I’m Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, and this is how I Lead from Within
Jasmeen Patheja was born in Kolkata West Bengal India. She graduated from the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Fine Arts. She started Blank Noise as a student project at Srishti in Bangalore, which has since spread out to other cities in India and globally. She has been a TED and an Ashoka Fellow.
Blank Noise, is an art collective focused on sexual violence. Blank Noise is in itself an ongoing discussion where contributors keep adding new inputs. The confluence of varying perspectives creates art that both confronts society and tries to heal it.
Blank Noise started in 2003 while I was in art school. I just remember feeling threatened and an intense fear because of the street harassment I was experiencing. I was new to the city, and I didn’t really have a home to run back to. More importantly, when I shared these incidents with my friends and peers, it was seen as a non-issue, sometimes even met with a giggle. My very real and traumatic experiences were belittled as “eve-teasing.” I realized later that those reactions were due to others’ discomfort with talking about sexual violence or street harassment in particular.
At the time, I saw street harassment as an all girl issue. As I was getting ready to graduate, I got all the girls from school in one room, and I asked them to make a mind map of the phrase “public space.” It led to so many negative associations, which gave me the basis to propose a dialogue. Not knowing where it was going, I at least wanted to start the conversation. Out of the 60 girls in our class, around nine were willing to become the first action heroes. Action heroes are individuals who step up, speak up, and take action as simple as having a dialogue about social issues, specifically about street harassment within Blank Noise.
We did a three-month series of workshops, and got to know the issue of street harassment from outside our own lives. We got to know what action hero x or action hero y experienced, and how she felt. We got into the skin of our own personal histories and created a safe space amongst each other to share.
My graduation project was an in-house exhibition designed to address any person, any visitor, as a potential harasser, survivor, or spectator. We’ve always engaged the idea of the spectator, mute witness, or bystander. It’s important that all three groups be addressed, because there isn’t anybody who is not a part of the dialogue. Every single person falls into at least one of these categories.
That’s how Blank Noise started. After I graduated, I had three questions: is street harassment something that affects all women? If yes, why aren’t women speaking about it? Finally, if we were to start a public dialogue, where is the public, who is the public, what medium do I use? These three questions along with the vision that there should be collective ownership of the issue led to us examining denial, led to a series of projects, conversations, and engagements, online and otherwise. It’s been one step leading to the next, everything connected. If it hadn’t been for the multiple action heroes in different cities creating dialogues and safe spaces or if it hadn’t been for the Internet, a lot of this kind of organizing could not have been possible.
On Changing Perspectives
We’ve had so many different projects, and approached the issue of street harassment in so many ways.
We did an event called ‘Talk to Me,’ where we set up tables and chairs and invited a stranger to have a conversation for an hour over tea and samosas. The idea was to talk about anything except sexual violence. It allowed people to see a more direct link as to what could have happened, because people saw each other, there could be a connection, there could be empathy.
It wasn’t a problem and solution kind of approach, because I don’t think that’s always the answer. If you can leave a person with a question, that person can reflect while they are on their own journey.
More recently, we’ve been engaging troops of men. There was a group of men sitting idle in a park and we just posed the question “if you are sitting idle, and a woman sees you and she fears you, for no reason or fault of your own, what can you do to make a female stranger feel safe?” We wanted to create a safe space to engage men in conversation without attacking them.
Our tonal engagement has changed a lot over the years. Very early on, we used to take photographs of men who were harassers. That was a very different, angry, tone; to face the person who had intimidated, harassed, threatened, or violated us in any capacity. It’s been a journey of tonal variations that has changed as we’ve grown as a collective. And while a lot of women relate to our mission of ending street harassment, not everyone steps into it. We’ve seen such denial. From “I don’t experience it” to the idea of street harassment linked to blame. There’s this notion, if you experience violence, you did something wrong, you weren’t good, and your character is questioned. Therefore, there is a larger sense of denial around it. It’s cyclically rooted in victim blame. This is why the project ‘I Never Asked for It’ is really a focus mission for us.
More and more men, I find, are recognizing feminism, stepping into feminism, articulating it, defining what it means to be a feminist person or individual in their capacities, in their roles as fathers and as people. It’s constant work. To add, I’m part of that process. Somebody’s response is planting a seed in me; I’m also growing. When you’re growing as an action hero, the whole collective is growing as well.
On Trust, Collective Imagination and Solidarity
Blank Noise has been built by this fluid core group of action heroes who are from different continents, countries, and cities. From varying time spans like minds have come together. I know that I can send one e-mail out, and there will be responses. There’s a sense of nurturers. That’s what I value the most, that kind of action hero. Who stepped in, formed it, shaped it. Their criticisms, ways of thinking, shaped Blank Noise; they could ask questions, could defer, could disagree and that’s what made it. I trust that difference; it’s the most important thing. Trust that leads to friendship or friendship that leads to trust.
It’s also important to desire an outcome and then to step back, rather than go forward blindfolded. It’s important to step back, imagine, and then create collective imagination. Our initiative of sleeping in public spaces is not only to occupy space. It is to occupy, but it is also to trust the fact that there are more of us in fear of each other, than with the actual intention to harm each other. So to create that collective sense of desire, that question of “why have I never allowed myself to sleep under a tree, what’s stopped me all this while?”
