Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Imagine a generic neighborhood- residential buildings, playgrounds, a tea shop, a bus stop. You can fill the rest of the details. You have a few characters, a group of teenagers, a group of pre-teens, a solitary woman, and a solitary man, where would you put them? Where are they most likely to be found in the late evening on that map? Is your answer different for the man and the woman? Are your female characters strategizing on which is the safe place to be in? Are even the pre-teens supposed to be at different locations based on their genders?
Is the experience of a man and a woman different in public spaces? For most of us, the question does not even need thinking, of course not.
Is it because women are too afraid to step out because of the risk of harassment? And if it is, is it only that?
I was fortunate to participate in a workshop by Sameera Khan, the author of "Why Loiter," which entailed the above exercise. We discussed how women routinely feel out of place in public space, usually using it only as a sort of transit space to get from one private location to another. It is not only the question of safety but also reputation. The risk of losing status is so effective because reputation can affect our lives so profoundly. If a woman gets harassed, the first instinct is to not let her out. A woman who has a "bad" reputation would not get the support of anyone in a troubling situation. To not be helpless then, she chooses to curtail her movement. Be a "good girl." Hint to others a useful purpose of being out- education or job, and be back on time. Sameera's work, along with others, claims the importance of the ability to loiter on streets without purpose.
Often, I would dismiss movies and movements like these focused on women enjoying themselves just for the sake of enjoying, as "Feminism Lite." To me, such actions served little purpose and were undermining other women's efforts to attain more "important" rights. I believed that focus on this niche area that affected only women of a higher social standing meant putting more significant issues on the backseat to give more freedom to the already rich. What I never thought about was the fact that enjoying oneself is not the purview of the rich only. Going out to sit in a park or take a midnight walk also constitutes "fun" and is not allowed to many women of all classes.
While I always wanted women to go out and not have to be on their guard all the time, I did not know how to justify the act. And why did I need a justification? Because oppressed sections, including women, have to justify every step with reasons and explain why those reasons are valid, no behavior will be accepted just because it was enjoyable and led to their happiness and no harm to anyone.
The inability to be visible in public spaces sans purpose does affect not only my short-term happiness but also my ability to grow as an individual. It affects my relationship with my city and even the cultural fabric of the town itself. The presence of women ensures the public infrastructure will be friendly to their needs, and gendered norms do not lead to exclusionary designs.
Many discussions on women's rights focus on protection at the workplace or public transport safety, but very few assert that women can be out, apart from these reasons. While the rights ensure, at least on paper, equal opportunity to be a productive member of society, they do not lead to equality in social settings, which are a large part of our life. Not all learnings happen at school; much learning and personal development happen while discussing ideas that do not immediately affect your work. Interacting without a sense of purpose is often the bedrock of friendships. Limitations in public spaces limit this fundamental need to talk with friends and enjoy the city without inhibitions.
I wish you noticed how little agency the woman in my story has. She has to make do with very few choices, and she is strategizing on her every move. The ability to go out without reason means that women have an active role rather than a passive role of following a set "safe" pattern. More importantly, this session was about freedom in the most basic sense. The freedom to be wherever I want. No strategizing.
For me, the best conversations have happened at midnight, on a bench at the side of a road. They are some of my most treasured memories. And I believe everyone should get the chance to have such conversations.
Sana Farheen is a student at IIT, Kharagpur and a 2020 LedBy Her Fellow