Geentanjali Krishna reports on the non-profit public art initiative that is working for freedom from fear and restrictions for women.
Editor's Note: This article first ran in January 2017, but in light of the Chandigarh stalking case this story must be told again.
On New Year's eve, hundreds of women reported being sexually harassed en masse on the streets of Bengaluru. While this would probably encourage fearful parents to become more protective of their daughters, a 13-year-old movement in the city thinks otherwise.
"Freedom from fear, restrictions and warnings is our right," says Jasmeen Patheja.
Her non-profit public art initiative, Blank Noise, is based on the premise that women can reclaim this basic right, not by living in fear, in a culture of blame, but by rejecting sexual harassment and making it a visible part of the everyday public domain.
Blank Noise began as a student project when Patheja was studying in Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bengaluru. Her idea of using provocative calls to action that engage not only women, but also the people around them who could be perpetrators and/or bystanders, hit home early on.
Consequently, what began as a small experiment has grown today into an inclusive movement with 470 participants ("Action Heroes" in the Blank Noise parlance) from across 17 countries, 60 cities and an age group ranging from nine to 70 years. Each campaign is a call for collective action that tries to shift the responsibility for women's safety from the women to the public at large.
"The idea is for people to understand that safe public spaces are co-created and not as a result of individual effort," says Patheja.
Here's a sampler of some of Blank Noise's campaigns.
'Meet To Sleep', held between 2014 and 2016, has encouraged almost 150 women in nine Indian cities, as well as Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to shed their inhibitions and sleep in public parks, just as men do.
"When my 11-year old daughter was hearing the adults share, she kept whispering back to me, 'What is the big deal about sleeping in a park'? While she may be too young to understand this, my hope is that with movements such as these, she would continue to ask this question — even as an adult woman living in India," says Action Hero Vijji Chari.
In another campaign, 'Talk To Me', Blank Noise volunteers set up tables for two in a lane that local students referred to as 'rapists lane', so that they could have face-to-face conversations with strangers over tea. This campaign led respondents to the understanding that harassment occurs when a gender is objectified and stereotyped. "But a simple conversation can humanise strangers, dispelling stereotypes," says Patheja.
'Walk Alone' is a more recent campaign, in which 100 Action Heroes pledged to walk alone in their neighbourhoods at night, and shared their experiences with each other.
For each of these campaigns, Blank Noise includes a variety of people, many of whom are men.
'I Never Asked For It' is Blank Noise's most evocative campaign, in which Patheja is collecting garments that respondents were wearing when they experienced any form of sexual violence. "The garment is a witness, memory, evidence and voice to the sender's experience," says Patheja. The sheer variety of garments collected, rubbish the common practice of victim blaming and shaming — the notion that she somehow "had it coming".
In the next three years, Patheja aims to see this collection grow to over 10,000. "Our aim is to create an installation of these garments on India Gate and other places of national importance," says she. "It could work towards creating a new public memory and public reference where thousands of testimonies of garments speak their story."
Blank Noise has so far been self-funded and volunteer- driven, making it tough for the movement to grow.
"We need seed capital of at least Rs 60 lakh to hire a team and build a national network of Action Heroes," says Patheja.
She estimates that to collate 10,000 garments from sexual violence victims into a national project will cost another Rs 70 lakh. "But this is important, for I believe it could enable the conversation on sexual violence to enter public discourse," she says.
"It will also encourage more women and men to imagine the sort of world they'd like to inhabit, and take collective steps to make it a reality. The key lies in feeling safe together, rather than in feeling scared alone."