Book Chapter

Performance Interventions: Natality and Carceral Feminism in Contemporary India

by Jisha Menon

Performance opens up an opportunity to explore gendered experiences of traumatic violations and survival.

Maya Krishna Rao, a classically trained solo performer, begins her performance piece, Walk, poised with an elevated foot gesture as if to take a step. A haunting musical score complements her simultaneously brisk and lithe performance across multiple public spaces in New Delhi and beyond. A brief ten-minute piece, Walk was created in response to the gang rape and ensuing murder of Jyoti Singh, a medical intern, on a moving bus on December 16, 2012, in New Delhi. The event provoked widespread ire and led to protests across India, and subsequent far-reaching legislative amendments.[1]

Jasmeen Patheja, performance and conceptual artist, began the Blank Noise Project as an art student in Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Bangalore, in 2003 to reclaim city streets for women. A public art project, Blank Noise approaches chronic street sexual harassment in Bangalore by opening up spaces for public conversations through creative and playful interventions that aim to shift public attitudes and generate discussions about desires and boundaries.

Moving away from carceral feminist solutions, Maya Rao and Jasmeen Patheja use performance as a mode to initiate transformations in social and cultural attitudes toward gender and sexuality. While judicial dramas that play out in the courtroom focus on the accused, attuned as they are to the presumption of innocence, performance offers a unique avenue to address the survivor’s experiences of trauma and resilience.[2] Liberal legalism focuses on the defendant’s presumption of innocence, and courtroom proceedings marshal evidence and witness testimonies to either convict or exonerate him/ her. Performance, on the other hand, opens up an opportunity to explore gendered experiences of traumatic violations and survival.

While theories of performativity have explored the question of iteration and repetition in the formation of subjectivity, this chapter focuses on newness as holding potential to interrupt the iterative consolidation of misogyny in India. Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s conception of natality, I examine creative interventions that unsettle legal and public discourses of sexuality and foster new imaginaries of desire and freedom. Arendt argues, “Action has the closest connection with the human condition of natality.... In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities. Moreover, since action is the political activity par excellence, natality, and not mortality, may be the central category of political, as distinguished from metaphysical, thought.”[3] Arendt’s conception of natality departs from the Heideggerian “being-toward-death,” a radical finitude that draws Dasein away from its inauthentic immersion in everyday life.[4] Focusing on natality, rather than mortality, allows for a consideration of creative interventions that engender new public imaginaries and socialities.

The unpredictable force of protests in the public sphere and subsequent possibilities for renewed legal and social gender arrangements allow us to turn our attention to the natal, rather than mortal, implications of the violent acts and their subsequent repercussions. The affective force of the widespread protests that followed Jyoti Singh’s violent rape and murder generated significant legal amendments.

By focusing on renewal, Rao and Patheja turn their gaze away from victimhood and mortality to regenerate female empowerment and feminist solidarities through the political work of friendship. Rao’s performance extends friendship as support from intimate partner violence and urges survivors to walk alongside friends, exemplifying notions of negative and positive freedom.

Dispelling damaging stereotypes that disable communication, Blank Noise proffers friendship across chiasmic gender and class positions. Marking a turn away from temporal discussions of liveness that are invested in questions of disappearance, vanishing, and a Heideggerian being-toward-death, these horizontal gestures of friendship and solidarity not only spatialize liveness but also focus on the power of performance to bring new solidarities into being. Moving away from discourses of victimhood, Rao and Patheja also distance themselves from petitions for increased legal mechanisms to redress sexual violence. Through acts of natality—affirmative, playful, and creative performance tactics that enable women to take initiative and reclaim their cities and their streets—Rao and Patheja shift the focus from the suffering, violated woman to a renewal of public cultural practices.

While acknowledging the important strides made through feminist legal activism, this chapter argues that the recourse to liberal legalism normatively regulates and produces the law’s properly injured subjects. How does an ideology of freedom and liberty propagated by liberal legalism and its advocates obfuscate unequal and unfree conditions, extend the powers of the privileged, and entrench inequities of those beyond its pale? How have recent challenges by feminist and queer activists upset the teleology of legal “due process” through the instantaneous justice provided by naming and shaming perpetrators of sexual harassment on social media? In the wake of powerful global #metoo movements, how have survivors returned to the jagged shards of traumatic memory to recount inassimilable narratives of sexual violation? Liberal legalism’s teleology of “due process” has too often let down its victims and proven to be deficient and incapable of adequately responding to the proliferating, routine, and ubiquitous experiences of sexual violation in India today.

As feminist strategy and activism rethink their approaches to what constitutes justice for survivors of gender violence, there is an opportunity to move beyond punitive state outcomes to encompass broader notions of justice, including an expansive approach to restorative justice. Drawing on Foucauldian conceptions of governmentality, which disperses government beyond the state to the banal operations of everyday life, Janet Halley has critiqued “governance feminism,” a feminist justice project that has moved off the streets and has thoroughly interpenetrated the state.[5] Her conception of “the state,” however, is not circumscribed to courts, legislatures, and police, but also to the ways in which policing, with threat of legal reprisals, operates across schools, health-care institutions, places of work, and even the home. According to Halley, governance feminism has both a will to power and actual power, “from the White House to corporate boardroom to minute power dynamics that Foucault included in his theory of the governance of self.” In her words, “Feminism may face powers greater than its own in its constant involvement with its opponents; but it deals with them in the very terms of power.”[6] Governance feminism, according to Brown and Halley, “should be hypothesized as rife with normative categories, indeed as powerfully productive discourses that draw their normativity from widely dispersed sites in the culture, economy, and polity.”[7]

