Monday, 28 December 2015

Online dating- notes on virtual loitering- Mansi Jhingran

Some of you might think - What is an article on online dating doing on the Why Loiter blog?
Well, it may not have to do with physical loitering but it still deals with a woman’s experience of putting herself ‘out there’ (‘there’, in this case, being the virtual world)
The woman in this case is me and this is my account of my brief online dating experience in India.
A year ago I created my online dating profile on a popular international dating site. And one year later I’m still happily single and a lot wiser. Not to mention that I happily rid myself of the constant need to read every new message and reply to it lest I be considered rude.  Excessive use of my computer and smartphone for weeks resulted in losing out on other (more) important aspects of my ‘real’ life. This is what the virtual world can do to us. If we’re not careful we can get sucked down into a rabbit hole.
The world of the internet is a Wonderland and we all are Alices from time to time.
Coming out on the other side of that rabbit hole, I wonder – in this age when everyone and everything is online, is sexual harassment following suit?
If that’s the case then I’m very scared to hear the words from the commercial airing on TV these days – “see you online ba, see you online ba.”
But let’s forget Alice and her Wonderland and be real here. Sexual harassment on the internet isn’t a new thing obviously, but the difference here is that this harassment is happening behind the facade of ‘online dating’! Men hiding behind a well-constructed online ‘dating’ profile on a legitimate dating website and/or app, can manage to sexually harass a woman simply by typing a few words or sentences and they can EASILY GET AWAY WITH IT, as opposed to a sexual harassment that occurs in the real world! Those words in all Caps sum up my need to write this article. If I’m harassed in real life I can take appropriate action. But what can I do in the virtual world except block the questionable profile and report it? But it’s not that difficult for the same man to make another profile for himself on the same app.
This is a very big reason that attracts the creeps, harassers and perverts of the world to the world of Online dating just like kids are attracted to a toy shop or a candy store.
As if it wasn’t enough for a woman to deal with their words and actions in her day to day life, now a well-meaning and honest woman looking for a nice guy to date has to filter out a whole lot of nonsense. In the real world these sexual abusers can be found roaming freely, and in the virtual world, well, quite a lot more freely.
But like I said, in the real world the woman can fight back or legally punish her harasser. But the virtual world is another story altogether.
Here the male harassers take a dual approach - they can keep their real identities hidden, which emboldens them greatly. And along with their identities, their true intentions can remain hidden for as long as they want it to be.
For example, if these don’t seem like fake profiles to you then what else do they seem like?
(Pics 1,2 & 3 here)

