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. 

Prajnya Gender Talks, February 2021 || Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance in Kashmir by Inshah Malik

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February 2021

Rapporteur: Suhasini Udayakumar

Inshah Malik

Inshah Malik is an Assistant Professor of political theory and international relations at Kardan University, Kabul; a visiting Professor at the University of Washington; and previously a Fox Fellow at Yale. Her 2019 monograph, “Muslim Women, Agency and Resistance in Kashmir,” shed some much-needed spotlight on Kashmiri feminism. 

Context

Having been raised in Srinagar, Kashmir, questions about her and her fellow Muslim women’s mobility and rights followed her through adulthood. She noticed a glaring political disconnect between India and Kashmir, which motivated her to investigate what Muslim women want and to study their lived experiences. 

She launched her study with an interventionist feminism approach i.e. when groups of people from mainland India would visit Kashmir to research the struggles of Muslim women. However, this would often lead to tropes of these women being voiceless victims of double patriarchy. She knew there were several challenges in her way: How would she talk about them without taking away their sense of agency? How would she communicate that Kashmiri women who complied with Islamic rules and wore a hijab were not necessarily without agency?

Prevailing Narratives

She began by defining the concept of agency. Mainstream western feminism is well aware of cultural patriarchy but not that patriarchy can manifest in various forms (political, social, militarist, authoritarian regimes-based patriarchy etc). Agency must be defined keeping all these patriarchies in mind. Inshah dove into the work of middle-eastern feminist scholars, which was nevertheless complicated by West-vs.-Islam narratives and countered by right-wing Islamist movements, inevitably dislocating the findings of Muslim women’s research. American imperialist interventions operate through a white saviour complex that means to “protect and save Muslim women” (the despicable counter of which is the Indian man’s complex as displayed in the aftermath of Article 370 when Indian men rushed to marry Kashmiri women); Inshah spurs us to reflect: considering that feminism is a movement against the oppression of women, how can it align itself with imperialism?

Over the past decades, researchers have studied the struggle in the Kashmiri political context and the school of self-determination that emerged. But Inshah asks, how did women articulate themselves within the (sometimes) restrictive and conservative Islamic laws, while at the same time questioning and critiquing the state’s patriarchy?

Kashmiri Women and Self-Determination

Inshah interviewed 50 women who were active in various movements since 1947 to answer these questions. A few respondents – now in their 80s and 90s – had participated in the Riverside Front Movement, fighting for the right to vote. The movement had galvanised scores of women who supported Farooq Abdullah’s campaigns for women’s rights. 

The new Kashmiri manifesto led to liberationist ideas and the Kashmiri socialist self-determination movement which fought against feudal land acquisition. The movement aimed to reshape and emancipate Kashmiris’ social public life. Mass mobilisation and education drives happened through word of mouth and community-based political discussions. Women, who were active members, had no formal education but were well aware of the nuances of self-determination. One respondent described how she was inspired by the struggle because of the sense of community and common faith that it instilled amongst women, and the sense of purpose and agency it gave them. 

Meanwhile, a class divide emerged: elitist women were creating a narrative of modernisation – one that was defined as being linguistically, culturally, and politically closer to North India. Many  Kashmiri women shed traditional headgear and reformation was influenced by elitist Indian modernity. However, women continued to discuss their individual, personal, collective and Kashmir’s political future.

Dismantling Misconceptions

Inshah highlights that Muslim societies are viewed as products of religion and not of modern transformation and industrialisation. Narratives commonly depict Muslim women as wholly oppressed and ignore the political actions that actually led to women’s behaviour. She states that Kashmir was indeed India’s first Hindutva state, where the Dogra Rule was imposed and beef banned; so Kashmiri Muslims are not as governed by Islam as people think. Such a monolithic, linear view of Muslim societies is problematic because it becomes impossible to discuss Muslim women without mentioning their religion. Such a view is also exclusionist because Islam is labelled as especially or exclusively patriarchal whereas all major religions in the world are unequivocably patriarchal. 

Even the idea of agency that we have stems from Indian feminism, where it is seen as individual autonomy. This conception of autonomy is masculinist since the concept of agency can never really be individualistic even in modern societies where gender relations have changed; it can only be exercised in relation to other people. Our feminism fails to acknowledge this idea.

Inshah next delves into the post-1980s trend that viewed Kashmiri women as “mad women, a simplistic narrative that politicised madness. This narrative traps women’s work in the web of patriarchal language, and questions how these women who fought for the rights of other women also furthered the cause of men who oppressed women. But this narrative is overly simplistic and fails to understand the depth of the situation. She cites a few examples to describe this phenomenon. 

Aasiyah Andrabi was the leader of the Dakhtaran e Millat (Daughters of the Nation) outfit, which propagated an Islamist right-wing vision. Aasiyah used feminist interpretations of Sharia law to fight for women’s rights. She broke open the locks of mosques where women were prohibited, fought social evils like dowry and divorce, and helped women regain economic independence. But even until 2000, Yousaf Raza Gillani disregarded her completely, labelling her as “crazy.” 

Kashmiri women struggle to express themselves and be heard as political leaders. In other states, the law determines life; but in Kashmir, institutions have broken down and laws work against people, delivering impunity to criminals. Asking women to take political actions that are also feminist means a dismissal of the unique and challenging socio-political and cultural realities of Kashmiri life. We must rethink women’s relationship to religion – but not without considering the context within which these women are embedded and examining why they choose to work within those tropes. 

From another perspective, the “mad” Kashmiri woman is recognised as part of a political movement but is a target of redemption. Footballer Afshan Ashiq who was active politically found herself in the midst of disparate narratives due to her “stone-pelting.” Some insulted her for doing what must be left to men, or what was a traditionally masculine and reprehensible behaviour; some Kashmiri journals painted a narrative of her journey from footballer to stone-pelter while Indian media spun it as a transformation from stone-pelter to footballer. Thus, the mad vs. sane narrative becomes a pro-Kashmir vs pro-India narrative. 

Masrat Zahra, a Kashmiri photojournalist, defied her family and community by studying and pursuing journalism. She is famously known for her photograph of Arifa Jan, a woman whose husband was shot 18 times by the Indian army, and who routinely suffers from panic attacks. Masrat was booked under the UAPA for “inciting unrest” through this photograph. However, media narratives disregard her political feminist work and instead focus on her conservative dressing.

In yet another story, top militant groups had announced that women did not need to participate in political resistance such as stone-pelting and reassured them that they would be protected by themselves – their “brothers.” In response to this announcement, thousands of women came out to pelt stones. Such stories of daily resistance by common women are lost in the feminist discourse on Kashmir. 

Inshah concludes by pointing out that Kashmiri women are wedged between two oppressive influences, one where they are disregarded and another where they are regarded as crazy. But they are smart enough to know they have to fight both these influences with their own distinct brand of political feminism.