Travelling by public transport can sometimes be daunting for women, as they tend to be ogled at, eve-teased and subjected to a whole other degree of discomfort. In a bid to reclaim public spaces, make it a safe, interactive environment and stand up for other women, campaigners under the Why Loiter initiative are leaving no stone unturned. From organising antakshari sessions in Metros and gender-neutral Raksha Bandhan, the movement, is inspired by the 2011 book Why Loiter by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade.
Activist-author Neha Singh started the movement in 2014 after she decided to take walks on the streets of Mumbai, late at night and post about it on her social media. Soon, she was joined by friends and other women who heard about her movement online. She explains, “As girls, we are conditioned not to go [at night], unless it is absolutely necessary because ‘girls from good homes do not out at night’. The idea [behind the campaign] is to gain access to public spaces, be creative and find ways to get more women to join us.”
One of their movements that has gained a lot of traction on social media is their #Antakshriinthemetro that they has kicked off just before the first lockdown struck in 2020. A session was held recently on board a Metro from Versova to Ghatkopar,and the video clip has grabbed eyeballs. In this, a group of women in the ladies compartment is seen singing songs, and they are soon joined by other travellers, making for a musical ride.
“We started,” says Singh, “because we wanted to have a creative session for women in a public transport where they could sing, be loud and visible and occupy as much space as they can. And there is nothing better than antakshri. It is the perfect ice-breaker!”
Initially the group was nervous and were worried that they would be asked to deboard. But once the travellers joined in the chorus, there was no looking back. The gang sang all the way to Ghatkopar and on their way back, too.
“The women were so nice,” says Sigh. “We got such positive feedback after our first session. They said they felt so alive and rejuvenated. Also, what better way to make public transport safer than singing? No one is going to harm someone they were just laughing and singing together. We try and have a session at least once a month now.”
Sharing her experience, Heena D’souza, a filmmaker who has been living in Mumbai for the last decade says, “It felt very awkward when we entered and suddenly started to sing. Everyone was looking at us. But slowly, they started joining in, too. We got them to join by asking people around us if they knew any song and soon a lot of them started participating.”
Recollecting one particular incident in the metro, D’souza says, “There was an elderly Maharashtrian couple who were all dressed up, coming back from an event, I think. And the lady started singing old classical songs and they both were very enthusiastic about it. It was a very nice experience.”
This campaign is for women and by women but they do try to get men involved in some aspects. They organise special antakshri sessions where they have men join in the fun as well. “It allows them (men) to see other men participating and they begin to feel more comfortable as well. I think women empowerment is human empowerment. I believe that no women’s rights movements are complete with the involvement of men,” says Singh.
Bharati , a 28-year-old actor is an active participant of the Why Loiter campaigns and says that since she is a theatre performer, she has had several past experiences with putting on live shows in a public area. However, the reactions she saw from everyone “was new”, adding, “The girls were enjoying it the most and were very excited. They were suggesting songs, singing, laughing. It was very freeing.”
Inspired by this movement, similar sessions have taken place in Delhi, Bangalore, Jaipur, Pune and also in our neighbouring country of Pakistan.
Through this campaign, Singh says she and other women have witnessed a permanent change in their personalities and lifestyle. After being involved in this campaign around eight years, the 40-year-old theatre performer advises other women to go out and reclaim spaces for themselves, too. “I started alone. I never knew it would become a campaign. I started because I wanted to break my own conditioning,” she signs off.