(For Time Out, October 10, 2006)

The report was disturbing: “A midnight march by women [in Delhi] to protest against “touching, staring, groping, pinching and stalking” sounded heroic enough until the protesters ran into stalking Romeos lining up the path…the protesters were “leched” at, ridiculed and booed along the three-kilometre stretch of the march.”

How typical, I thought. How sad: a handful of women trying to reclaim just a tiny part of the roads, only to be jeered, leched at, ridiculed and booed. And how untrue.

The thing is, I was one of the 15 women (and 4 men) who took part in the Blank Noise Project’s Night Action Plan-1. Most of us had heard about Jasmeen Patheja, the young art student who’s been orchestrating “interventions” in cities like Bangalore and Delhi. Jasmeen’s projects lie between performance/ installation art and political action.

Blank Noise has illustrious predecessors. In 1976, women marched in Belgium bearing lit candles—this was before the lighter-held-up-at-rock-concerts had become a cliché-in protest against crimes of violence against women. Take Back the Night became a movement in its own right in Europe and America. Susan Brownmiller marched, Gloria Steinem, marched, actresses, stay-at-home mothers, bankers, students—everyone marched. Take Back the Night rallies haven’t happened in India, where they are sorely needed, but what Blank Noise did that night was a small but welcome start.

Blank Noise also draws from the philosophy of the Guerrilla Girls, the legendary group of women artists who “expose sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture” with “facts, humor and outrageous visuals”, not to mention their trademark gorilla masks.

One of the first questions Jasmeen asked was what we expected from a night walk where we would cover a small area of Delhi with posters, and inscribe graffiti that spoke out about our experiences of street harassment. Most of us just wanted to feel we were doing something, instead of sitting back passively and complaining about Delhi’s unsafe roads. A few were nervous, worried about how the men would react. All of us revelled in the unusual—for Delhi—experience of being able to take a walk after eight pm in the company of other women.

That line-up of roadside Romeos mentioned in the agency report? They were missing from the actual march. Annie Zaidi, who blogs at Known Turf, has a more complete account, but what most men displayed was curiosity, nervousness, defensiveness. The most common reaction was exemplified by the man at Dilli Haat stall who read the poster against sexual harassment and said in Hindi, “We don’t do that, Didi.” From teenage boys strolling in groups, what we heard most often was denial: “This doesn’t happen here.” There was one pair of louts on a bike, but they were thrown by the number of women and backed off. There was a little ridicule, mostly sotto voce, no booing, and any leching that happened was very definitely under cover.

It was only when I spent some time on the web, reading through the history of street action, processing the reactions that the Guerrilla Girls elicited and reading accounts of the first few Take Back the Night marches that I realized what the problem was. The reporter wanted a story about India’s unsafe, aggressive cities, where even a protest march was doomed to fail. We offered him, her or it a more nuanced story—we didn’t change the streets, or bring “roadside Romeos” to book, we elicited more curiosity than aggression, and we had a wonderful time. None of this, unfortunately, makes for a good story, even if it is the truth.

Take Back the Night: the Wiki page on the night marches that became a movement

The legendary Guerrilla Girls: Women, artists, gorilla masks.

Blank Noise Project: Jasmeen Patheja’s attempt to change things, a little at a time

One account of the Delhi march, heavily fictionalized…

…and Annie Zaidi’s version of what really happened.