The tyranny of purpose

Do women have the right to engage with their surroundings without an express purpose?

The tyranny of purpose

Like most women I spend the better part of my day within walls. Bedroom walls, parental walls, relationship walls. Like most women I have grown used to the boundaries that hold my life in place. So when I step outside to loiter, it is often to be alone, to spend some time away from the constrained, familiar edges of my barricaded days. Perhaps I have fought with a parent or sibling and want a time-out from our cramped home. Perhaps I am having difficulty writing, and an aimless walk could help me clear my head. Perhaps the sun is terrific, and I just want to soak in the city. Whatever spurs me to step outside with my feet as my only guardian, my goal is the same: I want to move slowly through an open, untethered space, without obligation or purpose.

But blending in with the day’s movements is easier if you are a man, or look like one. Dressing more masculine on some days has been instructive. The combination of short hair and a loose kurta pretty much secures the deal, and I can slide through the streets unnoticed. The feeling I associate with these strolls can only be described as exhilarating. The boundless city throws up all kinds of stimuli, and I can choose what I notice and engage with and what I altogether dismiss, and in all cases there is no pressure to respond at all. Most comfortingly, the sights and sounds surrounding me have nothing to do with my momentarily-shelved domestic routine. As a woman who usually has to provide constant explanations for where she is, who she is with, and what she is doing there, loitering makes me feel invisible, like I have merged into a landscape where nothing is expected of me.

The illusion only lasts for a while. Then someone looks a bit closely, or asks me the time and I am forced to reveal my feminine voice, or maybe it is a day when I don’t have my male garb on, and I am reminded once again that a woman cannot actually expect to walk in the city unquestioned or unbothered, that my action is unusual and out of place, and therefore must be rectified. When it is discovered that my loitering is not anchored to purpose, men on the streets rush to my rescue. The shopkeeper offers the comfort of his air-conditioned store. A guard gets up and pulls out a chair where I can wait. A rickshaw-wala slows down, asks if I need a ride. Some man my father’s age parks his fancy car abruptly beside me, rolls down his tinted window, asks if he can take me home. Under the guise of concern or curiosity, each man does the same: attempts to stop me from doing nothing, in order to ascribe some reason to my presence, in order to pin upon me the "tyranny of purpose."

I have walked through my neighbourhood alone enough times to know that safety is not the main issue. I have never been hurt on the streets. The issue is respectability

I first came across the term in Why Loiter?, a life-altering book by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade, about the politics of loitering and occupying public spaces. The tyranny of purpose, they explain, is a shackle that limits all women. It demands that we justify our expeditions into the wild world of thoroughfares and khayabans, especially if we wish to undertake the journey on our feet, and especially if we wish to step out alone. Like when a widow starts walking everywhere for errands because her husband can no longer fetch groceries for her, that is a good reason. Or when a woman starts driving because her children are older and someone has to pick them up from school. Or when a domestic worker or an ayah walks to the bus stop because it is the cheapest commute. Only actual need or urgency can justify a respectable woman’s presence under open air. But if the same woman has the privilege of money or man, some way to access a vehicle or a Careem, or some brother or husband to drive her around, then there is no reason for her to step outside at all.

Over time these instructions and expectations become the norm. We cut ourselves from the city because of what we see and what we are told, and grow fearful of the streets. One New Year’s night, ten of us gathered to wander around Sindhi Muslim into the midnight hours. We wanted to collectively defy the idea that the city does not belong to us; that we could be comfortable loitering outside. One among the company did not find a single moment of respite. She was constantly vigilant, playing worst-case scenarios in her mind, preparing for something terrible to emerge from dark street corners. It was a heavy feeling to carry and made the whole enterprise too tedious for her. She might as well have stayed in. She might as well only step out when absolutely necessary.

But this guise of safety is also a lie. I have walked through my neighbourhood alone enough times to know that safety is not the main issue. I have never been hurt on the streets. The issue is respectability, a notion that allows society to keep a firm control over our bodies and movement.  My friend jokes that she cannot even loiter in her own balcony, cannot sit there without having someone remind her she is being watched and so should probably cover up. In the same way, loitering women are told to retreat, unless we wish to be harassed, or appear as loose, dangerous women who are sexually available.

If such a control did not exist, any woman could decide what to do with her time or space. She might realize she can exercise control over her body. She might strike a friendship with the street vendor. She might understand how the safety argument is a total trap, set up to push her further inside indoor spaces which are protected and surveilled, where statistically, she is at the greatest risk of physical assault. This woman might start loitering as an act of rebellion or protest, as I have.

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And how is it not radical? The immediacy of placing one foot in front of the other, without consideration for anything else, is an intensely personal fight in a world where the personal is political. It is a fiercely feminist action that seeks to overcome discomfort by breaking down the walls we have so willingly allowed others to construct around us. When I step out into the street, not as a passenger on a bike or a sister being driven by her brother in a car, when I actually step outside on the street, I can feel my fears recede. I often watch other loiterers, men, who can take this for granted. Sometimes I am looking for hacks that could help me diminish my own self-consciousness. Other times I feel envious. Like when two teenagers cut through an open signal singing unabashedly, sending the traffic into a brief frenzy. Or when an older man passes by me on the sidewalk, his gait slower and calmer than my own, his expression turned inward like he is contemplating something. He might glance at the street or a shop window, but his gaze does not fix on anything. To me, it looks like his body is carrying him forward, while his mind is free to roam.

The tyranny of purpose