been placed at the centre of anxieties about women. Safety, cast in narrow terms such as the prevention of attacks by strangers in public, has become the cause that everyone can rally around. So when women claim the public space for fun it makes too many people anxious. Among these are the police, who are not at all sure they would be able to contain offenders and so often go on the offence, demanding women do not put themselves at “risk”.
I would argue that despite or perhaps because of how uncomfortable it makes everyone, fun is central to feminism. However, even within the feminist movement the claim for fun is often seen as “asking for too much” or as being far less important than other more pressing concerns like education or healthcare. However, there is no contest. We can claim the right to purposeless fun even as we demand better and universal healthcare and education. Just as we have contested the claims that the feminist movement is “West inspired” so also the feminist claim to fun is not a neo-liberal one. Nor is it an elite claim, for working-class women have as much desire and right to fun as middle-class women.
In fact, the claim to fun in cities, especially when separated from consumption as in the case of loitering, creates the possibility of greater liberation and freedom in the city in ways that are not tied to the spending of money. When women choose to loiter, to wander the streets, especially at night, we are refusing to be put into the little boxes that society would like us to be in.
Fun in public spaces cannot be quantified or sometimes even explained. How does one communicate the pleasure of the asphalt under your feet; the rush of finding the bus you want at a traffic signal and managing to jump into it; the serenity to be found in loitering over that cutting-chai at the tapri even in the midst of city chaos; the exhilaration of wandering in your city at night laughing with your friends. This is not simply fun, it’s belonging to your city and having it belong to you.
In saying #IWillGoOut or when we #MeetToSleep or post updates with #WhyLoiter or hang out as #GirlsAtDhabas, women are refusing to be cowed into retreating from the public, choosing resistance over conformity and eschewing fear by claiming the right to fun. These claims are neither frivolous nor fleeting—they are fundamental to full citizenship.
Shilpa Phadke is a sociologist and co-author of Why Loiter? Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets.