Prajnya Gender Talks, April 2022 || Towards the Right to be Defenceless: #INeverAskForIt by Jasmeen Patheja (@jasmeenpatheja, @BlankNoise)

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April 2022

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

About the Speaker                             

Jasmeen Patheja is the founder and facilitator of Blank Noise, a growing community of Action Sheroes/Theyroes/Heroes, citizens, and persons, taking the agency to end sexual and gender-based violence. Jasmeen initiated Blank Noise as a student project in 2003, in response to the silence surrounding street harassment in India and globally. 

Over nearly two decades, she worked with communities and designed a wide range of interventions, across many mediums, to shift public consciousness and build ownership of the issue. Collective imagination and desire are at the core of her practice. She mobilises towards the right to be defenceless, through the I Never Ask for It Mission and Meet To Sleep

Jasmeen is the recipient of the Visible Award, the International Award For Public Art and the Jane Lombard Fellowship, and has been listed by BBC as one of the 12 artists changing the world in 2019.

Setting the Context

This talk reinforces the idea that defencelessness is resistance, and is located within the public and participatory projects designed at Blank Noise, specifically the I Never Ask For It Mission (2004-ongoing) and Meet To Sleep. It builds on the Action Sheroes/Heroes/Theyroes’ right to defencelessness as an ongoing claim, negotiation and resistance.

Blank Noise

Jasmeen describes how artists and designers work, engage, and teach in an anti-didactic manner, asking questions and learning from people’s lived experiences. Jasmeen began her art project on “eve-teasing” in her student days, because she observed a lack of conversation around it in Bangalore. 

A. Initial Projects

This led to her starting Blank Noise, which had just 60 women students respond to the word “public space,” to create a mind map of their (mostly negative) associations (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: Blank Noise Mind Map

Another project involved nine individuals questioning their own silence and denial around sexual harassment and its trivialisation in society. This three-month-long project culminated in an in-house campus exhibition with audio testimonials of the women’s experiences.

After graduating, Jasmeen began blogging, using the peculiar methodology of pushing a camera in harassers’ faces and then writing about it. The intent was to define and visualise street harassment, but Jasmeen eventually broke away from that approach and moved towards new methodologies of community listening. In the process, Jasmeen and her team have tried to answer questions of gaze, and have developed iterative methodologies informed by critique.  

Figure 2: Types of Sexual Harassment on the Streets

During the first decade of Blank Noise, Jasmeen’s team conducted polls and built toolkits. They brought attention to street harassment by engaging in conversations with victims, witnesses and perpetrators (Figure 2). They were met with diverse responses, some defensive, some in denial, and led people to question and address internalised “good girl” ideas.  

B. Museum of Street Weapons of Defense

Their next project was to ask women about the nature of weapons they carried for self-defence. They were again met with a variety of answers, from safety pins to chilli powder, which led to the creation of the Museum of Street Weapons of Defense (Figure 3). 

C. Night Action Plan

In an effort to respond to myths, they created the Night Action Plan in Delhi, Bangalore etc, which attempted to shatter the myth that violence happens during the day and only to particular kinds of women. They mobilised women at night as part of their methodology to make the city literally wake up to the issue of street harassment and accept that it happens in everyone’s presence at all times, whether we are aware of it or not.

Jasmeen’s team listened to hundreds of testimonials and came up with the idea of a blogathon in 2006, which brought together hundreds of bloggers in an effort to paint a picture of the collective vision they had for their future. The bloggers’ pieces on street harassment were an act of catharsis, where they named their perpetrators, questioned their own silence, and remembered incidents from decades past. The media response to the event was tremendous and many groups formed independently around the country, as Blank Noise chapters. 

D. Being Idle

Being Idle made public calls to action for Action Sheroes/Theyroes/Heroes who were willing to stand idly in public spaces. Since women in public spaces are almost always in transit and never idle, the participants were often asked by confused men if they were waiting for someone. This initiative led to reflections on how defencelessness alters the self as well as public spaces. 

E. Hahaha Sangha

Blank Noise’s project Hahaha Sangha invited women to meet at a park to laugh. These meetings didn’t look much different from laughter clubs at first. But they were a reflective exercise on who’s included and who’s excluded, the formation of friendships, confrontations of fear through laughter, and the release and freedom that laughter provides us.  

