A unique initiative in Bangalore transforms an unsafe street into a safe space for women through unlearning fear by one-on-one conversations with absolute strangers 

One of the lasting impressions of a lesson taught to a child while growing up is ‘don’t talk to strangers’. With growing incidence of crime, viewing a friendly stranger with suspicion is considered the ‘safe’ thing to do. A motley group of youngsters in Bangalore, however, decided to challenge that, and set up tables on a street that is considered unsafe in order to have impromptu conversations with strangers over tea.

Viewed at first with curiosity, dismissed even by some, passersby soon warmed up to the initiative and sat down for a one-on-one conversation with someone they didn’t know, and over chai and samosa, talked and shared a laugh.

Jasmeen Patheja, the creator of Blank Noise, who came upon this idea after a workshop with volunteers, said that the aim was to explore the possibility of creating a safe space for women through “unlearning fear”, and instead of a defensive approach, build roads of communication. Blank Noise, which is completely volunteer run, works to confront street harassment, commonly called “eve teasing”.

“We didn’t want a pepper spray approach. Defence builds defence, fear creates fear. Our aim was to create a path of dialogue, of communication, by fighting fear and biases, and create an atmosphere of feeling safe. It was an approach to make cities and spaces more accessible to women, of making streets more friendly, of building empathy,” Jasmeen said.

Talking about the choice of place for the intervention, she said that it was a lane in the Yelahanka town that held the reputation of being unsafe for women. “There were no reported incidents of rape, but there have been several incidents of sexual assault and molestation on this street. Plus, there were no street lights, no commercial establishments or shops, and garment factory workers used to walk through the lane in the evening to catch their bus. During the day, empty buses were parked there and at night, men would come in their cars or bikes to have a drink. This lane was therefore perceived as threatening or unsafe.”

To change the tagline, 17 students, all volunteers, set up five tables with two chairs each, and invited strangers for an hour-long conversation. Sexual harassment was kept off the topic of discussion.

Anamika, one of the Action Heroes, as volunteers are called, said that the young man she spoke to confided in her that he stalked girls on his bike walking on that lane. “He said that he was desperate for a girlfriend, and has no intention of hurting anyone. At the end of our conversation he said that he was glad I made him realise that his approach can only scare away girls instead of wooing them, and would mend his ways. I felt good about bringing about a change, plus the fact that I could talk to a stranger made me feel confident,” she said.

For some the experience may not have been completely pleasant, but it was a learning experience nonetheless. “Our conversation was on absolutely random topics and despite a language barrier, I was surprised that it continued for so long. The man I spoke to worked according to his will and mood, and had family responsibilities. He was emotionally sensitive, and although he was nice in the beginning, his intentions towards me changed at the end, so I was disappointed, but nevertheless happy at being able to overcome my inhibitions,” Astha, another volunteer, said.

Jasmeen admits that one intervention cannot make a city safe. “Building a safe city needs better infrastructure and collective action of the police, urban designers, politicians and public servants, and citizens, but the approach must be inclusive, not exclusive. What we did was to create a new association that was not associated with fear, biases and prejudices.”

The experiment that has got a wide approval will now be emulated by volunteers in other cities and neighbourhoods this October 26.