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JASMEEN PATHEJA

India,

By drawing attention to sexual harassment on the streets, Jasmeen Patheja transforms attitudes towards an often-trivialized problem known in India as “eve-teasing.” Through her Blank Noise project, Jasmeen employs a variety of strategies—from advocating for effective legal mechanisms, to staging theatrical public protests, to using new technology to publicize offenses—to reach out to victims, perpetrators, and spectators involved in sexual harassment in public spaces.  

This profile below was prepared when Jasmeen Patheja was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

INTRODUCTION

By drawing attention to sexual harassment on the streets, Jasmeen Patheja transforms attitudes towards an often-trivialized problem known in India as “eve-teasing.” Through her Blank Noise project, Jasmeen employs a variety of strategies—from advocating for effective legal mechanisms, to staging theatrical public protests, to using new technology to publicize offenses—to reach out to victims, perpetrators, and spectators involved in sexual harassment in public spaces.  




THE NEW IDEA

Jasmeen launched Blank Noise in 2004 in Bangalore to help women and men challenge sexual harassment. Her goal is to make sexual harassment visible and to transform public perceptions about the problem, which in India is tacitly accepted as trivial and even legitimate, rather than a form of persecution. Jasmeen’s public interventions are bold and provocative. Using elements of street theater, performance art, and protest, she engages the public in events designed to increase awareness of sexual harassment where it most often happens, on the street. Her campaign also uses technology as a way to address both women’s concern for privacy and their growing sense of impatience with ineffective laws.

Jasmeen’s movement is unique in the history of efforts against sexual harassment in India because it engages not only perpetrators and victims, but also spectators and passers-by. She aims to shift the responsibility for managing the problem from women back to the public and the legal system, where it belongs. To do this, she involves a wide variety of people, most of whom are new to the fight against sexual harassment. She relies on a network of volunteers, 20 percent of whom are male. During her sensitization drives at large urban bus and railway stations, she works with bus drivers, women bus conductors, and traffic police, who then become active participants in the process of changing social behavior and challenging the denial and passivity that allows eve-teasing to remain status quo.

Another component of her work has been the blog www.blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com, which serves as a platform for women to share testimonies of eve-teasing and experiences that are often suppressed for fear of ridicule and humiliation. The blog has elicited an unprecedented response, and has grown into a tool to spread her movement swiftly and inexpensively across the country. Inspired by her vision and strategies, similar movements have begun in five additional Indian cities. Jasmeen’s desire to work outside the comfort zone of the largely middle-class, Internet-savvy supporters who frequent her blog has led to partnerships with youth groups working in urban slums, who use letters and posters in indigenous languages to spread their message.

In addition to changing social behavior, Jasmeen is working to amend the country’s laws to recognize street sexual harassment as a serious, punishable offense. Technically, sexual harassment is a crime in India, but the wording of the law prohibiting it is ambiguous, so Jasmeen works with lawyers’ groups to amend legal statutes and pressure policymakers.

Jasmeen’s long-term goal is to change attitudes: She empowers victims of street sexual harassment who may feel they cannot speak out or access legal remedies; challenges overconfident perpetrators, who may believe they can get away with molestation and abuse; and confronts the apathy and hesitation of spectators, who do not consider harassment their problem.




THE PROBLEM

Eve-teasing is the Indian term for sexual harassment or molestation of women by men. The term refers to everything from sexual innuendo, obscene gestures, offensive remarks, winking, whistling, staring, touching, pinching, and rubbing, to molestation, and rape. The semantics of the phrase reflect popular attitudes towards sexual harassment. Women are cast as “Eve,” a temptress, and the very presence of women in public spaces is seen as titillating. The flippant word “teasing” is used to minimize a serious and prevalent problem.

While comprehensive statistical information about harassment in India does not exist, overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that nearly all Indian women, adolescent girls, and young children, as well as smaller numbers of men, suffer it silently and almost daily. The perpetrators are usually lone men or groups of youth or men.

In India, this behavior is culturally sanctioned and considered unworthy of serious attention or protest. Victims are often blamed for inviting unwanted attention, and perpetrators are rarely perceived as doing something wrong. Popular media reinforces this attitude by showing harassment as a legitimate part of everyday life. In Bollywood movies, the eve-teaser always gets the girl, even if she resists his advances at first. Thus eve-teasing is generally regarded as a form of mischief, even as it is paradoxically used to justify protective—and sometimes regressive—attitudes toward women within the family, including restrictions on freedom of movement and dress.

In many big cities, where harassment and molestation are a daily nuisance, women travel either with male escorts or in groups. Some carry pins and small knives to jab at gropers. Others take lessons in self-defense or try to reach home before dark. But these coping mechanisms do little to address the frequent and unavoidable violations. Harassment affects women’s sense of self as active citizens with a right to occupy public spaces. In rare cases, the fear and shame eve-teasing elicits have been connected to suicides.

Eve-teasing is not a judicial category in India, and the laws that are in place to handle cases of eve-teasing are both insufficient and subject to interpretation. One section of the penal code, for example, makes it a crime to assault a women with the intent to “outrage her modesty,” a phrase that has been interpreted as putting the onus on women to be modest. The same law also applies to child sexual abuse and rape.