F. Talk To Me

Talk to Me asked women what kind of men they are taught to fear. It asked students at Srishti College of Art and Design where they felt safe and unsafe. It then picked the “rapest” lane, made a site visit, and pledged to make it the “safest” lane. It did not entirely succeed but made a mark in the nation’s minds. 

During Talk to Me, Action Sheroes would sit in front of strangers and ask to talk about anything except violence for an hour. More often than not, this was greeted with surprise. But participants realised that conversations with strangers also led to conversations with their own fears. One individual remarked, “Strangers are not so strange.” There is a bias in fear, and it is informed by multiple intersectionalities. How do we confront this? Through connection. Connection can lead to empathy and then to the resolution of fear.

G. I Never Ask For It

I Never Ask For It was launched in 2004, where survivors were asked to recount the clothes they were wearing when they were assaulted or harassed. The majority of the survivors remembered these clothes and carried trauma from them, indicating the impact that memory can have on us. This initiative too received a lot of press coverage.

Figure 3: I Never Ask For It

Phase 1 of this movement focussed purely on street harassment in India.  But Phase 2, in 2012, attempted to understand how women can retain power in intimate and cyber spaces as well. Could this lead to Action Sheroes everywhere? 

Jasmeen talks about the spaces of violence and their interconnections. Who is the man on the street and who is he at home? Whose voices are yet to be heard? How much trauma does memory carry? As a subproject, Blank Noise organised Walk Towards Healing, a performative walk where survivors discarded the garments they had been wearing during their assaults. 

The organisation is now working towards 10,000 garment testimonials, and to make this programme as inclusive as possible. The vision is to create an end product with contributions from every kind of individual, while simultaneously learning to have the capacity to engender that much solidarity. She shares an example to clarify this thought: for a Dalit girl, the length of her skirt may not matter but the dismissal of her case on grounds of her caste may. The project aims to be local but also universal and to communicate a “shared truth.”

H. Meet to Sleep

Meet to Sleep blossomed out of an online event that Blank Space conducted in 2007 asking women what their “wishlist” for the city was i.e. what they wished to do in their city. The answers were painfully basic. One woman said she wished to get wet in the rain and another that she wanted to wear red lipstick. Jasmeen’s wish was to be able to sleep in a park without worry. Thus emerged Meet to Sleep

The Action Sheroes//Theyroes/Heores gathered at Cubbon Park to claim this wish. Despite all their learning and training, they carried fear when they slept in the park. They woke up at the rustle of leaves and tossed and turned and stayed alert. Jasmeen wondered what would happen if a thousand women slept like this. What would it do to their bodies and to public spaces? 

Meet to Sleep gathered strength and now has over 50 feminist allies, with women claiming space in multiple sites. It is not just an event or a campaign, but a movement – and one that received the advocacy of famed feminist author and activist Kamla Bhasin. During the pandemic, the initiative continueomen d, with wmeeting up online to discuss their experiences of sleeping in public spaces. 

Figure 4: Women sleeping in parks around the country during Meet to Sleep

Blank Noise is learning to listen to the many vocabularies of many different participants to create a collective shared story. To do so, it collected testimonials from participants about their experiences (Figure 9). Nearly all the women stated that they had been on high alert while trying to sleep. “Rest,” “A Beginning,” “Anxiety,” “Calm,” “Fear,” “Desire,” “Scarf,” “Experience,” “Blanket,” “Hesitation,” “Experience,” “Body,” “Without Worry,” “Giving Birth to Fearlessness,” “Method of Doing,” “With Openness,” “Us Too,” “Fun,” “Solidarity,” and “My Share” were some of the words the women used to communicate their experiences (Figure 10). 

Defencelessness as Resistance

Jasmeen concludes the talk by reiterating the burden of having to be alert and the birthright that is the body’s state of defenselessness. She hopes these projects will lead to increased solidarity across the country and involve women from all spheres of life who will use defencelessness as resistance and claim their rightful share of peaceful space. 

The Internet: Helping Us Dream Up a Better World for Women: Guest Post by Vani Vishwanathan

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About our guest contributor: Vani Viswanathan is a student of M.A. in Development Studies in Mumbai. She is especially passionate about women’s issues, and her M.A. dissertation explores the influence of Tamil cinema in college students’ perceptions of sexual harassment. She is also an avid writer, and co-edits an online literary magazine Spark (www.sparkthemagazine.com). She can be contacted at vani.viswanathan@gmail.com.

