Women Walk at Midnight: Reclaiming the night

Either alone or in a group, women in most North Indian cities are not expected to walk or loiter at night unlike men

Women Walk at Midnight: Reclaiming the night

Garima Sadhwani

Fifteen of us, women in our twenties and thirties, started at Gate No. 2 of the Noida sector-18 metro station, determined to reclaim the streets at night. Noida is notorious for chain snatching and worse. Women do not feel safe walking alone even in daylight hours. But there we were, close to midnight.

We were excited and nervous. There was the lurking fear of the unknown in the pit of my stomach. One of us voiced the doubt that assailed most of us, I guess when she wondered aloud, “Raat ko sair karna normal (nahi) hona chahiye, hum itne excited kyun hain iske liye?” (Should or shouldn’t it be normal for us to go for a walk at night, why are we so excited about this?)

We all knew the answer, but we’re too tired in any case to share the same stories every day. Sometimes it is an old man trying to elbow us in the metro, sometimes it is someone following us down the road, and sometimes it is the people we loved and trusted who made a pass.

But this night was supposed to be different. We had shed our fears aside (almost), and ventured out to walk through the streets of Noida.

Six years after the collective, Women Walk at Midnight, was first started, they were having their first walk in Noida.

Mahima Taneja, the walk leader, joined the collective while she was a PhD student, for whom Women Walk at Midnight was a case study. The space felt so welcoming and safe to her, that even after her PhD was done and dusted, she remained a part of the collective. For her, this collective changed her relationship with the night, with the streets after it was dark, and with walking itself.

For me, the walk showed me everything I’ve often taken for granted. The street lights. The restaurants and food chains that stay open late. The safety of knowing who you are with. The comfort of being familiar with the geography of a place.

Women Walk at Midnight: Reclaiming the night

As someone who’s been on these walks often, for Taneja, a sense of safety and confidence often comes from the strength of the group, from women looking out for each other, and from her having “demystified the night” over the years. She does admit though that it “took a little bit of re-meeting the night” after the lockdowns to salvage what had been lost after months of night curfews.

But you can never be too safe, right? That’s not a thing for women. While walking, as we moved from Atta Market towards Cambridge School, a group of men were walking behind us, their pace increasing quickly. It was only when we stopped as a group and watched them walk past that we realised they were not following us. But that was scary enough to make us miss a heartbeat.

Taneja is not sure if anything untoward has happened on these walks before. It’s a thin line, she reflects, between feeling safe and secure one moment and being traumatised by some encounter or experience the next moment. Trauma is not always caused by “something significantly tragic”.

While walking in Shahdara once, recalls Taneja, they came across a group of men on bikes, who “didn’t do anything”, but their presence was threatening enough. Cars have often stopped, people have often passed comments, autos have stood in their way and police officials have often questioned the women walking at night. A group of men walking, chatting or riding bikes late at night does not attract stares. But women do. Night is not for women to be out is the conventional wisdom. But public spaces should surely have the same rules for men and women?

Things were not very different that night. As we ended our walk, right where we started, at Gate No. 2 of the metro station, we sat and chatted for a while, discussing what the walk meant to each one of us, what our relationship with the night was.

A police officer walked purposefully to us and sternly said, “Aap apni class subah lagaya kariye. Sector band ho chuka hai abhi.” (Organise these classes of yours during the day, the sector has closed down) He was polite and well-meaning; and he let us complete whatever we were saying before asking us to disappear.

What however irked me the most was that he did not say a word to the car that had stopped a few feet away from us. With loud music blaring from the car, a few of the occupants stood rakishly outside while others passed suggestive comments through the window.

Why wasn’t the sector closed for them? Why did they not need permission from anyone to just sit around there at midnight?

But whatever that night brought along, the good, the bad and the smelly (seriously, what is it with some pockets of Noida?) was exhilarating. It allowed me to walk past midnight through areas that had trees on both sides, and even through a concrete jungle. It made me realise that maybe Noida is actually a beautiful place to be in? It sure has a lot of greenery that we do not notice at daytime. There were intriguing sights such as legs from mannequins just lying on the road.

Taneja too feels fortunate to have found beauty on these walks. The collective conducted a walk on an Independence Day eve which lasted for 12 hours, one of her favourite memories with Women Walk at Midnight. The other being a walk through Pitampura, where the group stood on a foot overbridge and watched cars go by at midnight.

The two-hour walk took us through residential areas, through markets, and through malls. Outside a school, we all had ice-cream.

I couldn’t help but remember the ice-cream carts on the Rajpath, near India Gate, that would once bustle even after everything else in the city would shut down. I wonder when we can take a walk there at midnight, again!

(Women Walk at Midnight was started by theatre artist Mallika Taneja in 2016)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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