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Geetanjali Krishna: The blank noise of protest

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The on the street is ubiquitous in our lives today. So ubiquitous, in fact, that most women tend to gloss over it or forget about it as soon as it happens. But will silence force the next uncle ji on the street to stop talking only to your chest instead of to you? Will silence stop that young punk from making lewd remarks when you pass? And most important, will silence stop you from wondering if your clothes were a tad too tight, or that maybe you were out on the street too late at night … whether it was somehow your fault?

Clearly, silence isn’t the best way to deal with street sexual harassment. That’s why I was happy to hear about — a volunteer-led collective that triggers public dialogue on the issue of street sexual harassment. “Blank Noise is built on people’s lived experiences and contains multitudes of conversations, opinions, testimonials and arguments,” said Jasmeen Pathija, the young founder of this unique public art project.

Blank Noise began as a student project in 2003 at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore, where Pathija studied. “We conducted a four-month workshop with women from different walks of life, in which they just spoke about growing up, how they and the people around them reacted to their changing bodies and so on. This culminated in an audio installation, but I realised that women had few spaces where they could share life experiences,” she said. Two years later, Pathija started blogging, and once when she was harassed, she took a photograph of the man who’d teased her, and uploaded it onto her blog.

“I felt a growing confidence in the simple act of lifting my camera to a face I feared,” said she, “but this sparked a vociferous online debate. What constituted street harassment? How was it different from flirting, or genuine appreciation?” The debate caused a rebirth of Blank Noise, a project that sought to address street sexual violence through sustained public interventions.

Today, this five-city, 100-plus volunteer project has four blogs, two Facebook groups, a YouTube channel and a Twitter account. Its aim is not vigilantism: “It’s about changing the attitudes of our society towards street sexual harassment. It’s about getting our society to take collective responsibility of this issue. And it’s about reducing the sense of shame and guilt that many victimised women feel,” Pathija said. Blank Noise has initiated a lot of interesting public campaigns to this end: “I Never Asked For It” is a drive for collection of the clothes that different women were wearing when they were harassed. “Y R U Looking At Me?” was a street project across cities, in which women stood at busy intersections wearing placards and tackled ogling head on. “Action Heroes” celebrates the stories of women who fought back the perverts who tried to tease them on the streets. “Often when girls who’ve been traumatised by street harassment call us, we direct them to our Action Heroes blog. Reading about the women who fought back helps them to feel that they too can do it!” Pathija said. And then there’s “Are You a BN Guy?” — a campaign to gather the support of men who are sensitive to the problems that women face every day on the street.

As I browsed through the countless experiences that women had had on the streets of some of our biggest metros and the scores of comments that each story generated, I had a sense of a dam bursting. By providing a forum where people all over the country could discuss street harassment, Blank Noise had certainly removed some of the deafening silence that usually surrounds the issue.

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