Wooing on the streets

After a series of articles questioning responses, here are some thoughts on problems are processes that are thrown up in the course of Blank Noise interventions. Comments, as always, welcome. This is by Blank Noise volunteer Ratna Apnender:

The first time I participated in a Blank Noise intervention, March 2006, Brigade Road, Bangalore, it was the most empowering experience I’d had in my life so far. Standing on the street and reversing the gaze, confronting people who felt me up - in whatever ways I felt was appropriate - and, most importantly, simply talking about an issue I had been taught to ‘ignore’ all my life, knowing other people had similar experiences to share.

The issue was pertinent; I had never come across it being addressed before and in this manner. The methods were self reflective, participatory and therapeutic. Most of all it wasn’t NGO-ish and jargonistic. As an eighteen year old in the first year of college who had just begun exploring feminist theory and activism, I felt I was actually doing something.

One intervention after another, and after talking to friends who have been involved with related issues and those who haven’t, I found myself beginning to question certain things that were central to these interventions and central to the direction in which Blank Noise, as a social movement / form of protest seems to be heading.

After listening to countless stories of friends being molested in nightclubs by people they know and being felt up at parties by friends it made me think about how most of us women (and men) automatically demonize the public space, assume that it can only be a site of harassment and proceed to make our private spaces out to be safer and more devoid of harassment than they actually are. Not only are we unequipped to deal with harassment in the private sphere but also more importantly this ignores the presence of desire in the public sphere.

Of course looking hurts. And I have the right to protest against being looked at in a way that violates me and the right to be offended by any kind of looking or staring. But why is it that most of us are usually only harassed when we are stared at by the man from a lower socio-economic strata on Brigade Road and not by the guy on the dance floor in a posh nightclub, or by a woman?

Because you just don’t feel as harassed by the nightclub guy, you may even think he’s cute and that’s how people hook up. Are you not implicitly ruling out the remotest possibility that you may be attracted to the guy on Brigade Road? And that he may be trying to woo you just like the nightclub guy may be trying to chat you up? Especially in a society where the man is almost always expected to make the first move and where no still means yes, where a women who is sexual is seen as desperate, Blank Noise while trying to challenge the notion of a slut may also be restricting the ways in which this can be done by imposing rigid codes of behaviour, rigid codes of what to feel when one is stared at by a man on the road, and also what not to feel.

Why and how are the actions of the man on the street different from those of the man in the nightclub?

I am not trying to say that we shouldn’t feel harassed by non- English speaking lower class strangers on the road. However I am saying that looking at every public space as only sexually threatening and not a gray area where people interact, forge relationships, fall in love, and also have unpleasant experiences, and get harassed, is dangerous because of the assumptions on which it is based. Perhaps worse is the potential for an entire movement to be based on these same assumptions.

Am I also not ruling out that fact that I can be sexually threatened by a woman? That the same stare from a woman may not offend me in the way it would if it was from a man. Again I’m not trying to say that one should feel offended by a woman who stares at you, only that we must wonder why. And acknowledge the shades of gray.

I also want to ask whether this is an inevitable consequence of what Blank Noise is supposed to be doing, or is it because of the assumptions we as participants take for granted and base our actions on?

Is Blank Noise still a form of protest that is responsive and dependant on the social and cultural context or is it just another convenient social issue for us to be involved with, while airbrushing confusion and refusing to challenge notions in our minds before we go out and challenge the street?



Unknown said...

This question too bothers me more than frequently - Afterall, why do we feel 'teased' by a certain someone's look and not by the other's. Maybe, we just know. I'de like to believe its the vibes...more than the look or the touch its the energy passed through that makes us uncomfortable...that is probably the difference between in a harmless 'checking out' and leching.

sol said...

Well asked, Ratna. I remember raising a point when Jasmeen had come to campus about how a woman, by wearing a revealing dress, does not send the same messages to every one around her. She might be flattered if a (male) friend says that she's looking rather nice, (she might even want him to notice and make such a comment;) while that same gaze (as far as I can tell) might not be welcome from a stranger.

One of the questions you have raised is whether socio-economic prejudice could be a factor in this. Possibly it is, but I'm not certain.

It is also possible that one is inviting a sexual gaze more in a nightclub, especially as it is a space where you have voluntarily placed yourself. The streets are for passing through, they are merely for transit (for most of us), while the nightclub is for being in. That might just make a difference.

The fact that you have volunteered your body into the nightclub might also diminish the distance between those in the nightclub and yourself (reducing the "stranger-ness", which I had alluded to earlier), which might not happen on a street, the passing through of which is not as voluntary. You often walk through them because you have to: to get to a ("safe") mall, etc.

That is not to say a sexual gaze is always welcome in a nightclub, and always unwelcome on the street. For instance, you might want to hang out in a public park, which is different from a street (not just a thoroughfare, but a destination), but the same feelings as to the street might apply (possibly because of social class). All I am saying is that the nature of your being on either the street or the nightclub, and the consequent distance you place between yourself (and wish to place between your body) and the others might also be of consequence. Just as socio-economic class may be of consequence.

Any thoughts?

The Ignoramus said...

Reading this post, I was reminded of what G.B.Shaw once said:

<< The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man. >>

(I am sure Shaw meant mankind by the word "man" here).

