In India, sexual harassment of women in public spaces is harmlessly referred to as eve-teasing. Bangalore-based artist and social activist Jasmeen Patheja takes umbrage to this euphemism. She would rather people call it what it is: street sexual violence. To this end, she has spent the last five years using public and performance art to create awareness on the subject.
The mainstay of her project is a blog called Blank Noise. Started in 2004, it invites people to share their experiences of sexual harassment – as victims, perpetrators or spectators – in public spaces. Through this collective sharing, Patheja hopes to build a database of experiences connected to street harassment and encourage introspection over our quiet acceptance of the crime.
Patheja also uses the testimonials to create public and performance art. For example, she prints the experiences as letters and distributes them to people on the streets to gauge their reactions. "Some are immediately sympathetic, others throw them away in bewilderment", she says. Either way, it brings people upfront with an issue they would rather avoid. She also organises Street Action Heroes event where she invites women to meet at a certain city spot and fearlessly stand there and stare back at passers-by. The disarmingly simple-sounding act brings into question the fear with which women are taught to associate public spaces and strangers.
Patheja also asked women through the blog to send them the clothes they were wearing when they were violated, which she used to build a public art installation. The eerie installation questioned the myth that provocative clothes invite eve-teasing. As the clothes testified, no outfit could claim protection from street sexual violence. Patheja considers all the above acts as public art, because the public – through its reactions – is as much a participant as herself and other actors. Patheja conceived of the Blank Noise Project as a student of art in Bangalore in 2003. Since then it has mushroomed into a much larger project of social transformation, with thousands of bloggers participating through their writing and street action.