Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Aggression, nights, news reports

Aggression has a purpose.

Something deeper and more instinctive that most of us understand, but which most of us experience only when we allow it expression, through our eyes, our posture, our tone.

Aggression needs to be restrained. But it also needs to show itself, like a flash in the dark, like a sudden snarl, like the hard assertion of its potential.

This, I have learnt after being involved with the Blank Noise interventions over the last month.

For instance, I learnt to look. To stand in a crowded public space and look. Not to smile, not to shuffle my feet, not to use my phone as a social shield, not to speak to my companions, not to flinch, not to give way.

Not to give way.

Just stand there and look into the eyes of the passersby.

True, I was not alone. There were about eight of us women in a busy subway near a south Delhi market. A few male volunteers accompanied us but did not join us in the more confrontational, challenging actions. They stood to one side and guaged crowd reactions.

We, the women, just stood there and stared back. Some of us sat down on the stairs, others stood right in the middle of the subway, facing either direction. We were instructed not to pay attention to anybody who tried to ask for explanations. We did not owe anybody any explanations. But we did give out letters, starting, 'Dear Stranger', and going to describe a woman's first-person account of street sexual harassment.

We heard a few warnings; for instance, a watchman told a college-going volunteer that she should not stand around because 'koi galat samajhega' (somebody might misunderstand). She retorted with 'Let them misunderstand... I'm just standing'. He tried telling us that it was forbidden. We told him to show us where it said so - any sign saying 'Do not stand'? Any written order?

Somebody suggested that we would be brushed against or pushed about because 'you are in the way'.

The point was - we were not! We were neither pushed about nor brushed against, nor pinched nor groped nor even came up to suggest that 'make friendship'. Nobody dared.

Because all we did was to stand there and stare, right into the eyes of the passersby, men and women both. As soon as they realised that they were being stared at, they'd look away.

And I discovered something wonderful - we women were not just standing there, looking. We were confronting. We were challenging. We were daring.

And nobody dared.

In the face of aggression, there are two ways to react - one is to fight with one's own inherent aggression, which might result in a physical fight. The second way is to look away, acknowledging that, for the moment at least, you are giving way.

Too long, women have given way. When a man comes striding down the street, we step to one side. When a man takes up too much space on a shared bus seat, we cower in our corner, uncomfortable, but silent. When a bunch of men hang round, staring at us, we hurry past, trying to ignore the threat of their eyes.

This time, we did not. No slogans, or placards, or black arm-bands, or violence. All we did was let our inherent aggression loose. Stand there - feet apart, eyes unblinking.

Jasmeen organised interesting variations each time. One evening, there was a sound element - two recordings playing simultaneously. One was that of a group of boys describing what they looked at in a woman - what their bodies should be like. At the other end, there was the sound of a woman's laughter, hysterical, uproarious.... ever noticed, that in public spaces, very few sounds are feminine? Women rarely laugh loudly, uninhibitedly.

[In fact, when I was in school, our Hindi teacher specifically told us not to laugh openly; it was not considered proper for girls].

But before that, there was the night walk.

To our collective discomfort, there was too much media. Too many cameras, too many TV crews. This was a problem, because the point of the night walk was that a bunch of women should be out at night, doing what they wanted, wearing what they wanted, challenging the public space that prevents women from being out at night.

The moment you bring a TV crew into a space, things change. People perceive the whole proceeding as a film shooting, a sham, a staged drama, and not something that is - or should be - a normal part of the cityscape at night.

The TV reporters had been warned - if they wanted to come, they'd have to come as participants and volunteers, not as people who gawk, ask questions and leave. This, perhaps, was too much to expect.

However, what really made me feel ashamed of my tribe was this article.

It says - "the protesters were “leched” at, ridiculed and booed along the three-kilometre stretch of the march, the first of its kind in New Delhi"

Factually incorrect. I did the whole stretch and was neither booed nor ridiculed. Questions, yes. Arguments, yes. Booing, no. Leching? Possible? We were too busy to notice.