This one's an excellent post, which is introspective in nature. It lends some credence to all the arguments regarding "looking" that have been taking place in this blog for quite a while now.

She might be flattered if a (male) friend says that she's looking rather nice, (she might even want him to notice and make such a comment;) while that same gaze (as far as I can tell) might not be welcome from a stranger.

Does it have to be a stranger? If the girl was wearing that to draw a particular guy's attention, and she gets a word of appreciation from him, she is happy. If it is a word of criticism, she is unhappy. But if a guy who she doesn't particularly have a good opinion about gives a word of appreciation, even a genuine one, it hurts her, and in fact, further strengthens her prejudice against him. I know this, because I was a victim of such a prejudice in my college, and it hurt badly. It is a terrible feeling to be looked down upon by a person who is prejudiced against you for no reason.

Anonymous said...

sol: I don't entirely understand what you mean by "a woman, by wearing a revealing dress, does not send the same messages to every one around her."
That she treats different people differently in the way she RESPONDS to them?
Also about the rest of your point- it may also be that the street has been concretized in our minds as a lower class space. I agree with your about about walking through the street v. hanging out in a nightclub may be one of the reasons for the difference in reactions, but i feel it is much more a socio-economic bias than the above factor. Because I feel, a woman is more likely to be okay with a guy from the same "class" as her checkig her out/ ogling at her, or may even interpret leching as being checking out and may feel flattered if it were on the street as opposed to being checked out/ leched at by a man who is Not from the same class in a nightclub.
I know I'm completely inverting the situation, and constructing two extremes,
but while I do agree that the "street" and the "nightclub" - the purpose of you being present in those places does contribute to our reactions I also feel it isn't the deciding factor, or even half as important as the other factors.

Anonymous said...

I would understand if American and European womyn discuss such a 'problem' about 'acknowledging shades of gray' but it doesn't make sense when Indian womyn do it. Anyway, sol has very impressively cleared the 'confusion'!

See Bee said...

well if ppl think harassment in a nightclub is not harssment - but good ol fashioned nightclub fun - they're fooling themselves aren't they?

a constructor worker might be very hot and you might be the one staring at his swarthy sweaty body but a three second glance and/or wink from him might be the worst form of eve teasing..but your friend's friend who feels you up all over the place in the pretext of dancing is just being cute.

are women truly so stupid? I hope not!

isnt it really about how you feel about yourself in either situation? degraded? violated? or beautiful?

to each her own???

Anonymous said...

(a part of a longer post on my blog..)

Reading Ratna’s post at Blank Noise, got me thinking again. One of the points that she touches on is class. Are we more bothered when auto-wallahs leer at us vs. the dance floor stud? For me, I have been more incensed by the dance floor studs of the universe, than anything that any auto-dude has ever done or said to me. But that’s not my point. If you are more bothered by the auto-guy, it doesn’t make you a terrible, elitist bitch. Negotiating public spaces anywhere, and especially in India, is too often a battle-field and whatever ways in which we, as women, survive in it is our buisness.

But there’s a different discussion on class that Blank Noise should and could address. After our intervention at Brigade Road in February, a huge crowd headed out to the India Coffeeshop on MG Road. And the thing that bothered me, that nobody else seemed to notice was that the participants were overwhelmingly expats, NRIs (me), college girls, and a sprinkling of foreigners–in their jeans, Fab India kurtas and their lovely English.

I was annoyed for many reasons by the discussions that happened over coffee. For one thing, it felt too much like yet another space where expats and NRIs could get together and commiserate about India’s problems. But when I brought up the issue about class within the group, I got a tepid and blank “We are all women and we face the same problems regardless of class.”

Anonymous said...

I really like the fact that you are questioning your reaction to what is perhaps the same behaviour from different types of men (or women). It's something I've given some thought also. It is true for me that I will feel flattered by the gaze of a good looking man, but sometimes angry if a guy looks at me who I don't find attractive or who is much older. This is unfair perhaps in the first instance. But, I think it's also our natural way of fielding/filtering sexual advances. At the end of the day, I think it is your prerogative to enjoy or not enjoy sexual advances from different men and let's face it, if you were polite to everyone who stared or said something, you would end up in situations far more difficult to deal with than just giving an angry glance back. I think that it is when a man continues his advances beyond the obvious point of you not being interested, when he ignores your right to say no, that things become threatening and negative and much more than harmless wooing.

Diti said...

more than it being an issue of socio-economic prejudice, i guess what happens is you prolly are checking out the night club guy too...so his gaze does not make u feel violated...however you are not attracted to the guy on street and thats why his gaze violates you...bottom line is if you are not attracted to someone it is a NO...the socio-economic prejudice wont be an issue there...if you feel attracted to someone and you get stared at by him...it will be "checking each other out" however if you are not attracted towards this person...it will always appear as a "demeaning gaze to you..." and obviously everyone has a right to decide whose gaze is ok and whose is not....

Anonymous said...

diti: i'm asking, why is it that it's more likely for you to be attracted to the guy at the nightclub and not the guy on the street?
secondly if harassment is simply a question of whether you are attracted to that person or not, then are you saying that the actions of the wooer/harasser are neutral and whether it is wooing or harassment is determined by how they are recieved by the person they are directed to?
so then i wonder, how is the wooer/ harasser supposed to know whether you are attracted to him or not?