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Case Study: Blank Noise

India Social Case Challenge – Edition 1

Category: Long-term Initiatives

Title : Blank Noise

Share a little about your organisation

Blank Noise is a volunteer led collective that was set up in 2003, seeking to address street sexual harassment/ violence. It intends to:

  • Change the perception of ‘eve teasing’ as something which is a joke or prank, to one which the public takes seriously and assumes responsibility for
  • Explore, define, question, trigger debate on the boundaries between wooing, flirting, violating, ‘teasing’, approaching, harassing in public spaces
  • Attempt definitions around intangible elements that could be considered to constitute harassment: for instance ‘looking’
  • Define and emphasise those acts and processes which are very tangible and clear-cut rights violations (such as recent violent attacks against women across Karnataka on the grounds of ‘culture’, religion and so on examined through the project’s ‘Reporting to remember’ compilation of such attacks)
  • Build a relationship between women and cities: to imagine and enable us to see the city as a place to which we belong as citizens with rights rather than the often touted constructs of us as someone’s mother/sister/daughter/ on the street
  • Bring into focus street sexual harassment as an issue that concerns both men and women
  • Bring women to question their notion of fear and threat thereby also bringing into debate notions of class and caste- i.e. who do we fear? Why do we perceive a certain person as a ‘threat’? Which person becomes threatening? When do we feel threatened?
  • Generates research with public participation and equally emphasizing on information dissemination, thereby building knowledge with appropriate forms of media – internet (Facebook, Twitter, Blogspot, Orkut), posters, videos, street actions.

Executive Summary

When Blank Noise began work in 2003, ‘eve-teasing’ was largely considered a non-issue, which would often elicit a smirk or gesture of vague sympathy. Over the years we have witnessed, and perhaps participated, in the increasingly mainstreaming of the issue of street harassment and violence against women which has now attained enough significance to have become a major poll issue during the current General Election campaigning in Bangalore and to be consistently covered by national and local media through reportage, comic strip and targeted campaign.

Dialogue occurs on the internet and in public spaces. The internet based dialogue creates a resonance with women and men from across the world. Ideas that emerge from these discussions are impacting the way different stakeholders in the issue of street sexual harassment are organizing their practice. This dialogue creates space for collaboration.

Background

Blank Noise was initiated in 2003. One of the earliest responses I received was :“Why talk about ‘eve-teasing’? Why not something more serious?”

I arrived in Bangalore at the age of 18 to study fine art. Over time I realized that I moved through the city hyper-alert, cautious, with a clenched fist, a ‘don’t come near me’ attitude. My friends would only go out in groups, or with a male friend. If they went out they knew exactly where they were going, how they were going, what they were going to wear and most importantly how they were getting back home, what they were carrying in their bags as weapons of defense(pepper spray, safety pins, chilli powder)and yet these everyday decisions were never discussed. The issue of fear experienced by women in public spaces was never seen as an issue. It was always just ‘eve-teasing’, something to be dismissed as trivial.

I remember day dreaming while taking a walk in my neighbourhood and then suddenly being grabbed by an unknown, unidentified man. I yelled back in rage and shock and began to walk after him. Along the way I asked people at the auto rickshaw stand for help and was simply told ‘he ran away’.

I remember sharing this incident with friends at college and the responses ranged from:

” It happens, ignore it.”

“How come it happens only to you?”

“What were you wearing? Be more careful!”

Another incident , another day, walking in my neighbour and a cyclist spat over me. It was humiliating. I remember throwing away those clothes. I couldn’t understand what I had done to be at the receiving end of this irrational , sudden attack, and I couldn’t understand how people around me weren’t recognizing this as an issue. I was aware that women in varying degrees feared public spaces but were not talking about it.

There was a need to form a collective that would address the issue of street sexual harassment. Blank Noise was created when I was in my final year at art school (Srishti School of Art Design and Technology) with a group of 9 students who were willing to go through a process that would involve them, their personal accounts and testimonials. As an art student I was deeply interested and motivated by art practice that could work with communities, that could exist in public, that could heal, provoke, question.I was interested in work that could be built via participation, that could be a dialogue or a collaboration.

Approach/ Strategy

Selected projects-

  1. I never ask for it: I never ask for it has evolved through various stages since the first idea in 2006. I never ask for it attempts to seize the notion of ‘she provoked’ or ‘she asked for it’. No woman of any age, colour, or character ever deserves to be sexually violated or what is lightly dismissed as ‘eve-teased’.
  2. Twitter announced: tweet what you wore when you experienced any kind of sexual violence and add #ineveraskforit Women and men from across the globe retweeted the message and as a result hundreds such tweet testimonials have been gathered. Tweeters have been provided image options for their twitter page.
  3. Facebook announced I NEVER ASK FOR IT. The event ask people on facebook to: Change the facebook status message to what they were wearing when they experienced any kind of sexual violence and add ‘I NEVER ASK FOR IT’.
  • change the display photo to an image from here.
  • take a photo of the garment worn at the time of experiencing any kind of sexual harassment harassment.
  • Message to your friends/ family/ colleagues/ male or female> get them involved.

