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Knights in shining posters
Street harassment is a grim fact of life for urban women. But the best way to get people to talk about it is by using humour, says the activist behind the GotStaredAt campaign.
My skirt has nothing to do with your inability to control yourself. " "I am sorry I made you want to assault me, my clothes will be punished harshly. " "Koi bhi jaanwar bina chhede tang nahi karta, sivaaye aadmi ke" (No animal attacks without provocation, except a few men).
These are few of the statements that make up the minimalist and stark posters against sexual harassment against women on the Facebook page of the GotStaredAt campaign. The online campaign that was launched in January by 23-year-old Dhruv Arora has amassed a group of almost 13, 000 followers in less than a year. The activity on the page, on which participants share blogs, rants, news, is evident of the outrage against gender violence.
Arora, an engineering graduate from Delhi who is now involved in activism fulltime, reached a tipping point when he heard teachers and college principals blame the way students dressed for attracting street harassment. "The idea was in my head for a long time. This was around the time there was a lot of discussion in the media about harassment and people commenting on clothes and how women looked, " says Arora, who was speaking from the India Gate protest on December 19 against the Delhi gang rape. Under the campaign, which is now in partnership with SADRAG, a Noida-based NGO against street harassment, Arora invited victims of any kind of harassment to post photos of what they were wearing. The project won the UN World Summit Award for "Power 2 Women" out of 1, 224 entries.
"The idea was to create an inclusive environment even for people who don't think the way we do, people who don't believe in our cause. We want everybody to share their opinions and invite them to talk to other people, to prove them right or wrong. The reward is to have so many people coming back and some would have, over time, changed their stance, " says Arora, who runs the campaign with Saransh Dua and a team of ten volunteers.
The posters, most of which Arora conceptualises with the help of his team, are quite popular;some posters have been shared up to 2, 000 times. It is tough to quantify a shift in public opinion but many are open to talking about it.
"Compared to say two years ago, Facebook is a different ecosystem now - people were not talking about it but we see links now, more involvement. Boys are not shy about posting about women's safety, " says Dua.
Arora recalls one of his classmates from his engineering college, who was not the "activism type" at all. Arora says, "I saw him sharing one of our posters on his wall, and someone commented saying, 'Kya bakwaas hai', and he defended it there. But the only reason he shared it was because it was funny. "
GotStaredAt uses humour, sarcasm and irony to sharpen its social messages. "Humour is an excellent tool. You can get away with a lot of things, which you wouldn't otherwise. It also stays in your mind for a longer time like a joke does because you tell it to other people, " says Dua. Historically, the subversive power of humour has often helped social protests - suffragettes in the early 20th century used "silliness" and satire as a political tactic (Humour and Social Protest by Cambridge University Protest).
But humour can swing both ways and can be misused. "The problem is that much of humour in popular culture today is unacceptable and sexist. Cracking a sexist joke is the easiest. You don't have to be sexist to be funny. That is ridiculous. Our posters work because of their surprise element, they get people talking. But it is a long-term process. Nothing will change tomorrow;not just the laws, but also the people. This intervention is required, " says Dua.
For now the campaign is limited to social media though Arora says the next step is to take it offline and hold public discussions with people (there has been one in Dilli Haat, a popular crafts bazaar in Delhi). But isn't there an inherent risk in an online campaign of preaching to a very niche, college-educated, Facebook-Twittersurfing, sitcom-watching, multiplex-going crowd?
Arora agrees but says, "Cultures are also created in niche places. It is not as though this Facebook crowd does not ever indulge in sexist behaviour. Many gender based campaigns cater to people across social strata. This niche crowd in fact has the power to start trends and can amplify the impact of the movement. "
Both Arora and Dua are thrilled when online chatter discusses sexual harassment because of a funny poster. Arora quotes one real-life example of a woman who said that she would not have the guts to stare back at a harasser. But ten days later, she posted about an incident when she was followed on a street and decided to turn around and look back at the guy and not let it pass. Says Arora: "She decided to take that step. The idea is to take that decision - to do it or not to do it. But there is a choice. "
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