When you share a city with 19 million other people, you manage your expectations of space and time. Mumbai’s hyper-capitalism and overtaxed infrastructure seem to demand: Why stroll when you can run? Why lounge when you can stand? Why loiter when you can work?

Space jam: (Clockwise from top left) Rare breathing space near Haji Ali and Shivaji Park; and (bottom, from left) Sameera Khan, Shilpa Phadke and Shilpa Ranade.Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

This is the motivating question of a new book by Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai’s Streets. It is an unusual book; part treatise, part manifesto, part deconstruction of the maxim that Mumbai is a woman-friendly city. Its short, vivid essays make years of academic research on gender and urban space deliberately accessible, claiming head space for a subject that is lived more intensely than it is thought about.

It would be accurate to say that Why Loiter? “is also a book", says Khan, a journalist and writer. She, along with Phadke, an assistant professor at the Centre for Media and Cultural Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Tiss), and Ranade, an architect and partner at design firm DCOOP, has been writing and thinking about this subject for years. All three teach an Urban Perspectives on Space course at Tiss’ School of Habitat Studies. Their prior work in the field has formed a springboard for many of the ideas in the book.

Phadke remembers the moment the germ for the project was planted in her mind. It was 1997 and she was travelling in a near-empty ladies’ compartment on Mumbai’s Harbour line local train. “At one station, the only other woman in the compartment got off, and a young boy, maybe just an adolescent, got on (the women’s compartments in Mumbai locals admit boys under 14). He was doing nothing offensive, but there was just something about him that made me so uncomfortable that I got off and got into the general compartment. That’s when it struck me how much I strategized in my own city."

Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets: Penguin India, 279 pages, Rs299.

But when they began, their question still seemed deeply counterintuitive. Thousands of interviewees in 14 diverse neighbourhoods would begin by insisting that they were perfectly free in their city and locality.

“From Dharavi to Malabar Hill, people will insist that Mumbai is safe for women," Phadke says. “The idea of access to public life in terms of education and work is taken for granted. Most women here say, ‘I can do whatever I want,’" Ranade says. “But when we say, can you really just hang out on the streets? Can you stand at a street corner, doing nothing? When you ask them if they can access the city for pleasure—that’s when it starts to come out."

Once the conversation moved out of the realm of comparison—the ‘Why don’t you do this study in some other part of India?’ hurdle—it became possible to acknowledge the ways in which Mumbai polices gender.

“The attitude of women who come from other towns is truly notable," Khan says. “They may be watched by their landlords and by the neighbours, but the big difference is in not having a family and a reputation to protect—so Mumbai is an improvement on every other place in India."

“It became clear to us that surveillance is a large part of women’s problems," Phadke says. Young women are at their most restricted in single-community apartment buildings, perhaps the most socially and culturally rigid societies in the city. “When it’s all Gujarati Jains, or all Dawoodi Bohras, all Saraswat Brahmins—the entire block is watching you."

For working-class and poor women, the challenges are more stark. The authors assumed their studies in this category would indicate more concern for privacy, always at a premium in slums. “But the women we spoke to are just as engaged with public space, with wanting parks and so on," Phadke says. “So many young women from Dharavi will go to Shivaji Park on a free day."

But Mumbai has few spaces like Shivaji Park, which is a male-dominated but essentially democratic public maidan. Those that exist are shrinking—some bought over by real estate interests, others policed to keep out certain kinds of people, like the Oval Maidan, “which isn’t even like a public space any more", Khan comments, “but a private space for the cricket academies, or the Oval Residents’ Association."

So what can the city do? For one, the authors say, it can stop assuming that women are non-existent because they’re less visible.

“Look at public toilets," Khan says. “It’s not just that they don’t provide enough, or that they’re in bad shape—they’re not even open for 24 hours a day. Does that mean I’m supposed to go home after nine o’clock?"

Even the railways and Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), which have been all-important allies for working women, can do much better.

“We interviewed seven women bus conductors in SEEPZ (the Santacruz Electronics Export Processing Zone)," Phadke says. “For months after they joined, these women didn’t have a separate changing room. When we interviewed them they were on the short routes—and their male colleagues were resentful of that." Most tellingly, they were never left to interview the women alone—they were always accompanied by a male supervisor or colleague.

“Compare that to Bangkok, a city where every bus conductor is a woman," Ranade says. “It changes the whole character of the experience."

“The state can’t change paternalistic ideas," says Phadke. “But it can change material structure."

But the willingness with which some functionaries act on their recommendations has often been heartening. After they conducted a study on lighting conditions in 35 Central Railway stations in 2005, the administrators implemented changes immediately, improving station lighting in every location.

More fundamentally, public officials as well as private citizens emphatically agreed on the importance of women’s safety and access—no one more so, they found, than young women themselves.

“After the Marine Drive rape case (in 2005), many young women we spoke to were anxious," Phadke says. “But not because they worried about assault; it was because they worried the case would be used as evidence to restrict them even further."

“The media focuses only on big events and middle-class women, rather than the processes that make public space unsafe," Ranade says. “Our book talks about the everyday."

The authors remember a moment that highlights just how fragile the access to public life is for young women. In their focus group discussions, they asked a group of teenage girls from South Mumbai to talk about the utopian city—a space where they could imagine doing whatever they liked. “The saddest thing for us was listening to the dead silence after the question," Khan says. “We said, ‘Come on, what do you want?’ and they said, ‘No, ma’am, it’ll never be. Not in our lifetime.’"

But all the way across the city, in Mumbra (near Thane), a group of young women had a different answer. “They were fabulous!" Phadke remembers. “They dreamt up parks, said men wouldn’t be allowed in them, said they would walk down the streets eating what they liked, singing, shouting."

“The thing is, if you want to have a different city, you have to dream first," Khan says. “Then we can talk about whether it’s laughable."