The reliance on legal recourse in feminist movements consolidates and provides social sanction for the carceral state in neoliberal India. While allied to governance feminism, but turning to liberal legalism as panacea for sexual violence, carceral feminism describes a worldview that seeks recourse to the criminal justice system to address issues of gender-based crimes that range from sexual assault to domestic violence. However, in reaching out to policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as the primary solutions to gender-based violence, carceral feminists overlook the ways in which police and prisons and a deeply flawed criminal justice system inflict violence and further empower and entrench a casteist and punitive state.

Building on the pioneering scholarship and activism of Angela Davis and Michelle Alexander, arguments against carceral feminism pay particular attention to the ways in which the criminal justice system is complicit in the perpetuation and legitimation of a racist state.[8] By making retributive justice, incarceration, policing, and surveillance central to redress of gender violence, other interventions such as rehabilitation, community education, and long-term organizing are discouraged. Victoria Law argues that carceral feminism ignores the ways in which race, class, gender identity, and immigration status leave certain women more vulnerable to violence and that greater criminalization often places these same women at risk of state violence.[9] By relying solely on a criminalized response, carceral feminism fails to address these social and economic inequities, let alone advocate for policies that ensure women are not economically dependent on abusive partners.

The Time Of/For Justice 

The brutal sexual and, ultimately, fatal assault of Jyoti Singh by six men on a moving bus in New Delhi was a flashpoint to address the chronic problem of sexual violence in Indian society. The incident took place late one evening on December 16, 2012, when a twenty-three-year-old medical intern, Jyoti Singh, and her friend Awindra Pandey were offered and accepted a ride back home on a bus after watching a film at a movie theater. The six occupants on the bus were out on a “joyride” and deceitfully cajoled the two to board the bus by promising them a ride home. The occupants beat her friend unconscious and sexually assaulted and violated Singh, including inserting a metal rod in her vagina, after which they dumped the two, naked, on the cold Delhi streets. After eleven days in emergency care in New Delhi, Singh was transferred to a hospital in Singapore, where she eventually succumbed to her injuries. The accused were arrested and charged with sexual assault and murder. One of the accused, Ram Singh, died in police custody. Another defendant was a juvenile and given a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment in a reform facility. The remaining four defendants went on trial in a fast-track court, were convicted of rape and murder, and were sentenced to death. In May 2017 India’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for the four men.

Why did this particular case capture the attention not only of the nation but also of the international community? What can we learn from the temporal logic of this case? The progressivist teleology of the upwardly mobile young woman whose aspirations are thwarted is particularly well suited to mobilize an account of the dark, dangerous, and unruly passions of unmodern India. Poulami Roychowdhury examines the ways in which the gang rape of Jyoti Singh is mobilized to circulate the narrative of culture clash of two Indias—one modern and the other traditional.[10] She points out that despite the presumption of class hierarchy, however, the assailants and their victim were from very similar class and caste backgrounds. Roychowdhury argues that the violation of a woman coded as not only modern and rights-bearing citizen but also as unfettered consumer of a globalizing India is internationally legible and justifies political and legal interventions that confirm orientalist conceptions of nonmodern and uncivilized third world nations. Such tropes rehearse colonialist stereotypes of unruly non-Western societies where brown women require international intervention and rescue from rapacious brown men in their own societies.

The question of time, pragmatic, juridical, and conceptual, has also been central to rethinking justice for victims of sexual assault. Pragmatically, as a result of the protests, a judicial committee was set up to study and make recommendations for legal amendments for quicker investigation and prosecution of sex offenders. Some critics have pointed out that similar cases in the past have failed to garner public attention and expedite the unrelenting slowness of the legal process.[11] The fatal assault on the moving bus ignited protests across India and catalyzed legal alacrity The Justice J. S. Verma Committee report was submitted swiftly after twenty-nine days, after considering eighty thousand suggestions received during the period. The Justice Verma Committee report indicated that failures on the part of the government and police were the root cause behind crimes against women.[12]

The legal amendments in the wake of the Jyoti Singh case provided a rethinking of the way in which rape itself is situated within teleological discourses about marriageability and progeny. Rape laws had hitherto borne the imprint of patriarchal teleology of succession. A new law was introduced that said that penetration of a woman by a foreign object, and not necessarily a penis, would constitute rape. The J. S. Verma Committee report expanded the crime of rape to include any nonconsensual penetration of a sexual nature.[13]

Feminist scholar and legal activist Flavia Agnes argues that in any other case of physical assault, use of a weapon would be “aggravated assault,” while in rape, penetrating a woman with rods, sticks, and the like, as opposed to a penis, were seen (in the previous law) as less culpable offences.[14] From this point of view, the penis is the only threat to patriliny, not any other part of the body or any other object. Agnes concludes that when contemporary commentators see forced oral sex as somehow a smaller crime than “real” rape, they contribute, wittingly or unwittingly, to this patriarchal understanding of sexual violation. The law, therefore, only recognizes penile penetration of the vagina as rape, while other forms of penetration came under “outraging a womans modesty,” a considerably lesser crime.

