“Blank noise” is a non-profit organization and a community project, run solely by volunteers aiming to raise awareness about sexual and gender-based violence and encouraging people to take agency against it. The project has its roots in Bangalore where it was initiated by Jasmeen Patheja in the framework of a student project. The community around “Blank noise” has grown substantially within the last years and its initiatives have also reached other cities in India1.
The project has risen out of the struggle of not being heard: It has developed out of the issue of sexual harassment in India that was, as the name of the project implies, merely a noise from the background, hence something that was likely to be overheard. “Blank noise” wanted to change this and give a voice to the people that have suffered under gender based violence. Developed in 2003 it has been one of the first initiatives to bring attention to sexual and street harassment. At that time this issue did not even have a word to name it and was called “eve teasing” which was misleadingly implying a harmlessness to it. If as a victim of gender-based violence, you cannot even name what is happening to you, it will be very challenging for you to fight against it. “Blank noise” is about naming it, voicing it, showing it and hence fighting it.
1 Wikipedia: Blank Noise. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blank_Noise. Accessed Feb. 2022.
The work of “Blank Noise” includes performative actions and interventions in public space that draw attention to street harassment. Furthermore, it consists of building testimonials for those affected by it as well as creating a community that supports them. Herewith they don’t only raise awareness about the problem of “eve teasing” and animate people to tackle the issue but also build a safe space for victims of such incidents, by for example providing legal counselling for them. Through campaigns, workshops, discussions and the use of mainstream media their message is communicated, and people are involved. Hence a community of Action Sheroes/ Theyroes/ Heroes was established that fights for a life without fear:
“Blank Noise ignites the idea that every person has the ability and potential to eradicate sexual and gender based violence.”2
One of the biggest concerns of the initiative lies within ending victim blaming, to shift the responsibility of the act of sexual violence from the affected to the perpetrators and with it recognizing collective responsibility for this issue. One of their most known works is the “I Never Ask For It” project that has been going on since 2004. Victims of sexual and gender based violence are asked the question: “Do you remember the clothes you wore when you experienced the violence?” and are invited to share these garments with the project. The aim is to by 2023 have collected 10000 garment testimonials that will be installed collectively at sites of public significance. “Blank noise” uses the clothes symbolically to break with the assumption that the victim in some way by its appearance, behavior or by being too attractive, has provoked or requested the assault. Through different methods such as workshops, campaigns, public interventions, exhibitions or collaborative research, these testimonials are brought to the people. The performative actions consist of carrying the clothes through the streets and confronting the public with the truth. In addition to this they carry boards where affected people can give testimonial about the sexual violence they have experienced and what they now want to ask for. These walks of testimonials stand as an act of giving witness and showing solidarity with those assaulted: a walk towards a process of healing.
“To end sexual violence we need to end victim blame”3
Another project that caught my interest was the “Meet to sleep” project. Connecting to the idea of the right to live a life without fear, “Blank noise” motivated women to sleep anywhere in public. They want to fight for the possibility that even in this very intimate and vulnerable position of sleeping you would not have a reason to be worried to be attacked. It’s a step moving “Towards the right to live defenceless.”4 The initiative invites women to connect with each other and to gather to sleep together in the parc (or anywhere else) and to talk about their experience. You can either join an existing “Meet to sleep”-action or initiate one by yourself or you can even just decide to sleep anywhere. This activity, the moment of overcoming your fear, enables the participants to create a new narrative, detached from fear. Sometimes an activity as simple as the act of sleeping can become an act of resistance and of change for a life in which you can feel safe no matter your gender:
“I feel safe when I am heard.
I feel safe when I am not judged.
I feel safe when I don’t have to justify myself, over and over and over again.
I, Action Shero, am your safe space,
as you are mine.
I never ask for it.”5
2Blank Noise: About, Herstory. https://www.blanknoise.org/about/herstory. Accessed Feb. 2022.
4Blank Noise: Meet To Sleep, About Meet To Sleep. https://www.blanknoise.org/aboutmeettosleep. Accessed Feb. 2022.
5Blank Noise: Home. https://www.blanknoise.org/home. Accessed Feb. 2022.
