You’re an artist. You’re sexually harassed in your city. How does that influence your work?
“We alone, we together, can affect change.”
A woman filmed herself as she walked down the streets of a city in broad daylight while men shouted lewd remarks at her, intimidated her, stalked her. That was in New York, America.
A woman lay on the beach when she was approached by four armed men who commanded her to remove her offensive clothing on the spot or face the consequences. That was in Nice, France.
A woman moved a thousand miles away from home, felt vulnerable on the streets of a new city where men groped her, spat on her, harassed her. That was in Bangalore, India, and the woman was artist Jasmeen Patheja.
Jasmeen is the founder of Blank Noise, an art school project turned NGO, which explores the causes and effects of sexual abuse and violence. Since its inception in 2003, it’s run campaigns across India, exploring the nuances of feminism and women’s rights. Blank Noise’s audience is invited to participate in her campaigns. For the I Never Ask For It campaign, Blank Noise received hundreds of garments from across the country entrusted to it by women who were wearing them when they experienced violence.
Jasmeen is trailblazing feminist art in India. Her NGO, Blank Noise, is fully powered by over 200 volunteers whom she fondly calls her Action Heroes.
Sexual violence and inequality for women transcend cultures, they permeate homes, streets, offices, campuses across the developed and developing world. As Jasmeen says, “we may have varying contexts and varying environments within which our work and our belief system is located, but we are connected through sexual and gender-based violence.”
Jasmeen was 24 when she experienced abuse on the streets of Bangalore, a cosmopolitan city in southern India. An art student, she started photographing her harassers and posting their anonymised pictures on her blog. “I didn’t share it as something women should try, but what happened as a result of it,” Jasmeen says, was that it started “a kind of public dialogue on street harassment itself. Particularly on how there was a difference in intention between a man who was trying to make conversation but wasn’t given any consent to, and the man who groped, and so on. Street harassment was a spectrum of behaviours.”
And it affected the women volunteers Jasmeen worked with in a myriad of ways. A mind map revealed in under 3 minutes that they associated the term “public space” with “fear”, “vulnerability”, “feeling sick inside”. A questionnaire revealed women never left the house without their phones, keys and wallet, and chilli powder, insect spray, or pepper spray.
Sexual violence is often thought of as a women’s issue. It is a pan-cultural malaise affecting women and men.
In 2012, a young paramedics student was gang raped, disemboweled, and murdered in Delhi, India. In the large scale public protests that followed, she was monikered “India’s daughter”, the woman who was one of us, whose place any of us could’ve just as easily been in. Women’s rights and sexual violence were finally swept out from under the rug and placed under a spotlight. While some politicians and policemen scrutinised India’s daughter’s actions on the night she was brutalised by five men, the conversation largely moved past that. The government was deemed inefficient, the law was declared too slow to change, the police system was seen as corrupt. Frustratingly missing from the discussion was a scrutiny of India’s son.
The five men who brutalised her weren’t monsters, they were sons of an outdated culture and believers of the trope that women are lesser than men.
Jasmeen is quick to point out that any discussion on women’s rights must include men too.
Men have always formed part of the volunteer group that runs Blank Noise’s campaigns. When Jasmeen asked them what brought them to the organisation, “most men responded saying “I have a sister, or a mother, or a wife, or a daughter.” Later there were also men who came in and spoke about their own experiences of abuse and how there’s such a lack of space to talk about masculinity and vulnerability.”
In the aftermath of the Delhi Rape case, Blank Noise organised the Safe City Pledge campaign, based on the principle that change starts with the individual. In a post announcing the Safe City Pledge campaign, Jasmeen wrote: “There is a deeply entrenched prejudice against women’s social freedom. Citizens often believe that women should NOT be in a wide range of public spaces — dressed, speaking or laughing a certain way. And for this mindset, citizens have to take responsibility. We alone — we together — can affect change.”
On January 1, 2013, volunteers and ally organisations across 11 cities in India mobilised people from all walks of life to take a pledge of their choosing.
A gynaecologist pledged that he would remove moral judgement from his patients’ choices over their own bodies.
A man who had been driving his taxi for 24 years said he would ensure his female passengers feel safe when travelling after 9pm. The car wouldn’t stop unnecessarily until it reached its destination, he said, and all doors would be locked, if his passengers preferred.
“When I buy sanitary napkins,” a woman said, “it [will not] be wrapped in black plastic. Nothing to be ashamed of. My body. My city.”
A newscaster said she would never again refer to women who had survived sexual violence as “victims” while reporting or anchoring because they were “super heroes who deserved to be heard”.
“When I was young, I often wondered why films and stories were mostly about heroes, not heroines,” a young filmmaker said. She pledged that her films would star strong women protagonists, not damsels in distress.
A mother pledged to raise her daughter to be a strong, caring, thinking woman, unburdened by gender stereotypes. “Gender is a social construct — not just biological”, as a biology teacher pointed out, pledging to teach her students about it.
Rhea, a young woman and volunteer at Blank Noise, questioned how the concept of masculinity is harmful too if it leaves little room for a man to express his emotions. She pledged to “never question any guy’s manhood if I see him cry, because revealing one’s emotions is a positive trait and not a sign of weakness”. A young man pledged to “risk being a bit ‘uncool’ and not give in to machoism; to define a new ‘cool’.”
Safe City Pledge went viral on social media. Blank Noise went on to facilitate live workshops in schools, universities, and offices.
