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Let us Loiter: The visual presence of the woman remains a contested practice in global cities

by Hélène Selam Kleih

Mother at Meskel Celebration, 1971

How does the veil serve to simultaneously empower and disempower the woman, asserting vital agency whilst reinforcing subjugation under ‘normative’ modes of femininity? Using Why Loiter? (a book written by Samira Khan, Shilpa Ranada and Shilpa Phadke) as a starting point, this essay explores the ways the concept of the veil transforms the vision of the global city and interrogates how female bodies belong in said cities today.

Dissecting the multi-faceted tool of power: the veil. How does the veil serve to simultaneously empower and disempower the woman, asserting vital agency whilst reinforcing subjugation under ‘normative’ modes of femininity? The ‘global city’ is an urban centre that benefits from a newly acquired globalised economic system - a space that should seemingly become more permissive as its economy progresses. Yet social advancement does not translate to all, and rapid urbanisation has resulted in stark inequalities within class, race and gender. In each cultural context of global cities, the metaphor of the veil can be understood literally as a tangible feminine ‘marker’ of subjugation, a ‘performance of normative femininity’ and its intersection with religion. Veiled women are often perceived as invisible and docile, left in the shadows of the topography and discussion within global cities. As Fanon asserts in Algeria Unveiled, ‘with the veil things become well-defined and ordered’; it is thus a traditional uniform by which ‘the observer’ can distinguish a society and its treatment of females, the Algerian woman is ‘she who hides behind the veil.’ Hence, we observe the paradox of emerging global cities imposing more constriction than previously before. Every ‘abandoned veil’ and thus ‘liberated body from traditional embrace’ (Fanon 1965: 44) incites a forceful assertion of national identity and tradition against the West, introducing further precariousness to how female bodies belong in the global city today.

The veil plays a vital role in both demonstrating and measuring the physical and psychological agency women have over their bodies. Using Why Loiter?, as a point of departure, comparisons can be made between the varying city scopes of Mumbai, India and Asmara, Eritrea and their societal, cultural, religious and familial expectations of the woman and the female voice.

The focus on the concept of the veil transforms the vision of the global city – personal engagement through reading and experiencing the city is now filtered through the skeleton of gender difference and incites the question: Are global cities really as ‘open’ as they relay? Has the female body and mind really been ‘unveiled’ and freed from patriarchal oppression?

Mother at Meskel Celebration, 1971

Why Loiter? ultimately interrogates gender access to public space and the politics of risk through the act of ‘loitering’. The basic transformational idea of sitting around, enjoying leisure space as a woman and doing nothing is a notion so simple, yet absurd in its controversial reception. Why is the female body so readily attacked by prejudices, stereotypes and constrained to normative modes of femininity and being? Loitering is thus the demonstration of ‘unveiling’ the woman – freeing her for an agency that embodies the right to inhabit and be in public space. For the authors of the essay, loitering serves as a ‘strategy of dissent’ against the ‘gendered spatiality in Mumbai’ (2009: 186).

The project of loitering as a pursuit of pleasure draws attention to the politics of space within every spatial parameter of the lives of women. Questions of the specific behaviours and dress-codes arise according to each occupied space. The tension inscribed onto female bodies according to different areas, and the degree to which women are entitled to access that space translates into psychological feelings of unease. In the occidental bubble of Britain, the act of loitering is rarely explored and is taken for granted in an ‘accessible’ space that prescribes to cosmopolitan politically correct and non-gendered discourse. Yet, as we observe the increasing threat of violence against women, it must be challenged - how often are women really unconditionally allowed to let their bodies be completely and unapologetically present in space?

Mother with friends at Meskel Celebration (Damera), September 1971, Asmara, Eritrea

‘Loitering’ as ‘Unveiling’

Why Loiter? draws upon an extensive patriarchal history of walking in the city; an act reserved for the male. The figure of Baudelaire’s European flâneur, a man who experiences pleasure and thrill through the sensory experiences that the city lends him on his walks has been reinterpreted in modern literature such as Ivan Vladevlisic’s Portrait with Keys and Teju Cole’s Open City. These reinterpretations have demonstrated how new sociological timely concerns of global cities like New York and Johannesburg require a ‘re-imagining’ of a previous understanding of walking and its relationship with the city both geographically and socially. Yet, the ‘visceral and subjective engagement’ (2009: 194) of the flâneur with the city through walking is denied to women who never have the possibility of ‘making new meanings’ of the spaces they inhabit. Modern literature still generally subscribes to the hackneyed ruling of the public sphere relegated to the male, with the female consigned to the private - the unseen. A notion further solidified after the onset of the industrial revolution, walking in the city was largely perceived as a criminal act. The only women seen on the street, as their namesake evokes, were ‘street walkers’ or prostitutes: the woman ‘is either mad or bad or dangerous to society’ (2011: vii).

