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Women in India and Pakistan Unite for the Right to Loiter

Tired of being told to stay away from public spaces for their own good, groups of women in India and Pakistan are loitering in protest, arguing that allowing women to hang out and do nothing can make cities safer.

Written by Gaëlle Faure Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Every weekend for the past two years, members of Mumbai's Why Loiter? movement have been gathering in public spaces usually thought of as the domain of men. Courtesy of Neha Singh

In India and Pakistan, groups of women are organizing events in which they do, at first glance, not much – that is, they loiter. They sit on street corners. Hang out in parks. Drink tea at sidewalk stalls. Walk around at night. All this is purposefully aimless – and, to most of them, a completely new experience.

“In our cities, it is acceptable for men to loiter, but not women,” says Neha Singh, 34, the actress and writer who organized the first Why Loiter? events in Mumbai. “Women go to work, shop, use public transport. They can be out in public spaces alone, but they have to have a purpose,” she says. Single girls meet up at restaurants, malls or movie theaters, but these are all private spaces, Singh notes. “Men, meanwhile, can be out all day, just sitting on a park bench or a footpath, chatting, smoking, reading the newspaper.”

Singh started organizing loitering events in May 2014, after reading the book “Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets.” The book, published three years earlier, examined the use of public spaces by women in Mumbai, and found that women were always moving through the spaces, rarely staying in one spot for long. It argued that to make public spaces safer for women, women had go out and claim these spaces for themselves, ideally by loitering.

“The argument of safety is often used to keep women from loitering,” says Shilpa Phadke, one of the book’s co-authors and a professor sociology at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “But not being able to go out is also a form of violence.”

The idea resonated with Singh. “I realized I wasn’t living my life to the fullest because of my condition as a woman, that I had internalized all these ideas about how we should behave in public,” she says. “So I decided to change that.”

Singh and her roommate carried out their first act of loitering at a public park, where they just sat in the grass – something they had never done before.

“The park was open and free for all, but we had never seen any women there before,” she says. “A lot of men came up to us and said, ‘What are you doing here? Why don’t you go home?’ The park’s gardener even told us that we should go home and read a book or watch TV. They all said they were giving this advice for our own good.”

But Singh and her friend carried on, and enjoyed the experience. “This was the first time in my life that I was lying on the grass, looking up at the sky,” Singh says.

After she posted about their small act of defiance on Facebook, a lot of her friends said they wanted to join in, so she created a WhatsApp group and named it Why Loiter?, after the book that had inspired her. Soon, group members were organizing loitering events every weekend, both during the day and at night.

“Since we started, we’ve done more than 20 post-midnight loiterings, in small groups of between two to seven women,” Singh says. “Because it is so rare for women to walk at night, most people assume that we are sex workers.”

They get a lot of stares and, more than once, men have flashed them. Often, they get stopped by the police.

“They ask for our IDs, for our parents’ phone numbers. But we explain that we just want to walk at night because it’s fun, it’s less hot and crowded, and if the men can do it, why can’t we?” says Singh. “They usually end up sympathizing with us, and saying something like, ‘If there were more women out on the streets, it would be safer.’ And we say, ‘Okay, but if you’re not going to let a few women walk around, how will that ever happen?’”

According to a recent study by ActionAid, nearly four out of five women in India have experienced sexual harassment in public. Rape is also a serious concern on the streets, as was highlighted by the rape and murder of a young medical student on a public bus in 2012. The crime prompted mass protests, and encouraged many women to speak out against sexual violence and harassment.

Singh’s husband and many of her friends support her efforts, but not everyone agrees with her loitering revolution. “I have often been shamed, belittled and made to feel it’s a waste of my time – mostly by men, but also by women, especially my mother and aunts,” she says.

That hasn’t stopped Singh’s message from spreading beyond Mumbai. Women have organized Why Loiter? events in several other cities in India – including New Delhi, Jaipur and Thane – and also across the border in Pakistan, in cities like Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore.

At the same time as the Why Loiter? movement was growing in India, two friends in Pakistan were launching their own pro-loitering movement. In 2015, Sadia Khatri and Sabahat Zakariya were sharing pictures of themselves having chai tea at roadside cafes called dhabas, where unaccompanied women rarely venture. Other Pakistani women followed their example, posting pictures under the hashtag #girlsatdhabas.

In Pakistan, the Girls At Dhabas group, which Sadia Khatri launched with a friend, is challenging the idea that unaccompanied women shouldn’t sit and have tea at roadside cafes. (Courtesy of Girls At Dhabas)

“We discovered Why Loiter? a few months after we launched Girls at Dhabas,” says Khatri, 26. The girls saw an opportunity to amplify their call for the right to just hang out, as well as the chance to bridge the political divide between their two nations as hostilities flare in the disputed region of Kashmir. “There is power in numbers, and also in joining forces while our nations are mired in tense relations,” she says.

For the past two years, at the end of December, the Girls at Dhabas group have coordinated multiple loitering events with groups across India during a two-week campaign. Just like Singh, Khatri has found herself having to defend her ideas to disapproving friends and family.

“I’ve lost track of the number of times my mother and I have argued over this convoluted idea of ‘safety’ that keeps women inside four walls, while effectively rendering them incapable of navigating public spaces, and therefore making public spaces even more dangerous for women,” she says. Meanwhile, she’s managed to keep her father in the dark about her loitering habits: “If my father found out, I know his immediate reaction would be an attempt to curtail my freedoms.”

Organizers on both sides of the border stress that loitering is a form of protest that is sustainable because it’s fun and comes from a place of optimism. “It’s not reactionary, like protests after someone gets raped,” Singh says. “We’re not out on the streets because of a rape. We’re out all year long, no matter what.”

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