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One night stand on the streets

What happens when a set of women stand on the zebra crossing when the traffic signal turns red, wearing letters which together make up a cheeky question?



ROLE REVERSALThe project is a fluid experiment in getting women to assert themselves in public spaces Photo: sampath kumar g.p.

I was walking down from Infantry Road to Brigade Road some days ago in a light drizzle. No auto was willing to come the short distance and I intently skipped puddles and avoided displaced curbstones. There was a continuous stream of traffic beside me, and every now and then, a whistle pierced the air to come drifting through to me, cars slowed down, commuters craned. It wasn't pleasant. It's almost never pleasant for a woman to be a pedestrian.

Ironically, I was on my way to be part of an unusual experiment, creating public testimonies to street harassment. Invitations to be a part of it were issued in a low-profile manner through text messages and phone calls a few days ago: "One Night Stand: public participatory performance to reclaim the streets".

This is part of artist, Srishti student and Sarai-grant holder Jasmeen Patheja's larger Blank Noise project to build public testimonies of victims of street harassment. Into its second year now, Jasmeen has built this project through workshops, installations and public participation. She began an initiative inviting people to donate clothes they had been wearing when they were abused or harassed, recorded a news bulletin dealing with perception of rape and is now working on One Night Stand.

What the project intends is to reclaim the streets, not from cars or buildings like the larger Reclaim The Streets movement intended (see box) but perhaps from lecherous gazes, physical violations and other experiences that we have, unfortunately, reconciled ourselves to in public spaces.

As vehicles stopped at red lights between the Brigade Road-Residency Road junction, twelve young people, each with a letter pasted on the front of their clothes and bright cycle reflectors pinned on to them arranged themselves along the zebra crossing. The letters they wore read out a simple question: "Y R U LOOKING AT ME?" and some volunteers held out posters detailing laws against street harassment. For over an hour, pedestrians and commuters squinted and peered, reading the letters till they made sense of them and curious passers-by got a chance to question the volunteers.

Earlier, finding they were short on people, the volunteers walked down Brigade Road stopping shoppers and inviting them to help conclude the chain of letters. Four volunteers joined in spontaneously and the remaining two letters were formed from cardboard boxes.

Unlike some activist ventures, One Night Stand wasn't a slogan-shouting road obstruction. Instead it was a more fluid experiment in getting the volunteers to assert themselves in public space. People at the red light signals were forced to confront the question: "Why are you looking at me?"

When Jasmeen walks down a busy street she's constantly photographing men looking at women, sometimes asking them before she does, sometimes clicking rapidly; the action of taking that picture itself causes men to stop abruptly and look at her, surprised, perhaps making them conscious of what they were just doing. The photography is a subversion of the "why are you looking at me?" question; for a larger audience, glowing letters on the silent volunteers standing right in their line of vision acted as the stimulus forcing them to confront questions of why they look at women (especially).

It was odd to remember that just half an hour ago I had been averting the gazes of men on the streets; roles were cheekily reversed while standing squarely on the zebra crossing looking pedestrians and commuters in the eye and wearing the defiant question. Many people averted their gazes, some looked confused, some amused, but everyone looked.

Volunteers stayed on the zebra crossing till the lights turned amber after which they gracefully moved to the roadside. The last time, when the lights turned green, they walked into the traffic which paused, startled, for a few minutes before moving again.

Jasmeen tried this project in Mumbai as well but it got entangled in more formal protests that coincided with one month marking the Marine Drive rape case. She considers the Bangalore One Night Stand a better experiment since it was somewhat spontaneous, gathering volunteers from stores and the street just minutes before the experiment began and also since new volunteers helped shape the experiment.

The Blank Noise project is attempting to be more inclusive: moving location to other areas, including Kannada lettering for instance, and continuing to visit colleges and inviting interested participants to join in. "Street harassment needs to be addressed on the streets. The project in its current phase seeks to build testimonies of street harassment in the public space and making them public," says Jasmeen.

More on the Blank Noise Project, including photographs and future plans, at blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com.

HEMANGINI GUPTA

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