Waiting for the male officials to make decisions about my rights when approaching the state with a complaint. Waiting to sneak away a sanitary pad in a public place or an office. Waiting for the male guests to finish dinner, so that I can have dinner with the women of the house. Waiting to pee due to the unavailability of (clean) toilets. Waiting for a relatively empty bus so that I do not get bunched up by men. Also, waiting for the right moment to resist and dissent. Some of these experiences may resonate with Indian/South Asian women and with women of other cultures. Growing up in India, I recollect these experiences as ‘mild loud acts’ of injustice shaped by an active resistance to claim equality and control. However, I got the opportunity to deeply reflect and engage with these during my PhD fieldwork in India.
In seven months of fieldwork, I spent a lot of time with women sex workers and bonded labourers as I accompanied them through various legal sites including the police station, courtroom, shelter home, red light area, informal worksites and government offices, to document their lived experience with the law. In these sites, one requires the “feminine trait of patience” to wait for a meeting or to know when and how the legal process will end, many-a-time in vain. As a result, I had a lot of time “to kill” when I waited with the women. We had many conversations which went beyond the scope of the research. What stood out in these conversations was the shared experience of waiting as we chatted about mediating family life, societal expectations and accessing the state and the law for rights. We shared a common disappointment on being taken for granted and for being excluded from conversations which are about us. “We just stand and wait in the back”, we concluded.
Drawing on these conversations, I discuss waiting as an experience of injustice and domination but also of resistance, dissent and strength. While waiting is used to display power hierarchies and is therefore part of systems of domination that are based on caste, class, gender, nationality, race and sexuality, here I focus on the experience of waiting for lower caste Indian women from my research. This allows me to discuss the central role of waiting in the sustenance of a heteropatriarchal order in India, which I conceptualise as the ‘domination in waiting’.
My fieldwork journals have many reflective questions which indicate the central role of waiting – “How much more do we wait for the police officer? Why are women made to come to legal sites early in the morning and then made to wait the whole day as if they have nothing else to do?” The women also expressed their anxiety which accompanied this waiting – “How long do we wait for? So, we come tomorrow again? Did you understand what was just discussed or should we wait to ask someone?” Most women did not know what they were waiting for, for whom and for how long. Even though we often asked these questions (amongst ourselves mostly), we were not overly frustrated. We would comfortably fold our legs on a chair or a bench and have conversations for hours while waiting. This came with the discomforting realisation of being comfortable in waiting. When did waiting become so ordinary?
What was noteworthy is that this waiting did not just happen for legal proceedings, it also occurred in legal proceedings. Even when a proceeding was in order, the woman stood in the back and was ordered to, “go and wait outside”. She was left uninformed about the outcome. During such times of being in limbo, the women usually relied on the presence of a male family member who could talk to the male authorities and find out what was happening. A man was needed to be taken seriously. Power and inequality are thus reproduced through control over women’s time and space during waiting.
Due to this, some women expressed worry and frustration by sharing, “We are women, so they treat us like nobodies. I have already taken so much debt to come to the court and have been subjected to abuse to pay that off”. Another woman shared, “I will just wait a while longer, finish this work and go back to the village. If I demand or ask questions, they (the state officials or the employers) can sexually exploit my daughter” as the unsaid threat of sexual exploitation is usually used to silence people. Most women did not share these worries with the male lawyer, social worker or family members. This is because, as women (of lower class or caste), they were expected to wait with patience and tolerance. “Good women” do not ask questions or get angry. Waiting is then a staple ground for the perpetuation of economic and social exploitation; for maintaining misogyny by reinforcing the ideal of a “good woman” and; for hiding the masculinist authority of state institutions behind the façade of formal and informal rules; ‘rules that [are] never spelled out but which every woman [knows]’.
This exposure to the masculinist sexual-social behaviour’ that women faced during legal proceedings was not limited to their exclusion from spaces that were meant to include them but also extended to the physical spaces of waiting. My participants and I were always conscious of the safety of the spaces we were waiting in – Is the door of the room closed or open? Are there people in the hallway so that we are not all alone in the building? As women, we learn early on to be cautious and careful at all times in both private and public spaces.
While waiting can come with many worries and consequences for women, it is important to establish that waiting can also be an experience of resistance and dissent. While waiting, some women built informal networks to share knowledge and contacts on lawyers, social activists and alternate means of livelihood. They also helped each other in paying off the debt and protecting each other’s children. Women also travelled to visit each other in prisons, shelter homes and other legal sites offering food and clothes. All these relationships were built through the common shared experience of waiting in legal proceedings; they knew that they can be made to wait forever without any outcome. Therefore, women used waiting to bridge the gap between their ongoing social realities and their aspirations to survive the injustice of waiting.
Undeniably, the characteristic feature of patience and tolerance used to define a “good woman” helps the heteropatriarchal social order to make women wait. Through waiting, state control, inequality and exclusion are reproduced and made invisible. Due to this, waiting women fall through the gaps between the stories. But gaps also illuminate stories of solidarity and strength to survive in an unjust world. Waiting can thus be viewed as a ‘liminal experience, as a transitory and transformatory space’, where there can be resistance despite the considerable domination, uncertainty and oppression.
I want to thank Julia O’Connell Davidson for her valuable feedback on this piece (all shortcomings are my own).
Pankhuri Agarwal is a PhD Researcher in Sociology at the University of Bristol. Her PhD research is a multi-sited ethnography of the social and legal journeys of women sex workers and bonded labourers in India where she focuses on the socio-legal constructions of waiting, personhood and citizenship rights. She tweets @Pankhuri_A