As for the intentions, it is a no brainer to figure out the intentions of these profiles:
Notforlove1986 (no picture), ‘guyinmumbai123’ (who spends a lot of time thinking about “being in bed and sleeping”) and ‘juicymanforwomen’.
While shyguysids is so shy that he neither has a picture nor a single word about himself in his profile. Which begs the question – what the hell is he doing on a dating app in the first place, then?
And that’s why so many sexual predators can be found on dating apps such as OKCupid and Tinder in India (along with the extremely shy guys of course). I don’t know about other countries as my online dating experience has so far been limited to familiar (or not so familiar) territories.
A year ago when I started dating online, I had no idea what to expect. It was tricky for me to know what to write about myself and how much information to give out. What pictures to put up? Should I approach men or wait for them to approach me? But the last dilemma took care of itself. (As soon as a woman creates an online dating profile, there is a tsunami of messages that hit her inbox)
And then gradually I came to the realization that I am falling victim to the male harrasers in a two-fold manner.
At this point, it warrants my mention that not all messages are from perverts. Some are definitely well-meaning and respectful guys looking for a genuine date. I met some of them and made friends with a few. But others are otherwise ‘good’ and ‘decent’ guys who are dating online to satisfy their ‘bad-side’. Yes, these are the men that we work with, are friends with and even proudly related to. But because they come from conservative/ traditional and religious families where the mere mention of sex or a girlfriend is taboo, they are drawn to these online dating platforms for what can only be described as an adult-chat.
“Big hug to keep you warm through the night. One from behind. Save that for whenever you roll into bed.”
“…was a freezing night here in Kuwait. Getting out of bed was a task! With you in, hugging, it would’ve been a day off.”
“Are you freezing? I have warm palms.”
“What is your fragrance? I mean your natural scent. I have been told I smell woody-ish.”
These are the ‘gentlemen’ or the ‘nice guys’ who are only looking for sex and are fairly upfront about it. They are a shade better from the crude harassers. According to me their brand of harassment is more polished and refined, masked by sweet even romantic words and a rosy picture they paint of the future with the woman, (which is mostly a false one) with the single aim – to get inside her pants. They may even share all the information about themselves readily. (I will further elaborate on this man in the second part of ‘Online Dating ya Harassment – Notes on Virtual Loitering’)
One such man I met on OKC even told me the exact details of his family members down to his 2 cats, along with the exact location of his house, thereby encouraging me to share as well. It was a trap. How do I know that? Because no one tells a complete stranger (that is me) they ‘meet’ ONLY online exactly where they live!
And some women do end up giving these men a chance because he was sweet, gentle, kind, funny /witty and we had a real connection. I’m sorry, but he only wanted to connect to your body.
In the dating world jargon these guys are known to be the ones leading with sex, which means that they get sexual in the conversation pretty soon and unabashedly. A woman has only two choices - to either accept these men or to reject them. Any other approach can be disastrous.
 Dating apps across the board have plenty of such men apparently. According to a US based dating coach – “men go out looking for sex and find love. Women go out looking for love and find sex.”
But there is a difference between seeking sex and treating women as mere sexual objects. And coming back to the two-fold approach of the male harasser on online dating sites and apps…
First, is that, these apps and sites are free to register and they don’t have a process whereby they can verify the so-called authenticity of all the basic details that a person chooses to provide - like their profession, marital status, education level or citizenship status or even their real name. In fact, OKCupid will even encourage you to “brag about yourself”.  A lot of people choose to use a random name in place of their real one as their ‘username’.
Truly Madly or TM on the other hand asks you to provide a photo ID, phone number and references to up your ‘trust score’ and so far I haven’t been harassed on this app at all since most users I interact with have a high trust score, which means that they shared their true identities with the app so any complaint of harassment can get them in trouble.
But all that the other apps seem to care about is whether you are a human or not. Their main concern is not to allow a robot to use their app for dating. A sexual offender is welcome as long as he carefully constructs a sound profile for himself.
When I created my profile on OKC first, I realised that I could easily be an exaggerated version of myself (within reasonable parameters of course (or not)). I could be 5’10” tall, I could be a multi-millionaire and/or working for NASA. All that I need to do for the third is to put the picture of an astronaut in place of my own picture (Identity theft anyone?) My point is that if I could be anyone I wanted to be, then so can a man.
Men know that women look for certain qualities as signs of credibility of a man’s online dating profile - a series of well-lit and clear pictures taken in different locations over the years (include some females in the picture and the trust factor goes up), a graduate from a known university or college and a working man is generally considered to be a safe bet.
But all the above three things can easily be constructed; everyone or their friend has a high-quality phone camera with superior editing features. And getting some women to take a selfie with isn’t difficult at all in today’s selfie-obsessed world. It’s considered the most normal thing among colleagues and friends and casual acquaintances in a bar. And if even if all his details are authentic, it doesn’t guarantee that the man will not pose a threat to a woman’s safety and/or her sanity, which brings me to the second way that makes online dating a breeding ground for harassers. Once a man has got your attention and you have started a conversation with him he can say just about anything to you, and there’s not much that you can do about it. Some are just random messages from random guys, like:
“You look sexy/ so hot/ sooo cute, I want to kiss those lips of yours!”
“You have naughty eyes. Care for a dirty chat?”
“Do you spit or swallow?”
“I give very good massages. Do you want one?”
And many other unspeakable profanities that even include details and pictures of their genitalia. Like this unwarranted picture received by me.

In return they ask you to send your picture. And by picture they mean that they want to see you naked - a woman they have never met in person and hardly know.
What will a woman do to a strange man who walks up to her in flesh and blood and asks her in the middle of the street – “Would you like me to fuck you?”
She’ll probably slap him.
What can a woman do if a man hiding behind a dating profile verbally or sexually abuses her?
Not much.
So you see, no matter what a woman does, for her to fall a victim to sexual harassment  (whether it’s major or minor, online or offline it doesn’t matter) isn’t related to where she is at or at what time of the night or what was she drinking or how many boyfriends she has.
I was being sexually harassed even when I was sitting inside the four walls of my house and dressed appropriately (I promise I am. You want me to send you a picture?).
So kindly stop telling women that they get molested, groped and harassed because they step out of the house alone, wear revealing outfits and drink with boys.
Because neither did I have to leave home nor did I have to show my cleavage to invite sexual harassment.
And, even if she is out in the public domain (whether it is real or virtual) it is her right (as much as it is anybody else’s) and when she is there, she wants to feel safe at all cost.
PS – Who was the number one creep I met in person from an online dating app? Read part 2 of ‘Online Dating ya Harassment – Notes on Virtual Loitering’ to find out. Coming up…

