When a tomato is more than just a tasty summer fruit

In India, catcallers taunt women by referring to them as food. But Jasmeen Patheja, founder of the Blank Noise Project, is no ordinary tomato.

Published August 23, 2007 10:18PM (EDT)

When Jasmeen Patheja moved to Bangalore, India, for college, she was frustrated to discover that nearly every time she walked alone at night, she got harassed. But instead of simply enduring it or avoiding it by staying inside, she decided to fight back. Patheja, an artist, founded the Blank Noise Project (previously covered here), an advocacy group dedicated to raising awareness about sexual harassment.

In order to understand the project, you have to know a bit about Indian catcalling. First, guys who harass women are known, jokingly, as "eve teasers." (One of Patheja's goals is to get these "teasers" offenses to be taken more seriously.) Second, food items are popular sexual taunts against women. According to the Christian Science Monitor, women are often called things like mirchi (chili) and tamatar (tomatoes). That's why many of the posters put out by Blank Noise focus on food -- including one with bright colors of foods next to descriptions of what they actually are. Featured dishes include things like bananas and buttered chicken and aloo, a potato dish whose caption reads, "The potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a perennial plant of the Solanaceae, or nightshade, family, commonly grown for its starchy tuber." In other words, a potato is a vegetable. Not a woman.

But Patheja's efforts are not limited to tubers. She's also collecting outfits from women that they were wearing when they were harassed, which she hopes to display to dispel the idea that women were "asking for it" because of their clothing. (It's an interesting idea, but could backfire if some of the clothing actually could be considered provocative -- thus giving an excuse to shift blame away from the harassers and back onto the women.)

Other groups in India are also working to create a more comfortable environment for Indian women. One such group, Jagori, conducted safety audits of city neighborhoods and set up a hot line that women can call to report or learn more about sexual harassment. Self-defense classes are becoming more popular, and a group of graduate students working for the Space and Gender Project in Mumbai recently helped railroad officials try to figure out how to make train stations less threatening for women.

Unfortunately, as the Monitor points out, protesting sexual harassment in India can still be deadly (one woman was shot when she tried to protect her daughter-in-law), and much of the burden of prevention falls on the women themselves, not on the men doing the harassing. But still, at least some people are speaking out.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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