This month, don’t be surprised when a neighbourhood lane, infamous for the instances of sexual harassment, is lined with chairs, tables, samosas and tea. You might even be asked to join the seated men and women for an hour-long conversation on all things sundry. It is possible for the conversation to veer toward sexual harassment, but that’s not the agenda. The focus of the experiment will be to know neighbourhoods, especially those which carry an unsavoury reputation when it comes to safety.
In November 2012, 19 students from Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, Bangalore, participated in an experiment called Talk To Me. They were the ‘Yelahanka Action Heroes’, who came together as part of a college course, taught by Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, a project which works toward street harassment.
The Action Heroes decided to conduct the experiment at a dimly-lit lane at Yelahanka, which has earned the sobriquet, ‘Rapist lane’, because of high incidence of sexual harassment reported in the area. The idea was to invite passers-by and involve them in hour-long conversations.
Experiments with truth
Action heroes believe in setting new roles for public behaviour, one in which women reject all blame after an instance of sexual harassment. “There’s no such thing as ‘asking for it’. There is no excuse for sexual violence. An Action Hero unlearns fear, confronts herself, challenges her own comfort zone. Being fearless is a process,” says Patheja. She adds she has a problem with the fact that the notion of safety is skirted by caution and, ironically, more fear. “In the name of safety, we are building communities of defence. We stay warned, fearful, guarded. Fear creates fear. Defence builds defence. Pepper sprays/alert buttons play a role in making women 'feel safe', but instead we need to work on ways that go beyond that — we need to 'make safe'. We need to look at strategies that enable trust more than defence. Something that doesn't further biases, stereotypes but is inclusive. What if we were to imagine for a few minutes that there are more people walking in fear of each other than with the actual intention to harm. The weight of safety is, yet again, on thewoman.”
Heroes and action
The idea, adds Patheja, was to connect with a complete stranger and create an experience together, not preach about social dos and don’ts. “The Action Heroes were asked to have a (genuine) conversation — I did not specify topics, but stressed on the ability to be open and listen. If the opposite person brings up sexual harassment naturally, they would, of course, continue that conversation, too. The plan was that both people take away something from the dialogue. A conversation is a collaboration and requires two people to be open and willing to engage.” There were safety measures put in place, of course. If an Action Hero felt uncomfortable or threatened during a conversation, she was asked to put out a flag so two more Action Heroes could join her. This was only a back up plan to put Action Heroes attempting this for the first time, at ease. This situation never arose.
Dating tips and surprises
Twenty-year-old Action Hero Anamika Deb says she has her unfortunate share of sexual harassment on the streets. “We, the Action Heroes, started off by discussing our experiences on the streets. We all have experienced street harassment, but were all looking forward to speaking to strangers. I was curious to see what came up.”
It was a doctor who accepted Deb’s invitation to chat. She says he began speaking of his hobbies. “Gradually, he revealed that he also roams around colleges in his free time. I pricked my ears up and asked him why. He told me that he hoped to talk to the girls on campus.”
The conversation was revealing. Deb says she is sure she would have judged him had they not met in those mediated circumstances. “Just because we sat across each other, I could see he earnestly wanted to speak to women. He had experienced much rejection on the way, and was quite taken aback when I told him his methods were not likely to work.”
Deb was rather amused when the man began asking her for dating tips. “He wanted to know a ‘safe’ way to approach women. When I told him girls felt unsafe by such advances, he asked me additional questions to understand the issue better.” Did the conversation bring about a shift in Deb’s thinking? “Yes, it did. I know every guy out there isn’t as blameless as the doctor was, but I think I’ll go talk to a perpetrator instead of expressing anger.”
Bridging the gap
Action Hero Vishakha Jindal, a 21-year-old student, participated in the experiment, too. She says she was eager to be part of Talk To Me because she feels like an outsider at Yelahanka. “We are not acquainted to the locals here, most of whom are retired seniors.
I’ve always felt the distance between us. We dress differently than them, too, which perhaps adds to the perception that we aren’t just like them.” Jindal spoke to two locals as part of the experiment -- a teenager and a 20-something man. Herconversation with the teenager was rather generic -- about school life, hobbies and so on. “It didn’t not touch the subject of sexual violence, but I think I took away a lot from it.
I felt more connected to someone who was part of the then reticent local community, and that meant a lot. We bumped into each other in the market later, and waved. That was a good feeling.” Another action hero, remembers Jindal, had an experience wherein a man told her that he often harassed girls “because he felt like it when a girl walked by.”
Talk To Me, says Jindal, is a process, not an overnight solution. “We’ve tried to reclaim spaces at Yelahanka by walking past the lane while humming tunes, or just strolling about. And I don’t know whether this is related to the experiment, but none of us have experienced sexual harassment at that street. I think that’s a great start.”
To organise Talk To Me at a lane near you, contact Blank Noise at firstname.lastname@example.org