Patriarchy didn’t stay inside the house on rainy days and neither did we.
“This is not just for urban women. It’s for urban and rural women. It’s for women across India and women from different Indias.” says Jasmeen Patheja with a determined expression. In Bangalore’s perpetual drizzle that scatters people to shelter, Patheja stands firm. Her short hair and striped blue saree is soaked but she takes on the bustling Commercial Street crowd, never wavering. Her resolute group of volunteers – aptly called the Action Heroes – are the same.
A few Action Heroes flit back and forth weaving through the honking cars to invite hurried pedestrians and shoppers to stand with their cause. They hope to connect with people, understand and change opinions of “women-always-ask-for-it” and finally finally, etch out a space for the shaky hesitant voices of women. She did not ask for it, nobody ever does. But many blame the clothing and not the perpetrator.
On the 11th of August, a silent protest of ‘Walking Towards Healing: I Never Ask For It’ took to the streets of Central Bangalore. Blank Noise – founded by Patheja – organises protests like these that hope to wipe out sexual violence.
She started this collective as a student at Srishti School of Design. Blank Noise has been fighting for ten years now and has grown into a community of people that aims to create safe spaces for women everywhere. Being an Action Hero means to unbottle instances of sexual harassment, to help others and heal, to break down patriarchy, to be an ally, to encourage others and be Akeli, Aawara and Aazad.
Sleeve-less saffron kurti
Faded blue full-sleeved kurti
Full-sleeved button up shirt with a flowery print.
These pieces of clothing were carried through Kamraj Road, the narrow chipped red-tiled pavements of Commercial Street and then to the broken concrete ones of Russell Market in Shivajinagar. These clothes are those worn by women while they were harassed, molested and groped. They are fit onto a black rod and carried by a few volunteers.
“These garments have been an eyewitness to what women have faced. We are not saying or showing anything but just carrying it as we walk”, said Action Hero Lisa, a volunteer. The other Action Heroes carry ‘testimonial boards’ with markers that urge women to recount their experiences.
Letters in English and Kannada are distributed to the bustling crowd, inviting them to share their past horrific experiences of harassment. To finally open up about an uncle was too touchy, a college friend that was too pushy or some stranger on a bus. Many women come forward and write as the camera of a News 9 reporter hovered around them. The reporter speaks little and calculatingly stares at the crowd, capturing footage.
The Action Heroes stare into space, lips in a grim line, comrades on a journey to change something.
“I had goosebumps back then and I still have them right now.” This comes from a girl who shakily writes about a random stranger groping her at two in the afternoon on a bus. Her lips are pursed as she hands back the marker, staring down at the board where her experience is written down in dark red, her squiggly handwriting is tiny. She shivers, looking almost frightened at the sight of it in words. She signs her name as ‘Anonymous’ and hastily leaves with a worried friend trailing behind.
“I’ve never told anybody about this before.”
“This feels a little bit liberating.”
“Please, I just want things to change.”
These are little whispers thrown into the wind, whispers of women who write down their experiences and walk away either feeling light or shaky. However, all are women with hard insistent, loud eyes.
As the walk continues, some women approach the boards while others speed-walk past, never making eye-contact. Many exclaim that they are “lucky enough” to not have been harassed in their life and move away from the board, smiling with relief.
Some mothers drag their small children away from the silently urging group of Action Heroes, shielding them from some imagined danger. Some men ask their female friends to explain their stance. In the background, there’s a man dragging his girlfriend by the waist, “Baby, it’s going to pour cats and dogs, no time for this, make it fast, no.”
It starts raining soon; first with a drizzle which gradually becomes stronger, enough rain to take refuge in the shade of a garment store. The board is wet and the testimonies flowed down in a slow stream of red ink. The manager from the garment shop gives a cloth to wipe the water off and doesn’t take it back. People who are taking shelter across look long and hard, a few take pictures. A chaiwala also taking shelter asks what all this was about. He nods at the explanation but says nothing.
Slowly, the fancy Krishnaiah Chetty and Sons disappears from view, the shop boards now include Urdu titles accompanying the Kannada, English and Hindi ones. The antique shop, shiny clothes store and McDonald’s have been left behind. Now uncles and aunties sell clothes, steel vessels among other items on the pavements. Compared to the hesitant Commercial Street populace, this one has no qualms in curiously asking, “Kya, madam, Are these clothes for sale?” or an “Oho, what is happening? Protest ah?”
The road gets narrow and muddy towards Jumma Masjid Road. There is difficulty walking in this crowded herd of people, mud and car honks. We stop in front of a hardware shop. Action Hero Riddhi stands at the front, carrying a ‘testimonies board’. A tall man wearing a blue checked shirt says loudly. “Aaurat ko agar khula chod doge toh ye sab hoga hi, (If a woman is let loose, obviously all this will happen)” he said. He gestures towards Riddhi’s skirt and tells her to dress modestly first. When she retorts, he tells her to keep her voice low. She stands her ground firmly, every other volunteer in line looks disgusted and a few, disbelieving.
“There were so many people who were watching and nobody said anything. The point is not about what he believes or what he thought but is the fact that he was pointing again at us, telling us what we should wear” Riddhi later said. “I just feel really sad for the women in his family”.
Another man from the hardware store stares as well. This bespectacled man is Rahman Bhai and he claims that the tall man is wrong to think that way. Patheja talks to Rahman bhai and he commends the cause. She proudly announces that he is willing to spread the message in and around the area.
At this point, another irritated uncle approaches and stares Rahman Bhai down. “Agar waisa kuch isne kiya toh ye maar khayega” (If he went around telling all this, he’ll get beaten up), he says casually. Rahman bhai doesn’t take any offence for he knows better.
A chorus of “Thank you Rahman Bhai” follows as the Action Heroes make their way towards St. Mary’s Basilica. There’s a loud buzz of people haggling, Bible verses from the loudspeakers and the usual frenzy that is Russell Market.
In a few minutes, the tired Action Heroes sit in a chai shop nearby. The protest began around 3:00 pm and ended at 6:30, the earlier gloomy sky is now a moody dark blue. The Action Heroes smile widely, discussing their triumphs over some chai-coffee.
The letter addressed to a stranger gently reaches out to not only women but men and people beyond any gender binary. The concluding lines are: ‘You are not alone. Together, with you, we will work towards creating a new public memory and public reference where thousands of testimonials of garments will speak out story’.
‘Together, we are strong. We are safe. We resonate. I Never Ask for it.’