Further, "The organisers, who ran into trouble even before the roadside Romeos, managed to round up just 15 participants."

What was this supposed trouble that the organisers supposedly ran into?

"The protesters, in their spaghetti tops and accented English, made quite an impact on the streets. Those who hadn’t turned up in a “mod and hep” attire seemed clearly overdressed."

False. False. False.

Not everyone was in spaghetti tops. [I was.] The women had been asked to come dressed in something they would not normally wear. One friend came in a mangalsutra - the one thing she does not wear. Her friend was in a shalwar-kameez. Many others wore standard T-shirts and jeans.

Also, except for a couple of foreign nationals, nobody's English could be described as 'accented'. Unless they meant Punjabi accent, Bengali accent, Dilli-wala accent etc.

The reporter has placed 'mod and hep' in inverted commas. Any particular reason? Was this supposed to be a reference to western clothes? Also, those who were not in western clothes were in regulation cotton shalwars... Overdressed? Who?

And even if a woman is overdressed. Let us say she feels like walking about in a Benarsi silk saree... when you come to cover what you describe as a protest (it was never described as one by Blank Noise; it was a night walk/night action plan), why are you so busy taking detailed notes about who was wearing what?

There's more.

"Armed with placards, posters and red arrow tags, the protesters..."

We had posters and red arrows. There were no placards. Did the reporter dream those up? What we did have were stencils.

This article got it right. Unfortunately, the same media group carried another article, two days later, about the same event, but in a very different tone, possibly because it re-carried the story as given out by a news service provider.

"A midnight march by women to protest against "touching, staring, groping, pinching and stalking" sounded heroic enough until the protesters ran into stalking Romeos lining up the path."

We did not run into stalkers lining up the path.

I did run into two young men who seemed concerned at my putting up a poster in Sarojini Nagar. One of them said, "Where's the point of putting it here? This is a government colony..."
Implying, of course, that sexual harassment is not a problem in government colonies.

I responded by asking, "Why? You think government people are all very shareef (decent)?"

That made him laugh in an embarrassed sort of way, and leave. That was all.

Anyway, being on the receiving end of media ignorance and inaccuracy is not pleasant. But what really bothered me was the tone of the article. The insensitivity of it. Here is this bunch of women, trying to do something that is generally acknowledged as a huge problem, across the country... And all you can think of writing is the straps on their shoulders or the accents they spoke in?


One in the crowd said...

A fundamental mistake in the reporting.

What I understand from the bnp newsletters is that these interventions aim at letting women be. Letting them do what they want to do rather than 'staging a protest'. To me, that's a huge error in understanding the concept. Dumb reporting.

smriti said...

all said and done i am still envious of you...that you were there and I so wish i was too!

Slogan Murugan said...

Are there any plans to replicate this in other parts of India?

Anonymous said...


Nicely written and I felt the same when I read that report. It was incorrect reporting.

But to say that some male colleagues "did not join us in the more confrontational, challenging actions" is also a bit off. I, for one, made it clear that no matter how much I associate with the cause, I can not participate as my company policy forbids me to join any campaign.

Anyway, just nitpicking! Will send you my story when it's on the wire.


Balaji said...


You work in the media Annie. I think the answer for the questions and remarks posed by you can be best answered by you only.

I do fully support this initiative. Koi danda leka marta nahin hai...and that itself is the biggest problem.

Rajesh said...

Good work. I hope it gains strength.

I had once conceived a programe for someone to enable women to drive autorickshaws. I would be happy to provide inputs if that excites you in any way.

