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Reclaiming Streets for Women
by Anuja Mirchandaney Bookmark and Share

In recent times, sexual harassment has been the subject of codes in workplaces and college campuses. But what about street sexual harassment, or 'eve teasing' as it is popularly known? This has been left to a relic of colonial India, Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code - "outraging the modesty of women" - to deal with. A provision that brings with it a regressive understanding of women's sexuality, devoid of concerns marking the current human rights discourse.

Aarti Mundkur, a lawyer dealing with women's issues at the Alternative Law Forum, doubts the effectiveness of Section 354. "If a man brushes up against you in a bus, are you going to jump off the bus and lodge an FIR?" she asks, adding vehemently, "We have developed our own mechanisms that are far more effective than lodging an FIR - say, slapping or embarrassing the offender by shouting."

This is also the perspective that informs Jasmeen Patheja's Blank Noise Project (BNP) - a community art intervention into the subject of street sexual harassment. The law functions with its own limitations and an intervention through the platform of art has its own unique advantages and vitality.

The impulse for the project arose from "being alone in the city and not wanting to feel scared anymore," explains Patheja, 26, talking about a series of experiences that led her to start BNP. With Patheja's background in art, this impulse took the shape of a community art intervention. She says candidly that the primary aim of the project is not to look for a solution; it is more of an "exploration into how artists can play a role in social transformation".

The project works through a blog and street-based interventions. The blog is an interactive space with information about various past and ongoing city street performances and 'Night Action Plans', the existing law, FAQs, links to similar campaigns worldwide (eg: Hollaback NYC! - a USA-based collective that aims to expose and combat street sexual harassment) and even an audio file of a performance created specifically for BNP.

One of BNP's first campaigns was 'Did you ask for it?', which began in 2005. BNP invited women and girls to send in clothes they were wearing when they faced street sexual harassment. Until recently, pictures of ordinary kurtas and T-shirts decorated the blog's homepage with the words 'Did you ask for it?' blinking across them. So far, the campaign has collected over 200 clothes - and still counting. It questions a dominant societal norm, which assumes that if a girl is harassed on the street she 'asked for it' by dressing provocatively. BNP proves pictorially - with evidence, as it were - that with these 'demure' clothes, the girls did not 'ask for it'.

Needless to say, the notion of a woman's tacit complicity in cases of harassment runs through all situations of sexual harassment. In the 1999 case Apparel Export Promotion Council v A K Chopra, the Supreme Court used the idea of 'modesty' to judge whether an act is unwelcome. The judges did not look at it from a woman's subjective viewpoint, but according to the rules of evidence in a court of law. Analyzing the case, prominent feminist legal theorist Ratna Kapur found that external factors - including "modes of dress and conduct" - were used to judge whether the act of the harasser was unwelcome at a given time.

So, did BNP's clothes campaign unwittingly reinforce the notion that if you wear 'provocative' clothes, you are asking for sexual attention? Not if one considers the 'Night Action Plan' on September 15, 2006. This campaign urged girls to come together at Delhi's predominantly conservative and middle class Lajpat Nagar for the event wearing "something you've always wanted to but could not". The intention was brave, but pictures on the blog show that even in a show of numbers - about 20-odd women showed up - women were unwilling to take a risk!

Integral to the freedom of sexual speech and expression is the right of every person to dress in a way that celebrates his/her sexuality - and why not? Does it then follow that any sexually flavored attention is implicitly welcome? What about the freedom of the onlooker? Does one decide this on whose interests are compromised more if their freedom is curbed? This issue of clash of individual freedoms - and the fear of too much policing - severely tests the instrument of law. Speaking about the Bombay University Sexual Harassment Code, Kapur asks, "How will a court assess whether a lurid stare has affected an individual's performance or a sound has created a hostile working environment?"

BNP's audio file of a performance titled, 'Not glaring suspiciously at every passer-by can be interpreted as an invitation' presents this issue beautifully. Reminiscent of campaigns like 'Reclaim the Night' and 'Take Back the Night' (which began in the UK and US in the mid-1970s), a girl's voice wonders wistfully "how the streets look after a drizzle at midnight". But repeated episodes of harassment have put her on constant alert, and she has now stopped wondering. The performance goes on, and a voice reads out a news report of a woman found dead in a railway compartment, naked and with injury marks - making a crucial link between 'eve teasing' and its even more violent counterpart, rape.

It is commendable that BNP has so strongly brought to focus an issue that has always been brushed aside as a non-issue. But it is not without its problems.
Hollaback NYC! actively counters the dominant perception that street sexual harassment is perpetrated primarily by ethnic minorities and Blacks. BNP does not do this in the Indian cultural context. While the action of catching on camera the faces of the perpetrators is an ingenious way of 'reversing the gaze', one cannot help but notice that all perpetrators on the site appear to be from a lower socio-economic background.

There are a few comments from the blog's readers on this, but none from the three main members - Founder-Director Patheja, and City Coordinators Hemangini Gupta and Chinmayi Manjunath. BNP lacks a clear-cut line of thinking on this issue. Patheja does acknowledge, though, that BNP could - unintentionally - come across as classist. However, she says, "questions on political correctness aside, the bottomline is that a hand up your body is a strict 'no'." She will clarify BNP's stand on the blog, though, Patheja says.

Patheja believes that there are different realities and different tolerance levels. She cites the example of men who are talking to you but looking at your breasts. Is it within your personal tolerance level and who are you willing to tolerate such behavior from? As Mundkur sees it, each one of us needs to examine what we are offended by and why we are offended by it. She elaborates, "Am I as offended by the liftman in my building complex leching at me as by a fellow student who is hip and happening?" A question we must all ponder over.

More by :  Anuja Mirchandaney
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