Women Outdoors

A new book from Mumbai considers what it would take to create cities that are truly inclusive.

Why Loiter?
Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets

By Shilpa Phadke,
Sameera Khan, and
Shilpa Ranade
Penguin India
279 pp., $25.50

Mumbai’s public spaces belong to all of its 13 million inhabitants, but at any time of day or night the ratio of men to women is glaringly disproportionate. Men have no qualms about hanging around on street corners or at tea stalls, but women make a point of looking busy, striding with purpose, or talking on their cell phones. Thousands of women travel by trains or buses, but it’s not easy for them to find a toilet, a park bench, or any public place in which to linger. “If Mumbai is the best city for women in India,” says the sociologist Shilpa Phadke, “then the bar is set very low indeed.”

Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets, coauthored by Phadke, the architect Shilpa Ranade, and the journalist Sameera Khan, takes a close look at the public spaces of a city where women are said to live more independently than anywhere else in India. But over three years of “extensive, not intensive” research through ethnographies, mapping, interviews, and workshops, the authors found that the city doesn’t quite live up to its egalitarian reputation. And while the book is specific to Mumbai, the ideas in it apply to any metropolis—are public spaces anywhere truly gender neutral?

The book takes an interdisciplinary approach to the city, viewing it as a place where one can seek not just productivity and safety, but also pleasure—and risk. “What about fun?” Phadke asks. “Where are the public spaces in Mumbai where you can have fun?” Interspersing anecdotes and data with perspectives from anthropologists, planners, feminists, and popular culture, the book’s premise is that “loitering [is] a fundamental act of claiming public space.” Women should be able to “loiter without purpose and meaning, loiter without being asked what time of the day it is, and why we are here.”

Ranade and her collaborators believe that design can “go a long way in making social change happen.” Some of their suggestions, such as improved street lighting, providing more public toilets for women, and making parks accessible, are familiar to designers everywhere. Other findings are unique. Their research shows that allowing street vendors in business districts, for example, may not help in keeping the city clean, but does make women feel safer. More eyes on the street can deter undesirable behavior in Mumbai’s dense web of roads and alleyways.

“It’s important to dream up the city you want, dream out loud, share that dream with others,” Khan says. “Hopefully that vision will lead us to become more-engaged citizens, and help us rally for a different kind of city, a space that we will be happier to live, work, and play in.”

In the second phase of their ongoing project, the authors have become activists, running workshops in some neighborhoods and architecture schools. They also plan to have “Just Loiter” days in parks, so women become more visible in, and comfortable with, claiming public spaces—first by intent, and gradually by habit—because that’s how the authors wish to dream up Mumbai.

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