According to feminist theorist, Nivedita Menon, “The notion that strict ‘rape’ or ‘penetration’ can be said to have happened only with peno-vaginal penetration is a patriarchal one, based on preserving the body of the woman for patrilineal succession. Such an understanding sees the harm of rape as lying in the potential for (illegitimate) pregnancy, and the subversion of patriliny.”[15] The primary threat of rape, in this conception, is to a linear unfolding of progressive heteronormative time, which produces a crisis in patriliny. By insisting that forcible insertion of foreign objects into female orifices constitutes rape, the focus shifted from the instrument of violation to the integrity of the violated body.

The legal amendments following the Justice Verma Committee report enabled a major rethinking of rape by wresting it away from patriarchal discourses surrounding female honor (izzat) where women are imagined as symbolic of family or community value. Moving toward conceptions of “consent” meant imagining her as a rights-bearing subject under law—as a citizen and not only as a symbol of family or community value. Moreover, consent acknowledged women’s desire and agency in participation in sexual activity.

But what constitutes consent? How do we determine when a line is crossed from consenting to relenting to sexual encounters? The question of consent had emerged decades earlier in the notable Mathura Rape Case in 1972 where a young Dalit girl, between fourteen and sixteen years of age, was raped by two policemen in the precincts of the police station in Chandrapur district, Maharashtra. The Sessions Court found the defendants not guilty. According to their rationale, since Mathura was “habituated to sexual intercourse,” her consent was voluntary; under the circumstances only sexual intercourse could be proved and not rape. The Bombay High Court, however, ruled that submission due to fear or intimidation cannot constitute consent, and overturned this judgment and sentenced the accused. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not demonstrate the sagacity of the High Court and again overturned its verdict and acquitted the accused policemen. According to the Supreme Court verdict, consent was established because Mathura raised no alarm, did not fight off her aggressors, did not have any bruises, which suggested that she did not struggle and hence her body did not proffer evidence consistent with violent rape. The judge noted, “Because she was used to sex, she might have incited the cops [they were drunk on duty] to have intercourse with her.”[16] Rape, in this formulation, can only occur when it constitutes a “first time”; every subsequent time is automatically presumed consensual. Moreover, she is accused of having “incited the cops,” thus in a predictably misogynist move, the judgment blames the victim for luring the perpetrator.

This verdict generated a wave of protests and subsequent legal amendments. A group of law professors were vocal in their challenge and wrote an open letter to the Supreme Court, “Consent involves submission, but the converse is not necessarily true.... From the facts of case, all that is established is submission, and not consent.... Is the taboo against pre-marital sex so strong as to provide a license to Indian police to rape young girls?”[17] The case vividly reveals the imbrication of juridical and disciplinary discourses. She is presumed promiscuous, and as an impoverished Dalit girl, she is denied the category of “victim,” which is reserved for upper-caste, Hindu women. The effects of law can be complex, contingent, and shifting; the legal apparatus, in this case, not only withholds justice but also attempts to produce regulated subjects and disciplined populations.[18] This case exposes the thorough enmeshment of legal cultures in caste, class, and gender privilege.

As with the case of Jyoti Singh, the Mathura verdict also generated public furor. The key difference, however, was that while in Mathura’s case, the protests pointed to the police as perpetrators and the law as abetting and complicit in the crime against Mathura, forty years later in Jyoti Singh’s case, the police and the legal system are considered the guarantors and protectors of upwardly mobile, urban women, imagined increasingly as “victims” of sex crimes committed by unmodern migrant men.

Class, Power, and Sexual Entitlement 

The two distinct time signatures of quotidian misogyny, on the one hand, and the temporality of law in responding to sexual crimes, on the other, both exacerbate gender injustice. The legal amendments following the J. S. Verma Committee Report, however, had brisk and significant impact on the routine misogyny practiced not only in rural or nonmodern contexts but also within “liberal” urban society. Three recent high-profile cases of “progressive,” liberal Indian men, journalist Tarun Tejpal, climate scientist R. K. Pachauri, and Dastangoi performer Mahmood Farooqui, who are each imbricated in public scandals of sexual abuse ranging from harassment to rape, further illuminate the pervasive and entrenched misogyny within liberal sections of society.[19]

Unlike the case of Jyoti Singh, each case cited above involves a high-profile “progressive,” “global” Indian. The apprehended men have been celebrated for giving voice to the disenfranchised through their work in investigative journalism, climate change, and minoritarian performance. Each of the men ostensibly abused his position of power over their survivors/complainants— two were in immediate positions of leadership (Tejpal and Pachauri), while Farooqui was offering research information/advice to a young American PhD scholar.[20]

The question of what constitutes consent was succinctly captured in the judgment in the case of Mahmood Farooqui, who allegedly forced oral sex on an unconsenting American visiting research scholar. The verdict found the defendant guilty and according to newly amended rape laws sentenced Farooqui to seven years in prison.[21] The verdict cited Clause 2 of Section 375, “The essence of rape is absence of consent. Consent means an intelligent, positive concurrence of the woman.”[22] This verdict makes clear the distinction between relenting under pressure and affirmatively consenting to sexual intercourse, and represents a significant shift from patriarchal discourses surrounding woman’s honor or marriageability and situates consent within the realm of her own sexual agency. However, in 2017, the Delhi High Court acquitted Farooqui of rape.

