Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Thumb impressions

Sarojini Nagar market. Thursday. 15th Feb.

I'd been here only two days before: getting new curtains, socks, sunshine, weird banana split. And here we were again, carrying a map, pens, pamphlets, letters saying 'Dear Stranger....'

It is a little awkward - street actions in places where we also hang out. Abby mentioned the awkwardness last time at PVR Saket, after we gave out letters to strangers, wore red reflective tape on our chests, forming a 'KYA DEKH RAHE HO?' and then, we calmly sat down at one of the open-air eateries and proceeded to order.

It felt funny. To go from 'action hero' to ordinary. To go from staring back, confronting the non-existence of the lone woman, even in 'okay' places like PVR.... to sitting down, eating. As if nothing had happened. As if, handing out folded letters to strangers was an everyday thing for us.

We'd got used to disappearing soon after the intervention, heading out for coffee, a drink, dinner. Heading away... Why did we not stay on?

Because we had, mentally, separated our own personas? - our aggressive, blank noise persona, and our normal, relaxed-on-guard passive persona?

Did we need to change that? Perhaps. At Sarojini Nagar market, again, we did.

We began with sitting at a small restaurant where we formed a little pool of bemusement as we spread out a large map of Delhi, stapled it onto a sheet of hard chart paper, wrote 'Harassment Hot Spots' along the edge, brought out an ink-pad and pens, folded letters, ate rasmalai, waited for others, and returned to the same place later.

The plan for the evening was to mark out each area of Delhi where a woman has been sexually harassed. At the same time, we were doing a variation on the 'dear stranger' theme. Instead of handing out testimonials of harassment to men, we gave a hand-written format to women, asking them to fill in the blanks, and then give them away to others.

We started thumbing the map ourselves, before approaching other women.

"Excuse me, ma'am, do you have a minute?"

"Hi, listen, we're trying to do something about eve-teasing."

"Suniye, ek minute, please?"

"Ma'am, would you please look at this map?"

"Have you ever been harassed?"

"Ma'am, will you please..."

"Half a minute?"

"Aapko kabhi kisi ne pareshaan kiya hai? Badtameezi ki hai? Jise hum chhed-chhaad kehte hain?"

"Kahin bhi? Kabhi bhi? Yaad kariye..."

"Ever? Never? Anywhere... in the bus? On the streets?"


The first ten minutes found us rolling our eyes at each other, reining in the impulse to shake these women hard.

Most said: No.
"No. I have never been eve-teased/ I don't recall any incident/ I'm not from Delhi/ It doesn't happen in my town/ I'm too large/ I'm too aggressive/ My face is so forbidding that nobody dares."


"If somebody tries anything, I beat him up."

"So somebody did try something?"



"No idea. We only travel in cars." Or "I only go out with my husband."

"What about sisters? Daughters?"


"What about when you were younger? In college?"


We rolled our eyes. One would think we were the only freaks around who'd spent half our lives being harassed.
But what made it really frustrating was that every woman who was accompanied by a man, turned to look up at him. In confusion, for permission, to gauge whether she should speak or not?

"Have you ever been harassed?"

Look at man.

"Have you been felt up, followed, commented upon, touched against your will, brushed against?"

Look at man.

"Will you please put a thumb-print on the map?"

Look at man.

But we didn't snap - "What're you looking at him for? We're asking you!". Or - "If it happened, would you tell the man in your life?" Or even - "Do you think that, if eve-teasing happens, the girl is asking for it?"

We re-structured the conversation.

"Nowhere? Not even in buses?"

"In buses, of course. But it does happen in buses, doesn't it? That sort of thing is normal."

We asked them to mark out a bus-route. That, for some reason, was easier for them.

It was also easier to deal with younger women. College-goers, or those who hung out together, without boyfriends/husbands/fathers in sight.

One girl was particularly angry; she thumbed Gurgaon a dozen times. "Oh, everywhere in Gurgoan", she said.

Another inked Noida. Another said, "In busy markets. Here, in fact!"

There seemed to be a blue north-centre-south axis. The Delhi University (north campus), Chandni Chowk, Connought Place, Nehru Place, GK-1 and 2, Lajpat Nagar, Sarojini Nagar were hotspots.

There were funny moments too. More than one man wanted to thumb-print the map; as it turned out, because his wallet had been stolen. We had to explain that theft is not really our area of concern.

One conversation was particularly interesting (and particularly long). A woman (late thirties? forties?) with a man, began by denying she'd ever been harassed. (After looking at the man, of course).

