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global | REPORTS

Don't "Tease" These Eves
India's women confront sexual harassment

Don't Tease These EvesBeing groped on a public bus is, sadly enough, many a young Indian girl’s initiation into awareness of her body. Groups of men lurk on street corners, at bus stops, outside women’s schools—catcalling, whistling, leering at and sometimes stalking women. “Eve-teasing” is the Indian euphemism for this sexual harassment, a behavior rooted in the country’s patriarchal system and reflected in popular culture.

For decades, women have tried to ignore this daily violation. They construct their lives to avoid it, by dressing “decently,” not staying out late, taking alternate transit routes and relying on male escorts when they must travel at night. This silent experience of harassment— a form of social control over women—is what gave birth to the name and the project “Blank Noise.”

Initiated in August 2003 by 10 young women, including then-19- year-old Jasmeen Patheja, a graduate from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, Blank Noise was conceived as Patheja’s personal reaction to street harassment. The group defines “blank” as something which is not allowed articulation, and “noise” as that which builds, breaks form and heightens. Putting together these contradictory terms, Blank Noise represents the enforced silence of women breaking and contradicting the clamor of men.

The project started as a workshop exploring public and private identities through memories of childhood and puberty, self-confrontation and personal healing via performance. The Blank Noise blog (blanknoise project.blogspot.com), started as a documentation space, is now a buzzing community space on the subject of eve-teasing. The project has become public and interventionist, revolving around consciousness-raising street performances.

Current “interventions” include: “Unwanted” (reversing the position of power by photographing the perpetrator in the act, then publicizing his picture on the Blank Noise blog, similar to the Holla Back project in the U.S.—see Ms., Summer 2006); “Y R ULOOKING AT ME” (women form an alphabet chain asking that question while staring at passersby in public spaces such as malls and traffic intersections); and “One Night Stand” (women congregate at a central city location wearing an item of clothing they normally hesitate to wear, then simply stare, stimulating debate on looking and being looked at).

Traditionally, women are blamed— and blame themselves—for “inviting” male attention. So, in yet another intervention, “Did You Ask For It,” 1,000 items of clothing worn by women when they were eve-teased are being collected. Every garment contradicts the notion that “she asked for it,” since they include burqas, salwar kameezes and saris, all “modest attire.”

Blank Noise’s next stage involves confronting the law. Patheja and her team are now challenging Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with “outraging the modesty of a woman.” And Blank Noise is expanding and thriving in cities across India, including Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore, Kolkata and Hyderabad.