* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A few years from now, visitors to New Delhi’s iconic India Gate monument may notice a unique exhibit facing the site: 10,000 items of clothing.
That is the vision of Jasmeen Patheja, an Ashoka Fellow and founder of the organisation Blank Noise. The monumental installation would be deliberately placed at the popular site to bring greater awareness about violence against women.
Each item of clothing is what a girl or woman was wearing when she experienced an incident of sexual harassment or assault.
“Do you remember the clothes you were wearing when you experienced violence?” Patheja asks. “And most people can. Because at some point, we've checked with ourselves: 'Did I ask for it?'”
The answer to that question is what spurred Patheja to organise this clothing project under the banner of “I Never Ask for It.” The clothing and the stories accompanying them highlight how blaming the victim -- What is she wearing? Is she walking alone? Was she out at night? -- perpetuates sexual and gender-based violence.
"So many experiences of sexual violence are unarticulated because there's this inherent sense of blaming oneself or feeling shamed or feeling that you won't be supported anyways when you seek help,” says Patheja.
The victim blaming is linked to a fear of violence that women inherit through repeated warnings, often learned as a young girl: Be careful. Don’t go out wearing that. Don’t attract attention.
The warnings place the onus of safety and violence prevention squarely on women’s bodies. But “there is nobody who is outside of this violence,” Patheja explains. “Either someone's been a bystander, somebody survived it, or somebody has knowingly or unknowingly caused it."
Since its founding in 2003, Blank Noise tries to engage these various groups. Though Patheja began the organisation, it is driven by “Action Heroes,” women -- and some men – committed to eradicating sexual and gender-based violence. The women are questioning and confronting inherited fear by a willingness to get vulnerable and feel uncomfortable.
That could mean bringing men into the dialogue as Action Heroes did during a meeting at a park in Jaipur. One woman felt threatened by a group of men sitting nearby. The Action Heroes asked them to join their conversation and the woman questioned her own sense of fear. And the group asked the men why the woman might feel threatened by them, though they had done nothing.
"Just as much as women talk about having inherited fear, we need to get men to see the fact that they are seen as suspicious, not for something that one man alone has done but the fact that a man is seen as a threat," Patheja says.
Action Heroes actively question fear not only by engaging with the people they see as threatening, but also by doing activities to unlearn the countless warnings that condition their behaviour since childhood. That could include sleeping by herself in a park or walking alone in the late hours.
But ensuring safety for men and women is not only the latter’s responsibility.
“Each and every person has the ability and power to influence a safe space,” Patheja says. “You can be an Action Hero too. Whether you know it or not, you have the ability to do so. What's the smallest thing you can do to build a safe space? What can you do as a man, what can you do as a father, what can you do as a brother, what can you do as a taxi driver?”
M-R Abraham is Storyteller in Residence at Ashoka India.