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Fighting Street Harassment of Women in India
Erica Barnett, 28 Aug 07


As Salon's Broadsheet has reported, sexual harassment takes on a different form in India than in many other countries. Men who harass women are known as "eve teasers," a term that trivializes the act of harassment (both by referring to women as "eves" and referring to illegal harassment as mere "teasing").

And "eve teasers" frequently describe women as items of food -- things like kela (banana), began (eggplant), narial (coconut) and mutte (egg), among dozens of others.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, "a permissive attitude toward 'eve-teasing' has made change difficult, with offenders frequently dismissed as harmless or even justified."

In the absence of official government assistance in fighting the endemic problem, many women in India are fighting back by participating in one of several anti-street-harassment projects that have sprung up.

Jagori, a 23-year-old "women's training, documentation, communication and resource centre," runs a campaign called "Safe Delhi," aimed at stopping street harassment by empowering women to report harassment and fight back against it when it happens. Earlier this year, Jagori completed more than 30 "safety audits" around Delhi, and reported its findings in a study titled "Shall We Go Out?: Women's Safety in Public Spaces in Delhi."

The Gender and Space Project in Mumbai stages public interventions and holds more academic events. In the past, the Gender and Space Project has conducted a survey on railway conditions and pressured Mumbai’s railway system to improve lighting conditions on its trains. The group has also organized mass demonstrations against sexual violence, and initiated a so-called Shame Campaign, displaying posters that call men's attention to women's experiences with sexual harassment.

The most prominent of these groups is the Blank Noise Project. Started by Jasmeen Patheja of Bangalore and nine other women in 2003, the project began as a series of workshops that explored the public and private identities of the women. Since then, Blank Noise has evolved into a series of public and semipublic performance-like interventions, including "reversing the gaze" by taking photographs of street harassers, having women stand en masse on sidewalks and stare at men (a variant on reversing the gaze), and a 2006 "blog-a-thon" in which dozens of bloggers expressed their thoughts on and experiences with street harassment.

In another effort, Blank Noise asks women to donate the clothes they were wearing when harassed, to be displayed in installations in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. This "Did you 'ask for it'?" campaign seeks to "defy the assumption that we 'ASK FOR IT' or that only people in 'provocative' clothes -- immodest women' -- get eve teased."

Blank Noise's most recent effort is a series of posters that highlight various food items women have reported being called. Under the title "Eve Teasing Food Chart," the posters portray a slack-jawed man whose eyes have been replaced by tomatoes. Under him is a chart of the foods harassers have evoked to dehumanize women, each accompanied by a definition. "Butter chicken," for example, is "a North Indian dish popular in countries all over the world that have a tradition of Indian restaurants." The point is to highlight the absurdity of referring to women as fruits and vegetables; the effect is both comical and serious. Blank Noise's web site puts it plainly: "I am not your apple, chamcham, coconut, butterchicken, makhan ki tikiya, bajji, doodh factory, narangi, mosambi, nimbu.... or whatever else you might want to eat."

Blank Noise also provides information about filing a "first information report" about harassment with police.

Blank Noise runs the Blank Noise Action Hero blog of narratives by women who confronted their harassers. The entries speak to both the fear and the bravery of these women, such as "Action Hero White Diary", who was harassed on a busy street one day when she was 18 years old and walking to college class. "I do not remember what the voice was telling me," she writes, "but I know I heard a few words that I was not 'supposed' to hear."

I was enraged and I was terrified.
I wanted to ram his head with my writing pad.
But I didn’t.
I just walked.
I let him go.
...I shouldn’t have let him get away with it. I tried to justify saying that I was too scared to function.
I just could not forgive myself.

Later in the day, White Diary encounters the same man harassing another woman, and confronts him:

He walked behind me doing to another woman what he did to me. I heard the words. I was enraged.

After he finished his daily dose of harassing I guess, he decided to take the train.

He stood at the edge of the platform waiting for the train to arrive among numerous other men. I walked up to him and I asked him in a loud voice to jump off the platform. He looked at me bewildered.
All the men around looked at the two of us.
This person looked around and just went away.

I felt foolish about having waited for so long. I should have done something on the road itself not waited.

But i still feel glad when i think about what i did. Not necessarily as oppressive or heroic, I know there was something more that I could do and at the right time.

However, pride has replaced shame.

Image: Blank Noise Project

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