Thursday, 8 June 2017

How loitering changed my politics- Pooja Nair

On May 29th 2017, WhyLoiter? celebrated three years of taking tiny, slow but steady steps towards a new mindset.




The idea behind the WhyLoiter? movement is to assert a woman’s freedom to occupy public spaces anywhere in the world, at anytime of the day or night wearing anything she pleases. How do we assert this? By simply, doing exactly that. Once a week, we gather at a public place and well, loiter – purposelessly. (Except that we happen to be serving a larger purpose)
When I first heard of the idea, honestly, I did not feel much for it. I believed ‘loitering’ to be a wasteful activity that men with nothing better to do did. I didn’t really understand why I should fight for my right to do something wasteful. However, I decided to participate because it sounded like fun. (Today, I notice the irony that had earlier eluded me. While I thought of ‘loitering’ as something wasteful for useless people, given a choice, I wanted to do it sometimes. I had never realised that the reason I never loitered is not that I did not want to, but that I did not have the freedom do it.)



Even though I did not initially buy into the cause entirely, I never regretted participating because I got to meet intelligent, talented, meaningful women from all walks of life. We sat late into the night at parks playing Pictionary or hired cycles and cycled across town in the rain, getting soaked to the skin, or played anatakshari on local trains, or took long walks in the city after dark, after midnight even - talking about life, society, relationships, attitudes, dreams, the arts, philosophies, dilemmas, epiphanies and more or exchanging horror stories.




This basic freedom is something men take for granted. Men, having lived their entire lives as males in society, have no clue what it is like to have to factor in the possibility of being humiliated or physically attacked EVERY time you step out into the public. What’s disturbing is that women themselves are so deeply conditioned that we have no idea how much we strain and restrict ourselves in order to be simply be allowed to exist, leave alone flourish. A majority of our preoccupation is how to get from one place to another safely and to not be blamed if we were to be attacked.
And yet, every second of the day, men feel entitled to humiliate women, of all ages, dressed in anything, at any time, at any place. And in the biggest ironies of all, the first tendency of both men and women in society, when they hear the news of sexual assault is to wonder, “what was SHE wearing?”, “ where was SHE?”, “what was SHE doing?”, and then concluding that she was an idiot to not have seen it coming. It was her fault. They then tutor their moms, sisters, daughters to be safe and not be stupid - out of love and care, of course. And continue to wake up each day to news of gang-rapes and gang-molestations.




All these restrictions and endless list of do’s and don’t simply disallows a woman from having equal space in society. Plus ‘being safe’ comes with zero guarantee of being safe and therefore means nothing.  We need to break the pattern.
The only way to change the status quo, is to stop being afraid. Instead of ‘being safe’ we need to ‘create safer environments’. A safer environment is an environment with more women in it.  We need to stop stopping women from stepping out at night. The more the women on the streets, the safer the streets become for women and for men. More so, for men because it is men who need to live with the stigma of being molesters, rapists or murderers. We all need to understand women have nothing to lose, except their lives, (if they are also killed). But isn’t dying better than a life of slavery? There is no shame in being raped and killed. There is however, no dignity in living life as a slave to fear.
Being a part of this movement has taught me to sift the chauvinist persons from the crowd. It has given me new eyes with which to view my life and my place in society, everyday. Now, when strangers stare me down when I am at a crowded local train station, late at night, I don’t look away sheepishly (as if to convey I am sorry for being out this late), I look him straight in the eye quizzically. I silently remind myself that I have every right to be there with the same ease that he does. When a neighbouring pharmacist, making small talk with me, shared with me the titbit about his village in Rajasthan, where they never allow women to step out alone, because they respect their women a lot. I did not just smile dismissively. I looked him in the eye and said politely, “but what about her freedoms? “azaadi mili toh sammaan khatam ho jata hai?” (does having freedoms spell the end of your respect worthiness?) He was shocked at my refusal to let him have his dig at this man-like confident young girl. I didn’t care so much about what he thought of me. I do know that I think very little of him. When a colleague joked that his women juniors in office never brought him home-cooked food hilariously adding, “what was the use of having women juniors?” Instead of laughing it off, I managed to say, “Men can cook too, can’t they?” and changed the joke.




The event on the 29th, was one of 2 times that we invited men for a late night walk. It was called the “walk like a woman”.  The men had to dress as women. Again, to be honest I found it strange. The deep conditioning in me, made me think I can’t look at men in women’s clothes with a straight face. I wasn’t even sure, what we were hoping to achieve except get a lot of attention. However, I had the time and thankfully am blessed with an open mind, so decided to attend the event. Within 3 minutes of being in the presence of these men, I realised how superficial ‘clothing’ is.  As we loitered from Versova beach to Juhu chowpaty, I took turns having little inconsequential one-on-one chats with each of these men wearing dresses, spaghetti tops, tights and head scarfs etc, I discovered that there is something very comforting and attractive about men comfortable in women’s clothing. I know that these are the kind of men who understand and support the need for feminism. There is nothing more attractive than that, in a man!




