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?