Moments of a Long Pause at GSU, Atlanta!

Blank Noise presented our short film, Moments of a Long Pause, at the Georgia State University conference titled ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’. Organized by Faces of Feminism, an undergraduate student organization affiliated with the Women's Studies Institute of Georgia State University, "Better Safe Than Sorry: A Query into Notions of Security," addressed issues of public safety, citizen rights, police action, the surveillance state and so on, on April 24th, 2010.

We* presented the film just after the lunch break, and people gathered around with their food in the foyer where the film was shown on two screens, aligned at an angle to one another. In case you haven’t seen the film, it was shot in several Indian cities (Amritsar, Delhi, Kolkata etc.) and features men and women on separate screens, describing their experiences on the streets. The interviewees cut across classes and include school and college students, a rag-picker, shop-keepers; most interviews are conducted on the street, but some are in homes. The film is especially fascinating for me because of the number of themes it touches upon: violence vs. wooing/flirting on the streets and how this is perceived across class; who ‘asks for it’ and the confinement of sexualized behavior to certain bodies and certain spaces (sex districts); and what is sexualized behavior anyway - The male perpetrator’s “cool cheez” is the woman’s refusal to accept that – “this is not the sex district,” she says; ideas of nation and ideas of respect altering between nations; female agency/power vs the resignation that “even a corpse can be sexually harassed”… the range of debates that stem from this film are pretty extraordinary.

I want to write about what it was like screening a film about dynamics on Indian streets to an audience who need not necessarily have experienced them. The audience was very alive, sensitive and involved and their reactions allow an in-point to discussing what kind of context we need to have when discussing street sexual harassment in India to an audience situated outside of it, even maybe within India.

The audience was involved when the film was being screened, and laughed at the “right” places: where women said that they would take off their shoes and beat perpetrators with it, for instance, or when they said vehemently that they would brook no nonsense and fight off men who harassed them.

After the film, I began with an explanation of Blank Noise – how it began, when etc. and followed that up with a link to the conference themes – a bit about police apathy after the violence against women in March- April 2009 in Bangalore and a mention of different relationships with the street, for instance for a queer person, the street might be a site for pleasure-seeking, although simultaneously a site of violence and danger, but it might be significantly different from a heterosexual middle-class woman’s relationship with the street.

I don’t remember all of the questions exactly, but here is the gist of some of them, as well as the gist of my answers:

1. Is there a clear understanding of what constitutes eve-teasing?

I talked a bit about the wide range of activities recognized by different people who we interviewed as constituting “eve teasing”; the opinion poll about harassment that’s on our website and some debates that we have had in the past over, for example, whether ‘staring’ was “eve-teasing”.

2. You talked a bit about the class dynamics in the film which maybe people who weren’t familiar with might not have been able to pick up on. Could you elaborate?

To this I talked about the kinds of people present on Indian streets, in terms of hawkers, shop keepers and so on, and how this led to a classed dimension in cases in which the lower class man is attempting to engage with the middle-class woman shopper. Also that middle-class men might have a more purposeful relationship with the public sphere using it to get from place A to place B rather than flaneuring on the street. This doesn’t take away from instances of harassment by middle class men in airports.

3. What is the significance of “friendship” as discussed on screen?

There are soundbytes in the film which show men saying they wanted “friendship” from women. I talked a bit about the lack of spaces for meeting people of the opposite sex and as this request for “friendship” being a way to initiate contact which is interpreted differently across classes. Also at this request being not entirely benign, for instance, it is likely that even if you say no, the initiator will persist. The idea, from Bollywood films perhaps, that a ‘no’ by a woman is said in coyness: it actually means a ‘yes’.

4. The idea of the split screen was interesting; sometimes when both screens spoke at once it seemed overwhelming but perhaps that it how it was meant to sound, since the experience itself is overwhelming.

I talked a bit about the genesis of the name, Blank Noise- which comes from feeling a mix of noises in your head and still a silence when you have experienced harassment.

5. What is the impact of religion on street sexual harassment?

I talked a bit about some traditional neighborhoods where being an outsider and dressed conspicuously differently from those who lived there could lead to a friction – for instance, what is the difference between wearing shorts in the Jama Masjid area where some interviews were shot and in Defence Colony?
I also mentioned the clothes project – ‘I did not ask for it’ – with the addendum that the challenge lay not in being defiant about you wear because “you never ask for it”, but in recognizing how dressing in particular ways interferes with the circulation of ideas about appropriate/inappropriate clothing in a particular context. Therefore although women get harassed in burkhas as well as in school uniforms, this does not mean that what they wear makes no difference to how they/their bodies are received.

6. Related was a question about state discourses on this issue.

I talked a bit about how the “routine” and everyday nature of street sexual harassment allowed police to absolve themselves of any responsibility for more serious violence against women as in the case where Bangalore Police Commissioner referred to instances of violence against women as being “only eve-teasing” (March 2009). Also a bit about BJP discourses of the virile Indian nation – nuclear power, 21st century modern nation, yet proud possessor of “respectable” women. Finally, a link between discourses of modernity and progress and development linked to discontentment in coastal Karnataka – the Mangalore pub attacks, by the extreme right-wing Sri Rama Sene.

And then some final thoughts. Through it all, it struck me that there was a way in which the less educated men who were interviewed could be received (to both an urban Indian audience as well as a Western one) as “primitive”, “conservative”, thus naturally aligning the audience with the women who hit them with shoes/slippers – the agential “modern” citizen-subject woman. How does this portrayal set up India (loosely) as a space where men are controlling of women who then need to be liberated? And how does India become the polar opposite of what the West itself is imagined as, or imagines itself as? Looking at this film in the West, how do categories of West and non-West become solidified so that the West is a space of liberal tolerance where women can run on the streets in shorts and wear as they please whereas in India men say things like “if she dresses like that, she asks for it”?

Also how does one contextualize issues like “friendship” and explain, for instance, homosociality, or how men relate to other men, and understand people’s request for friendship as occurring along a longer, historic (thinking of courtly/zenana homosociality) trajectory?

All in all though it was a wonderful wonderful afternoon and I hope Blank Noise has many more such screenings and discussions!

*Thanks to Moyukh Chatterjee for helping to set up the AV.