Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Review: Why Loiter? by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade

Title: Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets
Author: Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade
Publisher: Penguin India
Pages: 280
Price: Rs 299
Genre: Non Fiction / Urban Studies / Women issues
Rating: 10/10
Format: Paperback

“Why Loiter?” is a transformational book. It suggests that women must fight for the unconditional right to access public space. It is surprising how we, as women, have got so accustomed to justifying our presence in the public space that it is now internalized in our systems. 

If we are waiting for a friend on the road, we would rather wait at the bus stop or fiddle with mobile phones, all to imply that either we are waiting for the bus or busy with some important call or message. Why can’t we loiter? Why can’t we be unapologetic about having fun in public space, and also not judged? Quoting from the book “..when there are visible public attacks on women, the discussions inevitably focus on how the women could have prevented it. Clothing is the first target: its length, width, cut and even colour are debated in the blame game of national sexual politics…”

It is a common perception that ‘Bombay girl’ is having most fun. It is a benchmark for almost all women across India, to live life like a Bombay girl. You really sit up and notice when the authors tell you why they chose Mumbai to offer their arguments: “For if this is the standard of access to public space in the country, then perhaps we lack both ambition and imagination.”

This book “draws on the findings of a three-year-long research project, the Gender and Space project that focused on women and public space in Mumbai to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that despite the apparent visibility of women, even in urban India, women do not share equal access to public space with men.” The problem is women have accepted their marginalization in the public space.

Here are some standout points and thoughts from the book, which may compel you to read it:

  • ‘Loitering’ is considered frivolous. Demonstration of purpose to justify being in public space is important at all times. Even feminists who fight for women’s rights are wary about right to loiter because it will impact the seriousness of their work.
  • Poor infrastructure like lack of or significantly less number of public toilets, toilets which have been insensitively designed and many times closed during nights, poor road lighting, poor transport facilities etc further impacts the usage of public space by women. 
  • Public spaces should be designed to maximize engagement. “One key obstacle in the good design of public spaces is the assumption of a neutral universal user of space….the ‘neutral’ user is usually male.” 
  • Fighting for unconditional right to access public space is a larger issue than focusing on crime against women in public space. Because when you focus on the crime, the access for women is further reduced, women start living a more protected and chaperoned life. Because then people start focusing on why you were there in the first place? With whom? Wearing what? Doing what? The struggle against violence and the quest for pleasure cannot be separate things. 
  • The society is obsessed with controlling women’s movement. But the concern is more about the reputation and family honour rather than their physical safety per se. 
  • Supposedly safe places for women like malls or cafes are really private-public spaces and you need to have a certain consumption power to be able to enjoy that space.
  • In the global vision of the city, women, old people, disabled, poor and people from certain religion do not feature. It raises questions on rights to citizenship. Why should a city be claimed / owned only by a specific group?
  • How we lament flourishing malls and vanishing parks! How our weekends are spent at malls in consumption rather than doing nothing in public spaces. Perhaps that is what global city is all about. Loitering is a threat to that dream global world. You must consume all the time.
  • Then who is having fun? Muslim Girls? Rich Girls? Slum Girls? Working Girls? Night Girls? Can Girls Buy fun? Differently-abled girls? Homosexual Girls? Old Girls? The authors have dissected and concluded that no matter what the social status, economic class, age or orientation, their ‘fun’ is always conditional. Nobody is having unadulterated, pure fun.

Of course, there are many more arguments, well-represented in the book. So, read it.

I highly recommend it to every girl, every woman. Read it, if you can. And why only girls? Everyone should read it. It brings forth a strong argument and thought-provoking perspective. And men should also read it to understand how women in their lives negotiate access to public space on daily basis.

Note: Text in italics has been quoted from the book.

Image source: Penguin India


  1. Wow! A book on this subject!! Sounds so very thought provoking!

  2. It truly is. If you read this kind of research-based non fiction, then you must. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was certainly eye-opening.

  3. Interesting and very topical. It does sound like a book everyone should read.

    1. Absolutely. It was something different and eye-opening.