Composer1 *

Why Loiter? (1) 

I love to loiter (being in a public space without a purpose) but instead I often find myself walking through the city. Loitering is only possible when I am a 100% comfortable. As an independent, determined and curious woman I take my own risks and make a point of walking at will through all cities I encounter. Drifting (walking through public space without a purpose) is usually possible, but not always and it is definitely not for all. Far from every woman has the right to take their own risks, and women more than men seem to need a reason to be in a public place.  Worse still is that women, instead of the perpetrator, are more than often blamed if something happens. “What was she doing there at that hour?” “Didn’t you see what she was wearing, no wonder!” (2)

Why I love to Loiter, Drift and Loose myself to the City

To begin with, I get great enjoyment from wonderingly wander through the streets. My senses peeled to grasp the overall atmosphere. My seeing, hearing and smell register my surrounding, the built, the invisible and the doings of the people, animals and systems within it. As I let go and I give myself over the city, my bodily levels of awareness rise due to the excitement of the looming adventure.

Secondly, my heartfelt autoethnographical approach to practice means that the raw and unedited experiences I have while meandering through the cities are my largest informants. By drifting I allow the city to get under my skin to enlighten my urban practice. Not only does it allow me to ponder over what I could mean for a city’s development, my bodily and sensory levels of awareness guide my professional decisions.

But in post – earthquake Port au Prince, we were restricted by our employer from walking on the streets as part of a security protocol we had to follow. Ironically the situation made me feel very insecure as I became reliant on other people driving me through the city. This way the city could not host me and we remained unknown to each other. More significantly, how could I support the reconstruction efforts of the city when I had no access to it?

Drifting as a Practice in Urbanism

In addition to have been given the right to take my own risk, while studying architecture, I was thoroughly schooled in the theories of the stroll, the dèrive, transient walks, … with the Situationalist International (Guy Debord), Stalker, and Michel de Certeau, etc as our mentors. We were actively encouraged, even required, to map the city through walking for hours and at any hour of the day or night.

I choose to evaluate my presence in the city rather than constructing a professional distance. As someone for whom displacement and travel is the norm, I try to deliberately focus on my presence rather than focus on my temporality as maybe a tourist to the city would. My way to get intimate with the city is to stroll indiscriminately through every part of it without any particular reason except to get close.

The spaces we inhabit are constructed; people make spaces as much as spaces makes people (3) and women are particularly affected in the way they are connected to the bodies we inhabit. Men and women experience places differently, making spaces integrally gendered. (4)

The Required Tools

Even though I might meander more comfortable than other women into ‘male spaces’ and will make a point of not being restricted, I need tools to do so, just like all women have their ways to deal with this inequality.

In Kurdistan where women had little access to the public domain, women had crafted an accepted way of loitering on their street. Here women would appear from behind the tall walls and stand just in front of the gate with the hosepipe. They disguised their loitering with the important task of ‘watering the street’ in order to keep the desert dust at bay. Then they watered the street for a long time.

Even with my advantages (able bodied, willing, backed by my culture / theories), I too had to develop tools to be able to (semi) comfortably drift through any city. Different tools are developed to redress the limitations of the various societies that I find my self in.

If I feel unsafe while drifting, I slow down and home in on someone who I feel I can trust who in turn more than often would screen the situation for me. Then advice me ‘Don’t walk down that street!’ I rely on the others to look out for me. On the contrary I have also become very good at still engaging with the urban situation while looking straight through the people that I don’t like the look of.

I find that discretion can open many doors and therefore I often choose to adhere to purdah. These are the religious and social practice of female seclusion, prevalent in the conservative cities of Erbil and Cairo where I have lived. I would hide my female body’s shape with modest clothing, but as ‘a 3rd gender’ (a foreign women), the physical segregation didn’t always comply allowing me to enter both female only and largely male spaces.

Fancy a Walk?

Walking engraves the city over and over again, often in insubordination of established urban order. The Situationalist International’s critiqued the dehumanized capitalist city through the every day act of walking. This act of appropriation leads to change. Just like in the call for re-imaging the city for children in the post of Juan Manuel Restrepo , can you re-imagine your city with women walk down any street in the world for no other reason than pleasure and then relaxingly loiter at any street corner they encounter all by themselves. If it cannot be imagined, it is not realisable: so lets dream a little!


(1)  While drifting through Chennai last week, i read the book ‘Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets’ by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, Penguin Books India, 2011.  It inspired me to writing about women and being a women.

(2) ‘Why Loiter? Women & Risk on Mumbai Streets’ by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade.

(3) Henri Lefebvre, The production of space, 1974

(4) Grosz 1995, Massey 1994, Rose 1993, Spain 1992

6 thoughts on “Why loiter?

  1. Very interesting thanks Anna for sharing. I am currently reading “The Walkable City” from Jeff Speck where he described all you need to make a city walkable.

  2. Thank you for this blog post.
    I just realized how much I miss loitering in the city..
    Now I feel inspired to loiter some more in my home town!
    For me it has always seemed more natural to drift and loose myself in foreign cities. But it’s just a conviction 🙂 I will think of this blog post next time I am in the city – loitering!

  3. Loved your blog. And as you know I, just like you, love loitering and have many times trusted that I could loiter in non-women-friendly places!!! In the beginning I feel the excitement of doing something not quite allowed but after a while as I am taking advantage of the fact that I am a foreign woman while women of the country are trapped.
    In the Northwest Territories where I am now I can loiter as much as I want in the village I currently live and work in, but if I go to the Native Reserve across the river I would be stared at in an uncomfortable way.

  4. Pingback: Why Loiter? | Cairo from Below القاهرة من الأساس

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