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THE OTHER HALF

The speak-out sisters on the Net

BY KALPANA SHARMA

Speaking up against harassment is not easy in the `real' world. Thanks to technology, there are alternative spaces to let off steam.



Striking a chord: The Blank Noise blog page on Blogspot.

WE are reminded again of the price women, and men, must pay if they dare to speak up. The daylight murder of Meher Bhargava, who objected when a man on the street harassed her daughter-in-law in Lucknow, comes as one more instance in a growing list of such public expressions of intolerance and violence against those who stick their necks out.

How do we react?

Meher was killed because she would not accept that what we continue to call "eve-teasing" is acceptable behaviour. She was the wife of a politician, came from an upper class family in Lucknow. Yet, on the street, she was just another woman, another human being, daring to raise her voice to protest against the unacceptable. Given what happened to her, do we reconsider what advice we give young girls who are victims of such harassment? Should we tell them to stand up, shout, hit back if they can, report the matter and follow it up until the harassers are punished? Or should they keep quiet and skulk away because the dice is too unevenly loaded?

Thanks to modern technology, there is one space where we can all blow-off steam and escape immediate physical violence. The Internet has created democratic spaces for those with something to say to express themselves. Blogging, where people create their own on-line diaries that can be accessed by all, is still a developing skill in India. But with the increase in Internet access, and faster connections thanks to the availability of broadband, the number of blogs is increasing.

On March 7 this year, a day before International Women's Day, three young women who have launched what they call the Blank Noise Project (http://blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com) had a "blog-a-thon", a marathon on the net. The project, they explain, seeks to "recognise eve-teasing as a sexual crime and establish the issue as something that may be normal, but is unacceptable." They asked women to write in what they thought about street harassment or "eve-teasing".

The result was a deluge and some extremely interesting blogs. "When adversity strikes, strike back more adversely", wrote one person. Another asks, "When does a look cross the line into being a scarring leer?" Many wrote explicitly about the kind of harassment they had undergone — being groped by a man sleeping in the berth above you on an overnight train journey, men grabbing your breasts as they walk down the street and leering at you as you protest, obscene gestures and language, staring, pushing, pinching, punching. The list is endless. Writing about the response to the blog-a-thon, one of the initiators wrote that she was overwhelmed "by the fact that so many other women have been through the same scenarios as I have. Have been violated in the same manner, in different cities, at different times, at different ages. But, mostly, overwhelmed by the fact that we are all talking about it now. That we've all decided to speak about it today."

What is interesting to note is that experiences of women in other countries are not very different. The Street Harassment Coalition based in New York, for instance, has an archive full of first hand views and experiences of women (http://streetharassment.blogspot.com). Each story has a resonance for women living in cities in India. The feelings of anger and outrage also cut across national boundaries.

Virtual communities

These expressions of outrage, or such sharing of opinion and experiences on the Net, might not lead to concrete change in the immediate future. But when you read the views of others who have been through the same kind of outrage that you have, and who are able to speak about it, you get the courage to do the same. You realise you are not the only one who is the subject of harassment. You can decide how to act if it happens to you again, or at least consider other strategies. It also creates a "virtual" community of people who are united in their belief that the intolerable should not be tolerated.

One particularly striking contribution for the Blog-a-thon comes from a woman who calls herself "El Enigma". In her blog (http://the-distant-horizon.blogspot.com) she writes of how people are amused when she speaks with passion on the issue of street harassment. Why don't you get over it, they ask. She counters that she is stronger as a result of these experiences. What is so sacred about your body, they ask, that you should get so upset. And this is her response:

"Nothing, I tell them, just that it is my body and nobody else but me has a right to decide what I want to do with it. I have a right to walk, like you do, on the streets fearlessly — I have a right to live the life that you do, of a carefree existence and I have a right to just be who I am, and not your perception of who I should be."

Here's a wish

And then she continues, "So here's a wish for all those who are fighting a brave fight against street harassment. Here's wishing that we find our voices before they strangle them aside, here's wishing that we sing our songs in the melodies that we like and here's wishing that one day, we walk down the streets of our country with our heads held high..."

Bravo. I could not have said it better.

Email the writer: ksharma@thehindu.co.in

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