Chapter IX: Jasmeen Patheja on the many more miles to go before we sleep
In 2009, I uploaded a poster that read Hot Ladki Here, as my profile picture onto a social media site. Two friends inquired after my wellbeing, because even for someone with an appetite for narcissism, such a display seemed odd. Conversations were started and curiosities were piqued.
I was only doing as bid by Blank Noise, I explained.
Blank Noise (BN) is a community of citizens, and individuals, united in eradicating sexual and gender based violence.
And for a few days in September 2009, BN invited participants to become Action Heroes by changing their Facebook and Twitter profile photos to any of the options below, and their status messages to a statement that questions the oft-repeated premise: “She asked for it”. The intervention spoke to the idea of ‘owning it’. Unabashedly owning your sexuality, owning and doing your thing, and yet never asking for it because like Jasmeen Patheja, founder director of BN, asserts, “there’s no such thing as asking for it.”
(Above: Hot Ladki Here, 2009. Photo: Students of Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology with Blank Noise)
The Hot LadkiHere intervention, built with students at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology, Bengaluru, was an iteration of the broader initiative I Never Ask For It (INAFI), which started in 2005 and is still ongoing.
As part of its earliest Actions, INAFI invited women to bring forth clothes they wore when they experienced sexual violence.
“Most women and girls, in India and beyond, have been raised in an environment that repeatedly warns them to, ‘be careful’, to ‘protect yourself ’, and to not draw attention to yourself by the way you look or what you wear,” explains Patheja, whose 23-year-old self started BN in 2003, as part of her graduation project at Srishti.
“Survivors of sexual violence tell us that this translates to: ‘If you’ve experienced sexual violence, you weren’t careful enough and you deserve it’. An environment of victim blame only justifies and therefore perpetuates sexual violence.”
In 2023, ten thousand such garments, contributed by project participants, will be assembled in sites of public significance in an effort to arrest the conversation on victim blame.
(Above left: Anonymous Action Shero, I Never Ask For It, Montreal, 2017. Above right: Action Sheroes build I Never Ask For It, Walking Towards Healing, Bengaluru, 2018)
Taking off on the subject of BN’s long and complex journey Patheja says, “To begin with, the agenda was to start the conversation around gender-based violence in public spaces, Blank Noise has since evolved into tackling attitudes of victim blaming that dominate our culture and can be found across spaces.”
Another important aspect of this evolution has entailed, “moving beyond occupying to healing and empathy”.
To observers, like this writer, Talk to Me — also an iteration of INAFI first undertaken in collaboration with students from Srishti in 2012 — is a moment telling of this transition. ‘Yelahanka Action Heroes’ came together as part of a course, taught by Patheja, who since 2013 has been artist-in-residence at the institute.
(Above: Talk to Me, 2012. Photo: Vishaka Jindal)
In the Yelahanka suburb of Bengaluru, a stretch of a dimly lit road near Srishti, where incidents of sexual harassment were rife, earned itself the unofficial name Rapist’s Lane.
The Action Heroes, female and male, sat across tables from complete strangers, young men who frequent the lane, and had open and freewheeling and revealing conversations with them.
Most of the men, who hung out in the shadows, came from a social class that was removed from the Action Heroes at Srishti. The safe space created by the dialogue went beyond simply calling out patriarchy and acknowledged existing differences.
The occasion also allowed the action heroes to confront their own fears and prejudices of the other/unknown. The demand to live without fear here was accompanied by the realisation that some of these fears could also be biases, and that every figure in the shadow is not an assailant, and that the Rapist’s Lane tag is misguided much like Delhi’s ‘rape capital’ tag.
(Above: Talk to Me, 2012. Photo: Jasmeen Patheja)
Each conversation ended with the Yelahanka Action Heroes offering a flower to their interlocutor. On conclusion of the intervention, the Heroes started referring to the road as the Safest Lane.
BN is part of, and has also contributed to the production, of a zeitgeist that is standing up to and pushing back at patriarchy, and more recently the rise of right-wing chauvinism; the two, after all, are heavily enmeshed. This zeitgeist is increasingly propelled by ideas such as those of empathy, care and inclusiveness. However, the current cultural moment, which includes the ‘new wave’ of feminism, has been in the making forever.
Reflecting on the prehistory of feminism that has enabled BN, Patheja says, “We are standing on the labour (invisible and visible) of what the women’s movement has been doing for decades, their work has enabled what has now become a more mainstream awakening, change is visible.
In a climate such as, the seemingly simple act of walking can entail a whole bunch of holding ground.
“First of all, there is the suspensive freedom that comes by walking, even a simple short stroll: throwing off the burden of cares, forgetting business for a time,” writes Frédéric Gros in his delightful book A Philosophy of Walking. “You choose to leave the office behind, get out, stroll around, think about other things.”
The freedom to move without care is the freedom to imagine. Walking defenceless. Mobility equals autonomy. Reclaiming city streets so that the mind is without fear and the head held high can be life-affirming.
