How does India battle gender based violence? Laura Valencia talks about an innovative way that takes the fight out to the streets.
I stared at the blank box, the cursor blinking expectantly. Every other question on this form had been easy to fill with little to no hesitation on my part; I had been typing like a loudmouth sinner in a Catholic confessional. But here at the last question, I’m caught off guard:
“Are you an Action Hero?”
The only time that anyone asks me, “What’s your power?” is when I am squinting to read a menu through my spectacles (for any non-Indian reader – in this case, “power” refers to the strength of a lens). The only thing I save is a few rupees by taking the bus. And the only time I wear tights is…. okay, yeah — as often as humanly possible. But, see? That’s the catch! Still human.
It’s not every day we find ourselves pondering our super humanity. Let me walk you down the path that brought me here.
I spent my Saturday afternoon playing the Action Hero Game hosted by Blank Noise. Blank Noise is a volunteer-run organization that makes streets safer for women, often through masterminding innovative encounters which bring men to the table as protagonists in gender justice rather than as villains. I decided to play the Action Hero Game to try to get closer to the admirable and exciting work at Blank Noise and because I believe in their method and mission. According to Jasmeen Patheja, the founder of Blank Noise, in the Action Hero Game “we take ‘What if…’ questions – like ‘What if streets were safe for women?’ – and make them possible through collective action.”
Many organizations use “play” to facilitate change. But the Action Hero Game is radically different from many because rather than the host creating a safe, enclosed space for interaction, the public space becomes the game board. According to Jasmeen, after playing the Action Hero Game, players often demonstrate changes of behavior: from taking up space on the pavement more, to worrying about what they “should” wear less. Action Heroes are more likely to assert their citizenship, even if that just means taking a nap at the park. But really, the Action Hero identity is something that has emerged from conversations, co-created by players of the game.
Without giving away too many spoilers (the next game is October 19th, 2013), allow me to elaborate. Loosely, playing the Action Hero game meant spending a few hours not crossing my arms and legs or wearing headphones, waiting for instructions from an anonymous party via SMS, and talking to strangers about fluffy topics.
Less loosely, it meant unpacking some of the fears that I face (or, more often, fail to face) as I encounter strangers in a country that is not only not my own, but less female-friendly than the context in which I was raised.
The first few instructions were straightforward. I walked with my arms swinging, sat in a place and got comfortable, and made small talk with strangers. As time went on, I found myself less obsessed with checking to see if a new instruction had come as I sank into playing the game. I found my temporary happy place about two hours in while standing on a street corner and giggling. I had been instructed to think of something funny that you would make me – as they wrote it in the instruction – “LOL.” The instruction itself made me snicker, as did memories of a friend being chased by a cow that was later herded by a motorcycle.
My brain became a veritable library of giggle-inducing images (approximately ⅔ of which were cat video memories, for the record) and my stomach got warm as I laughed. I remember three people flashing their pearly whites at me as they walked by, and I began to feel like Patient Zero in a smile epidemic. I felt like I had finally synced up.
But that feeling was short-lived. Soon, with a new challenge to find someone to help for 30 minutes, I was back at square one, asking myself some of the same questions from when I started:
“Why do I seek out women to talk, to help, to ask their favorite food (one challenge), to ask where they are going (another challenge)? Is this fear of men rational? Can it be changed? How?”
I also questioned my tendency to “buy” my interactions – purchasing a 5 rs cup of tea to satisfy the sit-and-relax task, for example.
I eventually ended up at a nursing home, pulling pieces of cotton apart one by one, and rolling them into cotton balls as my attempt at volunteering. The thoughts continued as the cardboard box in my lap slowly filled with fluff. I wrote down in my journal between cotton balls: “I think my logic is this: if I am not curious about them [male strangers], they won’t be curious about me. Fear has led to a total lack of empathy on my part.” I realized I wanted to play the Action Hero Game, but I didn’t want to play in the “Boys Only! No Girls Allowed!” section of the playground, which appeared to be everywhere. I was ready to interact with strangers, so long as they be women or be men surrounded by women. Which, oddly enough, looks a lot like a nursing home. Had I won the game?
To complete the final task, I went out on the road and began searching for a bus stop. I walked by a car which was parked on the side of the road, and the driver leaned out as I walked by. The classic line hit me after I had already passed him: “Hello! Which is your country?” To clarify, I was neither in an ambassadorial entourage nor missing a “Made in America” tag, making his question uninvited. I felt angry and disrespected, and I had just come out of 30 minutes of volunteering therapy/cotton-ball meditation.
Now I know that in this moment a lot of elements and privileges intersect: the privilege of my passport, my Anglo appearance, my family’s class, and my access to education. We’ve all read RoseChasm’s article and we all know what alarm bells go off when white women who choose to come to India reflect on their own unique experiences of harassment without ever recognizing the violence that Indian women endure every day. But with all of this included, what would an Action Hero do?
The Miss America: Pause, turn around, put out my hand for a handshake (or Statue of Liberty pose) and say confidently,
“The United States of America! Why, golly gee, thanks for asking!”
The Mys-tery: Pause, turn around, look at him quizzically, and say…
“The US… but sir… which is your country?” [Tried and tested, total game changer.]
The Mis-Understanding (with a dash of comedy): Pause, turn around, and say,
“Mera chehera hai Amreeki, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani!” …. with “Jeena Yahaan, Marna Yaahan” for a good encore.
The “Misandrist”: *Insert expletive here*
I did nothing, I took no action. My skin prickled, my face got hot, I walked slightly faster, but I didn’t engage with him at all. “Action” Hero I was not. Half an hour later I was at home staring at a blank box, getting the side-eye from a blinking cursor. I found myself thinking about cotton balls, giggles, men in trucks, and lastly, about my answer to the looming question: “No, I’m not an Action Hero.” Had I lost the game? At that moment, I was convinced I had.
But now, thinking back, I remember our last task, in which we make the Action Hero Pledge, out loud:
“I pledge to be visible. To unlearn fear. To occupy space. My city.”
I read the responses of my co-team members who also played across India:
“An Action Hero is anyone consciously or semi-consciously challenging the status quo of the environment.” – Maria del Rio, Delhi
“An Action Hero is someone for whom the city isn’t a battlefield but still believes that it is a political space that should be actively engaged with. Who is comfortable in his/her skin within both familiar/unfamiliar parts of the city.” – Katheeja, Ahmedabad
“An Action Hero is someone who takes matters in their own hands, who starts with a change in their own behaviour to reflect a change outside.” – Shivanjani, Delhi
And now, two days later, is when I’m starting to understand that I haven’t won or lost the game, I’ve just completed my training. According to Jasmeen,
“The fact that you can’t win or lose, or that winning means something different for every player, questions the very notion of ‘game’ itself.”
I’ve gotten to know a virtual team of co-players across India, fierce and thoughtful ladies participating from Delhi, Ahmedabad, and Bangalore. I’ve done my first visit to the field, and had to work out the emotional repercussions once home. And luckily, throughout the training I was getting some instructions, but more importantly, some gyaan to carry on strong.
The game isn’t over, it’s just beginning. It starts now.
You can read more about Blank Noise’s Action Hero game here.