Sunday, 27 December 2015

'Never seen a woman alone here' - Bhargavi Chandrasekharan

As I sit down and think about loitering, I can’t but wonder why I actually need to explain my need to wander around. Even as the concept of settlement and community living emerged as we organized ourselves into civilizations, the need to loiter and savour a moment as an individual is perhaps the most basic of human instincts.  When I was at the school, I used to take my cycle to attend music class, promptly circling the nearby park thrice for no apparent reason. And then, on odd days, I used to stop by at a less-crowded, smelly, old temple, circumambulating the corridors at my own pace, smiling, observing, thinking. Then it became long drawn bus journeys to random places, mostly from terminus to terminus. (autos, share autos and cabs creep me out) Later, my trusted two-wheeler took the spot and the absolute freedom that I, as a woman, felt is incredible. I can go anywhere, anytime I WANTED TO. So, when bicycles are portrayed as symbols of women empowerment by P.Sainath, I tend to accept wholeheartedly. Blame it on centuries of depending upon others; the sheer drama of seeking permission at every point from the family; the very real possibility of tackling violence, the process of a woman being out on her own is essay-worthy in itself. 
But then, I thought I had crossed that stage, after all I am practising advocate at Madras High Court. I have practically spent my college days at the Law College on the shores of Marina Beach, sometimes with friends and sometimes alone. I generally prefer walking, because when a woman sits, she is asking to be stared at, self-exhibitionism, right? A few days after the first phase of Chennai floods, I had a rather boring day at the Court. It wasn’t in my plan to visit the beach. On my way to office I had turned to the Beach lane, rather impulsively. I picked my usual spot, that between Kannagi statue and Vivekanandar Illam. (‘V’ House) To those of you who have visited Marina, it is a usual sight, the Cotton Candy men, the Sundal vendors (usually kids in their school uniforms), the bajji-selling akkas, the student gangs – from the University of Madras, Presidency College, Stella Mary’s College, the couples in love –arguing with each other, chasing each other playfully, maintaining a respectful distance, entwined to their very DNA, the fisher folk drying their nets, saree-wearing aunties power-walking in their Adidas shoes, parents negotiating with the kids on their wave-quotas, the daredevil swimmers – well, you should visit sometime. I sat by an empty boat and soaked my feet in the slightly moistened, soft sand. At my sole’s reach was the powerful yet calm sea, rising and crashing against the backdrop of the twilight sky. 
I felt the gaze of a person behind me and decided to ignore. A few minutes later, that person, a tall, bearded man in his early 20s sat beside me. My fight and flight hormones surged up promptly. I occupied the boat, ready to pounce upon (verbally to start with) the stranger if he stood up to sit beside me. He didn’t. I didn’t want to move an inch from the place as the thought felt like a failure. Why retreat in a battle, right? As I sat confused and alert, he apologized to me. Yes, he sat next to me because he saw a group of men staring at me. He said he thought if he sat next to me, people would think I was with him and won’t trouble me. I was seething with so much anger that words failed me. A little later he took the boat behind me, this is when the said group of men he so feared cleared the place after a selfie session. All the while I felt this stranger observing me from the back, like a specimen, as an odd woman out, quite literally. Unmindful of his unsolicited voluntary protective disapproval, I stared at the sea, smiled, engaged with the kids passing by and played with the sand. As I was leaving, he smiled at me and asked why I was at the beach alone. Did I not have friends? A good looking girl like me would have a boyfriend or two for sure? I asked him why he was at the beach. He said he was a postgraduate student of Political Science at the Madras University and was distressing at the beach after a particularly difficult examination. Apparently he would stay at the beach till 7.00 p.m., and I can stay at the beach till then. I asked why he was at the beach alone. He gave a sheepish grin. I told him it was none of his business to barge into my personal space, notwithstanding the polite apology and patronizing smile. I tried talking to him about the concept of feminism, he nodded as if he understood and promptly went on about the duty of the man to respect and protect women. He repeated a line that I hear very often from people, “I have never seen a woman sitting alone in the beach.” Honestly, I haven’t too, I replied, “now you do.”  I wasn’t going to lecture upon why I prefer solitude or why the beach, it was too personal to be discussed. I thought of telling him about my profession and the kind of people I meet on a daily basis, the rapist and the rape survivor story usually has the desired effect. I decided against bragging, who knows, he may not change even if he met a female Army Chief . He may find her an aberration and explain how a potential perpetrator may not know that the survivor is indeed a trained soldier.  I walked back, having tried and lost. As I peered through my helmet, I saw my savior fly away in his bike. The time was 6.05 p.m. Just saying. 

