Standing Their Ground: Public Art in India Puts Women on the Streets
New America Media, News Feature + , Words: Neelanjana Banerjee//Video: Neelanjana Banerjee and Cliff Parker Posted: Mar 08, 2007
Editor’s Note: One of the most subversive thing women can do in India is occupy public space. Neelanjana Banerjee is editor-in-chief of YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia. Cliff Parker is the director of video production at New America Media.
BANGALORE – The sun is setting on Bangalore’s Brigade Road, a short but busy stretch of up-market shopping located in the city center. Shoppers stream in and out of businesses ranging from a glossy two-story Puma store to no-name storefronts selling discount luggage.
The narrow sidewalks on either side of Brigade Road are flanked by railings, keeping pedestrians corralled in a tight space. On most days, men outnumber women at least three to one. While the women rush towards their destinations, large groups of men loiter about, standing in front of businesses and leaning against walls.
But today, there’s something different going on.
A number of women stand placidly by the railings. For more than two hours, these women – members of the Blank Noise Project, a public art project concerning sexual street harassment – will do one of the most subversive things they can do as women in India: occupy public space.
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In a rapidly changing India, traditions such as purdah (keeping women secluded inside the house) are no longer in effect. Women are an important part of the growing middle class, with jobs in call centers, technology firms and at the coffee shops and malls that are entertaining this new generation. But as women hit the streets in greater numbers, often in Western clothing, their vulnerability to street harassment — including physical assaults — has increased.
“’Eve-teasing,’ or street sexual harassment, is something that we experience every day,” says 27-year-old Jasmeen Patheja, the founder of the Blank Noise Project. We’ve learned to deal with it mostly by not dealing with it — by ignoring it.”
Dressed casually in a kurta top over jeans, Patheja is articulate and unassuming, but when she starts talking about her work, a fierce streak shines through. She developed the idea for Blank Noise in her final year of university at Bangalore’s Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. Patheja had studied artists like the Guerilla Girls – an anonymous artist collective famous for a series of billboards and actions in the 1980s and 1990s that challenged discrimination against women artists — and was interested in the intersection of art and community in India.
“Plus, I was filled to the top with experiences every day of street sexual harassment,” Patheja says. “When I would share my experiences with my peers, they would just disregard it, saying: ‘Yeah, it happens.’ ”
“At some point, I started thinking that maybe I was asking for it,” she recalls. Over time, Patheja changed her entire wardrobe to protect herself, replacing Western clothing with more traditional garments.
While women suffer from street harassment all over the world, what is known as “eve-teasing” in India is frequent and extreme. On New Year’s Eve in Mumbai, a young woman had her dress torn off by some 60 men while her male companion was violently shoved out of the way. Many of Patheja’s friends have experienced both verbal harassment and physical intrusions.
Since its inception in 2005, the Blank Noise Web site has become a virtual space for the documentation of street harassment. In an early post, Patheja described a tailor intentionally rubbing his hands across her breasts, then denying it when confronted.
Gayathri Raghavendra wrote about taking an overnight train with friends. The young women felt “hands groping … through the narrow gap between the seat back and bottom.” When Raghavendra looked over to the other seats, the men acted as though they were fast asleep. Raghavendra complained to the conductor and asked if the men could be moved, but the conductor “refused to do anything and … tried to make me feel guilty that I had made a big deal of nothing and had woken up a bus full of people with my complaining.”
Another woman, Annie Zaidi, writes about trying to get off of a Mumbai train: “Suddenly, there were men's crotches pressing into my face, my knees and my shoulders. I stood up and fought my way to the door, only to be surrounded by half a dozen men offering to 'get me out safely.’ As the train stopped, half a dozen men got on, half a dozen got off. Trapped between them, I lost count of how many hands felt me up.”
To kick off the project, Patheja brought together some 60 women ranging in age from 17 to 23 and asked them to brainstorm on the words “public space.” Immediately, the women came up with words like “fear, vulnerable, insecure, groping, invasion, anger.”
Despite this powerful response, once she tried to get her project going, Patheja faced discouragement at every step.
“Of the 60 women from my initial workshop, only nine of them responded with interest when I told them about plans to move on,” she remembers. “Most of them said: ‘Why are you making a big deal out of this? Why don’t you talk about domestic violence instead? What about child sexual abuse?’ I realized that this itself is the problem — street harassment is not even given the status of an ‘issue.’”
Patheja held workshops with the nine women and created a multimedia installation around the experiences of these women in public space. She started a blog, and began posting pictures of people who had harassed her. Through the Internet, Blank Noise connected with groups like Hollaback – a New York City-based blog that also posts pictures of street harassers. Blank Noise held a blog-a-thon where they asked women from all over India – and the world – to post about their own experiences with eve-teasing.
“In 10 days, we had more than 300 bloggers sign up,” Patheja recalls. “There was a mass catharsis happening on the Internet. That is when Blank Noise became participatory and public.”
After the blog-a-thon, Patheja felt ready to make the leap to the public sphere. “We have different kinds of actions, usually confrontational or provocative,” Patheja says. “The people who participate are non-performers. They are challenging their own levels of comfort with public space.”
Back on Brigade Road, the presence of the women causes an observable stir in the legions of men loitering about the street. One speaks excitedly to his group of friends, then approaches the women, trying to engage them in conversation, taking pictures of them with his camera phone. Yamimi Deen, one of the Blank Noise participants, moves away from her place against the railing and stands barely a foot away from the young man. The other women follow until the man is surrounded by women — not quite menacing, but watchful. He tries to ignore them, crossing his arms and looking towards the sky with much bluster, but in the end he retreats back to the safety of his friends.
Afterwards, the participants meet up in a Subway sandwich shop and discuss the action over bottles of water and iced tea.
“It was incredible,” says Surabhi Kukke, an Indian-American woman living in Bangalore. “Just the fact that women were taking up space was a threat to the authorities. Facing off with the guy in the square was an empowering feeling for me.”
Patheja says the goal of the action was simply to engage people in a public discourse about street harassment. “I wanted to make it an issue,” she says. “The exciting thing is that a project that began with just nine voices has become so large. It’s no longer just my project.” Blank Noise now has chapters that conduct their own street actions in the Indian cities of Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad.
The project’s most powerful effect may be the changes it inspires in the women who participate. Yamini Deen says that simply ”standing by the railings, without any fear, has changed the way I feel. Even if men are staring at me, I don’t feel threatened. I don’t blame myself. Even I’m walking alone on the road, I feel confident now.”
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