Men and women around the world are making (or breaking) their New Year’s resolutions this week. But one group of women wants to see people make a different—and stronger—kind of commitment this year: Blank Noise, an India-wide volunteer-led collective committed to addressing street sexual harassment, is asking people to take a pledge to make Indian cities a safer place for women.
On January 1, Blank Noise kicked off their “Safe City Pledge” campaign, which calls on men and women from across the country to make a personal pledge stating how they will help make Indian cities safer for women this year. While the campaign started in reaction to the horrific Delhi gang rape that has been receiving international attention, Blank Noise founder Jasmeen Patheja emphasizes that the campaign is about going beyond this incident—just one in a string of many—and tackling the much larger societal issues that underlie women’s violence in Indian cities.
“Anger is important, but anger also needs to be channeled, so we need to closely examine our own role in making change,” she told me. “We’re part of a generation of women who are working, who are traveling, and who are anonymous. So it’s also about creating that relationship with the city, and being able to say, ‘This is my city, this is my street, this is my neighborhood.’ It’s not a relationship of anonymity, but one of making the city yours and establishing your role as a citizen in your city.”
On Blank Noise’s Facebook page, she describes the campaign in poignant context:
Molestation happens in mobs, in crowded places. It also happens in dark, deserted alleys. It happens in villages, on hills, in buses, trains, cinemas, godowns. We know (and surveys have shown) that women feel safer in spaces where there are a lot of other women, well-lit spaces, where they can take it for granted that the police will do their jobs.
There is a deeply entrenched prejudice against women’s social freedom. Citizens often believe that women should NOT be in a wide range of public spaces—dressed, speaking or laughing a certain way. And for this mindset, citizens have to take responsibility. We alone—we together—can affect change.
Change will be seen when the rape and molestation stops. But it will begin when we change the way we live, play, love, talk. When girls play cricket and football in public maidaans. When women take late-night strolls. When we begin to challenge sexual intimidation/abuse instead of justifying it.
We are asking you to examine your role. What are the small and big ways in which you can help make a city safe? Dream it. Pledge it. How would you like bureaucrats or ministers in your city/state to make your city safe? Ask them to pledge it. Carry it on a placard.
I met Jasmeen and other members of Blank Noise at a recent event at the Lab entitled Women and Social Spaces, which endeavored to explore how women’s-only spaces change women’s notions of comfort and safety, and their ability to express themselves.
At first, as she told the group, she and her organization were hesitant to take part in the event, because segregation of men and women is public spaces is precisely what Blank Noise wants to discourage—rather, they want to see more women out in public spaces. But it turned out that the women participating in the workshop had the same desire. When asked to envision their dream city, for and by women, they spoke mostly of a city where they could be themselves in mixed public spaces, wherever, whenever, and however they want.
“I imagine myself going out for a run—no traffic, no people, no judgment; being able to do that without having to think ten times before I leave the house, ‘Is this appropriate, will I be groped?’” one woman said.
“The clothes that you’re wearing, it’s a part of who you are. I want to take pride in my body and show it off if I want, and I want the freedom to do that,” another said.
Another woman, who just happened to walk into the program after visiting the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, stuck around because the topic resonated with her: “Why can’t we come out at night? Boys can, but not girls?” she asked. Several others echoed her question. As one other woman put it, “The idea of claiming a public street is not leaving by eight o’clock.”
One can only hope that the promises pouring into Blank Noise’s Pledge Bank are the beginning of Indian cities that allow women to do just that, with peace of mind and a justified sense of security.
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Photos: courtesy Jasmeen Patheja