Both twitter and Facebook events are virally spreading the message of questioning the notion of blame. In parallel this campaign is also being directed towards organizing clothes collection drives. This is a nationwide campaign asking women to send in one garment they wore at the time they experienced street sexual harassment. Each garment is a witness and a testimonial to the experience. The garments will be installed on the streets of various cities in the form of a travelling exhibition. Blank Noise has been receiving an entire range of garments from saris, salwar kameez, school uniform, swim suit etc.

This campaign is to challenge the assumption that ‘women ask for it’; ask for harassment/ violation because of the clothes they wear. We are seeking to state that all kinds of women, all kinds of socio eco backgrounds, all age groups, at all times of day and in any kind of garment have experienced violated and that there is no such thing as ‘asking for it’. Twitter and Facebook have led to interest from women across the world and we are working towards have clothes collection drives across cities not only in India but across the world.

  1. Things to do at home on a hot summer afternoon/ I never ask for it (year 2009 medium. Internet): collects proverbs statements and sayings in different languages that imply women ‘ask for it’. Eg: jithe gur uthe makhi/ ‘where there is sugar there will be a fly/ if you are a girl guys will be after you.’
  2. Museum of street weapons of defense (year 2008. Medium. Internet. Blogspot. Facebook): This project examines fear and defense mechanisms or tools women adopt to deal with the city. The museum of street weapons is a compilation of weapons and confessions ; everyday objects that have become weapons of defense such as safety pin, Baygon spray, talcum powder, a heavy bag.
  3. Excuse me? Compilation of misdirected terms. Build it like you heard it: (year 2007 medium. Internet/ blogspot) is a compilation of food names, objects, statements, songs, that women have been called or referred as while out on the streets.
  4. Step by Step Guide to Unapologetic Walking (year 2008. Medium poster + t shirt): is a compilation of things to remember while walking; to ensure the walk is unapologetic.

Stakeholders

Every volunteer is a stakeholder. Blank Noise volunteers, who are almost equally both male and female, come from varied backgrounds and cities/towns and, since many campaigns are conducted on the Internet, tend to be urban, English-speaking and largely within the age group of 16-35 years. They find Blank Noise through social media events, college workshops, media reports and friends.

Blank Noise tries to introduce the idea of a volunteer as an agent. Each volunteer (also called an ‘action hero’) has a local network that he/she can influence and interact with, initiating conversations, events and ideas about street sexual harassment. Interventions and campaigns are sometimes coordinated across cities in which Blank Noise operates (currently Kolkata,Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, Jodhpur, Baroda, Jaipur) or take their cues from the city group.

About the initiative

Blank Noise is an idea that is transferred via several events and campaigns listed below:

  • Blank Noise blogathon (2006):  Blog event asking bloggers to share their experiences of street sexual harassment.As a result hundreds of bloggers participated leading to a mass online catharsis. The viral transfer of testimonials went from one blog to another and the anonymity of the medium created a space for people to speak fearlessly. This event established street sexual harassment / violence or ‘teasing’ as that which is experienced almost everyday and is seen as ‘normal’ but as that which alters one’s relationship with the body and the city. This event established ‘eve teasing’ as an urgent issue. While the event took place on the internet, the testimonials spread because the mainstream press hugely supported it. This event brought emails from volunteers from across the country wanting to have Blank Noise chapters in their cities.This event made ‘eve-teasing’ an urgent instead of a ‘trivial’ one.

Impact – Outcome

With Blank Noise our aim was to build a collective and to have street sexual harassment be recognized as every person’s issue, irrespective of their gender.

It is challenging to measure the impact of Blank Noise and we are still grappling with methods that would help us understand it. If impact is measured solely by the number of people in the Blank Noise community orkut (2000+) facebook (3063+) googlegroups (3000), twitter (600+)and the statcount blog hits per day, it excludes information such as how many individuals started thinking about street sexual harassment as an issue that concerns them? How many men and women took the conversations from the internet to their personal lives, to their home and friends. Individuals who participate in Blank Noise push their own notion of fear, comfort, boundaries thus bringing about a change in themselves. This personal shift makes a volunteer an ‘Action Hero’. Action Heroes challenge themselves in public. They walk the streets without apology and do not believe it was their fault, or that they deserved to be sexually assaulted/ ‘ask for it’ if they experience street sexual violence.