The Jyoti Singh case, and the ways in which it changed rape laws in India, directly impacted the prosecution of elite liberal perpetrators. However, feminist debates diverged in their approach to grappling with sexual violence in contemporary India. While feminist legal scholars such as Pratiksha Baxi and Mihira Sood offer nuanced arguments about the centrality of the legal process in changing rape culture, others such as Flavia Agnes and Manisha Sethi express reservations about the increasing ways in which feminism is articulated through a carceral register.[23] 

In India, an outspoken critic of carceral feminism, Agnes, discusses the limitations of a carceral approach to gender-based crimes:

I have always been against stringent punishment, either as retributive justice or for its deterrent value. It is obvious that the rationale of deterrence has not worked, though my position has been unpalatable for many within the women’s movement.... I also do not believe that only when the accused is given maximum punishment is the victim able to overcome the trauma of rape. It is necessary to delink the two.... Women want justice but all survivors do not necessarily want to surrender to the complex machinations of the law and become helpless within its processes. Restorative justice can also be a way for women to regain their sense of autonomy, integrity and dignity.[24]

How do sexual and carceral politics intertwine to become the dominant form to redress sexual violence, and what alternative social visions are obscured by this carceral turn in feminist activism? How can a performative turn to reshaping public cultures point a way beyond legal channels to secure sexual and gender justice? Wendy Brown and Janet Halley remind us that legalism deploys liberalism as a normativizing, regulatory form of power. They explore “how the act of making justice claims in the language of liberal legalism shapes us as justice-worthy subjects.”[25] While legal petitions for redress saturate contemporary political life, justice cannot be reduced to legalism. Rao and Patheja’s artistic endeavors offer alternative ways to envisage and shape social justice that exceed legalistic rationalities. Through their performance interventions, these feminist performers tackle issues of endemic gender violence in Indian society.

Walking with Maya Rao 

The creative interventions of Maya Rao and Jasmeen Patheja exemplify what Hannah Arendt describes as natality in politics: the promise of initiation and renewal, which enables human beings to begin something anew. As she theorizes, action is the supreme mode for citizens engaging in the public sphere, and this ability to act is rooted in natality. In the words of Arendt, “the new beginning inherent in birth can make itself felt in the world only because the newcomer possesses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting.”[26] Through their performance interventions, Rao and Patheja introduce newness into the public sphere, inspire new friendships, and initiate transformations in public cultural attitudes.

Rao first performed Walk at midnight on December 31, 2012, in New Delhi, just two days after Jyoti Singh succumbed to her injuries.[27] Performed at Jawaharlal Nehru University campus, well known for its radical student politics, Walk enjoined the students to join in a procession that led from the university to a few miles outside the campus to the bus stop, from which Jyoti Singh and her friend had boarded the fateful bus, which became the site of her rape and murder.

Rao trained as a classical Kathakali performer, then taught at the National School of Drama in New Delhi, before starting her career as a solo performer. Performing solo in the mid-eighties was uncommon in India but Rao is an iconoclastic practitioner who evolved her own theatrical idiom. Her solo pieces tackle intense and serious subjects such as the subcontinental partition and its violent aftermath; Rao adapted Manto’s short story Khol Do into a searing nonverbal solo performance. More recently in June 2017, Rao performed In the Name of a Cow, in New Delhi’s public square, Jantar Mantar, where a crowd of protestors rallied under the banner “Not in My Name” to verbally and performatively dissent against the fatal lynching by right-wing Hindu extremists of Junaid Khan, a young sixteen-year-old Muslim boy, who allegedly ate beef on a train on June 22, 2017.

Rao is also a celebrated comedic performer whose cabaret pieces such as Deep Fried Jam, The Non Stop Feel Good Show, and Quality Street are biting indictments of contemporary liberalized India. Drawing her audiences into her powerful magnetic field, Rao uses irony and humor in her cabaret performances to offer acerbic social critiques on a range of topics from urban consumerism to everyday sexism in contemporary India. A charismatic and audacious performer, Rao exudes raw energy, courage, humor, and candor that unsettles social conventions.

Walk, an improvisational performance piece, combines poetry, movement, and music to summon feminist solidarities and inspire a new movement for gender justice. In its call to reclaim city streets and urban nightscapes, Walk urges its audience to walk as fellow performers and practice what feminist activist Kavita Krishnan calls bekhauf azaadi, or fearless freedom.[28] The freedom that Rao envisions in her performance does not seek police protection for vulnerable women but rather insists, in an Arendtian vein, that newness or natality produces political action; taking initiative for social justice discloses the capacity for freedom.

In a poetic idiom, Rao stutters then utters, “I want to, can I, should I, will I.... walk? .... I want to walk the streets at two, three, and four in the morning, to sit on a bus, walk on the street, to lie in a park, I try not to be afraid of the dark.” In faltering, hesitant words, Rao conveys the diffidence and uneasiness women experience in urban nightscapes. Rao’s halting words grow gradually resolute as she empowers her audience with the promise of companionship: “Will you walk? Will you walk? I’ll walk with you, don’t walk with him, I’ll talk with you, I’ll walk with you.” The repetition of the word “walk” gathers an affective resonance that builds into a crescendo, inciting audiences to move out of their passivity and stirring them to act in collective rage. Extending solidarity to survivors of sexual violence, Walk is a rousing summons to action that encourages survivors to move from the isolation of victimhood to the solace and support of feminist friendships.

