Gender and Public Space: Reimagining The Art Of Loitering

by Aditi Mayer


I’ve spent a large part of my adult life traveling solo as a woman. While traveling in India this past summer, became more aware of my gender.

But this is not the typical story of India being a country ridden with danger as opposed to the safe ‘Western world.’ Yes, there are differences in safety place to place that I won’t downplay, and the litmus test of a progressed society has been seen through how a nation treats its women. But the ingrained experience of fear in the female (as well as gender non-forming and trans folk) psyche isn’t unique to any one country - it’s a residual effect of the patriarchy, which, like water, adjusts to whatever society it’s in. And in the patriarchy, which exists globally, the production of female fear is predicated on the anxiety of going out on one’s own.

it’s a residual effect of the patriarchy, which, like water, adjusts to whatever society it’s in.

In this particular instance, being at the mercy of distant family members who were concerned about having my go out on my own (valid in their own right) got me thinking about the relationship with gender and public space more and more.

Who claims the right to a city? How can we reimagine the wandering woman?

Fight for Public Space: When the Personal is Political

Mainstream Indian feminism has tended to focus on issues such as rape, sex-selective abortion, to dowry-related violence-- all of which are deeply important issues to address, but look at sexuality through the lens of extreme forms of violence.

A lesser heard conversation is the ordinary female experience: one of navigating public space.

As a woman, navigating public space must be predicated on having a purpose: Where are you going? Why are you going? Who are you going with?

Which begs the question, how do we define violence?

There is a level normalized violence that is embedded in the female experience. Take cat-calling for instance - the everyday, supposedly harmless and sanctioned practice of verbal harassment - is a form of normalized violence.

An experience which often raises the “solution” of protecting women, by restricting women. So what does that mean?

If we ask who we see most in public space and whose interests and comfort it is tailored to, it’s clear: Public space is not gender neutral.

Public space is not gender neutral.

In the domains of patriarchy, women (and all marginalized groups for that matter) are often politicized before they are humanized.

While it’s important to talk about how public space can be safer for women, so much of the current discourse is about protecting women from public space, rather than holding the right to actively be a part of them.

If I am attacked in public space, no one should ask my right in being there.

And so, where do we go from here? I offer the radical idea that the public is space is for everyone.

Reimagining the aimlessly wandering woman

Instead of constantly holding a language of safety and danger when talking about women and public space, what if we held a language of pleasure?

And one way we, as women, might take up space is to Loiter.

Loitering has a particularity-- the act of doing nothing; claiming public space by simply wandering.

To loiter - the art of doing nothing. And defies any gendered assumptions.

Loitering defies gendered assumption of how women are supposed to be, going beyond the private space. It goes against being a productive notion of existing in a capitalist space; challenging the vision of a city we are working toward some undefined goal.

It’s claiming of the city with our bodies. Taking space.

There isn’t anything about simply wandering public space that is contentious and political. However, it somehow becomes a feminist issue-- everyday feminism, in which the everyday is political; actions are driven by routine and habits that perpetuate gender roles, the lifestyle choices we make, the interactions we have in our everyday lives. It becomes a feminist issue because it’s about pleasure - ordinary pleasure - in the streets.

It’s claiming of the city with our bodies. Taking space.

Safety is often conditional upon women being respected, which begs the question, who's worthy of being protected? This is a conversation deeply entrenched in systemic inequality; false hierarchies rooted in caste, sexual identity, to religion. I recognize that the conversation of gender in public space is one that is not always caste inclusive, especially in the context of South Asia, which is why we have a lot of work before we can claim to be making serious dents in society. However, this piece is about personal experiences, and thinking about how we can change and impact our personal relationships with public space and open streets, sharing our personal experiences as women-- a political act in its own right.