Annie Zaidi said...

blah: yes, error in understanding is the kindest way of looking at it.

smriti: i wish too!

sloganmurugan: it is already being replicated. It took off in Bangalore first, and there are organisers in Chennai and Mumbai too.

palash: thanks. and when I spoke of the male colleagues who did not join in the more confrontational bits, I was not referring to the reporters. I was referring to the male participants and volunteers who have been a huge help and support system for us, but who don't always get to join in some of the actions, because a male presence changes the dynamics of any women's action.

balaji: part of the problem is - jab zaroorat padti hai, danda haath mein nahin rehta

rajesh: of course, it would interest me. have only met one woman auto driver in the city though, and even she took it up more as a challenge than a long-term profession. are there more? we'd definitely like to meet them.

Anonymous said...

nice work! media has wayyyyyyy too much power these days... : FREE Indian Recipes!

kuffir said...


auto-drivers, there are quite a few in hyderabad...and i guess across the south. in fact, there are a few women bus drivers in apsrtc..

and only one in delhi? i hope someone studies this..non-trend.

One in the crowd said...

@ Annie
A bit off-topic but in Trivandrum where I lived for a year, I have seen many female auto drivers and Petrol Pump attendants.

Annie Zaidi said...

anonymous: the media derives its power from those who read/see/hear it. so I'm not sure I'd agree that it has too much power. it just doesn't have enough responsibility or accountability. just like the people it represents and reaches out to.

kuffir: i hope so too

BB: i guess, we should begin by fortifying ourselves.

blahblah: have seen at least one all-woman petrol pump here. but sadly, not enough autos.

Rajesh said...

There are none, yet!

Not very difficult to make this happen. Start with 10 or even 5.
These could be financed through a bank, micro business fund, corporate funding or an individual contribution drive.

Launch this and talk about this through an outreach programme with the media, and soon enough a corporate will want to contribute (it's ok even if it is just for visibility).

The spiral effect of this could be substantial - other women drivers are likely to join, general confidence of women would rise by seeing enabled women and several others, including the impact on male auto drivers – generally positive.

Shell has a great road safety programme. Delhi government may be interested.

I may not check this thread again so feel free to write to me or talk in case you need any inputs – would be happy to offer advice etc if any group wants to take this forward.

Rajiv said...

a courageous effort! kudos.

a correspondent said...

Bridalbeer, very well explained. It is about intimidation and the sexual kick. The intimidation works not because of violence because of a willingness to take the aggression to violence if the situation arises. So it comes down to who has power.

Women taking back the public space, and being aggressive in staring back and hanging out like men will work when they are in a group for the purpose - but remember that true physical power and a willingness to do violence still vests more in men. Till that is evened out, there is a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

I support the cause .It is creative but... All the interventions are all about making a statement (Im am sure the word "making a statement is going to be attacked as not factual ").A group of people meet with posters ,signs .photos taken ,blogs and articles written then they disperse.Most never meet again and never know what the interventions had really accomplised.

Do you think those lechers even gave it a second thought?
Do the people who lech and eve-tease read the bolg or see the photos?
Does it make them change?

Do you know why they do what they do and what would really be effective?

I have heard explanations by the founders of blanknoise and know they dont have an idea or really care to understand the mind of an eve teaser to make the campaign more effective.sad but true...

Cold ,distant ,arguementative comes to mind. Experiences are what make people act the way they are this goes for the founders of the BNP and also the eve-teasers.Do either side ever care to understand the other .Never.Will there come a time when one side understands the other to make a change in the other side.

Well if this post is attacked with the rabid fury that most posts which are contrary to the common view then I think not. If there is introspection (which is difficult when you get views like you dont know what your are talking about).

There is a huge communication gap (which will be disputed also)

Like the guy at Sarojini Nagar asking a simple question .Did he imply that government people are all very shareef?
Could he have meant that no one would read that poster?
Did he laugh and leave due to the answer? or did he just find he was wasting his time not geting a simple answer to what was the use of the poster there?
Hey who know what the real answer to those questions are and who care. View have already been made...

as a huge problem, across the country.YES.Does impersonal ideas of a few females creating a statement (yeah this is going to get a lot of BNP memeber real angry with the words "creating a statement")make even a small dent in the problem.Does the intervention make a change?Or does it have shock value as it has for the past few years.