One of the conversations revealed that men too become vulnerable to attacks when dressed in women’s clothing. Had the men dressed in women’s clothing been alone, they would surely have been beaten-up! This means that society would kill to maintain a clear difference between men and women. Why? I wondered.
As I looked ahead of me, and saw these men and women, all dressed in women’s clothing walking in many little groups, chitchatting with one another, it dawned on me - I couldn’t tell from far which are the men and which are the women.  And THAT is probably, the problem society has with this. If all the silhouettes appeared the same from afar, how would you spot a woman? How would you know, who is ‘safe’ and who is ‘unsafe’?  Who can attack and who can be blamed?





Pooja Nair is a theatre and film actor-blogger-advertising professional-avid loiterer.


Friday, 2 June 2017

When men walked with/like women- by many authors





Why loiter? the movement in Mumbai celebrated its third year of existence by organizing a loitering session where men and women loitered on the streets wearing what is traditionally 'Women's clothing'. This walk is special because its inclusive and also because it beautifully passes the litmus test of the Why loiter? movement, that of 'the right to take risks' and 'the right to have fun'. By putting their male bodies in women's clothing in an aggressively patriarchal and homophobic society, these men were definitely risking a lot. But, they didnt let this deter them from having lots of fun too. This was the third such walk and I can say the men are getting more experimental with their attire, the route was longer and we had a lot more interaction with people on the roads than the times earlier. It is important to know how men feel when they break notions of masculinity in such a visceral and vulnerable way. It is truly brave of them to make themselves accessible to anyone on the streets, wearing women's clothing, knowing fully well how that attacks a patriarchal man's sense of masculinity and can even result in violence. Here are some testimonies of the men that participated in the walk. Read on. 









FRIENDS, LOITERERS AND COUNTRY(wo)MEN... LEND ME YOUR CLOTHES

This had probably been the 6th  or 7th time, that I walked on the roads, wearing a woman’s clothes. Not that one is counting, but it only makes sense to keep an account of the silly little victories one manages to accomplish in a world which is otherwise more concerned with the real, pragmatic, solid, applaud-worthy victories.

Come to think of it, it was a silly and outrageous idea some 3 years ago when I had asked Neha Singh, my dear friend and founder member of Why loiter  to be a part of their ‘loitering in public places’ sessions. Since my gender automatically makes me ineligible for the politics of the movement, it was only natural that I push for some more silliness. Little did I know that she would agree. Little did I know that there would be so many other men who would join me in this seemingly harmless but gently persuasive social experiment.

Now that one has done some 9 shows of our theatre piece LOITERING (where I come onstage in a woman’s clothes), there is nothing new or uncomfortable about cross dressing. But the stage, or an auditorium has its own comforting cocoon. The real joy of actually taking the streets and engaging with members of public space who are curious, amused, provoked, offended, dismissive amongst other things is a different ball game altogether.

Right from little street urchins to people in their cars. From traffic policemen to the moonlighting transvestites. From coffee sellers on cycles to the people driving down to a 5 star hotel lobby for their midnight dose of caffeine – the range of an audience one gets here is simply mind boggling.

Invisible theatre is here to stay and I am ecstatic that there are some steps here which I can take fearlessly. I don’t need my producers approval of the financial implications of the show, I don’t need to sell tickets online or otherwise, i don’t need anybody’s dates or support. All I need is some women friends to lend me their clothes and join me on the streets. Offers anyone?

- Satchit Puranik, theatre maker, film maker, and has worked in five languages across different media. While India Today covered him in an article about ‘male feminists in India’, he is non committal about his real reasons for cross dressing and stepping out in public. Part fashion, part exhibitionism, part weather, part shock value – his essential reason is PURELY POLITICAL – to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.