Monday, 21 December 2015

Loitering in the last local train- Neha Singh

Bombay is the city of dreams, they say. I think so too. Not because of Bollywood or celebrities or the fact that it is the financial capital of India. No. I think Bombay is the city of dreams because in no other city in India can a girl even dream of boarding public transport at one in the night without the constant fear of assault. 

So, what maybe a dream in other cities for women comes true in Bombay. A woman can get out of work at 11 p.m, hop into an autoriskhaw or a cab, or take a bus or the local train and get home without even a flicker of fear. The same thing is almost unheard of in other metros like Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata or Bangalore. 

When I first visited Bombay when I was 18 years old, my flight was going to land at 2 in the night. I had informed my friend, a girl, that I would be reaching at 2 and she should come and pick me up. (I do not ask anyone to come and pick me up from the airport, train station, bus stop anymore because I just dont feel I need the 'protection'). I had assumed that she would bring her father/brother along. Having grown up mostly in the north of India, that was a given. But when I met her at the airport, to my horror I realised she had come ALONE, in an autorikshaw. 
Why didnt you bring your brother (who is, btw, 5 years younger than us)? How the hell are we going to go home? I asked, and I can never forget what she said to me.
She looked into my eyes and with utmost confidence she said, 'Relax, its Bombay'.

We got out of the airport, got into an autorikshaw, and got back home to Kandivali, which is almost 12 kilometres away. Not for a moment did I feel unsafe. We didnt have to clutch onto our bags and look straight ahead, we didnt have to have our mobile phones ready to dial emergency numbers, we didnt have to haggle with the autorikshaw guy, we didnt have to chant mantras, envoking Gods to protect us in this 'situation'. We laughed and chatted and looked at the roads and got home without a glitch. And for the first time in my life I felt that things should be this easy, this simple. I felt I had wasted so much of my time on absolutely stupid things like who, what, where, how, when, why. Just because I happen to be a girl. In Bombay, like my friend had put it accurately, for the first time, I relaxed. 

There are several theories and opinions on why Bombay is safer for women. 

Some say its because 'Bombay aake sab sudhar jaate hain', or 'no one has the time here to poke nose into anyone else's business', 'the place is always so crowded, there is never a lonely stretch for crimes to take place', 'idhar aake bhaiyya log bhi violence bhool jaate hain'. I personally think that one of the major reasons Bombay is comparatively safer for women than other cities in India is because of the large female working population and the effective public transport, mainly the local train, which is rightly called, the lifeline of Bombay. 

Having sung all these praises for Bombay, let me remind you that all of this is only in COMPARISON to other Indian cities. Bombay is still far from being ideal for women. For starters, there still is the need for a cop in every ladies compartment in the local train, the metro stops plying after 11 p.m, there have been cases of cabbies and autorikshaw guys harrassing women passangers, just the fact that we still need to segregate men and women in public transport means there is a long way to go till this city becomes EQUAL for everyone. 

Until that happens, we shall continue to loiter in as many public spaces as possible in the city. 

This December 16th, to start off the whyloiter online offline campaign, some of us took a local train ride from Borivali to Churchgate and back. We reached churchgate station at 11 p.m, loitered around Marine Drive for a couple of hours and then took the last local train that leaves from Churchgate to Borivali at one a.m. The cops that were in the ladies compartment to protect us were happily napping, so we just chatted, laughed, clicked lots of photos and made merry. 

When we got on the train at Andheri station and were busy chatting loudly and clicking photos, a couple of elderly women sitting next to us asked us if we were new to the city. I dont know why she asked us that. Was it because we were looking extremely chirpy and happy (not a feeling/behaviour generally associated with being on the local), or because one of us was wearing tiny shorts (not considered appropriate clothing for local trains), or because we were clicking so many photos (not a behaviour usually seen in local trains). Anyhow, we started a conversation with them and told them that were were loitering on the 16th of Dec in memory of Jyoti, who was brutally gang raped and left to die when she boarded a bus one night after watching a movie in the suburbs of New Delhi, three years ago, this day. We explained to them that loitering and access to public transport and public space is every person's fundamental right and victim blaming cannot be tolerated anymore. The women agreed with us completely and supported the why loiter campaign. 

At Marine Drive there were cops on duty and several people out to enjoy the evening breeze. We walked on the clean, well maintained pavement in the slightly chilly Bombay weather and sang songs loudly. No one stopped us, no one harrassed us. There were stares and curious glances, but that didnt prevent us from enjoying ourselves completely. 