Furthermore, Rao reminds her audience of the power of protest marches. In the wake of student protests and backlash from the government, Rao performs on the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus in New Delhi in 2015 and refers to the 2012 marches for justice for Jyoti Singh:

In December we walked for justice 

So we got a law 

February 2013 

That’s all it takes 

It only takes a walk.

Here Rao cites her own prior performance and the power of protest marches to create new laws that may better serve women. Rao does not dismiss legal channels as a viable route to secure justice. However, the performance piece exceeds a narrow pursuit for legal remedies and holds out a sense of imaginative amplitude in its envisioning of gender justice. It gathers its power from the forging of solidarities through live, political actions. Rather than dwelling on the victimhood of Jyoti Singh, Rao’s piece offers a creative response, or what Bonnie Honig would describe as “a natal’s pleasure-based counter to grief that supplements solidarity forged in sorrow and points in the direction of generative action rather than ruminative reflection or ethical orientation.”[29] It is in newness or natality, forged through creative intervention, that feminist performance reorients its politics. Public cultures can be reimagined and reshaped through creative acts of recuperation, solidarity, and friendship.

Describing the first iteration of Walk, participant and theater scholar Bishnupriya Dutt writes, “Speaking as one who participated, I found the experience of collective walking mesmerizing. With a music track in the background, Rao set a pace for the rhythm of the walk and we all moved together to that rhythm.... For those of us who had participated in the extraordinarily emotionally and literally moving moment of 31 December, Walk would never lose its collective spirit.”[30] Dutt recollects the event as “mesmerizing,” foregrounding the power of the piece to draw the individual spectator out of her narrow self-interest into a larger, affectively charged civic philia of political action. This is precisely the power of natality, a renewed political capacity for understanding how we hold each other, of spatializing the temporal, and recognizing the latitudinal dimensions of the live moment. While the focus on disappearance and radical finitude in discussions on liveness awakens one from the torpor of an inauthentic existence, approaching the heinous rape and murder through natal acts of collective solidarity reignites our horizontal sense of togetherness, as an act of profound holding and being held by one another.

Walk addresses a variety of sexual abuses ranging from incest and domestic violence to marital rape and sexual harassment in workplace and public spaces, and in the process illuminates the pervasiveness of sexual violence toward women in contemporary India. While occasioned by the case of Jyoti Singh, the piece reflects on the ubiquity of sexual violations, most often within the precincts of home and family. Rao emphasizes sexual violence in intimate spaces and makes visible the multiple scenes of violation that depart from dominant conceptions of rural migrants as primary perpetrators of sexual violence in the city. Bringing marital rape into visibility, Rao cautions her audience:

A man who cant sit next to a woman right

A man who cant lie next to his wife right

Ask her before they have sex tonight—don’t walk with him.

Roll out of bed, just walk tonight.

Figure 9.1 Maya Krishna Rao performs Walk at the International Theatre Festival of Kerala, Thrissur, Kerala, January 2018. Photo by Jose Farinha.

By bringing the question of consent up front—“Just ask her,” she says in English and follows it up in Hindi, “Pooch to lo”—Rao insists that we attend to scenes of violation that occur between intimate partners, within families, and other encounters that, while far more pervasive, are seldom reported and often suppressed and censored from the public sphere. These violations are perpetrated not by “outsiders” from which middle-class feminist organizing would seek the police to secure them, but by members of one’s own family.

Performed in a variety of public spaces from New Delhi streets to Jantar Mantar, the Jaipur literary festival, and the Jawarharlal Nehru University campus, Walk is a piece that inspires spectators with an awakening of their collective power as citizens to initiate legal, cultural, and social transformations in urban spaces (figure 9.1). Rao’s performance is remarkable in the ways in which it draws its utopian energy from the power of solidarity to remake public cultures at large. In the process, it avoids portraying women as victims subordinated to sexual dominance seeking narrow legal redress to the problem of sexual violence. Rather, it views the criminal justice system itself ambivalently and the police as complicit in the ubiquitous violence against women. As Rao expresses,

Just give me a cop that listens to what I say to him

Just give me a book so when I speak he will write what I say to him

And just perchance if I cannot say and he saw,

Will he write what he saw?

Give me that cop, give me that law,

Let me just live, live, live,

Let me live free.

By bringing together legal acts of testimony, witnessing, and accountability, Rao underlines the entanglement of agential subjecthood and institutional subjection in generating new possibilities of freedom for women.

Banality of Harassment 

While Maya Rao’s Walk derives from a volatile instance of sexual violence, Jasmeen Patheja’s artworks focus on endemic sexual harassment in India. A visual and performance artist, Patheja faced sexual harassment, euphemistically referred to as “eve-teasing,” as a child growing up in Calcutta. She recalls that she would frequently be harassed while in her school uniform on her way to and from school. Patheja initiated the Blank Noise Project in 2003 when she was an art student at Srishti School of Art Design and Technology in Bangalore, India. Blank Noise attempts to build a network of “Action-heroes,” or volunteers, across genders, sexualities, and classes, who will creatively grapple with the problem of sexual harassment. Patheja was recently awarded the International Award for Public Art, a Sino-American initiative that annually recognizes work aimed at changing civic engagement across the world.

