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Two years since Nirbhaya, women reclaim right to loiter in public spaces

A series of online and offline campaigns urge women to come out on the streets and 'stroll' for their freedom and autonomy

Ritika Bhatia 

A session of Gender-ventions in progress

Half the city’s population is continuously taught how to perform the simple motor function of walking: post childhood, well into adolescence and in many cases, even adulthood. Look both ways before you cross the road, but while everywhere else, look at your feet while walking and do not make eye contact with strangers. Keep your posture tense and not relaxed, don’t smile, even to yourself. Walk at a brisk pace, but not so brisk that it draws attention to itself. And most importantly, finish your work as soon as possible and keep moving. Don’t ever loiter.

Men and women belong in different worlds, and these are the lessons that I, along with millions of women in the city grew up with. It’s time to unlearn them, through engaging and understanding the phenomenon of the city’s gendered public landscape. Three years ago, much before Delhi became India’s rape capital or social experiments were the norm, a few women decided to conduct one of their own. Mera Apna Sheher (My Own City), a documentary produced by PSBT India and directed by Sameera Jain, dealt with the functioning of public spaces in Delhi by observing a lone woman amble along her daily chores, albeit from a safe distance. The film puts the city under a gendered lens, attempting to document the oft-dire consequences of a failure to project a legitimate and respectable purpose to occupy public spaces as a woman. This narrative plays out repeatedly year after year, and affirms renewed importance on December 16, Nirbhaya’s day.

A series of online and offline campaigns are inviting women from across the country to reclaim public spaces for themselves, and rally a revolution of gender and identity on the streets. One such campaign, Gender-Ventions, is a series of public performances supported by The Goethe-Institut/Max Mueller Bhavan that has been taking theatre back to the streets, the parks, the malls, the metro stations and the bus stops. Short five minute vignettes play out ordinary scenes from daily life -- ‘Antar Pehchaney’, ‘Open and Close’ and ‘Bus’ – and bring out the stark differences between men and women’s physical constitution while navigating public spaces such as a park or a bus. The audience is invited to observe, participate, comment and engage to find the right kind of alternatives to the hostility and assault faced by women every day.

A still from Mera Apna Sheher
The creator of this interventionist breed of gender-dialogue, Niranjani Iyer moved to Delhi three years ago from Paris where she’d been living for for over a decade, studying, teaching and performing theatre and dance. Iyer, who is a visiting faculty at the National School of Drama in Delhi, conceptualised from a very simple desire to wander around the city. “I love walking and loitering, sitting in a park with a book, having a cup of tea on the pavement etc. When I moved to Delhi, it was quite a shock to find my movement curtailed so drastically. Delhi has so many parks and tombs and lovely tree-lined roads that it seems a pity to not really use them, especially in good weather,” says Iyer.

The cast was decided on after auditions at the Goethe, and includes performers from various backgrounds: Ankita is an activist, actor and writer, Piyush and Rahul are actors, Sarju and Rakesh are actors, singers and puppeteers, Rumani and Priyanka are actors and Persis is a developement scholar and performer. The group has performed at the streets in Jankapuri east, Shakarpur, Anand Vihar ISBT, Malkaganj, Shadipur, Nehru Place. Also on the group’s stopovers were open yet closed public spaces like Seelect Citywalk mall and Dilli Haat, and they hit the metro lines in November. The group also held a “Night-Out” on November 30, where they invited women to loiter with them post 7 pm in the city. They are slated to perform at Jantar Mantar today to mark the Bekhauf Azadi day, in memory of

Girls perform during a protest over Crime Against Women in New Delhi
Started in September, close to 30 performances have already been staged across the city already, but the plan is to go back to the areas they’ve already performed and conduct workshops with local residents. Iyer says the response to the interventions “has been extremely encouraging and enthusiastic. People do stop to engage and that has been very interesting. One thing we’d like to see more of though, is more women stopping to engage. Our interventions encourage participation, both verbal and physical and most of the times, women stay on the peripheries. But this just proves the need to encourage women to loiter, to feel that there being in a space is legitimate even if they do not have a "purpose" or a " function" to accomplish there. The reason there are so many men who stop is also because it's okay for men to loiter around, drink a cup of tea at a stall, stop and look at what’s happening on the streets...mostly, women are just crossing that space to go from A to B, there's no question of them just hanging around.”

Iyer, of course, is right. Every sexual assault in a public space is followed by equal parts victim-blaming and ever-increasing restrictions on women’s mobility. Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade in their book titled “Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets” (2011) offer a radical counter argument: “We need to redefine our understanding of violence in relation to public space — to see not sexual assault, but the denial of access to public space as the worst possible outcome for women. What we might demand then is that women's right to be in public space be unquestioned. Choosing to take risks, even of possible sexual violence in public spaces, undermines a sexist structure where women’s virtue is prized over their desires or agency.”

Taking off from that argument, #whyloiter is a two-week campaign running from December 16, 2014 to January 01, 2015. An online campaign that can be joined from anywhere, #whyloiter asks women to “hang out in the city, to make use of its public spaces, to loiter aimlessly and to use the hashtag #whyloiter everytime you do! Post your loitering status on Facebook and/or tweet about it and use the hashtag #whyloiter.” To mark this day and assert women’s rights not as second but first class citizens on and of the streets, as of this afternoon over 2500 people have signed up to be a part of this online event. “Imagine an Indian city with street corners full of women: chatting, laughing, strolling, loitering... ?#‎whyloiter?".

“I often think that the night is more alive and more richly coloured than the day,” said the artist Vincent Van Gogh. Delhi, another campaign focused on reclaiming public spaces for women, thinks on the same lines, and hosts various get-togethers to take back the city by night, from time to time. Various women’s organisations such as AIDWA, AIPWA, NFIW, ANHAD, Jagori, Saheli, Purogami Mahila Sangathan, Pragatisheel Mahila Sagathan, YWCA, JWC and others held a public meeting from 11 AM at Jantar Mantar today, gathering for women’s rights, freedom and autonomy. A telling slogan from the protest that’ll resonate long after today: “Hum kya chahein, azaadi – baap se bhi, khap se bhi.”

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First Published: Tue, December 16 2014. 17:16 IST