Friday, September 08, 2006

some more noise

The Blank Noise Project has been active in Delhi over the last few weeks.

Posters have been put up, streets have been negotiated, students have been encouraged to volunteer, plans have been made and re-made.

Like I've said, street sexual harassment is a way of life. But after talking to other people about the project, recently, I found some relevant concerns resurfacing and some of my ideas hardening into a resolve.

For instance, this business of what exactly is street sexual harassment; how do you define it? How do you demarcate the acceptable from the can't-be-helped from the worthy-of-retaliation from the criminal?

How do you tackle this business of 'we feel intimidated even if they are not molesting us'? How do you handle the class factor, the caste factor? How do you make the streets safe, without making them cold and distant and shorn of human warmth and vibrancy?


All of us are agreed, more or less, that we will not put up with groping, pinching, pushing, stalking, threatening etc. If any of the above happens, we feel perfectly justified in slapping/punching/taking-him-to-the-police.

But I cannot, will not, deny a man's right to whistling, song-singing, comment-passing, propositioning, making of kissing-noises, staring etc.

This is a tricky situation.

Because, when they're stared at, commented-upon, sung at, a lot of women feel violated in an intangible way that they can't quite articulate.

What can be done with this sense of violation and fear?

One option - make the women aware, at an early age, that they do have the option of staring back, throwing back verbal insults, turning down a proposition, staring down a man.

This too is tricky - because, we often read of women, when they did rebuke or refuse, were faced with physical assault, or with acid-throwing.

Then, there is the business of a 'good gaze' and a 'bad gaze'. The buri nazar, the lech, the male gaze.... call it what you will - what is it? After all, people must look at each other. Appreciatively, one hopes. The trouble is that one does not want appreciation from everybody. One does not want to be looked at, by everybody.

That is where caste and class come into play. Hemangini has a very well-thought-out post about this tricky question.

A lot of us - a lot of us who are educated, who can read this, who have access to the net, who wear various kinds of clothes at will and not because we don't have other options - are uncomfortable being looked at when we are out on the streets. A lot of us wear jackets, or stoles on the streets, but throw off the outer garment the moment we step into a disco or a party at a friend's home. Because we assume that the people who look at us there are people like us. People who are used to looking at women in revealing clothes.

And yet, as Hemangini points out, these 'people like us' will often slow down while driving their cars, and offer lifts to a pedestrian woman - persistently, without cause. Some of them will race down on a bike, inches from a woman body, sometimes brushing against her, sometimes pulling at her clothes. Will stare at you in malls, outside cinemas, in discos.

But women do not necessarily mind being looked at by 'a certain class of man'. There is much 'eye contact' at pubs and malls, between strangers. This is something people routinely look forward to.

And so, we (at least, I) cannot ask the man on the street to stop staring, leching, whistling. We cannot punish him for his poverty, for the fact that he has nowhere else to be, except the street.

Even so, Blank Noise volunteers have conducted some interesting experiments. Like the one in Bangalore where the volunteers took over a certain railing on a certain road, which was usually occupied by men. They just stood there, and stared, exactly like the men did on a daily basis.

This, to my mind, is a reasonable reaction. Reversing roles. Claiming and using the streets in the same way that has been used against you, until now.

Taking back the night. Taking back the streets. Talking back.

So far, so good.


Anonymous said...

While I admire the work being done to fight street sexual harassment, I feel that it is important to remember that the common hoodlum on the street has much less to lose as compared to the victim of harassment.

After all, it is the victim who is following a set pattern on a daily basis, using the same route, stopping by the same places, day after day.

A perpetrator, whose ego has been hurt by the victim’s response to his actions, may think of restoring his pride by lashing out at the victim…

Am not saying that one should be accepting of sexual harassment on the street, but yes, maybe one should pick and choose battles…keeping potential costs in mind…after all, some things are irreversible…

Jay Sun (

Anonymous said...

A very interesting point indeed.

Not directly related perhaps but looking at it from the other side, I am often wary of smiling at women on the street in Delhi because I fear they might interpret it as an advance and feel scared or angry. At home (IIT Kanpur), I would not think twice about smiling at people on the street.

Annie Zaidi said...

jay sun: yes, one should pick and choose one's battles. street sexual harassment is a battle we've chosen to fight. the potential costs you refer to are not likely to be felt by volunteers - we take safety into account during all public action initiatives. and as for being alone and fighting back, well, that's exactly the sort of fear-psychosis that keeps women off the streets, and silent. and yes, you're right. some things could well be irreversible. we must make sure that such things don't happen. because, you see, perpetrators hurt victims nevertheless - even if you don't hurt their egos. and right now, we're not talking about egos at all. we're attacking attitudes, perceptions.

anirudh: don't ever be afraid of smiling at women. if a woman feels insulted by a smile, there's something seriously wrong with her. as long as you just smile and don't do anything else, I doubt if a woman would be afraid. Besides, Delhi could do with a lot more smiles on the streets.

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