Patheja is emphatic that the performance interventions she stages at multiple sites across Bangalore are not intended as adversarial or antagonistic to men. Rather, she attempts to reconfigure affective experiences of fear and vulnerability into less threatening encounters between sexual subjects in the city. In the words of Patheja,

No woman of any age, colour or character ever “asks for it.” Every single day, women in Bengaluru, India, and many parts of the world invest so much time thinking how and with whom to step out of home, and where to go. Everything revolves around the notion of security, which leads to policing and controlling the movement of women. We want a world that is free from fear. A world that is free of warnings that don’t falsify safety with women’s bodies being controlled. The discourse should be about enabling them to live without fear, without having to clench their fist and having to carry the weight of fear on their back.[31]

Reiterating the importance of bekhauf azzadi, or fearless freedom, Patheja wants to redraw the affective map of the city. Patheja’s community art projects attempt to reclaim city streets for women to inhabit and traverse urban public spaces without gendered anxieties of sexual harassment or assault.

In 2005 Blank Noise recruited twelve performers through text messages to stand at a busy red light traffic junction in Bangalore city with each performer bearing a letter that was pasted on their T-shirt that together read Y R U L O O K I N G A T M E. Some volunteers held out posters detailing laws against street harassment.[32] In the words of Patheja, “We are committed to tackling and shifting the fear-based relationship women have been taught to have with their cities.”[33] These artivist projects stoke the curiosity of passersby through their creative interventions and new forms of public protest.

Through online campaigns such as I Never Ask for It, Blank Noise asks women to recollect their experiences of sexual harassment and send in an item of clothing they wore during the incident of harassment. Building a material archive of clothing offers an alternative record: the pieces of clothing constitute public testimonies of sexual harassment. Blank Noise displays these articles of clothing on their website to comment on misogynist attitudes that blame and shame victims of sexual harassment for dressing provocatively thereby enticing and inviting unwanted attention.

Patheja’s performance interventions are multidimensional and incorporate some legal measures into her artivist projects. For example, through the use of cell-phone text-message technology, Patheja has developed a way to feed text messages into a database that links to police reporting systems. “This will enable lawmakers to take simple steps, such as, changing the lights in a particular area or posting extra security personnel.”[34] Patheja, like Rao, does not set up a false dichotomy between choosing and rejecting legal avenues for gender justice. While they are critical of a criminal justice system that regulates women’s behavior, their feminist approach foregrounds the amplitude and heterogeneity in creative initiatives that deploy multiple strategies, including legal measures, to instigate larger social and cultural transformations in Indian society.

Urban studies scholar Hemangini Gupta participated in Blank Noises street performance of YRULOOKINGATME. As she describes it, “Blank Noise interventions are built on the individual dreams of participants, inviting them to express their desires and to use these as the bedrock for future interventions. The emphasis of the collective is to engage in moments of disruption and play on city streets that build an archive of individual testimonials (related to street harassment and utopic visions of urban space) and use these to design activist interventions.”[35] Gupta connects feminist desires to circulate freely in public spaces to neoliberal practices of risk-taking, consumption, and individual freedom. For Gupta such acts of feminist artivism suggest a brand of neoliberal feminism, which “assume individual responsibility to transform public spaces by emphasizing their personal desires and dreams as the basis for their articulation of feminist freedom.”[36] K. Frances Lieder, on the other hand, cautions against flattening out the potential of such feminist interventions. In her study of “Why Loiter” performance practices in Mumbai, Lieder foregrounds the collective solidarity in these exercises, which lays the ground to prefigure a politics that rehearses and embodies the desired society. For Lieder such performances charge public space with “the purpose of circulating different affective norms.”[37] Emphasizing the role of creativity within these political actions, Lieder demonstrates the ways in which performances deploy affect to prefigure and reimagine future publics.

It is important to note that while these creative interventions are situated within a neoliberal ferment, they also exceed them.[38] These playful, ephemeral, creative interruptions to routinized sexism are akin to Debord’s detournement—a temporary and playful rerouting of the norm through audacious tactics, which offer a glimpse into alternative arrangements of desire and sociality in the urban nightscape.[39]

Patheja’s performance interventions actively attempt to reshape public cultural attitudes to gender. Her work with transportation service workers at bus and railway stations, bus drivers, and traffic police attempts to shift passive public attitudes toward sexual harassment in public spaces. The campaign Walk Alone resonates with Maya Rao’s performance piece Walk. With the Hindi words Akeli, Awara, Azaad (Alone, Vagabond, Free), Patheja’s art projects attempt to empower women to take back their streets and reclaim their public space. One volunteer, Satya Gummuluri, with Blank Noise’s project Walk Alone, describes her experience thus: “When I feel anxious on desolate 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. In a way. I’m shaking up the socio-cultural perceptions associated with it.”[40] Here, participants are encouraged to recalibrate their habituated affective responses to urban nightscapes, while also serving as role models for others. In this way performers deliberately undertake the work of remapping the affective contours of their cities.

Figure 9.2 Talk to Me, Yelahanka, Bangalore, 2012. Photo by Action Shero Vishakha Jindal, courtesy of Blank Noise. 