"Nothing happens to me. You see, I've taken a self-defence course."

"You have? Did you ever get to use what you learnt?"

"Yes, I did."

"When? Where?"

"There was once this man..." (pause, turn to look at man)


"In a bus. I elbowed a man. Just like I'd learnt in karate."

"What was he doing?"

"He was behind me."

"But what was he doing?"

"Nothing happened as such. Because I know self-defence."

"Was he doing... badtameezi?"

"Yes. So I elbowed him in the middle."

"Good for you. Would you put a thumb-print on the map?"

Badtameezi. Bad behaviour. Easier to deal with. Eve-teasing. Easier to deal with. Sexual harassment?

It does not happen to us. No.

The learnings from the evening were huge. As blank noise interventions go, this was the first time we had to explain ourselves. We were not standing up, mutely challenging a public space. We were not making a statement. We were engaging.

This was the idea. Mapping the city. Getting women to fill in the blanks - create their own letters to strangers, based on their own experiences. Involving them in ways that is not possible if they only look at us.

The first thing we learnt was something we'd forgotten: that it is taboo to talk about what has happened to you. That many, many women still fear the accusation (or the assumption) that they were responsible. There is, perhaps, a culpability associated with sexual behaviour, even if it isn't your own.

The second thing we learnt was that it is easier to confront, harder to draw out, engage.

The third was that even those who were hostile, were intrigued. We ran out of pamphlets and letters quickly.

The fourth was that we needed more time, more volunteers, more maps.

While we gathered round a bench later, talking about what we'd just seen and what frustrated us, a woman came up to us.

"So what will this accomplish? What are you trying to do?"

"To stop what we call eve-teasing. So many people said, 'it happens; it's normal'. Our point is to establish that it is not normal. It is not right."

"But you cannot change men's attitudes."

"We can. We can change women, at least. So that we stop putting up with it and enforce a change.... would you like to put your thumb-print on the map?"

Grinning, she held up her thumb. It was already inked blue.

Cross-posted here.


iz said...

Annie, I love the way you write. This is my umpteenth visit to your blog and this tiem around I had to come out of the shadows. I celebrate women like you who help us believe.

the mad momma said...

You are right Annie... Some women are full of bullshit. They dont realise they are helping themselves by speaking up. I think its because to admit that you were harassed kind of smears you in the filth too... one of those keechad mein pathar phenkne se... I wish I had know you were doing this... hugely preggie though I am, I would have come along...

Nabila Zehra Zaidi said...

Absolutely right!!
people NEED to change!! many of us have seem to given up...to comprimise with the so called fact 'its a man's world' and such women agree to live in their own 'male dominating' society....the outlook to such 'petty' things is 'normal' and not..'its against my dignity' 'it makes me feel uncomfortable' 'i am disgusted by it'...its simply "IGNORE IT...its a part of life" ...huh...

Annie Zaidi said...

iz: thank you. i'm grateful for that comment.
momma: will tell you next time there's one.
nabila: time to start the revolution, isn't it? :)

smriti said...

looks like preeti hit a man again, somebody outside teaching hospital ... she has a sore big toe and is very angry about that.
I still haven't hit a man and am beginning to get frustrated with not catching up!

Anonymous said...

well... what cai i say...u r the one of ur kind...how many people have i know to taken this issue to this level.......none

Annie Zaidi said...

smriti: tell preeti, more power to her fist. if you know the details, blog it on her behalf. look at the latest posts for more details.
anonymous: actually, many. all those women in bangalore and delhi and chennai and everywhere else in the world.

Anand said...

great post. you should put a picture of the map up, with all those inky thumbprints...

crumbs said...

everyone of those women who said they have never been harassed are lying through their teeth.
i travel in the buses of bangalore everyday, and every single day, its a fight. at the end of the day u just feel tried that a simple thing like standing in a bus has to be a u-against-the-rest of them fight.
and wat pisses me off is that everytime i've asked a prick of a guy to come off trying to vent his sexual frustration on me in a bus, it is the WOMEN who give me dirty stares.

Anonymous said...

"look at man..."

I know this isnt the same, but I and quite a few guys I know, "look at our women" in the same sense before we venture answers on several different topics. The only exceptions being office-work and politics.

My wife is pretty OK with being and appearing to be in control receiving these non-verbal queries. Others I have seen signaling with various cues.

I haven't considered this be a sign of enslavement though come to think of it I dont know why.


Tweets by @anniezaidi