Feeling safe means being heard, feeling safe means feeling believed – Connections to the book “Complaint!” by Sarah Ahmed
In both the book “Complaint!” (2021) as well as through the work of the “Blank noise”-collective the connection between feeling safe and being heard and believed is emphasized. In a lot of the narratives in the book of those who shared their experience with engaging in a process of complaining, the burden of having the impression of talking to a wall but also of not being believed strongly emerges. “Blank noise” attaches great importance to precisely this aspect, helping women to speak up, to be heard and fighting for being believed in order to live without fear.
In the book “Complaint!” Sarah Ahmed deepens her idea of the “feminist ear” which she has first introduced in her book “A Feminist Life”. To hear with a feminist ear does not only mean “to hear who is not heard” but also “how we are not heard”6 and it can also mean to hear silence: “what is not being said, what is not being done, what is not being dealt with”7. “Blank noise” has emerged out of hearing the silence of sexual harassment that was not being addressed, and the initiative has turned this silence into noise. Through the collective a lot of women found the courage to express what they have experienced. This provokes those with no feminist ear to sill hear and to hopefully become more sensitive to their own and someone else’s actions regarding sexual assault.
“Blank Noise and its #INeverAskForIt mission are committed and invested in building our collective capacity to be listeners.
It isn’t enough to ask or ‘encourage’ survivors of violence to speak, when the capacity to listen has not been taught.”8
While the book focusses most of its attention to the barriers you face while complaining within the institutional context, the work of “Blank noise” is not about formally filing a complaint and it reaches out to many areas outside institutions, such as the private life. Nevertheless, a part of their work lies withing supporting women as they engage in official processes of reporting the sexual violence they have experienced.
Both initiatives9 base their intention on working with testimonies. The process of sharing personal testimonies can be experienced as very difficult because “to speak about a past trauma can be to make that trauma present”10. However this might be an important step into finding peace with what has happened as “Blank Noise” states: “We want the building of this mission to be a process of healing; where survivors of violence feel heard and believed.”11
Unfortunately, it is not self-evident that one is believed when one speaks up about the fact that one’s own boundaries have been severely crossed. Reading the book “Complaint!” might at times be a bit disillusioning; hearing about all the complaints that don’t go through, all the people that are ignored and all the institutional barriers that manifest themselves as soon as you want to criticize anything. A lot of testimonies in the book are about how the complainers struggled with not knowing if it was justified for them to complain. They either nearly did not speak up at all because they did not fully have the trust that they would have the right to do so or if they did, they would be told that they had misunderstood the situation that has caused them to complain. If you are not believed to have experienced sexual violence or harassment or are even blamed as the victim for the sexual assault, then the one that has caused the violence is not taking any responsibility. It’s the victim’s fault, either for having “caused” the incident (“she asked for it”) or for having misjudged the situation (“it was nothing”). „The opposite of feeling blamed is being believed.“12 Ending victim blaming, recognizing the individual boundaries and sensibilities of each person is the step we need to take to achieve a society where everyone takes responsibility for their actions.
However discouraging failed complaints might be, one essential message of the book “Complaint!” is how as a collective you can get further. “Collectivity was a way to share the cost of complaint. Rather than each of us being on her own, we would stand together.”13 “Blank noise” is providing this collective power for the women who stood alone. If you are not alone you can be heard and if testimonies add one to another change is possible. Until we have reached that change, we have to scream loud enough.
“To complain is to give support to life: you plant something in saying no, by saying no, the twists and turns of new growth.”14
6Ahmed, S. (2021): Complaint!. Durham: Duke University Press, p.4
8Blank Noise: Home. https://www.blanknoise.org/home. Accessed Feb. 2022.
9I decided to speak of the book “Complaint!” as an initiative as I recognize Sarah Ahmed’s work of collecting testimonies as more than just documentation.
10Ahmed, S.: Complaint!. p.14.
11Blank Noise: I Never Ask For It, Vision / Origin. https://www.blanknoise.org/ineveraskforit/vision. Accessed Feb. 2022.
12Visible: Award 2019 – Shortlisted Blank Noise – Jasmeen Patheja. https://www.visibleproject.org/blog/project/blank-noise/. Accessed Jan. 2022.
13Ahmed, S.: Complaint!. p.266.