These were ordinary men and women promising to make one small change in their own world in a moment of national trauma. “Art is a mode of change for an individual,” as Jasmeen notes. One can hope that by empowering people to see the change they could influence in their lives, it brought India closer to having safer cities for its women and girls.
Gender is an uncomfortable conversation to have.
Feminism gets a bad rap.
There is no denying that there are genetic and biological differences between the genders, but these do not determine an individual’s interests or aptitude. These differences are greatly exaggerated in our social upbringing.
Girls across the world are raised in what Jasmeen calls “an environment of warnings”. Don’t dress too provocatively. Don’t lose sight of your drink. Don’t make eye contact with strangers in public places. Don’t report harassment at work. Don’t walk alone in dimly lit areas and always hold your keys so they’re sticking out of your fingers so you can cause more damage. Don’t show signs of fear or run if you’re followed. Don’t shower or change your clothes if you’re assaulted before reporting the crime.
Be careful. So if you’re assaulted, you weren’t being careful enough.
It is easy to assume that sexual violence and gender-based inequality is a thing of the past. That it is of no consequences to the individuals, women and men, of today.
That is not true.
In 2013, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released the latest global estimates showing that 35 per cent of all women had experienced sexual assault over their lifetime. The evidence led it to conclude that violence against women was a global public health problem of epidemic proportions.
In 2016 alone, a woman’s murder in South Korea brought large-scale tributes and sparked a new-age feminist movement against deep seated misogyny. In America, there has been open sexism and glorification of assault during a presidential election. In Poland, one hundred thousand people took to the streets to protest an initiative for an almost complete ban on abortion, successfully overturning it. In Iceland, women left work two hours early to protest a gender wage gap. In France, towns banned a garment, the burkini, on the ground that it was a sign of oppression, overturning it once the ban was protested for being a form of oppression in itself.
If the measure of a society is how it treats its women and girls, as Michelle Obama says, then there are few societies doing well in the world today.
A function of cultures where women and girls are viewed as lesser than their male counterparts is that when sexual violence occurs, the burden of blame for it is placed squarely on the survivor’s shoulders.
Thordis Elva, a writer and activist from Iceland, was raped as a teenager. As she put it, “only one thing could have stopped me from being raped. It wasn’t my skirt or my smile. It was the man who raped me.”
The man who raped Thordis is Tom Stranger, whom she corresponded with nine years after carrying the burden of guilt and shame for her rape. In a remarkable series of letters and meetings, Tom confessed to the crime. “Saying to Thordis that I raped her changed my accord with myself,” Tom says. “Most importantly, the blame transferred from Thordis, to me.”
Jasmeen started to focus on victim blame in 2004. In speaking with women, girls, and individuals across sexualities who had survived sexual assault, Jasmeen noticed that they often remembered with great clarity what they were wearing when the assault took place.
“What makes so many individuals, women, and girls, specifically remember the clothes they wore [when they experienced assault],” Jasmeen asks, “and how does that link with being raised in an environment of warnings, because somewhere this environment of warnings has led to self-blame.”
Blank Noise’s latest campaign, I Never Ask For It, explores the nuances of victim blame.
For it, Blank Noise is collecting 10,000 garments from survivors of sexual assault. Each garment is attached to a testimony from the survivor. These garments and testimonies will form part of public art installations. There are many layers of clothes collection drives, workshops, and social media campaigns occurring presently to collect these garments and testimonies.
“There’s never an excuse for sexual violence. The spirit with which this project is being envisioned is to be a space for healing, to be a space for solidarity, and a space to not be forgotten,” Jasmeen says. “It’s a place where if you’re ready to and wish to, without pressure, revisit a painful memory and then give a garment as your voice and testimony.”
Testimony from Action Hero Ennelradivya (Trigger Warning)
“I was 13 years old and was attending a yoga camp in Mysore. I was the only girl from my district and was with a male instructor from my school. I was called into a small room for an audition. To my surprise, there were 5 other men and also my instructor. They latched the door of the room and tried undressing me. I sensed something terrible was going to happen. I yelled for help and, for fear of me being heard, I was let go.
But I was constantly, and still am, harassed with phone calls from my instructor. I reported it to my school authorities and he was sacked, but I was then silenced from taking any further action. I am 18 years old now.”
So far, Blank Noise has received a few hundred garments and testimonies from across India and beyond.
Blank Noise has received everything from shorts to burqas. It’s a powerful statement. “It’s not about the binaries though,” as Jasmeen points out, “it is not about the shorts or burqa, it is about really looking at how deep rooted victim blame is.”
“I know somebody who experienced abuse when she was a child and she said I tucked this t-shirt away all these years, but I still had it. I’d like I Never Ask For It to keep it and not forget it.”
“I can think of a person who has given a red kurta. She said, this is what I was wearing. Because I’m widowed, [in my culture] I’m not allowed to wear red, and I was harassed for it. That’s what she brings, and she continues to wear red. It was another dimension to how violence is justified.”
In Half the Sky, authors Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wu Dunn wrote, “in the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism.” “In this century,” they believe, “the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.”
Feminism is a slow movement, one that has been affecting change in our cultures for centuries. After events like the 2016 presidential election in the States or the 2012 Delhi gang rape, it feels like an urgent one. Following the Delhi gang rape, Jasmeen made this Safe City Pledge: “I pledge to stay outraged. To follow this through. To not forget a few months later.”
Perhaps it is because of such tenacity from artists, policy makers, individuals from all walks of life, that eventually the lives of women will be fully valued in every respect to those of men.
All images are courtesy Blank Noise and Jasmeen Patheja.