Blank Noise works at an attitudinal shift. It works in ripples and triggers conversations. 3 students (2 female and one male) from a college in Bangalore interned with Blank Noise for 2 weeks as a part of their college assignment. They have been able to take the discussions to their classroom and amongst peers. This led to a class debate on moral policing and their friends joining the collective. This is a standard, non-strategic way in which Blank Noise has evolved, with one step leading to another. The volunteers were able to do that once they saw themselves as a part of the issue.

2 years ago a known person emailed us saying she was at a ladies satsang in Calcutta and she overheard a group of women discuss the project and its ideas. We would never know of this kind of impact , which reaches a non-internet audience and how it influences them. Each person engaging with the project brings a unique dimension to Blank Noise and takes away something that is meaningful for the concerned individual.

Blank Noise has been built by hundreds and perhaps thousands of people. There are those who have blogged about it, spoken about it, tweeted. Individuals have contributed both online and on the streets of various cities. The collective itself is multitudes of conversations, conversations that exists amongst a group of friends, random people in public, on facebook, twitter, blog posts.

The press has supported Blank Noise through the years . The press takes the project to another audience/ participant.

In 2003 ‘eve teasing’ was rarely written about or discussed. It was passed of as that which is normal, which happens everyday, which is merely ‘teasing’. Today street sexual harassment and the safety of women is being discussed as one of the most important issues in the country. There are more and more people speaking about it.

Learnings

Since its inception as a series of workshops in 2003, Blank Noise has sought to devise appropriate communication that will build dialogue and discussion between survivors, perpetrators and bystanders of street sexual harassment, dismissed trivially as ‘eve-teasing’ in India. The biggest challenge has been to accord due weight and gravity to various forms of street harassment which, through their frequency and routine nature, have come to be expected as “normal behaviour” on Indian streets.

Blank Noise has evolved through the public conversations over the years. When the idea of Blank Noise started out in 2003, it came from a place of personal experience, of frustration and anger. The collective saw street sexual harassment as an all-girl-issue. Today Blank Noise has a more empathetic tone. 50 % Blank Noise volunteers happen to be male. Blank Noise examines boundaries of cultural codes between strangers; of flirting, wooing, fantasy, desire, stalking, harassment, assault. Group meetings discuss perception and stereotyping of strangers; street sexual harassment also as a class based issue. While it continues to be based on the survivor of sexual violence , it is also moving towards events that explore masculinity and male behaviour.

One of the challenges we face is related to medium and audience or participant. While the internet has built Blank Noise, it doesn’t include communities we may want to engage with. At this point our challenges are to work with appropriate forms of media that would engage with different communities such as the auto rickshaw driver’s community, or the sex workers union, because the issue concerns every individual.

What Next

Blank Noise has been fluid and organic since its start but now needs another kind of structure as issues of sustainability emerge. At this point Blank Noise is moving getting registered as a non profits organisation. While it would continue to work with volunteers it will also now focus on employing staff. At Blank Noise we have events planned that need a certain scale for its public engagement, it needs a generous budget as well. Blank Noise has survived on enthusiasm and spirit from hundreds and thousands of individuals, but we also need to be able to sustain ourselves and are grappling with these questions. We hope to get registered by April 2010.

Blank Noise has also worked extensively with and on the internet , while also intervening in public spaces but would need to work with newer forms of media that would be appropriate to the communities being engaged with.

Reasoning

Blank Noise has been built by the public through social media such as blogger, facebook, orkut, twitter. The collective takes the form of a public conversation, because social media has allowed that. I am unable to imagine whether Blank Noise would exist in public if there wasn’t for social media.

Credits – Strategy

Volunteers/ action heroes proposed strategies and ideas

Credits – Execution

Jasmeen Patheja has been supported by the following institutions for Blank Noise. Srishti School of Art Design and Technology,( 2004-2005), Sarai CSDS Fellowship (2005), Akademie Schloss Solitude Germany, Ashoka Innovators for the Public.

Testimonials

Founder member Jasmeen Patheja was made a fellow of Ashoka Innovators for the Public for work towards Blank Noise.

Blank Noise was commissioned by the Bronx Museum of Art, to participate in a retrospective show looking at public art practice.Blank Noise was selected as a new project working in this art practice. The show was titled Street Art Street Life, and Blank Noise was commissioned to create a video installation based on street interviews with men and women across 5 cities in India; Moments of a Long Pause.

Testimonials from people to participate in the project i.e Action Heroes. Action Hero Tharunya Balan reported that she now walks, slowly , calmly, deliberately in the middle of the pavement and she gets her way. She now walks on the street believing that the city belongs to her.

Factsheet

Name of the company: BLANK NOISE
Number of Employees: N/A
Category: Other
Case submitted by: Jasmeen Patheja, Founder Member, Facilitator
Website: http://blog.blanknoise.org