Or when we used to do actions on being idle. It started with just being idle in public spaces, and learning to see what happens to us as action heroes who’ve always been taught to look down, to get home fast, not to loiter, and not to wander. What does it mean to just exist and make eye contact? What happens to the nature of the place when you do that? During these actions, action heroes, who didn’t even know each other, would form an inner circle of trust amongst themselves as they stood on this line. It created such a sense of solidarity. All of it, solidarity, trust and collective imagination is imperative. That’s what I value.
Idealism is driving the whole conversation forward, the fact that there are more of us in fear of each other than with the actual intention to harm each other. I’m hopeful of the world in that sense. I think our problem is, perhaps, we invest so much in defense, rather than in trust. Panic creates more panic, defense creates more defense; that’s what we’re seeing with gun shootings, pepper spraying, with all sorts of weapon related responses.
If we talk about trust, we’re also talking about empathy, human connection, the fact that there is violence, and everything around violence. There’s violence, it happens. For us there’s so much around the way of warnings, there’s so much around the weight of fear. I didn’t experience violence every time I left the house, but I learned to clench my fist, I learned to be angry. I learned to see every person with suspicion, and that’s something I’ve had to unlearn over the years. I mean, I’ve been groped in public, there’s no excuse for that. I’m not going to apologize for that person, but my response wasn’t helping me. What makes me hopeful is the fact that there’s so much here, the fact that women don’t even walk alone. That is something we’re denying ourselves. That fact that we are afraid to sleep under trees, as extreme as it sounds. The point is, it shouldn’t be extreme. We’re denying ourselves experiences constantly due to fear. I do consider myself an idealist; I think that’s definitely something that drives everything I do in work and life.
On Imagining The World You Want
We have to imagine the world we want. We step into the world and we make it. I’m thinking about the problem solving approach and the idealistic approach. You imagine, desire, step into it, and then do what it takes to make your dreams happen. I think that something leads you there, and of course you also equip yourself.
On Role Models
There have been a lot of different artists and people who’ve taught me and shaped my worldviews, but my biggest role model comes back to my grandmother, who is also an artist. Her career started more than ten years ago, when she said she wanted to be an actress. I said, “Oh, I want to be a photographer.” So we both got together and made these photo performances; they are very much based on characters that she desires to become. She is somebody I’ve always admired for not being afraid to learn, for being curious, for being open, and unafraid. Even her relationship with her body inspires me; she will spend one hour of her day exercising. She’s into self-care, she knows how to prioritize herself. At every stage of my life, she’s been my role model. Right now she’s my role model because she knows how to take an hour of the day out for herself.
I think that comes down to idealism and allowing space for daydreaming. I’ve been lucky that I’ve had a grandmother who’s also very idealistic, and has encouraged this in me. She nurtures this kind of thinking, believing and making.
It’s also the support system. There’s family, there’s friends, there’s university and college, there’s a sense of your team of action heroes, your art practice. It’s a whole support system of so many people. On one hand, I can say it’s the idealism, but that doesn’t go alone. That comes with so many years, of so many people, in so many ways, and so many degrees that have just come and held my hand and believed in the mission. It’s not like it’s my mission, it’s everybody’s. I’m just one voice among many. Everything I know is a result of what action heroes have said, added, initiated or refuted. I think my role within Blank Noise, more than anything else, has also been that of a listener. That has enabled a place for insight and understanding. I guess my strength is to have this idealism, but is also to have had a grandmother whose nurtured precisely that, a family and whole community who in so many ways identified with the issue and have taken it forward.
On Future Change
In varying degrees I see the same problem all over the world – violence against individuals across the gender and sexuality spectrum is justified. There’s this constant justification of violence. I’m still trying to come up with what the right phrasing is – is it victim blame or slut shame?
Victim blaming is linked to everything; the fact that there is victim blame, there is denial. Victim blame is something that is hard to read into, because we see it so much. But if we really look at it, if we really see how an environment of warnings is saying “don’t go here, if you don’t go here you’re taking a risk, if you’re taking a risk and you get violated or you experience violence, you deserved it because we told you not to go there in the first place.” I’m still trying to find the right vocabulary, but the fact that violence against women, sexual and gender-based violence is justified, is excused, is also why it is perpetuated.
That’s what we’re committed to eradicating. In India, there are so many of us, so it just can’t be me sitting here; it has to be a collaborative effort. That’s an invitation to all the readers.
Also this is something that’s happening around the world. We just received a testimonial from an action hero who was writing in from Cameroon. She was talking about how what she was wearing was the subject of a discussion, and was called an “invitation.” It’s just everywhere, and that’s linked to why violence against women is silenced. Why we don’t feel safe talking about our experiences. One is to not be able to do x, y, z because those spaces are violent. One is not able to do certain things because there’s the fear around it. Then it’s what happens in those spaces, or any place for that matter. Then there’s everything after the incident, the fact that you cannot talk about it because you will be questioned, you will be judged, you will be shamed. So eradicating victim blame, eradicating and kind of justification for violence is definitely what we’re committed to doing.
To learn more about Blank Noise please visit the website and partake in the new initiative, ‘I Never Asked For It.’ There are various roles for people to get involved, from being a garment collector, action hero mobilizer, or working with campuses. It’s open for anyone who identifies the need to end any kind of justification or excuse towards sexual intent based violence.
For more details email: firstname.lastname@example.org.