Why!!!… Loiter!!!

The Age of Aquarius was a pop song in vogue in my college days. Expressing the angst of the hippie world, it also refers to an age of great upheaval. Such an age seems to have arrived in India circa 2018, as far as gender equality and uprooting traditional sexual identities are concerned. The Supreme Court has played the lead role in this denouement: decriminalisation of same-sex relations and adultery, triple talaq, Sabarimala temple entry for women in the 10-50 age group have been some of its landmark judgments in recent months. The latest bombs to shake Indian society and polity have been the #MeToo accounts of women of sexual predation by influential male figures in areas ranging from journalism to advertising and entertainment, which is now threatening to spill over to other areas like academia and politics.

By any standards, the promise of equality in the Preamble to the Constitution of India seems to have bypassed an overwhelming majority of Indian women, in terms of access to education, employment, decision-making powers and, shamefully, even to the right to life. Even in the very sectors, like journalism, academia and entertainment, where we have been trumpeting the achievements of women, sexism and patriarchal attitudes are rampant, as recent disclosures by aggrieved women make amply clear. The top floors in politics, the bureaucracy and the corporate boardroom are still the exclusive preserve of the old boys’ club, with the occasional token genuflections to the odd woman. In the bureaucracy, which I am familiar with, it is only the southern states — Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka — which have seen women at the helm of the civil service and the police forces (the odd exception from the north notwithstanding). Even a supposedly socially aware state like Maharashtra has passed up opportunities in the past to promote a woman to the top job in the bureaucracy.

Which is why three articles, in as many days, by a well-known college contemporary of mine, raised my hackles. Titled Limitations of the #MeToo campaign in India, If harassment was open secret, why the conspiracy of silence? and Guild can’t tell Akbar not to move court, they sought to respectively hint at a class bias (English and social media based), an open conspiracy of silence of the victims and others, including male colleagues in the know of things, and the suggestion that the person at the centre of the furore was sought to be denied his legal rights. When a former journalist and a current Member of Parliament comes out with all guns blazing, it brings into question the motives behind the heavy artillery shelling and whether palatable explanations for a gullible middle class are being trotted out.

My former college contemporary being, like me, an upper middle class, Hindu male, can never really comprehend what it means to be a woman in her late teens or early twenties who encounters a celebrity. Many of them were setting foot in the relatively unknown universe of print journalism. In one sense they were seeking to fly at a time when the environment was generally adverse, whether at the workplace or even in the larger social world. Reporting humiliating experiences of inappropriate behaviour by a powerful, reputed person who could spell finis to their careers would either not be believed (or be casually dismissed), as they often were, with the collateral damage that conservative families would dissuade these women from continuing to do what they wished to do. With no directions on handling sexual harassment complaints in place till 1997 and even these (the Vishakha guidelines) being openly ignored by the organisations they worked in, no avenue for redress was open. More importantly, the point that most people, especially males, miss is that inappropriate contact, as detailed in most of the accounts published till now, would have been well-nigh impossible to prove in a court of law in the absence of witnesses and with the financial and institutional might of the person they sought to arraign being deployed against them.

It was not till social media provided the avenue for catharsis that women, from different age groups and backgrounds, felt emboldened to come out in the open and share their mind-numbing outrage with others who went through similar experiences. To now accuse them of elitism and class bias smacks of downright cynicism. Every social movement has to have a beginning. Whether it is the Arab Spring or the #MeToo upsurge, the wellsprings generally lie in the educated, articulate middle class. This anger will then spread to the hinterland from its hitherto metropolitan roots: those who think that this is a passing moment, soon to be forgotten, are mistaken.

What occasions real sadness are the attitudes of patriarchy and misogyny displayed by sections of the “enlightened “ class (both women and men) in response to the recent events, all the more so at  a juncture when girls (and women) from different states and different walks of life are trying to carve out their distinctive identities, separate from father or husband. Even in a gender-skewed state like Haryana, the number of girls who have acquired laurels in sports ranging from wrestling to shooting is heartening, not to mention examples like Dutee Chand and Hima Das, who come from modest backgrounds. Women are also now increasingly entering the hitherto largely male preserves like the armed forces and the upper echelons of the police force. The social environment still militates against their advancement — witnessed in the recent assault on girls in a residential school in Bihar and the rape in Haryana of a young girl on her way to tuition classes.

It is equally infuriating to note that not a word is uttered about responsible, decent, courteous behaviour on the part of males, despite more than adequate evidence over the years of their misdeeds, both in private and public settings. We are talking about saving and educating daughters (Beti Bachao Beti Padhao) without thinking of the concomitant measures that need to be taken to educate and discipline boys to become caring, compassionate men who respect women. Ultimately, we need to shed the patriarchal mindset (prevalent in both sexes) that the woman is responsible for her harassment. Regardless of what she wears, what she drinks or eats and who she goes out with at what time, a woman is entitled to all the freedoms granted to her male counterparts by the Constitution of India. Else we will end up with an Uttar Pradesh-like scenario, where the anti-Romeo squads in effect become anti-Romeo & Juliet squads, given the rampant misogyny prevalent in both vigilantes and the local police.

