Friday 28 April 2017

Breaking the "Rich kids loiter freely" myth- Neha Singh

I was invited by a very rich, international, prestigious, with-it school to conduct a session on gender and public spaces with their seventh grade students this week. This school has been very active in sensitizing and working with their students on gender related issues and I gladly accepted the invitation.
Now, a lot of criticism that Why loiter? faces is usually "But what abt the poor girls? What are you doing for them? Rich and middle class women loiter all the time, they are privileged. What is the point of you middle class, educated women loitering? You should "help" the poor women loiter, because those poor women are the ones that never loiter. Rich kids dont need your activism, You should start Why loiter? in villages because THAT'S where it is really needed. "

NOT TRUE. Rich, middle class, educated, super educated, south Mumbai, so-called privileged women/girls DO NOT/CANNOT loiter. Public spaces are considered as UNSAFE by them as they are by anyone else.

Case in point, the extra ordinarily rich students of this extra-ordinarily rich school.

I designed an activity where I marked different public and private spaces in their library through the use of simple placards taped on walls. The spaces I marked were as follows


First I asked the boys to do the exercise. I asked the boys to roam around in these spaces and tell me how unsafe/uncomfortable they felt on a scale of 0 to 10. I kept changing the time of day. Sometimes it was morning, sometimes, afternoon and sometimes post midnight.

Spaces like home, nieghbourhood, mall and coffee shop got an average score of 0 or 1 from the boys. As the spaces became more and more 'public', and as the time of day turned to night, their scores had a gradual progression to 3-4-5. Public toilets at night time scored the highest with a boy scoring his level of fear and discomfort as 10.

Most of the boys said that the reason that they would be scared after dark in spaces like dhaba, chai tapri and BMC park is because "there would be people of DIFFERENT IDENTITIES" and that there was a fear of being "KIDNAPPED".
Some boys said that they had never been to a dhaba or a chai tapri so they dont know how they would feel if they were there.

"Fair enough!", I said to them. "Now sit down and lets see the girls take on this exercise."

While planning this exercise for a group of 12-13 year old students studying in a high-end institution, I wasnt sure the girls and boys would have different scores, but I still wanted it to be a boys-only and a girls-only exercise.

The girls entered the space. They were given the same instructions.
By the time the girls finished the exercise, I wanted to cry.

NONE of the girls gave a score of zero for ANY space, at any time of the day. NOT EVEN HOME.

Their scores hovered around 4 and 5 in so-called safe spaces like gated neighbourhood, malls, coffee shops and school and shot up to 8 and 9 in spaces like chai tapri, slum, BMC park and dhaba.

Their reasons were also more complex and articulate.

When one girl gave a score of '3' for home in the afternoon, I asked her why. She said "it depends, if there are relatives and servants around then I feel unsafe, but if its only immediate family then maybe zero."

When two girls gave a score of '2' to school at 10 a.m, the reason they gave was "because there are security gaurds and cleaners and people we dont know, so no space is completely safe."

When a girl said '8' for feeling unsafe in her OWN GATED NEIGHBOURHOOD at 7 p.m and I asked her why, she said "because there are gaurds and neighbours."

The same reasons for feeling unsafe at malls, coffee shops too. And none of the girls said that they would feel unsafe because of a fear of being kidnapped! 'Sexual abuse' was the most pertinent fear.

After the exercise, we all realised that even 7th grade girls who are extremely 'privileged' live in a state of constant fear EVEN AT HOME AND SCHOOL and their entire life experiences and personalities are based on the foundation of this fear.
For the boys it was sort of an eye opener, and I hope they would be more sensitive towards their classmates.

I told them about Why loiter? and reclamation of public spaces and why its important to not operate on the fear-principle but exercise our right to taking risks and enriching our life experiences through interactions that are not based on prejudice but an openness to engage and learn.

But I also came out of the session with a greater resolve to loiter INSPITE of being middle class- educated- privileged etc. etc. etc, because there is NO GREATER MYTH than the one that says "RICH KIDS LOITER FREELY AND DO NOT NEED MY ACTIVISM".