With her shock of flaming red hair, you cannot miss Mona Eltahawy. This gutsy young Egyptian journalist, author and feminist, was by far the most striking presence at the recent Tata Literature Live in Mumbai. But more than her appearance, it’s what she said that struck a chord.
As a journalist and an activist demanding democracy and freedom, Mona was one of the thousands who flocked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. But the promise of freedom was never realised. Worse, as Mona said, “During the revolution in Egypt, men and women came and fought together. But once it was over, women went back to being oppressed.”
Mona Eltawahy’s realisation that public spaces, including those considered “sacred”, were not safe for women began when at 15 she was groped in Mecca while on the Haj with her family. What began then has now become her passion as she speaks and writes about women’s rights. She has been pilloried, threatened and trolled on Twitter and social media for her views, especially after her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution was published.
Mona’s take on women’s right to the public space is shared by women everywhere, especially in our part of the world. Women access public spaces in groups, or as part of families. But the right to just be; to enjoy a public space without being asked questions or harassed; to walk, to read, to lie on a bench or a beach; to just stare into nothingness; to hang about without any ostensible purpose — something that men do all the time — is denied to the majority of women. Why?
That is the question that some young women in India are beginning to ask. Their numbers are small, a drop in the ocean. But just as it took only three writers — Nayantara Sahgal, Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi — to trigger a virtual deluge of protests against the climate of intolerance, perhaps even these small initiatives will find a wider resonance.
It began in 2011 when Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade published their book Why Loiter? In it they reported on studies on how women use public spaces. They noted, for instance, that most women would feel the need to access a public space only if they had a specific purpose — to go from home to school, or office, or to a shop. Seldom, if ever, did women think they had the right to just be there, to do nothing, to just hang around.
If women through the ages have felt angered at such restrictions, the majority have accepted them and perhaps even bought into the argument that ultimately it is “for their own good”. Young women are lectured about this all the time. Be back at such and such time, “for your own good”. Don’t go out after dark, “for your own good”. Don’t go out alone, “for your own good”.
Why Loiter? seems to have triggered off a form of rebellion among a small number of young, urban women. In Mumbai, some of them do organised “loitering”. They step out in groups after dark, go to places where women are rarely seen, drink chai or eat street food and just enjoy doing what young men do without any hesitation. Their experiences have been fascinating. They are sometimes stopped by the police and asked to go home. They are the objects of hostile stares from men. But these women will not give up.
Interestingly, the Indian campaign has found an echo across the border. So in Karachi and Lahore, #GirlsAtDhabas campaign has groups of young women eating and drinking at roadside dhabas where you see only men. Even more fun is the birth of women’s gully cricket in Karachi, where they play cricket on the street.
The latest is the ‘Pinjra Tod’ campaign in Delhi. Women students have protested against unreasonable hostel rules, where they are expected to return by 7 p.m. and be locked up after that. If in all other respects they are considered adults, why do colleges feel the need to keep their women students literally in a prison, they ask?
These questions are not irrelevant. They have to be addressed by parents, by teachers, by those who plan and run our cities. Many parents might see these campaigns as unreasonable, even dangerous. But in the long run, a society that literally incarcerates women because public spaces are not safe will become one where no one will feel safe.
Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist and columnist based in Mumbai.