Sexual harassment across the world is often followed by victim-blaming and one question survivors are invariably asked is: “What were you wearing?”
Indian artist-activist Jasmeen Patheja collects clothes donated by victims as testament to the fact they are not to blame, reports the BBC’s Geeta Pandey.
In a small room in her Bangalore home that has been converted into a museum of sorts are dozens of garments. The kind of clothes we see women around us wearing all the time. But each item has a story.
This is Jasmeen Patheja’s collection of the clothes of sex assault survivors.
One red-and-black jumpsuit was donated by a woman who was caught up in the widespread sexual assaults that took place at New Year’s Eve celebrations in Bangalore last year.
“She said she was present at the celebrations when mobs went berserk, groping and assaulting women,” Ms Patheja says. “She talked about how she was harassed, about seeking refuge.”
Then she holds up a cream-coloured kurta (tunic) with red and black prints – a garment almost startling in its simplicity. It was donated by a woman who was groped while travelling on a train in the southern city of Coimbatore.
“She told me she was dissuaded from reporting the assault.”
The pink dress she shows me next came to her from a woman in Montreal. “She said if you don’t take it, I’ll have to throw it away. It made her even sick to have it,” Ms Patheja says.
“She wouldn’t say what her story was, but obviously the dress had a very traumatic association for her.”
As we go through the rack, she points out a white dress, a swimsuit, a champagne-coloured gown, a pair of trousers, a school uniform – examples that she describes as “a mirror” to the fact that all women experience abuse and gender violence.
“It’s got nothing to do with what you’re wearing, there’s never any excuse for such violence and nobody ever asks for it.”
And that’s why her campaign is called – “I never ask for it.”
Her fight against sexual- and gender-based violence began nearly a decade and a half ago, just after she moved to Bangalore from the northern city of Kolkata (Calcutta) to study art.
“It’s not that there was no harassment in Kolkata, but I was new to Bangalore. I was 23 and I had no family to run to for protection,” she says.
“It was also a time when street harassment was being dismissed as just ‘eve-teasing’, something that boys do and girls must experience. It was being normalised. There was an environment of denial and silence around the issue, which made it okay to continue it.”
To address this denial and to break the silence, she decided to start a conversation.
“One day, I got all female students into a room and said, ‘Let’s come up with words that evoke a public space.’ In three minutes, we had a vast mind map of only negative words.”
The result wasn’t a surprise – harassment in public places is all too common and almost every woman has experienced catcalls, lewd remarks, touching and groping.
And anyone who questions it is told that the fault actually lies with them – she may have done something provocative, she may be wearing clothes that showed skin, she may have been out late at night, she may have been drinking, she may have been flirting: in short, she may have asked for it.
“Girls are raised to be careful, we are raised in an environment of fear which is constantly telling us to be careful. We are told if you’ve experienced assault, then maybe you’re not being careful enough, that’s the underlying message we’re given.”
She set up the Blank Noise collective in 2003 to “confront” that fear.
“We believe that blame leads to shame, shame leads to guilt, guilt leads to more silence and that perpetuates sexual and gender-based violence.”
The first step to confronting any fear, Ms Patheja says, is to start a conversation around it and one of the things that Blank Noise does as part of the “I never ask for it” project is to gather testimonials from women.
So they approached girls and women on the streets of Bangalore and other cities, inviting them to write down their testimonials.
Ms Patheja says “when one person writes, it encourages others to do the same”, so they returned with white boards filled with names, ages, incidents of abuse, what happened, where it happened and what time, what were they wearing, what they did and what they wished they had done.
One woman wrote about being harassed on a bus by a middle-aged man and how she just changed her seat, a schoolgirl wrote about how she was stalked by two men on a bicycle, another said she had been groped multiple times in multiple cities.
There were testimonials from 14 and 16 year olds and also from women in their 30s and 40s and sometimes older.
Almost all women chose to describe what they were wearing at the time of the assault and, Ms Patheja says, that’s what gave them the idea about the museum of garments.
“We found women often wondering about their garments. They’d say, “I was wearing that red skirt’, or ‘I was wearing that pair of jeans’, or ‘I was wearing that school uniform’. So it became a deliberate question at Blank Noise and we began asking, ‘so what were you wearing’?”
And Ms Patheja says if the question then arises – did I ask for it? – the answer is an emphatic no. “I never ask for it.”
“But we ask people to remember their garments, bring them in because they have memory, and in that memory it’s been a witness and it’s your voice.”
This story is part of a series about Indian women fighting for equality.