January 19, 2018 / 1:20 PM / a year ago

To protest harassment, Indian women donate the clothes they wore

CHENNAI, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Yamini Karunagaran was on the bus to work in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru when a man sat in a women-only seat where he leered at her, and then followed her when she disembarked.

Almost as disturbing as the incident itself were reactions from many of those she related it to.

“It angered me that so many people later asked me what I was wearing,” Karunagaran told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

That attitude is almost as common as harassment and assault, which affect almost four out of every five women in India, according to a 2016 survey by non-profit ActionAid UK.

Rather than hold perpetrators accountable, many people shift blame to the victim, accusing her of inviting attention by wearing revealing clothes or laughing too loudly.

In protest, Karunagaran decided to donate the clothes she was wearing at the time to Blank Noise.

The advocacy group started the “I never ask for it” campaign, which has become part of a nationwide conversation about harassment.

Blank Noise travels to different cities collecting clothes women were harassed in and putting them on display in spaces where they hold healing circles and other events.

“Some have brought their aging aunt’s clothes, while others have drawn the dress they were wearing when they were abused as a child,” said founder Jasmeen Patheja.

“Women told us how they had tucked away their garment in the corner of their cupboards,” she said. “It was a memory that didn’t quite go away.”

Karunagaran was “traditionally clad” when she was harassed. Her orange leggings and kurta, a loose knee-length shirt, now hang on racks alongside outfits of all styles.

They include the pants, pink tank top and pink shirt that twenty-six-year-old fashion designer Eeshita Kapadiya was wearing when she was harassed.

“Garments help people see it as it was and realize that it doesn’t matter what you are wearing when you are harassed or abused,” said Kapadiya, who declined to give details of the harassment she suffered.

The ActionAid survey found that almost 80 percent of Indian women in India are subject to harassment and assault that ranges from staring, insults and wolf-whistling, to being followed, groped or even raped.

It occurs on the street, in parks, at community events, on college campuses and on public transport, campaigners say.

Sameera Khan, co-author of Why Loiter?, a book about the risks for women on Mumbai’s streets, said that Blank Noise, as well as women like Kapadiya and Karunagaran, are making a powerful and long overdue statement.

“Campaigns like this firmly put the blame back on the perpetrators,” she said.

Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Jared Ferrie; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org

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