DAY TWELVE: I Never Ask For It: Building Testimonials to Gender-Based Violence

Over nearly twenty years, Blank Noise has worked with citizens and communities across India and beyond to build testimonials of gender-based violence. Blank Noise rests on the power of feminist collaborations and building feminist solidarities, writes its Founder-Director Jasmeen Patheja in today’s blog.

Jasmeen Patheja

Featured Image: Clothes from the I Never Ask For It campaign. Image credit: Jasmeen Patheja.

An idea has no significance or meaning unless someone makes it their own.

Blank Noise is a growing community of Action Sheroes/ Theyroes/ Heroes: citizens and persons taking the agency to end gender-based violence. Blank Noise was initiated in 2003 in response to the silence surrounding street harassment in India and globally. While for the first decade, Blank Noise worked to bring attention to street harassment, its next phase was an inquiry into the nature of victim blaming. Blame permeates spaces of violence. If blame has been used to justify violence against all identities and spaces, how can we be Action Sheroes everywhere? Not just on the streets, but in our power at home, on campus, at our workplace, on the internet.

In 2003- 2004, since the start of Blank Noise,  I reached out to women around me, to speak with me about their experiences of street harassment. Responses ranged from “it doesn’t happen to me”, “how can you ask me this question – I am not that type of a woman”, to “it happened to me, I was wearing my school uniform and it still happened.”  

The dominant climate back then was ‘good girls’ don’t experience it, don’t name it, and if you do experience it, you ‘asked for it’. Fear and the threat of street harassment was a given and normalised. 

The more I listened, I paid attention to the fact that garments were being recalled and named in testimonials.  I recognised that there was a pattern here in the way we narrated. The noticing became an inquiry. 

Nearly 20 years later, no matter where I go ( urban, rural or internationally) , I still ask the question “Do you remember what you wore when you experienced gender based violence? Is there an unnamed, yet unforgotten memory of discomfort where you remember the clothes? What makes so many of us, across identities and geographies, remember?”

The first 8-10 years of I Never Ask For It was about making the garment a ‘truth’ visible to ourselves and the public we engaged with through the press and media. We were recognising that women in all clothes, women across identities, age, religion or faith experienced it. We learnt to say #INeverAskForIt. 

Participants build the I Never Ask For It project at public sites. Image credit: Jasmeen Patheja.

I Never Ask For It has grown from an idea and campaign to a mission. The 2004 version of I Never Ask For It issued the first call to action inviting survivors of violence to bring or ‘discard’ the clothes they were wearing when they experienced violence.  We moved from the idea of inviting and encouraging survivors to speak to the campaign’s current phase emphasising, “speak if it serves you.”  

I Never Ask For It is a place for memory – to keep our memories safe. It works towards building ten thousand garment testimonials and bringing them to unite at sites of public significance. We share this number because we are motivated by what it would take to build this – the healing it could offer, the feminist solidarities it could initiate.

I Never Ask For It has been built slowly, iteratively, through the years. It has been co-created with feminist alliances and through listening. We ask ‘who is yet to be heard,’ and that drives how we design its path ahead. The practice at Blank Noise is located within socially engaged art practice and movement building.

I Never Ask For It behind the scenes includes workshops, campaigns, research projects, public actions such as ‘Walk Towards Healing’, Listening Circles, public talks and more. It has moved away from its early ‘myth breaking’ and making this truth visible approach to now claiming, “We are done defending. I Never Ask For It”. The garment is merely a witness. It bears memory. It was present at that moment. We believe there is power in bringing the garments together, standing united in solidarity; power in speaking if it serves the speaker. 

We are building testimonials, but who has the capacity to listen? I Never Ask For It is about learning to be a listener. It is an injustice to ask survivors to speak if we do not have the capacity to listen.  I Never Ask For It rests on building our collective capacity to listen. The burden of memory is not mine, or ours alone.

Over the years, I Never Ask For It has been shared at multiple sites including Ars Electronica – Austria (2005), Kitab Mahal (2006), Abrons Art Center (2017) , Ford Foundation Gallery (2018), and is now also at Khoj International Artists Association through their ongoing show called Threading the Horizon.

Watch this powerful video of their work here.

Author’s Bio

Jasmeen Patheja is an artist in public service mobilising towards the right to be defenceless. Patheja has worked to end gender based violence and victim blame for nearly two decades. She founded Blank Noise in 2003, in response to the silence surrounding street harassment.  She mobilises citizens and individuals to take agency in ending sexual and gender-based violence. Patheja designs methodologies (tareeka) to confront fear, fear politics, warnings, and victim blame surrounding sexual assault. Patheja works towards building the capacity to listen to survivors of sexual assault and the capacity to care.

Jasmeen works with multiple forms of media. She is also a photographer. She is a TED and Ashoka Fellow.

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