Bombay is the city of dreams, they say. I think so too. Not because of Bollywood or celebrities or the fact that it is the financial capital of India. No. I think Bombay is the city of dreams because in no other city in India can a girl even dream of boarding public transport at one in the night without the constant fear of assault.
So, what maybe a dream in other cities for women comes true in Bombay. A woman can get out of work at 11 p.m, hop into an autoriskhaw or a cab, or take a bus or the local train and get home without even a flicker of fear. The same thing is almost unheard of in other metros like Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata or Bangalore.
When I first visited Bombay when I was 18 years old, my flight was going to land at 2 in the night. I had informed my friend, a girl, that I would be reaching at 2 and she should come and pick me up. (I do not ask anyone to come and pick me up from the airport, train station, bus stop anymore because I just dont feel I need the 'protection'). I had assumed that she would bring her father/brother along. Having grown up mostly in the north of India, that was a given. But when I met her at the airport, to my horror I realised she had come ALONE, in an autorikshaw.
Why didnt you bring your brother (who is, btw, 5 years younger than us)? How the hell are we going to go home? I asked, and I can never forget what she said to me.
She looked into my eyes and with utmost confidence she said, 'Relax, its Bombay'.
We got out of the airport, got into an autorikshaw, and got back home to Kandivali, which is almost 12 kilometres away. Not for a moment did I feel unsafe. We didnt have to clutch onto our bags and look straight ahead, we didnt have to have our mobile phones ready to dial emergency numbers, we didnt have to haggle with the autorikshaw guy, we didnt have to chant mantras, envoking Gods to protect us in this 'situation'. We laughed and chatted and looked at the roads and got home without a glitch. And for the first time in my life I felt that things should be this easy, this simple. I felt I had wasted so much of my time on absolutely stupid things like who, what, where, how, when, why. Just because I happen to be a girl. In Bombay, like my friend had put it accurately, for the first time, I relaxed.
There are several theories and opinions on why Bombay is safer for women.
Some say its because 'Bombay aake sab sudhar jaate hain', or 'no one has the time here to poke nose into anyone else's business', 'the place is always so crowded, there is never a lonely stretch for crimes to take place', 'idhar aake bhaiyya log bhi violence bhool jaate hain'. I personally think that one of the major reasons Bombay is comparatively safer for women than other cities in India is because of the large female working population and the effective public transport, mainly the local train, which is rightly called, the lifeline of Bombay.
Having sung all these praises for Bombay, let me remind you that all of this is only in COMPARISON to other Indian cities. Bombay is still far from being ideal for women. For starters, there still is the need for a cop in every ladies compartment in the local train, the metro stops plying after 11 p.m, there have been cases of cabbies and autorikshaw guys harrassing women passangers, just the fact that we still need to segregate men and women in public transport means there is a long way to go till this city becomes EQUAL for everyone.
Until that happens, we shall continue to loiter in as many public spaces as possible in the city.
This December 16th, to start off the whyloiter online offline campaign, some of us took a local train ride from Borivali to Churchgate and back. We reached churchgate station at 11 p.m, loitered around Marine Drive for a couple of hours and then took the last local train that leaves from Churchgate to Borivali at one a.m. The cops that were in the ladies compartment to protect us were happily napping, so we just chatted, laughed, clicked lots of photos and made merry.
When we got on the train at Andheri station and were busy chatting loudly and clicking photos, a couple of elderly women sitting next to us asked us if we were new to the city. I dont know why she asked us that. Was it because we were looking extremely chirpy and happy (not a feeling/behaviour generally associated with being on the local), or because one of us was wearing tiny shorts (not considered appropriate clothing for local trains), or because we were clicking so many photos (not a behaviour usually seen in local trains). Anyhow, we started a conversation with them and told them that were were loitering on the 16th of Dec in memory of Jyoti, who was brutally gang raped and left to die when she boarded a bus one night after watching a movie in the suburbs of New Delhi, three years ago, this day. We explained to them that loitering and access to public transport and public space is every person's fundamental right and victim blaming cannot be tolerated anymore. The women agreed with us completely and supported the why loiter campaign.
At Marine Drive there were cops on duty and several people out to enjoy the evening breeze. We walked on the clean, well maintained pavement in the slightly chilly Bombay weather and sang songs loudly. No one stopped us, no one harrassed us. There were stares and curious glances, but that didnt prevent us from enjoying ourselves completely.
When we boarded the last local train back home at 1 a.m, there were only us in the entire compartment, and of course, two policemen that were happily napping. We all got off at different stations, each then taking autos or walking home. But in Bombay, thats normal, or at least normal for some of us. There are women who would not do that in Bombay too, thus extending the period of normalizing women's movement and accessibility to public spaces and public transport.
When one of my colleagues saw our pictures, she said, "you are very brave! I can NEVER do this."
I told her that I think she is brave, to never experience the joy of freedom and access to public spaces, to give that up for the 'safer' indoors, that for me, is brave. What I do is NORMAL.
With the right to loiter comes the right to take risks. And we all must exercise it to make every city a relaxed, happy, stressfree place for women.