Streets are for walking, stop stalking

9 years ago

After attending a BlogHer07 panel on Women Across the World, it was clear to me that blogging was going to be a powerful tool for social change in societies grappling with the pangs of nation-building.
And women are going to seize this opportunity to express themselves, something that is just about starting to be acknowledged as serious.

I'd like to introduce two Indian women who are doing just that. Here's my first hero.

If the U.S. Embassy in Germany had been lenient to people from “third world” countries like India, we would all have had the pleasure of meeting Jasmeen Patheja at a “cute” conference called BlogHer 07. Jasmeen was scheduled to speak at the Women Across the World panel but didn't get a visa. [Her visa application experience was as colorful as her project. That's how Jasmeen found out that going to a conference called “BlogHer” was supposed to be “cute”. I have urged Jasmeen to blog about her experience so you can have it from the horse's mouth.]

I had wanted to talk about Jasmeen weeks before I found out she was going to speak at BlogHer 07. So I waited to meet her, but that didn't happen. So we chatted over Skype yesterday about Jasmeen's project, Blank Noise, which she started in India to deal with “eve teasing”, a phrase used to loosely define harassment of women in public. It is an umbrella phrase that refers to everything from being stared at, to being stalked, to being touched.

Blank Noise is unique in being an artistic endeavor to deal with a social nuisance. An artist herself -- she is currently a fellow at Akdemie Schloss Solitude in Germany -- Jasmeen conceived Blank Noise as a public art movement and a social dialog. She defines Blank Noise as “a public and community art project”.

The project uses many forms of communication – including capturing videos and photographs of “eve-teasers”(turn the gaze on them), conducting workshops, blogging and public shows to raise awareness about the problem.

Blank Noise began as a student project in 2003. Jasmeen was attending an art school in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, a place new to her. Not surprisingly, she was quickly subjected to sexual harassment in public. But what really bothered her was how people – even women – reacted to it. Many women grudgingly accepted it, others let it pass with the it-happens-all-the-time line. Many more were in denial.

Many men, on the other hand, remained spectators, and Jasmeen found herself alone when she shouted for help.

“I started thinking about what I am wearing. I saw myself becoming an aggressive and a hostile person and a threatened person,” she recalls. She felt the urgent need to address the issue and formed a students group (only nine other women joined in). The group's primary aim was to understand the concept of eve teasing through workshops and role-playing. For example, the girls would wear clothes they normally didn't and spend hours among men in public places. Jasmeen recounts the experience of one group member who wore a burqa that revealed just her eyes, stood close to a group of men in the middle of the city and stared at them. The men were, of course, unnerved.

It was a way to appreciate what other women may be facing in public spaces. As Jasmeen puts it, it was about mapping the history of our bodies.

Soon enough it became clear to the group that women themselves reacted differently to unwanted male attention. The grouped worked for three months, trying to understand the problem. Armed with this self-awareness experience, Jasmeen was ready to take her project public, only she didn't know how.

Then the idea of blogging struck her and Jasmeen took her project online. Blogging became the first public forum for Blank Noise. The project has committed members in eight Indian cities, and Jasmeen says women in Pakistan, Nepal and the UK are inquiring about it.

In fact, one of the most successful Blank Noise projects was the Blog-A-Thon in March last year, where bloggers were invited to write about their experience of public sexual harassment. More than 300 bloggers participated.

<P>The goal is to make public places safe and comfortable for woman, so questions like “What is she doing here at this hour?,” become redundant. But Jasmeen recognizes the complexities of taking eve teasing head-on in a high-context culture like India, where there are no clear social rules for public dating or for men and women to interact. As Jasmeen found out, some guys think it's okay to stare and giggle at a woman to get her attention, not realizing it is bothering her.</P>

<P>So Blank Noise has to be a collaborative process. The three governing principles of the project, she says, are healing, participation and confrontation.  </P>

<P>“The issue needs to be public enough without being didactic. We have not created a list of rules for public behavior,” she says.</P>

<P>But Blank Noise has taken on all forms of social behavior that women may find threatening or disconcerting. Here are two stereotypes that Jasmeen is helping give artistic expression:</P>

	<LI><P><A HREF=Things I am not: Growing up in India, I can attest to this: referring to women as delicious dishes. Chicken fry, chamcham (a sweet), you name it. Blank Noise is working on an awareness program to remind people of the real definitions of these delicacies. And women are not part of the menu list.

  • You did not 'ask for it': How many times have harassed women been told that they had “asked for it”? Blank Noise is working to disabuse women (and men) of the notion that what you wear defines how you are treated in public places. Blank Noise is asking women in India and across the world to submit clothes that they have been teased or harassed in. No surprises that the clothes collected so far cover everything from the conservative sari to the swimsuit and the mini skirt. Blank Noise plans to hold mobile exhibitions across India of about 1,000 dresses they collect to make a point: You did not ask for it.

    Jasmeen believes that despite cultural differences, women across the world feel the same way about harassment in public places. So the world is welcome to participate in Blank Noise.

    Email Jasmeen at to start a Blank Noise project in your part of the world.

    Other groups working to help combat sexual harassment in India (from Blank Noise):

  • MAVA (Men Against Violence & Abuse) a Mumbai-based men's organization working to fight against abuse of women.

  • Jagori (Wake up, woman):New Delhi-based organization that promotes feminism in urban and rural India and making them aware of their rights.

    Part 2: Blogging to weed out corruption in India

  • This is an article written by one of the incredible members of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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