Why women don’t loiter

Nilanjana Bhowmick on why women won’t linger awhile.


Photo by Prashanth Pinha on Unsplash
Photo by Prashanth Pinha on Unsplash

A couple of years ago I went to renew my driving licence. Walking through the sprawling government office, as far as my eyes could see, there were only men. Something clicked in my mind; I couldn’t unsee it. Afterwards, I kept noticing how men dominate public spaces – markets, parks, government offices. They loiter, they hang out in clusters on sidewalks, they crowd public transport.

In India, women do not loiter; their relationship with public space is purely functional – especially in northern India, where I live. But even elsewhere, as in southern or eastern India, where women move about outside their homes more, their relationship with the public space is strictly utilitarian – going from point A to point B, often accompanied by a male chaperone. There are many reasons for this, but the most important is that the streets are not safe for women.

Can India’s ambitious smart cities project change this? The government thinks so. It approved $437.4 million to transform 100 cities into ‘smart cities’ with safer public spaces for women. This urban renewal scheme had an implementation timeline of 2018 to 2021, but most of the work across the cities remains unfinished owing to a lack of skilled workers and the coronavirus pandemic.

The purpose of the Smart Cities Mission, according to its website, is ‘to improve the quality of life of people by enabling local area development and harnessing technology, especially technology that leads to Smart [sic] outcomes’. Such cities would have more surveillance cameras, with smart street lights linked up to them and cloud-connected, to keep watch across the city and create safer public spaces. But these things, taken together, spell the one thing that Indian women are wary of – surveillance. They get enough of it at home and in their neighbourhoods.

Would women be able to hang out without a worry in these smart cities? I have never loitered in India – ever. The first time I realized it was possible to be on the street without a purpose was when I was studying in the UK. I don’t think I would be able to linger without a worry, knowing there were a hundred cameras tracking my every move.

Such increased surveillance doesn’t really resolve issues around misogynist patriarchy that prevent women’s independent movement, according to Ayona Datta, a professor of Human Geography at University College London. Datta has been researching the politics of urban transformations in the Global South and was principal investigator of the ‘Gendering the Smart City’ project, whose aim is to understand how women use technology and how it impacts the ways in which they negotiate the home and the city.

‘We know that surveillance can actually be highly unequal and debilitating for women because the first violence they face is from their families, from their kinship networks, from the neighbourhoods, from the neighbours,’ Datta told me. ‘And this surveillance can be loaded with cultural perceptions about women’s rightful place and women’s rightful body, their attire, behaviour and demeanour.’

Smart cities won’t change that, despite the inclusion of gender sensitization programmes as part of the package. They won’t give women the right to loiter, just keep watch over them if they dared.