The police typically treat street sexual harassment as a low-order crime. Victims find it difficult to quantify or define a violation of their modesty. Given public tolerance for eve-teasing, it is also tough to find witnesses willing to come forward, even for cases of actual physical assault. The lack of support from the public and police, combined with women’s fear of reprisal and shame mean that the majority of cases go unreported. Jasmeen recognizes that legal mechanisms alone are not enough to address street-level sexual harassment. Therefore, long-term solutions are unlikely without fundamental changes in attitude.




THE STRATEGY

At its heart, Jasmeen’s multidimensional efforts seek to shift the responsibility for addressing street sexual harassment from victims to perpetrators and onlookers; to make invisible offenses visible and to transform an isolating experience of fear into a collective, participatory experience to reclaim safety in public spaces.

Jasmeen builds awareness of eve-teasing as a serious problem and disseminates information regarding the laws governing it. At the same time, she questions those laws and lobbies to make them more effective, while creating accessible reporting systems that link citizens with police. She also works with people on the streets, empowering women to speak out in protest, bringing the victim, the perpetrator, and the spectator together on the same public platform to question what is sometimes called a “sport.”

Blank Noise directly confronts people on the street through provocative and innovative group actions. One ongoing activity at major street junctions during rush hour is the confrontational protest she calls “One Night Stand.” A group of participants appear and disappear at traffic signals, making the public read the words, “Why are you looking at me?” off their bodies. Each word is written in reflective material on individual tee shirts, so that when the group stands together the entire sentence is formed. The response from the public has been tremendous, and many passersby, including men, spontaneously join the protest. Volunteers also distribute bilingual pamphlets during these performances and paste posters printed with the law forbidding harassment on city walls.

Jasmeen uses new and mainstream media to disseminate her ideas and interventions. While she began her work by talking to women’s groups in colleges, she soon abandoned that strategy because she realized it would be more effective to hold discussion on the streets, rather than in sheltered spaces. She then created her blog, which brings together diverse groups of people through discussions, questionnaires, testimonials, and photographs. People who participate in Jasmeen’s online efforts often volunteer to participate in Blank Noise’s public performances, events, and campaigns. Because so many people don’t have access to the Internet, Jasmeen has consciously sought new communities with which to collaborate, including youth groups, volunteers from slums, women bus conductors, police, and men.

Jasmeen arms women with cameras—many cell phones now have one—to record street sexual harassment as it happens. Women can then post pictures of perpetrators in the public domain. Another approach involves using text messages or bank ATMs to report the details of harassment and feed them into a database that will be linked to police reporting systems. The idea is to eventually create a map of unsafe spaces, using concrete examples of crimes. This will enable lawmakers to take simple steps such as changing the lighting in particular areas or posting extra security personnel.

When they are verbally or physically attacked on the streets, women often immediately question their choice of clothing, and wonder whether they provoked the harassment. So, as part of a project Jasmeen calls “Did You Ask for It?” she collects the clothes women were wearing when they were harassed. She is using the clothes which range from salwar kemeez to modern apparel to burkhas, in a public art installation in Bangalore that she hopes to replicate in other cities.

Finally, Jasmeen identifies gaps in existing laws and lobbies to make those laws not only more meaningful, but more useful. She is working with the Alternative Lawyers Forum on ways to redefine the law outlawing sexual harassment to maximize its impact. She also uses the legal framework as a way to stimulate discussion, asking for example, “What does modesty mean?” With students from India’s top law school, she is interviewing people who have filed cases, and using that research to further inform her advocacy and communication campaigns.

Blank Noise is beginning to spread beyond Bangalore. Jasmeen joined the Hollaback Girls in New York to create another “Did You Ask for It?” installation. She also plans to expand Blank Noise to Pakistan, as well as more Indian cities and semi-urban areas. In the long-term, she hopes to build a rural movement, and focus more on men’s experiences of street sexual harassment. She is also exploring ways to partner with women’s organizations and build a formal CO structure for Blank Noise.




THE PERSON

Jasmeen was born and raised in Kolkata. Her family, traditional Punjabi business people migrated from Burma in the 1960s. Jasmeen attended one of the city’s best schools, but was always told she should prepare to be married by the time she turned twenty-one. In an otherwise traditional patriarchal family, Jasmeen’s grandmother, an independent woman who drove her own car and recently learned to email, was a positive and supportive role model.

Jasmeen always had the urge to use her creativity to make a difference. As a child she recollects making and putting up posters urging people to keep the city clean. After studying psychology, Jasmeen was admitted to the esteemed Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore. Wherever she went, she was haunted by the experience of being harassed on the streets, even as a young girl wearing her school uniform. In Bangalore, she knew her peers at the Srishti School had experienced similar sexual harassment. Her inability to understand the reasons behind this phenomenon, in addition to frustration about public apathy toward it, drove her to explore the issue further.

During her time in college, Jasmeen found ways to express her fundamental belief that an artist should engage directly in the process of social transformation. With her interest in the dynamics between the artist and the audience and public artwork, she produced Blank Noise as her final project for a course on communications for social change. This helped her to grow as an artist working in social spaces.

Jasmeen lives in Bangalore and works out of the studio space given to her by the Srishti School.        




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