In 2012 Blank Noises public art project Talk to Me occurred in Bangalore. Talk to Me, or Yelahanka Action Heroes, recruited a group of nineteen students to identify a particular street in the town of Yelahanka, which was popularly referred to as “Rapist’s Lane” and had acquired a reputation of being an “unsafe space” (figure 9.2), This street was poorly lit at night, had no commercial activity, and men would frequently sit in their cars in the evening and drink alcohol, which disconcerted passersby. Blank Noise attempted to bridge socioeconomic divides by bringing female students into conversation, over tea and samosas, with the inhabitants of the street. The premise was that familiarity could dispel fear and apprehension. For Patheja, conversations enable people to work through stereotypes via a process that encourages openness and vulnerability. Across a table, over a cup of tea and samosas, two strangers, a student and a resident, conversed on a range of topics from fear to love to life. At the end of the conversation, the Action Hero gifted a flower to the person across the table. While Patheja mines the heteronormative clichés of boy-meets-girl encounters, the interclass encounters between men and women from vastly different socioeconomic spheres generated unpredictable effects, in some cases opening up spaces for greater dialogue.

For Patheja, the simple adventure of a purposeful conversation, undertaken with curiosity, could leave behind an enduring trace. Yet, even in these encounters conversations don’t always proceed as planned. One participant, Action Hero Astha, conveys her ambivalence:

The conversation picked up at absolutely random topics and because we had a language barrier I was surprised to see for how long it went on. We majorly spoke about love and how it affects life. What I learnt about the person was that he was really sweet in the beginning and even towards the end but his intention towards me changed. He seemed to be a very emotionally sensitive person, who has family responsibilities. He is a person who works according to his will and mood. He makes sure he does things he loves to do, in order to be happy. What I learnt about myself was that I could actually ever speak my heart out in front of a stranger. I always knew that I could make conversation, but I let go this time. Even though we hardly understood what each other said, I think we spent a good time. His change in behaviour and his courage was the only thing that really surprised and disappointed me [italics mine].[41]

We are not clear about what in her conversation partner’s behavior disappointed Action Hero Astha. It is even more difficult to determine if the “disappointing” behavior constituted sexual harassment. Action Hero Astha succinctly conveys the range of her conversation from insights into her own capacities to learning about her partner’s opinions. She was surprised by her sense of freedom and her ability to speak in an unrestrained way with a stranger. At least momentarily, it appears she was able to exceed regulatory prohibitions that may curtail her freedom and expect her, as a “woman,” to behave in ways consistent with social norms. However, she is also taken aback when she observes a change in the converser’s intention and behavior. Remarkably, her disappointment does not lead her to reject this man, castigate him, or undermine the Talk to Me project. Despite some negative feelings, she refuses to imagine herself as subordinated or victimized in her encounter and relates her experience in a generally optimistic way. Action Hero Astha conveys a sense of affective amplitude in her encounter and exposes the possibility that pleasure and risk, excitement and disappointment can reside in a single experience.

Although these ventures may entail risky encounters, Blank Noise’s gesture of friendship attempts to remake public cultures through creative play. Talk to Me enabled women to sit across from strangers and initiate conversations and thus remake gender relations by relaxing the normative and disciplinary production of middle-class femininity in contemporary Indian society Their performance interventions echo Brown and Halley’s reminder: “If feminism once aimed to make women the sexual equals of men, this aim contains the complex social, psychological, and political project of making gender differently, and not simply the legal one of protecting (historically and culturally produced) vulnerable women from (historically and culturally produced) rapacious men.”[42] Simply by seating female art students across a table from men from a lower socioeconomic position and initiating conversation that dispels gendered urban anxiety begins a process of loosening social stereotypes. Blank Noise finds spaces to dislodge the saturation of legalistic claims of victimhood, and introduce newness, pleasure, and risk into cross-class urban encounters.

As we can see from the performance interventions of Maya Rao and Blank Noise, legal recourse does not have to be the only avenue for social and gender justice. Indeed, legalism is never circumscribed to the courts and the criminal justice system. Its effects disseminate in regulatively producing a conception of “woman” marked through caste, religion, region, and class privilege, making invisible the routine sexual violations perpetrated through caste, religious, and military violence. Legal and disciplinary discourses are co-imbricated, and this constitutes the very conditions for who we are and what we do. Circulating in public culture, the effects of legal discourses regulate social relations and normatively produce subject positions. Feminist legal activism, in a carceral register, fails to address the myriad forms of violence faced by women disadvantaged by race, class, caste, ethnicity, and region, including police violence and mass incarceration.

The creative interventions by performers Rao and Patheja take up but also look beyond the law and its delineation of injured subjects to find new and creative ways to engage with the entrenched sexism and gender violence in contemporary India. They extend the steadying hand of friendship by reducing the isolation and disorientation that such violations can bring and affirming the empowering solace found in solidarity. Rao, Patheja, and other artists exemplify ways in which feminist interventions in the public sphere need to reach beyond legal solutions and engage and shift public culture at large. Such performances do not foreclose dialogue enacted through legal fiat, but rather engender newness through playful and creative imaginations of alternative gender, social, and political arrangements.


Notes

[1] For a detailed discussion of the performative strategies used during these protests, including an analysis of Maya Rao’s Walk, see Dutt, “Performing Resistance with Maya Rao.”

[2] I thank David Sklansky for pointing this out to me.

[3] Arendt, Human Condition, 9.