When was the last time you clicked ‘Like’ on a Facebook post by a page whose cause you associated with? Or shared an article whose content you agreed or disagreed with? Or signed a petition for a cause you wholeheartedly support?

Welcome to the world of online activism. The internet has been such a big leap forward for many of us in terms of helping us know more and connect with often unknown people on shared ideas, thoughts, passions and – as this blog does – shared forms of oppression. It has especially been powerful in giving the oppressed, often silenced communities a voice. The sheer volume of information from across the world exposes our minds to things we might never have thought of before.

I personally consider the internet as having given shape to my nascent feminist ideas. I strongly believe online activism is very much a force to reckon with. I think it has especially given a boost to the Indian women’s movement, taking it to a different level by letting passionate individuals – in addition to organisations – lead causes of their own. Take, for instance, the Blank Noise project, started by Jasmeen Patheja in 2003 as a college final year project, or the Pink Chaddi campaign, started by Nisha Susan, a freelance editor/writer. While the Pink Chaddi campaign raised a lot of attention during its short life, the Blank Noise project has today grown into a national-level movement raising awareness on street sexual harassment – and all this was possible because of the internet. Additionally, it has helped spread the bases further – into the hinterlands, for causes in the hinterlands. Finally, a very positive development is that the internet has helped extend the cause to cover all aspects of gender, not just women – it now embraces the transgenders, intersex too.

One such movement that especially intrigued me was SlutWalk in Kolkata. Led by an enthusiastic group of college-going students, they survived nation-level dissent against the SlutWalk movement in general, targeting its relevance in a place like India, where arguing for the ‘right to walk dressed any way they wanted’ belied the ‘more basic’ issues of dowry deaths, female foeticide, etc. and was irrelevant in rural areas. Others argued that the word ‘slut’ was hardly used among the larger Indian populace, and therefore the movement was restricting itself to the small upper/upper-middle class aware of the word. A few wondered why Indian women, who have earlier fought against objectification, now want to be ‘called sluts.’

These concerns are beside the point: sexual harassment is as much as an urban problem as it is rural; it has nothing to do with the clothing the harassed survivor wore, and SlutWalk movements across the world have given participants the freedom to dress the way they liked, not only as ‘sluts.’ Finally, using the name ‘slut’ was a reflection of the patriarchal ascriptions to a woman’s behaviour: that she dress a particular way, behave a particular way, be out only at particular times – any transgression made her a bad woman, a ‘slut.’ One of the organisers, Shreya Sen, said that ‘slut’ pretty much captures the essence of victim-blaming, for it almost justifies sexual assault on someone. The Kolkata movement therefore wished to retain the name ‘SlutWalk,’ giving the movement a shock value, and a possibility of reclaiming the word for a positive use, such as was done with the word ‘queer’ and ‘gay.’ Indeed, the movement also had queer and transgender participants.

To me, this movement exemplifies the changing nature of the Indian women’s movement, and the way the internet is supporting it. The SlutWalk Kolkata movement was pretty much led online, with their Facebook group being the medium that helped form the organising team, the vehicle to mobilise participants, the primary information resource, but most importantly, the platform for discussion. Hundreds of discussion threads on a diverse range of topics around dressing, Indian ‘culture,’ sexual harassment, saw many, many participants, and hundreds of comments (sometimes going up to 700!), which continues to this day. While posters were pasted in college campuses across the city, and pamphlets distributed at busy junctions, the Facebook page essentially mobilised and helped conducted the actual walk, held in May 2012.

One may wonder just how much the internet is useful in raising awareness in a country like India, where barely 10% of the population is online. Statistics show that over 50% of the online population goes online using their mobile phones; with mobile connectivity growing in India by the day, it’s not simplistic to say that the number of internet users will increase, and will come from the hinterlands too. Additionally, organiser Sen says that urban users are just as important a target for such movements because equipped with communication and technological skills, it is very easy for them to spread their misogynistic views further. Some very disturbing comments on the Facebook page come from urban, well-educated users – why should they be any less of an important target in tackling sexual assault?

Julie Zeilinger, a popular feminist blogger in her early 20s, argues that the web has allowed feminists across the world to unite, see what ‘sisters’ in other countries are doing and support them, give access to real stories from people going through situations one has only heard of. I can’t help but agree. Thanks to the internet, we are opened up to a world of possibilities and a host of ideas from distant geographies, which make us question the status quo. Online activism may not change the world, but it enables us to dream of a society that respects individuals for who they are, and try to move towards such a society.