One can find her at the market trying to pick up some groceries, or just going out for a walk. She wears a pair of jeans and a nice shirt; nothing provocative. She passes a stranger, and notices her eyes lock with his. Not long after, she notices his eyes wander. They scan her up and down and the stranger smirks a little, as if fantasizing about her in a less than flattering way. She moves on, somewhat appreciative of the attention but appalled by the degradation of it all. This stranger is still lurking; she hopes maybe he is only there for groceries.
She heads back home. She notices a pace behind her, but it’s one of many. She glances back and sees the familiar face of her admirer. Her pace quickens and she becomes anxious, wanting to evade danger but refusing to run; she doesn’t want to tip off her follower. The stranger whistles and yells, “Hey, baby!” In some ways it sounds like a compliment, yet she continues walking, unresponsive to his calls.
The stalking, name-calling, staring and visual strip of her identity have all been a blow to her self-esteem, no doubt. She has been sexually harassed, but like most people, will do nothing about it. After all, she expects some form of “the cat call” and tolerates it; but should she?
What defines sexual harassment, and how much is too much? The American Heritage Dictionary says sexual harassment is “the making of unwanted and offensive sexual advances or of sexually offensive remarks or acts.” Because people’s notions of “offensive sexual advances” or “sexually offensive remarks or acts” vary so widely, the issue of sexual harassment proves to be much more difficult to determine in reality than the dictionary definition suggests. International studies senior Ryan Weltzer thinks cultural norms could be a part of what defines sexual harassment. “We can’t control what other people think, but we can have a good idea of how people will interpret us,” Weltzer said. However, just because something is a cultural norm doesn’t mean it is an acceptable way of acting, Wetzler said.
An example of such a potential cultural norm is “eve teasing,” a trend taking over in parts of India and one that is apparent in many parts of the world. Eve teasing refers to street sexual harassment in the form of everything from name-calling to staring to groping to stalking. “I think it has just been engraved in society; you’re taught to ignore it or steer clear,” said Nitya Lohitsa, a social relations and policy and comparative cultures and politics sophomore. Lohitsa also is a member of the Coalition of Indian Undergraduate Students (CIUS). However, one woman in India is saying she’s had enough, and refuses to tolerate eve teasing anymore.
Jasmeen Patheja started The Blank Noise Project in August 2003, not long after she moved to Bangalore, India, to study at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology. “The threat of being sexually harassed every time I was out of home and then labeling this invasion of my privacy with such an innocuous term as ‘eve teasing’ made me realize that this is an offense that has often been ignored or trivialized,” Patheja said. Blank Noise combats street sexual harassment in India and provides a common ground for those affected by it to discuss their feelings and find dignity again.
[patheja2]Blank Noise has gone through three phases since its conception. The first, “victimhood,” analyzed the eve teasing situation in itself – the act of eve teasing and the people involved. The next phase, “public confrontation,” brought the project to life. “Blank Noise is a public and participatory arts project that has addressed street sexual harassment and violation through sustained public dialogue,” Patheja said. The most current stage for Blank Noise consists of spreading the word about the intentions of the project. According to Patheja, after starting with a small group of only nine participants, the project is now rapidly growing; nine chapters have been initiated in nine different metropolises in India. “We’ve received queries from smaller towns as well,” Patheja said. Originally formed as Patheja’s final year project for school, she decided she could not abandon it, given the amount of reactions and praise she received from participants.
Mary, a crisis intervention counselor at The Listening Ear, a sexual assault counseling service on Grand River Avenue in East Lansing, said her experiences at The Ear allow her to identify with the intent of the Blank Noise Project. “It can help [victims of assault and harassment] realize they’re not alone,” she said. Not feeling isolated after an instance of assault or harassment is extremely important.
The Listening Ear is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization that specializes in helping those who have survived sexual assault or rape. The Ear works with the community to raise awareness about such cases through lectures and community events, while prioritizing spreading the message about what exactly sexual assault and rape are. Mary said although most cases at The Ear push the boundaries of sexual assault, sexual harassment instances, like eve teasing, are not a light-hearted matter.
One of The Ear’s bigger events is called Take Back the Night. It is an annual event held in April in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Many aspects of Take Back the Night resonate with events sponsored by Blank Noise. For example, Take Back the Night has shirts, made by survivors of rape or sexual assault, pinned up on clotheslines. The shirts include words from the survivors recalling the feelings, emotions and trauma that came from the moment they were assaulted or raped. Blank Noise’s event “Did You Ask For It?” calls on those affected by sexual harassment to discard the clothes they were wearing when they were affected in hopes of helping to cope with their memories. Blank Noise also holds “Night Walks,” which encourage women to spend time together, have fun and retain the public space that was once violated as safe, glorious or even just casual.
Perhaps the largest difference between Blank Noise and The Ear, however, is the publicity. “Because our actions and interventions have been in crowded public spaces, they attract a certain amount of attention by their occurrence alone, but awareness on any larger level has also been achieved through press articles and TV reports,” Patheja said. Although it is still a developing organization, The Ear is working to promote the Capitol Area Sexual Assault Response Center, Mary said. Right now “nurse examiners are placed outside of Sparrow (Hospital) to raise awareness,” Mary said.
Blank Noise is certainly taking the initiative to change public acceptance of eve teasing and Patheja shows no signs of ending the project any time soon. “Right now, we are expanding rapidly with volunteers in different cities and I think a reasonable goal would be to work toward strengthening out city chapters so that they can function independently and spontaneously, yet retain the essence of our strategies and techniques and work in tandem with other city chapters,” Patheja said. She is constantly updating the Blank Noise blog, which is also home to many of the events that the group holds throughout the year. Patheja said the e-mail list is growing as rapidly as the movement is.
[loh]”I believe that the ways in which street harassment manifests itself may change culturally, but for example we have a powerful video made in NYC up on our site, and this goes to show that street harassment is not a phenomenon restricted to India or South Asia. It’s universal though the degrees of manifestation may vary in different circumstances,” Patheja said.
Eve teasing proves to be a phenomenon crossing all borders of the globe and while it sometimes seems like a worn out message, the continued promotion of gender equality is key to fighting it. People like Patheja are not giving up on that message by calling attention to a more underground form of harassment. “It just takes one person to start something,” Lohitsa said. “The more gender equality you have in a society, the more the society will prosper.”
Patheja’s Blank Noise Project welcomes response and inquiry. The blog, central to advocating this movement’s existence, can be explored at blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com.