20.2.07

Thumbing down the city

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?"

"Really?"


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."


Really?


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

"So somebody did try something?"

"No."


Really?


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

"What about sisters? Daughters?"

"No."

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

"No."


Really?

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?"

Slowly....

"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)

"Yes?"

"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.

12 comments:

  1. Aditi1:26 pm

    A friend of mine asked me to have a look at this blog, after I had an experience of breast pinching in a so called 'good' area in Poona, which obviously left me in a very disturbed state.

    Your effort is definitely laudable. Its great to see women talking about such issues. However, I think the way the current state of affairs is, it is more practical do deal with concrete problems such as pinching/squeezing/feeling of body parts than 'abstract' problems such as gazing/staring/whistling etc. One needs to keep in mind that all the change can't be brought about at once, and it is important to first address the more easily addressable /understandable problems. I do not mean to say that I do not understand. But what I mean is that it has to be more understandable to men. You need to reach out to women and nice men and not provoke anger in the minds of immature men.

    Communication is a problem, even between two people. When you see the world as two groups - women and men, communication between the two is extremely difficult.

    I am an IIT graduate. I have had lots of problems in campus even though there are provisions by the institute to prevent these things, since women are a minority there. I was stalked for over a year. The guy talked to me only once, I told him I wasn't interested, he continued to follow me wherever I went. He was my senior, and ended up taking courses with me as electives. It screwed up a lot of my academic career. I couldn't do much then. It is now that I am talking to ppl. Talking to my juniors there and telling them that it is a problem and such things aren't acceptable. We fortunately do not face physical harrasment there, but a lot more on the mental side. Physical harrassment ( I am not talking of / staring / gazing / noises / songs / whistling etc) is something I believe every woman has faced on the streets, which leaves them disturbed for a week or two, just that noone wants to talk about it.

    I am happy with your efforts. You're smart girls, wish you all the very best.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Aditi, you're absolutely right. While all kinds of harassment needs to be tackled, the worst kind is physical. In fact, it is criminal and needs to be treated like a crime. It's awful that you can't do anything even in a place like IIT. Maybe you could go back there and do something with the gender cell, make it active and visibly so.

    In the meantime, would be like to start something or join some of the interventions in whichever city you're based in? Could mail us on the email ID provided.

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  3. Can't we have something like this here in Calcutta? I am sure lot of people will be taking part.

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  4. saptrashi= we can do this in calcutta provided there are more like you who would want to do it.

    From your end- we need the openess and the committment. do email us!

    We have heard from people in calcutta- and we are starting a calcutta google group.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Anonymous4:38 pm

    Firstly,

    Hats off to all you people, to take the initiative, in doing wat you are doing.

    But i strongly feel. You must be prepared and organized in what you do. What happened last time, was absolutely un-organized. I felt almost lost in the midway.

    A few things that I felt I must mention:

    1. If you are doing an initiative as "strong" as yours, then you MUST seek police or govt support, in some way. You do not want to do "wat you want to do" and end up like the other day, where every second we were hounded by the cops, public, and some jokers doing watever they want to your members.

    2. The girls must "wear" some kinda T-shirt or something. Them standing next to the railing, with the "kinda clothes", they wore last sunday will give a totally different understanding to the public.

    As a suggestion, you may want to "start off" with a common T-shirt worn by all members on that day. Then as time progresses move on to watever you want to wear. But begin with a BANG. You have just 1 or less than 1 minute to make a difference to the "common man". Things can be easily mis-understood or mis-represented

    3. KISS: (keep it simple silly) The message MUST be simple and clear. It should not be in various coded ways. Standing near the railing, the arrow formation, all that is times taking. It requires somebody to guess wat you are trying to do as a team. This again can be easily mis-understood or mis-represented.

    YOU MUST PLAN as a team, otherwise your cause and your plan is open into the hands of the common people to imagine watever they think.

    Could somebody give me an honest repliy to my comment.

    (a volunteeter of last sunday)

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think there are plenty of people in Calcutta who would sincerely want to work as a team. Yes.I am doing my part by telling people about this.Let's see.

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  7. fantastic!!

    keep us posted!

    GOOD LUCK AND KEEP AT IT :)

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  8. Dear Anonymous,

    Which one of the 50 are you?

    Do email us/ come meet us/ and share what worked for you or not.

    1. the police and the govt is important- but our focus was on US, acting as a group, acting as action heroes and fending ourselves via the performance. The state intervention si extremely important and their help will get manifested in other ways/ through other street actions.

    2. What do u mean when u talk about the public misunderstanding the event due to what the Action Heroes wore?

    The idea for this event is to be OURSELVES, to challenge ourselves, to surprise, to twist things around a bit - out of the normal. hence we dont need to hold boards, wear the same ts, and sing slogans to say what we are saying, but to create an experience- an intangible one.

    No matter how much we plan- there is always that CHANCE we have to take when we are out on the street- because the street is not a controlled stage- and we must act accordingly.

    There were 5o of us the last time. It was good but it became chaotic due to another event being conducted at the same time...

    Anyways- do email us. We would LOVE to talk to you!

    Cheers!

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  9. Yup for gals its fantasting.

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  10. Hey Anonymous, I'd wish to know if you're a girl or a guy. The way a guy perceives that entire action may be different from how a girl perceives. Even if a guy is a volunteer in those, he'll definitely not feel anything personal about it, he'll just be helping the girls. A guy's suggestions may be very valid and objective, but girls may think otherwise, they may differ with him, because they personally experience 'something' which we guys may never understand. So if you're a girl, then your comment will, and I suppose it should, carry more weightage. Guys can have differences with girls over their methods, but if girls themselves have differences amongst them, then it must be corrected with higher priority.

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  11. Excellent initiative taken up (the one mentioned in this post). This I feel is more proactive, and productive than the street interventions. The idea of anonymous letters is also very good.

    I agree very much with Aditi in the point that it is better to try and address tangible issues first. Things which men know are wrong, and so do it slyly, than those which they don't know are wrong. Is it my mistake if there is a beautiful girl and my eyes are drawn to her?

    As such, a lot of these nasty behaviours have been promoted by our dirty movies. I guess if such things in movies can be stopped, it would be good. You don't find such things in Hollywood movies. I know, this seems impossible, but a plan to change the society cannot exclude a change in the kind of moveis that are made.

    I also feel it may be a good idea to get the support of the NCW.

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  12. i want to come too....
    pl tell me next time, wenever it is, in delhi..
    Sruthi
    msruthi@gmail.com

    ReplyDelete