Why is this anonymous?Because this post is not worth reading ....

Unknown said...

The fact remains that the media did a one-sided job of reporting the event. In this case the media became another by-stander instead of getting to the heart of the matter. Television is justified in being a by-stander, as they have no option but to be. But our print journalists should have been more "investigative."


Annie Zaidi said...

rajiv: thanks
dancewithshadows: true. women in groups will be safe and women alone will still be at risk. but part of this whole power game is based on numbers. women in bombay feel relatively safer (though my own experience shows me that sexual harassment still happens publicly) because there are more women out there, in public spaces, at most odd hours. if there are more women out there, as many as men, at least, I firmly believe that the situation will improve.

anonymous: 'most never meet again' ? Not true. We do. 'don't know what was accomplished'. Not true. We do. Go to the blank noise blog and you will see regular updates and reports about what took place, how people reacted, how it made us feel, what we were challenging. etc.
and yes, most of us ARE cold, distant, argumentative when it comes to street sexual harassment. Do you expect us to be warm and friendly when somebody's groping us in public?
And we do understand 'the other side'. Understanding does not mean we will put up with harassment, or forgive it.
as for your anonymity, you're welcome to it. trust me, i won't suffer for the lack of knowing you.

john: not fair. television journalists DO have an option to NOT be mere bystanders. it is not even like TV reporters handle the camera themselves, and so are tied down with equipment. besides, in this case, there was not much to 'investigate'. anybody with half an iota of sensitivity and who'd bothered to speak to any participant for about five minutes could have done a better job.

Anonymous said...

We do. Go to the blank noise blog and you will see regular updates and reports about what took place, how people reacted, how it made us feel, what we were challenging. etc.

Did it change anything? Did it make the streets safer? Did it change the creeps perceptions? I do check the BNP and i see loads of photos and media articles . Interventions for shock a awe.

Understanding does not mean we will put up with harassment, or forgive it.
It definately does not mean that.And that goes without saying.Why would understanding the psyche of the intruder have anything to do with fighting an intruder boggles my mind and I do not know what made you make that statement .

Why do i keep stressing on undersstanding the psyche of the creep?
BNP's campaign would be all the more effective if the psyche of the creep was better understood. From what i see the media strategies and the people who are are the receiving end are just the by standers .for eg the letters given to a bystander who gave it back sayin it should be given to those who cause the problem in the first place.

And we do understand 'the other side'
If you did then you would know most of the interventions are ineffective . The only ones which are effective are the ones where there are volunteers who go talk and debate with the bystanders .Not the interventions where you all just stand and stare.

Poster in the streets and getting the media to distort the story does no good for the cause.

tone of the article. The insensitivity of it.
90% of people have not idea what the hell is being accomplished from the intervention.A lot of casual participants also have no idea what is being accomplished.
for eg two recordings playing simultaneously?We, the women, just stood there and stared back.?? What do you expect anyone who does not know what the underlying cause of the staring or the recording is to write about ?

We were confronting. We were challenging. We were daring.
Its good if the participants felt that way.But no one around felt or got that message. So the message of the medium was lost in transmission.

When a man comes striding down the street, we step to one side.
Are you for real?

All we did was let our inherent aggression loose.
Guess no one felt the aggression or there would be some reaction to show that they saw it .

our Hindi teacher specifically told us not to laugh openly
Who listens to some old dumb hind teacher? which generation are you living in ? would a recording of a woman's laughter, hysterical, uproarious pass the message ?Hey its creative agreed but a bit to creative to get the message across.

The Healing Touch said...

In India, RAGGING is a major cause of gross violations of human rights.

Both boys and girls are forced to undergo serious physical and sexual abuses.

The society must awaken to stop it. The Society Against Violence in Education (SAVE)- is possibly the only registered Anti Ragging NGO in India. SAVE -

People must resist every form of abuse and human rights violation.

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