When we boarded the last local train back home at 1 a.m, there were only us in the entire compartment, and of course, two policemen that were happily napping. We all got off at different stations, each then taking autos or walking home. But in Bombay, thats normal, or at least normal for some of us. There are women who would not do that in Bombay too, thus extending the period of normalizing women's movement and accessibility to public spaces and public transport. 

When one of my colleagues saw our pictures, she said, "you are very brave! I can NEVER do this."
I told her that I think she is brave, to never experience the joy of freedom and access to public spaces, to give that up for the 'safer' indoors, that for me, is brave. What I do is NORMAL. 

With the right to loiter comes the right to take risks. And we all must exercise it to make every city a relaxed, happy, stressfree place for women. 

Friday, 18 December 2015

An afternoon in Lodi Gardens #whyloiter campaign - Vani Viswanathan

My jaw dropped when I entered Lodi Garden on a Friday afternoon, looking for peace, quiet and me-time. It was swarming with people. What did so many people have time for in the middle of an afternoon, on a weekday, I wondered. I’d just quit my job, and had spent the last week oscillating between feelings of exhilarating freedom and unproductivity. I’d planned for this Lodi Garden trip to be my little escapade, a chance to stretch in the winter sun. And, at the back of my mind, was a niggling thought to test out whether that space was open to a woman by herself – not jogging, but doing nothing.

A long line of students walked past me near the entrance, all girls, in green salwar kameez for uniforms, some with a mustard brown sweater on. Continuously jabbering, walking in small groups of three or four, I noticed with amusement that each group went stiff and quiet when they walked past an open gym, where a bunch of young men were exercising. The men, flattered at the attention, returned the favour.

Lodi Garden seemed to be the flavour of the day for schools. Little boys in navy blue school uniforms run amok, screaming, weaving through the broken monuments in the garden. Girls and boys didn’t speak with each other – the presence of a teacher probably had something to do with that – but I felt sad that mixed-gender discussions had to be kept clandestine, outside of school boundaries.

The cacophonic school groups had taken up most of the initial parts of the huge garden. My dreams of lazing about near a centuries-old monument had to be forfeited. I walked ahead… As the garden began to quieten down, the grass began to be dotted with couples in varied stages of engrossed discussions. Some cuddled, some had the partner lying on the other’s lap, and in another, a woman kneeled on the ground with her hands on her partner’s lap, as if she were trying to hard explain something and seek his understanding. One woman fed mouthfuls of food to her partner (I assumed), until a third person came about to join them.

I settled for a spot in a corner of a grassy slope that offered a vantage view. I saw so many pairs of men and women walking around; girls I groups; men in suits lying on the grass, soaking up the sun; garam pakode and chai for sale; two people with cameras slung across their shoulder; another photographer duo who were carrying flowers, and I wondered if one of those cheesy pre-wedding shoots was going on (I sighed about being judgmental); several foreigners, a bunch of international students – kids from across the world – who were running about screaming; a man with a dog (that looked like it had starred in an ad for Pedigree) that he cuddled and played with; a group of men who’d dozed off with scarves for pillows. A pair of eagles chased each other, swooping by very close to the ground near me, making me draw back in shock and fear. A stray dog jogged up close, trying to be friendly. A group of women in bright, rainbow-coloured kurtas and sweaters walked about, clearly enjoying an extended lunch what looked like working women on an extended lunch break to celebrate the end of the week.

I got myself a cup of tea from the passing chaiwallah. It was sweet beyond words, but the heat felt soothing. So far, nobody had as much given me a second glance for being a lone woman dawdling about on the grass. I was surprised; jogging in the park near my home, only a few kilometres away, would have earned me a few stares. How was the Lodi Garden miraculously free of this gaze? Maybe it’s the presence of women in general, be it with other women or men. Or maybe it was because there were enough women feeling free enough to pose: the bride-to-be (I was right about the pre-wedding shoot!), girls taking selfies and women posing away for their male and female friends to click. It felt liberating. If only all of Delhi could be this way!

But all the while, I had one thought I wasn’t giving enough attention to. So far, I’d not ventured to lie down on the grass like my fellow lone male Lodi Garden loafers. Did I dare? I looked at my watch. I’d spent close to two hours simply looking around and occasionally writing in my notebook. The group of men who’d dozed off with scarves for pillows got up to leave. Taking that as a cue, I walked up to a mound of grass, lay down and pulled out my Kindle. Why not?

Vani Viswanathan is a feminist and co-founder/editor of the online literary magazine spark.