Women walk alone to reclaim India’s streets from fear and harassment

After a long and tiring day, Neha Khandelwal, 26, fell asleep on the bus in Delhi on her way home. She woke up, startled, when she felt someone grab her breasts. Drowsy and not completely alert, it took her a minute to gauge what had happened. The man sitting next to her on the bus was groping her.


“I felt so vulnerable … that anybody could subject my body to something that I did not want,” she says.


Sexual harassment on the streets or in other public spaces is a common experience for women in India. A recent survey by the NGO ActionAid found 79% of women have been subjected to harassment or violence in public.


A volunteer-run collective called Blank Noise has been working against street harassment since 2004. In June, it launched a campaign – #WalkAlone – to encourage women to reclaim public spaces.


Women are being asked to walk alone to places they have never visited, or have been warned about.


The campaign is urging women to undertake the challenge at any time of the day, for three weeks, humming a song, daydreaming, with hands unclenched, shoulders relaxed, until they get back their right to walk without fear.


Next month, Blank Noise will launch a week-long campaign asking women to send in the clothing they were wearing when they were harassed, which will then be used to create public installations.


“An environment of warning [not to go somewhere] and fear leads to victim blaming. Blame is internalised as guilt and causes silence and shame. This perpetuates the cycle of sexual and gender-based violence,” says Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise. “We want to change that discourse.”


Blank Noise, which started as a graduation project, has increased discussion about street sexual harassment in India. The long-running initiative, which has utilised resources including theatre and technology to raise awareness and publicise offences, holds week-long courses teaching women how to be active in building safe spaces.


Khandelwal now lives in Bangalore. After attending a Blank Noise course, she walked alone at 10.30pm along Yelahanka Street, considered very unsafe for women in the city.


Knowing the risks involved, she carried her big metal house key as a weapon. “I know the risk I was taking, still I did it because it is important. It is important to be able to walk freely,” she says.


“To live without fear is a fundamental right,” says Patheja. “When the narrative of fear spreads and transfers – as it has – the notion of danger increases. We at Blank Noise identify ways to fight fear, by attending to it, questioning it and being confrontational. If walking alone is dangerous, should we resign [ourselves] to an environment of fear … or should we design ways to intervene and change the scene?”


Women report feeling more confident after their walks. On the Blank Noise website, Chaitra Rao said she found a solo walk in Koppa village, in India’s south-western Karnataka state, “liberating”. Of her walk up and down the hills of Kohima, in Nagaland state, Atreyee Majumder wrote: “I forget my gender … in a most liberating way.”


A Blank Noise poster demanding freedom from fear and the right to live unwarned

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A Blank Noise poster demanding freedom from fear and the right to live unwarned. Akeli Awaara Azaad means to be alone, an unattached wanderer and free. Photograph: blanknoise.org

As well as addressing fears, the walks make women visible on roads otherwise occupied only by men.


Satya Gummuluri, who has been a volunteer with Blank Noise for several years, says that when she feels anxious on the streets, “I give myself a little talk, telling myself that I am creating an image in people’s minds that it’s normal for a woman to be out on her own even if it’s late … I’m shaking up the sociocultural perceptions associated with it.”


So far, take-up of the challenge has been slow, but organisers hope it will shift the needle on women’s rights in the country as it gains momentum.


Khandelwal says she was very conscious of her surroundings at the start of her walk, but later came across a mother and her two children walking their dog. “The sight of the woman with her children immediately made me let go of my fear,” Khandelwal says. “I believe that’s what the solution is. For the roads to be safer, the presence of women at public places should be the norm, rather than an exception.”


Patheja says efforts to tackle street harassment are gaining prominence with the emergence of several initiatives. There has also been a shift in how the press covers sexual violence. “It is no longer swept under the carpet, and the denial and silence is breaking,” she says.