Jasmeen Patheja, a famous feminist and social worker was born in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. She graduated from the Srishti School of Art Design and Technology, Banglore in Fine Arts. She started her women empowerment program Blank Noise as a student project at Srishti, which became a big success and reached in other cities of India and world. She has been a TED talker and an Ashoka Fellow (an NGO which promotes leading social entrepreneurs who have innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society)
Jasmeen’s project Blank Noise, is an art collective focusing on sexual violence against women of all age and class. Blank Noise is a sort of an ongoing discussion where survivors of sexual abuse keep donating their clothes to support the slogan ‘I Never Asked For It’ against sexual harassment. These clothes create art that confronts the bitter truth of our society and tries to heal it.
Blank Noise started in 2003 while Jasmeen was in art school. She felt threatened and an intense fear because of the street harassment she experienced. She was new to the city, and didn’t really have a home to run back to. When she shared these incidents with her friends and peers, it was considered insignificant. Her traumatic experiences were belittled as “eve-teasing.” She realized that people not interested in talking about sexual harassment openly was due to their discomfort with talking about sexual violence.
As Jasmeen was about to finish her graduation, she got all the girls from school in one room, and started a conversation on street harassment. Out of the 60 girls in her class, nine became the first Action Heroes who are individuals who step up, speak up, and take action like having a chat about social issues specially about street harassment. They did a three-month series of workshops and got to know the issue of street harassment outside their lives. They got to know what action heroes experienced and how they felt. They discussed their own personal histories and created a safe space amongst one another to share.
That’s how Blank Noise started. After she graduated, she had three questions: One, Is street harassment something that affects all women? Two, If yes, why aren’t women speaking about it? Three, If they were to start a public dialogue, where is the public, who is the public, what medium do they use? If there hadn’t been action heroes in different cities creating dialogues and safe spaces and Internet, a lot of organizing could not have been possible.
Jasmeen Patheja Changing Perspectives
Jasmeen had many different projects, and approached the issue of street harassment in many ways. Recently, she has engaged troops of men. In the early stage of the project, Jasmeen’s team used to take photographs of men who were harassers. That was an angry, tone to face the person who had intimidated, harassed, threatened, or violated women in any capacity. Now they are trying to change people’s perspective that ‘if you experience violence, you did something wrong, you weren’t good, and your character is questioned’. That’s why the project ‘I Never Asked for It’ is really a focus mission for them. According to Jasmeen, ‘more and more men are recognizing feminism, stepping into feminism, articulating it, defining what it means to be a feminist person or individual in their capacities, in their roles as fathers and as people’.
Getting the World Together
Blank Noise has been built by group of action heroes who are from different continents, countries, and cities. Like minds have come together in this group. She feels she can send one e-mail out, and there will be responses. There’s a sense of nurturers. That’s what she values the most, that kind of action hero who stepped in, formed it, shaped it. Their criticisms, ways of thinking, shaped Blank Noise. They could ask questions, could defer, could disagree and that’s what made it. She trusts that difference is the most important thing. Trust leads to friendship and friendship that leads to trust.
Imagining The World You Want
Jasmeen says, “We have to imagine the world we want. We step into the world and we make it. I’m thinking about the problem solving approach and the idealistic approach. You imagine, desire, step into it, and then do what it takes to make your dreams happen. I think that something leads you there, and of course you also equip yourself.”
In Jasmeen’s words, “There have been a lot of different artists and people who’ve taught me and shaped my worldviews, but my biggest role model comes back to my grandmother, who is also an artist. Her career started more than ten years ago, when she said she wanted to be an actress. I said, “Oh, I want to be a photographer.” So we both got together and made these photo performances; they are very much based on characters that she desires to become. She is somebody I’ve always admired for not being afraid to learn, for being curious, for being open, and unafraid. Even her relationship with her body inspires me; she will spend one hour of her day exercising. She’s into self-care, she knows how to prioritize herself. At every stage of my life, she’s been my role model. Right now she’s my role model because she knows how to take an hour of the day out for herself.”
Jasmeen says regarding the change she wants to see in future, “In varying degrees I see the same problem all over the world – violence against individuals across the gender and sexuality spectrum is justified. There’s this constant justification of violence. I’m still trying to come up with what the right phrasing is – is it victim blame or slut shame? Victim blaming is linked to everything; the fact that there is victim blame, there is denial. Victim blame is something that is hard to read into, because we see it so much. But if we really look at it, if we really see how an environment of warnings is saying “don’t go here, if you don’t go here you’re taking a risk, if you’re taking a risk and you get violated or you experience violence, you deserved it because we told you not to go there in the first place.” I’m still trying to find the right vocabulary, but the fact that violence against women, sexual and gender-based violence is justified, is excused, is also why it is perpetuated. That’s what we’re committed to eradicating.”