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Fighting harassment on India's streets

Despite resistance, women's groups are challenging the country's catcalling culture.

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For artist Jasmeen Patheja, moving to the high-tech hub of Bangalore for college was an introduction to India's chic new cosmopolitanism. But the move also brought on something more regressive: the nightly catcalls of (chili) and (tomatoes) – food items being the common sexual taunts for women pedestrians.

"I found myself feeling more and more vulnerable," Ms. Patheja recalls. "And in addition to feeling angry and helpless, I wondered why I didn't get the support I needed when I was with friends."

Rather than ignore the taunts, Patheja channeled her frustration into founding the Blank Noise Project, one of several new Indian advocacy groups devoted to raising awareness about sexual harassment.

Last year, volunteers stenciled testimonies from harassment victims all over Connaught Place, New Delhi's central roundabout, and the group's blog posts candid photos of "eve-teasers" – the Indian euphemism for sexual harassers. Now, Patheja is collecting clothes that women were wearing when they were harassed, preparing to display the outfits en masse in major cities in hopes of confronting the notion that intimidated women "ask for it" by wearing provocative outfits.

The efforts of academics, women's groups, and artists like Patheja are raising major questions about gender issues and the need for safe public space in a country that's often preferred to ignore them. Amid India's booming economy and changing social atmosphere, most women still face taunts and groping on a near-daily basis.

Walks around town, even in the country's gleaming new offices and malls, are often fraught with unwelcome comments or advances. A permissive attitude toward "eve-teasing" has made change difficult, with offenders frequently dismissed as harmless or even justified, and run-down and often maze-like urban infrastructure can mean that many public spaces remain threatening for women.

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