[4] For Arendt, the preoccupation with mortality situates Heidegger’s thought within the Western metaphysical tradition. In its focus on radical finitude as the temporal limit which proffers an authentic existence, Heidegger, even if critical of Platonic metaphysics of presence, is still operating within a Western metaphysical paradigm, and disregards the relational dynamics that constitute subjects and publics.

[5] Halley, Split Decisions.

[6] Halley, Split Decisions, 22.

[7] Brown and Halley, Left Legalism/Left Critique, 24.

[8] See A. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete?, and M. Alexander, New Jim Crow.

[9] Law, “Against Carceral Feminism.”

[10] Poulami Roychowdhury, “The Delhi Gang Rape,” 282-92.

[11] For example, the eleven perpetrators who raped Muslim woman, Bilkis Bano in the 2002 Gujarat pogrom were finally convicted in 2012 and given a life-imprisonment sentence. The Mumbai High Court upheld the conviction in 2017 after the defendants appealed the verdict. As a result, Bilkis Bano had to wait fifteen years to see her perpetrators brought to justice.

[12] Judicial discretion in sentencing had come under scrutiny: sentences had been routinely reduced based on a number of factors such as a woman’s past sexual history, her marital status, etc. Following the 2013 guidelines, the sentence for rape was fixed at seven years.

[13] Rape is defined under s. 375(d) ipc: “wherein a man is said to commit rape if he applies his mouth to the vagina, anus, urethra of a woman against her will and without her consent.”

[14] See Agnes’s interview in Badhwar, “Can’t Compare Brutal Gang-Rape with Forced Oral Sex.”

[15] Menon and Devika, “Mahmood Farooqui Rape Conviction.”

[16] Haksar “Human Rights Lawyering,” 132.

[17] Haksar, “Human Rights Lawyering,” 132-33. Writers included Professors Upendra Baxi, Raghunath Kelkar, Lotika Sarkar, and Vasudha Dhagamwar, among others.

[18] On the regulatory capacities of legalism, see Brown and Halley, Left Legalism/Left Critique, 11.

[19] Tarun Tejpal is a pioneering investigative journalist and former editor in chief of Tehelka, a magazine that had produced an entire special issue on violence against women. R. K. Pachauri is considered one of the foremost scientists of climate change in the world. Former Rhodes scholar, Mahmood Farooqui is an Indian performer, writer, and director. He specializes in Dastangoi, a sixteenth-century Urdu oral performance form.

[20] The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, is a legislative act in India that seeks to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of work. This statute superseded the Vishakha Guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment introduced by the Supreme Court of India.

[21] During the trial, the victim said she didn’t resist the rape because she was reminded of the violent murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey, the 2012 Delhi gang-rape victim. Vrinda Grover, the legal counsel for the victim, said, “She has stated before this court, during the recording of the evidence, that she was reminded of the documentary of the Nirbhaya case, where the rapist had said that if the victim had not struggled, she would have survived. The accused (Farooqui) applied force and pushed her down. She then froze. She knew if she resisted the rape upon her, the consequence would be worse” (Sacks, “Indian Director Mahmood Farooqui Convicted”).

[22] Gaur, Textbook on the Indian Penal Code, 649.

[23] Baxi, “‘Carceral Feminism’ as Judicial Bias.” See also Sood, “Why the Backlash against the Mahmood Farooqui Judgment Is Manipulative and Dangerous,” and Sethi, “Why the Mahmood Farooqui Judgment Is Deeply Flawed.”

[24] Badhwar, “Can’t Compare Brutal Gang-Rape with Forced Oral Sex.”

[25] Brown and Halley, Left Legalism/Left Critique, 17.

[26] Arendt, Human Condition, 9.

[27] In the wake of the December 2013 Supreme Court ruling that recriminalized homosexuality in India, Maya Rao revised Walk to bring a range of violations— legal, sexual harassment, and overt physical violence—under scrutiny, thus building affiliations between gender and queer justice. In 2018 the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code as unconstitutional.

[28] Krishnan, secretary of All India Progressive Women’s Association, writes, “In the wake of the anti-rape movement that followed December 16, 2012, the streets of Delhi and many other parts of India had resounded with the voices of women declaring ‘Don’t take away our freedoms in the name of “protection”—protect our right to fearless, fullest freedom instead.’ Those women had raised their voice demanding freedom from sexual violence—and also freedom from rape culture that advices [sic] women to dress decently to avoid rape; and freedom from the khap panchayats, freedom even from the restrictions imposed by one’s own fathers and brothers.” See Krishnan, “Rape and Rakhi.”

[29] Honig, “Antigone’s Two Laws,” 9.

[30] Dutt, “Performing Resistance with Maya Rao,” 378.

[31] Patheja, “Challenge Is in Developing Empathy.”

[32] See Gupta, “One Night Stand on the Streets.”

[33] Pal, “Reclaiming the Streets.”

[34] Pal, “Reclaiming the Streets.”

[35] Gupta, “Taking Action,” 161-62.

[36] Gupta, “Taking Action,” 165.

[37] Lieder, “Performing Loitering Feminist Protest,” 159

[38] Gupta, “Taking Action.”

[39] See Debord, Society of the Spectacle.

[40] Blank Noise website.

[41] Blank Noise website.

[42] Brown and Halley, Left Legalism/Left Critique, 20.

 

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