Person of interest: Jasmeen Patheja and the right to be defenceless
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Women are always raised to be prepared for threat but we have a right to not be prepared, says Patheja, an ‘artist in public service’

January 20, 2023 12:42 pm | Updated January 22, 2023 09:19 pm IST

‘What does it mean to live with belonging everywhere, for everybody?’ asks Jasmeen Patheja

‘What does it mean to live with belonging everywhere, for everybody?’ asks Jasmeen Patheja | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The marigold, rose and white chrysanthemum flowers spell out a bitter truth in capital letters on the floor of a mostly dark room at contemporary arts organisation Khoj, Delhi: ‘11 rapists were garlanded in our country’. The celebratory flowers reference the garlanding of the convicted rapists of 2002 Gujarat riots survivor Bilkis Bano by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, after the Gujarat government ordered their release. It’s the latest iteration of an ongoing project, ‘Reporting to Remember’, envisaged by Jasmeen Patheja, 43, as a pledge to never forget.

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Patheja says four words linger in her head.  Mehsoos (to feel).  Aahsaas (to realise).  Hamdard (empathic).  Insaniyat (humanity). To allow ourselves to feel, to have realisations based on this feeling that evokes empathy, and to experience a shared sense of humanity. For 20 years now, Patheja, who describes herself as an artist in public service, has designed creative methodologies and solutions to resuscitate a world that has forgotten (or maybe never learned) these basics.

From thoughtful to provocative, the projects created by Blank Noise, the feminist organisation she founded, and one that was born as a student project at the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bengaluru, rarely miss their mark. Patheja started teaching at Srishti and it remained her home even after she graduated.

Sheroes and theyroes

Early projects by Blank Noise examined street harassment and the casual use of the problematic phrase ‘eve teasing’. These included an ‘Eve Teasing Food Chart’, a compilation of foods women have been called on the street — lollipop,  cham chamhari mirch — and ‘The Museum Of Street Weapons of Defence’, a list of things women always carry, such as insect spray, nail files, chilli powder and umbrellas, because they might double up as handy self-defence tools. Blank Noise volunteers who translate ideas into action are called Action Sheroes/ Heroes/ Theyroes.

Patheja fights for the Right to be Defenceless. Yes, you read that correctly. “We are always raised to be prepared for threat, we have a right to not be prepared,” says Patheja. “I have a right to live with trust and belonging in my body, in my city, in my home.” The idea that we have the right to be “boundlessly safe” emerged from the project Meet To Sleep, which was born when Patheja tried napping in the open, in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park. But the slightest sound woke her up.

“I lay there aware of the weight of fear in my own body, on my shoulders and on my back… I lay there thinking about the story of fear as that which is transferred, learnt, inherited. I lay there thinking about how there are more of us in fear of each other than with the actual intention to harm,” she says. She imagined the revolutionary impact of thousands of women sleeping in public spaces. Since then, Meet To Sleep has grown into a small movement with around 50 feminist allies. “We sleep in public spaces across the country claiming the right to be defenceless in the body,” Patheja says.

The project Meet To Sleep was born when Patheja tried napping in the open, in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park

The project Meet To Sleep was born when Patheja tried napping in the open, in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

She herself is at her most defenceless when she’s walking in the neighbouring Avalahalli forest and with her paternal grandmother Inderjit Kaur, or Indri, who lives in Kolkata, and who has been the subject of an ongoing project for many years now. Patheja enjoys cooking ‘untitled’ meals and when we talk she shares the recipe for a dip she’s experimenting with, even as she welcomes the neighbour’s cat home. She’s usually a very private person and when she recently posted an image of the man she is dating, she took close friends and family by surprise. Indri’s response to the image sums up their relationship: “Wow!”

What are you wearing?

Patheja and her grandmother began collaborating when Indri expressed a desire to become an actor. Indri became the aspiring photographer’s favourite subject, and performed characters she wanted to become, from queen to president of the Pickle Political Party. “Another dominant word, across Indri and Blank Noise, is belonging,” says Patheja. “What does it mean to live with belonging everywhere, for everybody?”

Patheja’s most ambitious project, though, is ‘I Never Ask For It’, a long-running idea that sprung from the fact that survivors of violence often remember what they were wearing when they were attacked. In 2004, Patheja began collecting these garments and she dreams of displaying 10,000 of them in a living feminist museum at Delhi’s India Gate.

 ‘I Never Ask For It’ sprung from the fact that survivors of violence often remember what they were wearing when they were attacked

 ‘I Never Ask For It’ sprung from the fact that survivors of violence often remember what they were wearing when they were attacked | Photo Credit: Jasmeen Patheja

‘I Never Ask For It’ emphasises that ‘we are done defending’. Over the years, it has evolved, from asking survivors to bring that one garment and busting myths around sexual harassment, to the broader idea of “blame and how it connects spaces of violence”, which could be the street, the home or the workplace. In addition to collecting garments, Patheja began recording testimonials of gender-based violence in ‘listening circles’ with feminist allies and different communities.

Now the invitation is as much to the listener as it is to the speaker. “Do we have the capacity to listen to what someone has to say? It’s inviting a person to be that empathic listener,” says Patheja. “It’s no longer about showing but about coming together in solidarity.”

Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and the co-founder of India Love Project on Instagram.

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