Why doing nothing is a radical act for India’s women – photo essay

By Jessie McDonaldonFeb. 24, 2024in Politics

‘Leisure is a feminist issue’ says Surabhi Yadav, whose photography project captures carefree moments of women around her

When Surabhi Yadav’s mother, Basanti, died Yadav realised she had never really known her. “I knew her as my mother, but nothing else,” she says. “I asked one of her friend’s how she remembered her and she told me: ‘She was the funniest and goofiest in our group.’ Those were not words I associated with my mother. I thought of her as a very serious person.”

Her father was the “funny one”, she thought, although her mother never appreciated his humour. “Now, as an adult, I understand that part of it is that my father’s jokes were often sexist, often at her expense.”

It was a way of imagining things her mother might have enjoyed and expressing regret at what she might have missed that led Yadav, 30, to start photographing the carefree moments of women around her: women hanging upside down from trees, enjoying ice lollies, dancing, applying henna.

The growing collection of photos – of friends, family and strangers – became the Basanti: women at leisure project. “Basanti, my mother’s name, means ‘spring’, a time that allows flourishing. I think leisure does exactly that.”

Shot on Yadav’s phone, the photos are decidedly ordinary. “One person quipped that there is nothing special about this project. It has photos of such ordinary moments. To that I emphatically agree,” she says.

“But just because it is ordinary doesn’t mean it’s accessible to most. “Time is a feminist issue. Leisure is a feminist issue. It essentially tells you who can afford it. It’s a reflection of your social and economic standing.”

Women enjoying their time together at a Hindu festival, Hartalika Teej

Sociologist Shilpa Phadke agrees. The co-author of Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, which celebrates loitering as a radical act, says: “Leisure or perhaps more importantly the possibility of just doing nothing, especially in public, is a deeply feminist issue. It indicates a claim to the city, the right to be out for fun, to hang out, to belong to the city.”

More people are fighting for that right, she adds. Across south Asia, feminist movements such as Blank NoiseGirls at DhabasPinjra Tod and the Why Loiter? campaign are demanding greater access to public spaces for women and nonbinary people.

Talk of oppression, freedom and rights usually centres around big, violent issues, says Yadav. “What we don’t often talk about is that oppression works in everyday, mundane things. It is driven by controlling what you eat, who you talk to, who you love, how you love. If oppression is about curtailing freedom of being, then I feel leisure is such a good answer to that.”

Lack of leisure time is often felt more acutely by rural women, she adds. Basanti’s work managing a household of six in Khargone, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, central India, was largely taken for granted.

It’s a familiar narrative. Around the world women do three times more cooking, cleaning and caring for relatives than men. A 2014 study found that women in India averaged six hours of unpaid work a day, compared with 36 minutes for men.

“The economy never ceases to require labour by women,” says Prof Savita Singh, a feminist poet and theorist at Indira Gandhi National Open University, Delhi. “You have to nurture your children, your husband, your husband’s family.

“Then there is the additional factor of caste. If you’re a Dalit, it is very hard. You are supposed to be slaving all the time in the most punishing way. But even middle-class women are not released from domestic burdens, from the importance of educating and bringing up children. ‘Good’ women work to have a ‘good’ family.”

Religion played a role in creating leisure time for women in Yadev’s community. “It would not be common to see a group of women sitting in a courtyard in a village like men do all the time – they sit outside and talk, in the middle of the day. But on religious occasions you would see them [women], sitting under sacred trees, talking and singing,” she says. “Women would come together and make food for everyone for special occasions. It’s a lot of work, but there’s so much singing and dancing involved.”

Preparing for a funeral feast

Despite the “overwhelmingly” positive response, a few people were concerned that some of the photos glorify religious practices that simultaneously burden women with societal expectations.

“They also questioned if it should be even considered leisure when women are shown working hard in kitchens or managing households – succumbing to gender stereotypes,” says Yadav.

“I have to gently remind them that I can’t enter someone else’s context with the righteousness of ‘my feminism is better than theirs’, or my judgment on what is ‘real’ leisure. Listening to someone else’s narrative about their freedom is my feminist principle to live by.”

Yadav’s life is “poles apart” from her mother’s. She was the first person in her village to go to university – she studied at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi and UC Berkeley, California – or travel abroad. She recently founded a social enterprise creating employment opportunities for young women and transgender people in rural India, Sajhe Sapne.

“My life is way freer than my mother’s. I read a lot, I write a lot, I travel a lot. My mother did none of that.

“If I was paying more attention, I don’t know what I would have known about her. The more I grow up and the more I see myself as a woman, the more I miss her.”

Babli records her thoughts in a journal

First Published by The Guardian on 17 September 2020.

Editorial Note: The article is 3 years old. It was chosen over a recent publication as this piece is closer to the inception of the initiative and captures the fresh and raw ideologies. You can read the recent article published in The Vogue on 20 February 2023.

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