Before I conclude this blog, I must explain my rather cryptic title, which has been shamelessly borrowed from a book by three researchers Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. The book deals with the limited access of women to public spaces, unless they have a specific purpose for being outside the home, like shopping, picking up children from school, etc. Otherwise, they are expected to be accompanied by a male to protect them from the prurient male gaze. When did you last see a group of women chatting at a street corner, drinking cutting chai and eating crisp pakodas? Contrast this with scene right outside my balcony where, from six in the morning, I am witness to groups of men, young and old, drinking tea at the local bakery and exchanging aimless banter. When women can loiter where they want at any time of their choosing, whether at midnight or at 5 AM, without irksome male attention, I can truly say that the India of my dreams has arrived.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by kradani on October 22, 2018 at 4:26 pm

    Great Ramani! When I was in Delhi University in the beginning of the 70s the prevalence of “Eve teasing” was rampant. This term needs to be removed from the criminal justice lexicon. What it actually was would now be called sexual harassment. But the times were so different, it did not even strike us. Words like gender & misogyny didn’t really strike a chord. But I do remember dodging gropers in DTC buses, along with my friends. As also loitering men on the campus. To escape the ghastly experience in buses, we used to thumb lifts, where astonishingly nothing untoward ever happened ! When I went to JNU, it was a civilised oasis where one did not have to peer over ones shoulders at night. Delhi has grown ever more unsafe even decades later. The more things

    Sent from my iPad



    • Thanks, Anna. Remember having to escort women friends from Delhi School of Economics to PG Women’s Hostel after 6 PM; the campus was awash with werewolves.


  2. Posted by kradani on October 22, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    Sorry, it got cut ! What I wanted to say was that the more things change the more they remain the same !!

    Sent from my iPad



  3. Ramani, your genuine feeling for women right, safety and above all EQUALITY guaranteed by the Constitution of India is palpable in the article. The name goes with the subject and the actual prevailing in the current Indian society. Sadly so. During our D school days I always fancied society is progressing in right direction towards men women EQUALITY but after four decades its sadly not so. Yes, all movement start like a wellspring and you have rightly observed #MrToo too has begun and will pervade the Indian society, cities to towns to villages. Let no one mistake it to be a wave that will subside eventually but beware this Tsunami will give a much awaited level playing field to man and woman alike.


  4. Posted by bch1950 on October 24, 2018 at 1:41 pm

    Dear Ramani,

    Interesting and worthwhile observations as always.

    I recall a work-place (especially factories) culture in Australia in the late 1960’s when I joined the part-time workforce during school and university vacations – it was difficult for young women, especially those who were attractive, to avoid being physically and verbally harassed. Most men would not have thought that there was anything particularly wrong with this kind of behaviour towards women, some even justifying it on the basis that, despite protestations, girls and women secretly enjoyed or were flattered by male attention and groping. It is deeply ingrained and even now we have many claims of harassment and some very high profile cases where the accused is a senior manager (sometimes the CEO). I think the difference now is that the abused do have a forum in which they can make a case and are not vilified for doing so.

    Some time ago, our legal procedures were altered to be much less intimidating for women giving evidence in criminal cases (rape, sexual violence etc) but it is still emotionally fraught.

    As a lawyer, I am always glad to hear instances where the separation pf powers doctrine, which I have long argued is the foundation of a robust parliamentary democracy, comes to the fore and the courts (such as the Indian Supreme Court) are courageous enough to exercise their judicial function “without fear or favour affection or goodwill” (part of the oath of office that lawyers and judges, amongst others, must swear, at least in Australia).

    I was recently involved in an interesting case as an expert witness – arbitration involving, amongst others, Indian oil and gas companies. It was held in Kuala Lumpur. Why is KL the nominated venue in Indian PSC’s? Because when the Ravva PSC was being negotiated and the near final draft was being vetted by the A-G’s Department, a certain Mr Aggarwal got it firmly fixed in his mind that I was from Singapore and rejected my argument that Singapore was the best venue. Being appointed an arbitrator is like being given a printing press to produce US$. The costs of arbitration are staggering.

    Hope this finds you enjoying life.

    Best wishes,



  5. Thanks, Bun. Times are changing in India and I am happy to be participating in the process. Mr. Aggarwal would have tested the patience of Job but he was my only bet for getting the PSCs through, after I had run the ONGC gauntlet. The Indian government still looks at arbitration with suspicion, despite all their platitudes in international fora. Add to that the readiness of the Supreme Court and High Courts to intervene and I am not surprised that it is a nightmare for foreign companies to invest in India.


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