Loitering is thus a heavily loaded term, and rather than trivialising the gender struggles of women, it carries the burden of the violence of language and recuperates the possibility of ‘free’ movement. The Foucauldian movement from identities to acts allows women a real participation in society, not without but within. As asserted, loitering, unlike even the ‘flanerie and tapori-giri’, bears no attachment to an identity or sense of purpose. In the process of loitering you are only ‘temporally present’ (2009: 192). It is through this purposeless wandering with no visible productivity or markers that a real ‘organic and visceral’ (2009: 192) engagement with the city can be achieved. Partaking rather than observing, the loiterer is not a surveyor but an actor in her environment, and thus can finally achieve a subjective rather than an objective scope on reality.

Asmara: 1977 / 2021

By referencing Asmara, the backwards ‘progressiveness’ of a country that was previously more liberal than the current dictatorship is depicted. Taking heed from Peromita Vohra’s visual essay, No Man’s Land, an original photo journal imposing the veil into various scenarios reveals the psychological burden and weight that women felt in seemingly ‘free’ scenarios. Influenced by Vohra’s imagined bourgeois life, living alone as a wine-sipping single woman, and the altogether real stark struggle of PMGP, the low-income housing she was forced to, this photo series aims to translate how ‘fantasy collides with reality’ when women in Asmara dare to dream of a ‘liberated life’ of free movement. Through speaking to the real women featured in the photos (my mother and her friends), we can gage the correlation between the original sentiments within the photographs and more recent female accounts of subjugation. The photos represent a medium between a perpetual visceral constraint imposed on women and the more positive attempts of Indian women to claim unconditional agency.

The inclusion of photographs by Poulomi Basu in Why Loiter? visually demonstrates the contrast between the act of waiting for a bus (2009: 190) and hanging out at the marina (2009: 193), a movement from purpose to pleasure. Whilst in public and in the company of males, female body language remains upright, reserved and restricted to the norm, compared to the more relaxed seated posture - women in conversation leaning on and into each other with feet dangling towards the water. Likewise, the photos taken in Asmara, Eritrea from 1961-1977 visually chart the assertion of female agency in respect to their surrounding environment. The photos of mothers, cousins and friends in adolescence and early-twenties show a female solidarity and sisterhood based on pleasure; going out and enjoying life without the burden of familial responsibility.

The women come from affluent families, where money, whilst not taken for granted, was rarely a great worry. The girl groups pictured represent a younger model of the middle-class educated professional that Why Loiter? focuses on.

However, the pictures also represent the prevailing constrictions of ‘normative femininity’ despite the increased right to pleasure that Asmara holds. The photos of women ‘loitering’ in parks and on city-centre streets or camping in the countryside are overshadowed by male counterparts, providing the groups with ‘respectability.’ The superimposed gold mesh veils demonstrate that even in times of supposed ‘freedom’, women are far from free.

Eritrea, in particular the capital, Asmara, has largely been perceived as a liberal environment in regards to gender politics. Yet, although space is not as obviously gendered as in India’s Mumbai, the changing roles of women during Eritrea’s War of Independence (1961 – 1991) and the succeeding Eritrean-Ethiopian War (1998-2000) encouraged misogyny and a regression to stereotypical ideas of the woman belonging to the domestic space - to the home as a mother, carer and wife. Patriarchal ruling tightened as women fought alongside men on the front line as soldiers, rather than the more traditional post as nurses. During the armed struggle for independence, women comprised 25% of the fighters and played ‘a pivotal role’; today they are marginalized and ‘like all Eritreans, became victims of the dictatorial regime.’

Eritrea’s current dictatorship has now left women more constrained than ever before. Under the control of President Isaias since 1991, the government functions without a constitution or a parliament. The sole political party is the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ) and no freedom of speech or adverse opinion from man or woman is permitted. Rather, surveillance and security prevails (heightened as a result of the coronavirus pandemic) and is regarded as tantamount to Eritrea’s version of a ‘progressive’ society.

The photos taken of the camping trip of five girls within a group of boys was received differently to the same women attending a music festival by themselves. Despite their assertive manner strolling in the park and laying on the grass – ‘loitering for pleasure’ - they were not allowed to attend the festival without male chaperones and were regarded as ‘bad and boisterous women’. The imposition of veils onto these images, where women were without their male chaperones, signifies the burden that women carry to ‘perform’ the subdued femininity that is asked of them. The golden mesh signifies the ‘cloak of respectability’ that allows women to be seen in public, seemingly free but abiding by society's forcible patriarchal rules.

Now, Loiter?

Do actual spaces in the city need to change, or do people need to change within it? The fraught relationship of citizens with space continues to be based on exclusion and the priorities of emerging global cities, resting in economics rather than social politics. Loitering comes at a price.

Pleasure achieved through acts of loitering certainly asserts a feminine physical agency that translates into a psychological agency over the body and voice. Yet, the intersectional problematic of the global city attempting to accommodate and fuse the old and new politics of religion, caste, class and economics infringes on the true ‘unveiling’ of male subjugation. In the emerging global South, an incessant ‘fight’ in open spaces resonates; a struggle in the city for every intersectional material and intangible question alike to be raised, voiced and heard. Similarly, in Eritrea, the preoccupation with maintaining a dictatorship and eliminating opposition overrides all concerns of women’s rights and the subsequent violations taking place.

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