Thursday, 8 June 2017

How loitering changed my politics- Pooja Nair

On May 29th 2017, WhyLoiter? celebrated three years of taking tiny, slow but steady steps towards a new mindset.

The idea behind the WhyLoiter? movement is to assert a woman’s freedom to occupy public spaces anywhere in the world, at anytime of the day or night wearing anything she pleases. How do we assert this? By simply, doing exactly that. Once a week, we gather at a public place and well, loiter – purposelessly. (Except that we happen to be serving a larger purpose)
When I first heard of the idea, honestly, I did not feel much for it. I believed ‘loitering’ to be a wasteful activity that men with nothing better to do did. I didn’t really understand why I should fight for my right to do something wasteful. However, I decided to participate because it sounded like fun. (Today, I notice the irony that had earlier eluded me. While I thought of ‘loitering’ as something wasteful for useless people, given a choice, I wanted to do it sometimes. I had never realised that the reason I never loitered is not that I did not want to, but that I did not have the freedom do it.)

Even though I did not initially buy into the cause entirely, I never regretted participating because I got to meet intelligent, talented, meaningful women from all walks of life. We sat late into the night at parks playing Pictionary or hired cycles and cycled across town in the rain, getting soaked to the skin, or played anatakshari on local trains, or took long walks in the city after dark, after midnight even - talking about life, society, relationships, attitudes, dreams, the arts, philosophies, dilemmas, epiphanies and more or exchanging horror stories.

This basic freedom is something men take for granted. Men, having lived their entire lives as males in society, have no clue what it is like to have to factor in the possibility of being humiliated or physically attacked EVERY time you step out into the public. What’s disturbing is that women themselves are so deeply conditioned that we have no idea how much we strain and restrict ourselves in order to be simply be allowed to exist, leave alone flourish. A majority of our preoccupation is how to get from one place to another safely and to not be blamed if we were to be attacked.
And yet, every second of the day, men feel entitled to humiliate women, of all ages, dressed in anything, at any time, at any place. And in the biggest ironies of all, the first tendency of both men and women in society, when they hear the news of sexual assault is to wonder, “what was SHE wearing?”, “ where was SHE?”, “what was SHE doing?”, and then concluding that she was an idiot to not have seen it coming. It was her fault. They then tutor their moms, sisters, daughters to be safe and not be stupid - out of love and care, of course. And continue to wake up each day to news of gang-rapes and gang-molestations.

All these restrictions and endless list of do’s and don’t simply disallows a woman from having equal space in society. Plus ‘being safe’ comes with zero guarantee of being safe and therefore means nothing.  We need to break the pattern.
The only way to change the status quo, is to stop being afraid. Instead of ‘being safe’ we need to ‘create safer environments’. A safer environment is an environment with more women in it.  We need to stop stopping women from stepping out at night. The more the women on the streets, the safer the streets become for women and for men. More so, for men because it is men who need to live with the stigma of being molesters, rapists or murderers. We all need to understand women have nothing to lose, except their lives, (if they are also killed). But isn’t dying better than a life of slavery? There is no shame in being raped and killed. There is however, no dignity in living life as a slave to fear.
Being a part of this movement has taught me to sift the chauvinist persons from the crowd. It has given me new eyes with which to view my life and my place in society, everyday. Now, when strangers stare me down when I am at a crowded local train station, late at night, I don’t look away sheepishly (as if to convey I am sorry for being out this late), I look him straight in the eye quizzically. I silently remind myself that I have every right to be there with the same ease that he does. When a neighbouring pharmacist, making small talk with me, shared with me the titbit about his village in Rajasthan, where they never allow women to step out alone, because they respect their women a lot. I did not just smile dismissively. I looked him in the eye and said politely, “but what about her freedoms? “azaadi mili toh sammaan khatam ho jata hai?” (does having freedoms spell the end of your respect worthiness?) He was shocked at my refusal to let him have his dig at this man-like confident young girl. I didn’t care so much about what he thought of me. I do know that I think very little of him. When a colleague joked that his women juniors in office never brought him home-cooked food hilariously adding, “what was the use of having women juniors?” Instead of laughing it off, I managed to say, “Men can cook too, can’t they?” and changed the joke.

The event on the 29th, was one of 2 times that we invited men for a late night walk. It was called the “walk like a woman”.  The men had to dress as women. Again, to be honest I found it strange. The deep conditioning in me, made me think I can’t look at men in women’s clothes with a straight face. I wasn’t even sure, what we were hoping to achieve except get a lot of attention. However, I had the time and thankfully am blessed with an open mind, so decided to attend the event. Within 3 minutes of being in the presence of these men, I realised how superficial ‘clothing’ is.  As we loitered from Versova beach to Juhu chowpaty, I took turns having little inconsequential one-on-one chats with each of these men wearing dresses, spaghetti tops, tights and head scarfs etc, I discovered that there is something very comforting and attractive about men comfortable in women’s clothing. I know that these are the kind of men who understand and support the need for feminism. There is nothing more attractive than that, in a man!

One of the conversations revealed that men too become vulnerable to attacks when dressed in women’s clothing. Had the men dressed in women’s clothing been alone, they would surely have been beaten-up! This means that society would kill to maintain a clear difference between men and women. Why? I wondered.
As I looked ahead of me, and saw these men and women, all dressed in women’s clothing walking in many little groups, chitchatting with one another, it dawned on me - I couldn’t tell from far which are the men and which are the women.  And THAT is probably, the problem society has with this. If all the silhouettes appeared the same from afar, how would you spot a woman? How would you know, who is ‘safe’ and who is ‘unsafe’?  Who can attack and who can be blamed?

Pooja Nair is a theatre and film actor-blogger-advertising professional-avid loiterer.


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