Walk Like a Woman is organised to draw awareness to the lack of safe public spaces for women. I participate not only because I align with this objective, but also because it allows me to satisfy a very personal desire- to express my femininity in public. For a majority of my life I subscribe to normative ideas of being a man, with respect to my clothing, behaviour etc. I would never walk out of my house wearing a dress or a skirt or a saree or a blouse, and dare to walk down the street by myself. I don't want to be harrassed, I don't want to be stared at, I don't want to be beaten up. There is security in a group. When Walk Like a Woman is over, and I have to change into my shorts and t shirt, there is a feeling of emptiness. I stop myself from going to a restaurant in a dress. Is it because I will be the center of attention? Is it because I haven't worn make up and haven't shaved my face, legs, arms and armpit hair and I don't look woman enough? 
The number of pressures we put on women on a daily basis is entirely absurd- no leg hair, no arm hair, no armpit hair, no upper lip hair, no nipple hair, no belly button hair. If a woman comes to work with no kajal on, (I have been guilty of this myself) she is asked if everything is ok and why she looks so tired/sick. I remember in college being repulsed by the girls who hadn't started waxing yet, and sniggering at them along with my friends. These friends were girls, by the way, not boys.

What all does a biologically male person have to do to be considered woman enough? I am reminded of Alok Vaid-Menon, a trans-feminine performance artist who identifies as both genders. It is very hard to watch them and not say, 'that's just a man in a dress.' Alok does not shave their(*) arm and armpit hair and did not shave their beard for the show I watched. Their performance very cleverly complicates the act of performing gender. In their poetry chapbook, Femme in Public, they write:
"Promise me that you see the femme in my hairy body...
Promise me that you understand that I wasn't just assigned male at birth, I'm assigned male every day walking on the street
Promise me that you understand that as a form of gender violence."

I wish I had kept a copy of Alok's book and given it to the men on the street who saw us and exclaimed, "Ladki hai ya ladka?" and (this is my favourite), "Zindagi mein kya takleef hai bhai?"

Alok sums it up beautifully:

"To the two men who yelled 'that's a man in a dress! That's a man in a dress!' while pointing at me on Sixth Avenue: 
I wanted to turn around and point back and shout:
'Hey everyone that's an insecure man! That's an insecure man! That's an insecure man!' "

"I have spent 25 years trying to figure out where man begins and where man ends and what I have discovered is that man begins only where I end. 
Let me be more explicit: Man begins when I end. Or rather: Man begins because I am ended.
Which goes to say in order for man to exist I cannot. 
Which goes to say one day I got so confident in myself I was no longer a man.."

(*): The pronoun they/their is used in place of he/she as a gender neutral pronoun.



- Vikrant is a performer and writer based in Bombay, whose work over the last few years has centered largely around gender and sexuality. 







I had never worn women's clothes in public. Of course my elder sisters dressed me up in their clothes for fun when I was a kid. But this was a first. The militant exhibitionist in me was excited but the 'man' in me who was raised in a patriarchal and gender in-equal set up was a little uncomfortable. I minded the tremendous attention, stares and hooting from crowd on the roads, but only for the first 10-15 minutes. Then came a strange sense of freedom and liberation from God knows where. It had me engaging with strangers. Some curious people asked and I was happy to explain the vision of 'Walk like a woman'. Some young boys on bikes hooted and whistled and I hooted back at them and they were amused. For the first time in my life I got a sense of what it must feel like for a woman to be eve-teased/hooted at. I was supported by a bunch of other ballsy men who cross-dressed in clothes borrowed by our female friends and we marched from Versova to Juhu along with hose women. We thus attempted to make a statement about gender-equality and dousing the shame attached to 'women's clothing' in general. I feel proud of myself for participating. And I feel grateful to Neha and her team for this wondrous initiative.

-Himanshu Singh, juggles between being a fashion model, acting in the theatre and making photographs. In his free time he loves to clarify the widespread and ridiculous misconceptions about feminism.









It cannot be contained by saying just an experience, for me it has beyond an experience. I first hand feeling of getting into the clothes of a women itself was difficult. But while it took some time to sync in I got comfortable when I meet other male into the same attire. Walking through and feeding on live reaction from passerby was little awkward , but all settled down in few minutes. Then it really did not matter who is feeling what, infact the feeling was how many are actually turning back to checkout what is happening. Overall it was a moment of truth for me and will always remain one of the special event of my life.

-Devashish Nandy, father, husband, media person, tennis player and 'experi-mental'



Apart from Satchit, Vikrant, Himanshu and Devashish, we had Dhruv Lohumi, Sumeet Thakur, Shawn Lewis, Saurabh, Manoj Gopalakrishna and Arpit Singh who participated in the walk. Watch out for their reflections in the next post. 





















As the city, state, nation and the world gets intensely skewed in terms of gender violence, ignorance, pitting men against women and even refusing to acknowledge the entire spectrum of genders that exist, it becomes more and more relevant to include all genders in the walk towards women empowerment and gender equality. Thank you, all of you, for being the torchbearers of not just support for women, but also for celebrating gender, sexuality and beauty in all its vivid forms.