In 2016, BN initiated Walk Alone: Akeli Awaara Azaad and invited individuals from across the world to be Action Sheroes/Theyroes/Heroes by walking in places they fear, or desire, or a place that is unknown to them, anytime between 8 pm and midnight. Action Heroes walked their streets in Chhattisgarh, Jaipur, Medellin, Mumbai, Berlin, Allahabad, Goa and more.
BN is a massively nested project. A closer look reveals that versions of low-key versions of Walk Alone were already happening in first year of BN. Over the years several such walks have taken place. These early iterations lay the ground for the 2016 intervention. The feminist impulse of openness to constant rewriting and negotiation has enabled BN to march on for sixteen years but sixteen years is a real long time.
GD:Do you ever feel like it’s been too long? Of course, Blank Noise is always evolving and you are committed but you are also human and a project like this can be demanding in the huge amounts of 'wokeness'.
JP: Demanding? Yes. Is work ever done? No. Are there burnouts? Yes. Am I in it alone? No. Do I rely on community? Yes. Do I rely on forms of support? Yes. Newer groups and collectives have emerged. Furthering the understanding around multiple approaches / multiple kinds of strength.
When I remind myself of the multiple methodologies that have been practiced over time, it does not take a toll; it feels like we collectively got somewhere. BN community has also been a source of learning, friendships, community and joy.
Woke is good. There are many stages of woke. Wokeness means that we are no longer dismissing the issue, nor pushing it under the carpet. Recognising injustice and bringing it to the foreground as a new norm will lead to more conversations. Denial is breaking and it must break at every step. We need to facilitate listening. Being woke has the potential to move beyond recognising injustice to taking agency towards it.
But even the woke need to sleep. Our brain literally starts to eat itself when it does not receive enough sleep. Poor sleep causes the brain to destroy a significant amount of neurons and cut millions of synaptic connections. Sleep is a fundamental right. Meet To Sleep has been asserting this right since 2016.
(Above: Meet to Sleep, Muzaffarpur, 2018. Credit: Aakansha Seva Sadan, Muzaffarpur, in association with CREA)
“Meet to Sleep (MTS) invites women, girls and all persons beyond the gender binary to take sleep in public parks,” states the BN site. “We sleep, asserting our right to live defenceless, and free from fear.”
Speaking on the subject of key moments, Patheja explains her own encounter with fear through MTS, which is the second of the two core initiatives undertaken by BN. “I lay in a park, negotiating my own relationship with fear as I tried to nap. Waking up to sounds, realising it was a leaf or a dog passing by and not a predator.
“It made me think about the fact that there are more of us in fear of each other than with the actual intention to harm. And how would this premise of trust instead of threat inform our work. What would it do if thousands of women were found sleeping in public parks instead of clenched fists matched with a fast-paced walk.”
Over 500 Conversations have transpired across media and spaces including public talks and blog projects. With Actions taking place across streets, conference rooms, the internet, classrooms, art institutions, mainstream media and the collective conscience, across 66 cities and towns, in India and globally.
Sidebar: Just to quickly flag that the line/distinction between conversation and action is always blurred.
In 2018 alone, over 1500 Action Heroes, including event volunteers, stepped up to the various tasks at hand. Over the years, the count runs into thousands with participation from those between the ages of 9 and 87.
“All participants have been instrumental in shaping Blank Noise. Finding a better way to archive each Action Shero/Theyro/Hero’s contribution is something I would have done differently,” Patheja admits. Work is underway now though to redress this situation with an initiative called Action Sheroes Oral Herstories.
No intervention is too big, or too small. Going at the opponent from every direction possible is a given, in this case. “The inclusion of Shero and Theyro happened in the recent years because it got to a point where Action Hero just sounded wrong to my ears,” Patheja weighs in on the semantic shifts within the project.
(Above: Kamala Bhasin championing Meet To Sleep, 2017)
Detailing the thought processes behind the transition she concludes, “I was keen on putting into play a different heroism narrative by allowing room for vulnerability. The hero as an individual willing to be vulnerable, someone who challenges themselves. However, the hero is located in a narrative of masculinity. In recent years, feminists, Srilatha Batliwala and Kamla Bhasin, questioned the word hero, as well. Shero was new, but it sounded right. And just like anything new, it takes repeating it to making it familiar and making it normal.”
As for Theyro, it might sound odd to the uninitiated ear just now but the singular ‘they’ is coming our way faster than you know. Dictionaries and linguists are gearing up for the singular non-gender specific pronoun, as should you.
Artist in focus:
Jasmeen Patheja is an artist, and also the founder director of Blank Noise. Patheja is also a photographer. She collaborates with her grandmother, Inderjit Kaur on a series of photo performances. More here and here.
Gitanjali Dang is a curator, writer and shape-shifter. In 2012, she founded Khanabadosh, an itinerant arts lab. More here.