Tuesday, March 28th, 2023 13:23:45

A Landscape Of Unbelongers

Updated: June 25, 2011 10:17 am

Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets is about the myriad ways in which women continue to be relegated to the spatial margins of a ‘globalising’ city, and the growing list of other powerless groups—migrants, dalits, North Indians, Muslims, gays, etc.—who inhabit this landscape of unbelongers.

Some years ago, when a woman was sexually assaulted in South Mumbai, allegedly by the son of an industrialist, the news media speculated gratuitously: she may have had a drink, she was wearing a skirt, and why was she out at 2.30 at night? She was ‘suspected’ of being a sex worker, the media quoted the police as saying. Even before the investigation made much progress, one newspaper put the word ‘rape’ in quotation marks, another did the same with ‘victim’.

The message was clear: if she was drinking and out at that time of night, she was a ‘bad’ woman, blatantly transgressing mandatory multiple social codes of dress, time, work and behaviour. Equally, in the media’s lens, she was violating boundaries of space: any woman who is out on the city’s streets in the manner she may have been is either inviting sexual violence or looking for consensual sex.

“…darkness is a time when good girls are expected to be virtuously at home, when only the bad girls are outside, engaging in ‘disreputable’ professions,” write the authors of Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. “The temporal boundaries of day and night are imposed as rigidly as those of private-public,” they continue a little later, “and are irrevocably linked to the duality of being respectable-unrespectable.”

The dichotomy of the good ‘respectable’ woman and bad ‘unrespectable’ woman, with its attendant prescriptions, is only one of many ways in which women’s access to public space is regulated. ‘Bad’ women are condemned to all kinds of dangers because of their transgressions, indeed they are ‘bad’ because they overstep; but ‘good’ women who ostensibly stay within the limits imposed by male-centric codes are further curtailed in their movement and access to public space.

Why Loiter (Penguin Books, 2011) is an exploration by its three authors—Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade—of the nature of these restrictions, of the implications of women, both ‘bad’ and ‘good’, being pushed to the literal and figurative margins of public space, of how the structural inequalities of gender are reflected in spatial discriminations that regulate and restrict women’s access to public space.

The book examines the mythology of Mumbai’s reputation as the most women-friendly city in India. The authors convincingly demolish this reputation by showing how women have only conditional access to public space in Mumbai: on the streets, in parks, at sea-fronts and in other places. At all times, they must show purpose, wear markers of respectability, take precautions to ensure safety and comply with innumerable implicit and explicit rules to be able to use public space.

The authors’ exploration of public space, both anecdotal and academic, draws on research done in Mumbai between 2003-2006 in 14 different areas across geographical location, class, religious affiliation, and usage. The book uses ethnographic observations at suburban railway stations, parks, shopping malls and coffee shops. Its methodology includes mapping, documentaries and photography. Its sources include workshops with students on gender and public space. The book also uses city planning data, scholarly literature, media reports and other secondary sources.

Why Loiter rests engagingly lightly on this substantive base of research and scholarship. It is slim and written in an accessible style, with some parts structured in short vignette-like chapters. “Why Loiter is written for the general reader,” Phadke, Khan and Ranade write, “in the hope that questions of women and their place in the city become central to the complex debates on cities in general and Mumbai in particular.”

The authors put forth important ideas. For example, they observe that it is not just women but all groups with unequal power—other minorities of gender, class, caste, religion—who are denied equal access to public space. In fact, the unequal access is in part orchestrated by pitting one group against the other: for example, the man in the slum, the popular mythology says, is a potential ‘danger’ to the middle class woman out at night.

This continual creation of opposing interests furthers the actual and rhetorical appropriation of public space by the group with the most power: the middle class upper caste Hindu young able heterosexual male. Everyone else is an ‘outsider’ who must negotiate entry to public space, access to which always remains conditional on proving ‘legitimacy’ by using appropriate body language, clothing, timing and other methods.

The authors use evocative terminology to make this and other arguments: the people on the spatial margins are called the ‘unbelongers’: “In Mumbai today the unbelongers are the poor and the migrants, the dalits and other lower castes, Muslims, couples on park benches, non-vegetarians, North Indians, gays and lesbians, north-easterners, elderly folk, differently able, and of course, all women without legitimate purpose.”

The ‘unbelongers’ live in a twilight zone of urban citizenship. The right to be in, and use, public space is ideally an equal right of all citizens, but citizenship is a simultaneous process of inclusion and exclusion. In an expanding city such as Mumbai, where the economy is described as ‘opening up’ at a time of globalisation, access to public space for women is not simultaneously increasing. In fact, it is the methods of exclusion that keep expanding.

For example, the authors say, the ‘consumer citizen’, the person with purchasing power, can now ‘buy’ access to spaces such as malls, entry-restricted parks, coffee shops—all “private spaces masquerading as public”. This access for the fittest…”has all but drowned out the faint voices that claim citizenship based on inalienable rights to public space in the city,” the authors say.

More women in Mumbai may now be working in new forms of employment such as call centres or hotels, but this sets the stage for “…all kinds of anxieties about women, including, among other things, those about safety, clothing, sexuality, morality, money and reputation.” These anxieties increase surveillance and sanction even greater restrictions on women’s movement in public space. The attendant emphasis on danger and safety demands that women must make themselves safe rather than ensuring that all public spaces are completely safe for women.

The new surveillance takes many forms, including direct strictures by the family as well as indirect messages such as those in media reports of cases of sexual violence. Although the authors seem to think the media has “good intentions”, reportage by and large talks of “what the women wore, how late they were out…” and so on. ”As a result, the message being sent to women in the city is clear,” the authors write, “the public wants its women safe but thinks the buck stops at the women themselves, it is up to them to know their limits.”

The authors ask why these conditions must be accepted as inevitable, and they evocatively imagine a city where access is unlimited and unconditional, where women can walk, roam, wander, just shoot the breeze on a park bench without having to be forever careful or watched. A city where they must not only ‘use’ a circumscribed public space but enjoy it, take pleasure in it whenever they want and escape the “tyranny of manufacturing purpose”. The authors wistfully put forth a call to “take back the public space” (variations of the concept of the ‘right to the city’ have been theorised in other contexts of urbanisation by such stalwarts as Henri Lefebvre and David Harvey). They imagine a city where women can also loiter.

Some arguments in the book, that are either implicit or referred to only briefly, could have been explored at greater length. Public and private space are a continuum intertwined along the axes of unequal power—if women are discriminated against in one, how would the other be separated for equitable access? How have historical processes of colonisation, urbanisation and global capitalism interacted with the gender-differentiated demarcation and accessibility of public space? What will make a city truly women-friendly and how has this been achieved elsewhere? More details from the authors’ field research and interviews—the narrative, lived experiences of women—rather than mostly composite summaries, would also have been interesting.

These trajectories however may have moved the authors away from their stated purpose of creating a book for a general readership, and perhaps turned it into an academic heavyweight on the shelf of a library. Sidestepping this sequestering, Why Loiter opens up a new space for debate.


By Sharmila Joshi

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