The Dialectics of Feminist Counternarratives and Direct Public Engagement: Towards an Everyday Praxis

By Imagining America | September 18, 2015

Kush PatelBy Kush Patel, a Doctoral student in Architecture at the University of Michigan and a 2015–2016 Publicly Active Graduate Education (PAGE) Fellow. This PAGE Blog Salon explores themes of engaged scholarship, an important topic of the upcoming Imagining America national conference, Oct. 1-3, 2015, in Baltimore.

The fight against sexual violence and prejudice is gaining momentum in India. Attacks and threats against women, as well as queer and trans people are being reported at an unprecedented rate. More and more individuals—across class and caste lines—are coming out publicly to counter the ideals of gender and sexuality entrenched in, and sustained by, patriarchy. In this essay, I will discuss one initiative that seeks to combat street harassment and public abuse not through spectacular protests, but through interlinked tactics of everyday performance and sustained public discourse. The example illustrates the kinds of change that are possible when direct participatory engagements are centered on feminist politics. The essay is my response to the question: How can we achieve a productive synthesis between our practices of cultural critique and counternarratives, and other, directly participatory and hopeful ways of engaging?

In 2012, a Bangalore-­based public arts collective Blank Noise[1] launched the “Talk to Me” project to address the relationship of fear that most Indian women experience in their cities. The premise of the project, conceptualized at the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology, was deceptively simple: to engage total strangers, seen as potentially threatening, in an hour­long conversation over tea and a snack.[2] Within this space, they could talk about anything except sexual violence.[3] The experiment involved five tables—two chairs at each—tea, and samosas. It was conducted over a month on a stretch of road feared for sexual harassment after dark.[4] In the end, participants offered their reflections and discussed changes in perceptions about safety and space, if any.

Since its inception in 2003, Blank Noise had led a number of public projects to combat misogyny and sexist abuse, including the “Safe City Pledge” in which volunteers affirmed attitudinal shifts towards making their cities more safe.[5] With the “Talk to Me” initiative, the instigators sought to go a step further—in the direction of what might be interpreted as the “right to chosen risk,”[6] that is, the right to confront sexual dangers publicly by building connections with individuals across class-­, gender-­, and language­-based distinctions. Over time, “Talk to Me” changed participants’ relationship to the street from avoidance to co­occupancy. More significantly, the project enabled volunteers to challenge biases, and to cultivate empathy by turning their gaze both inward and outward. With each of these, and furthermore, “Talk to Me” advanced—to borrow from philosopher Nancy Fraser’s seminal work—the concept of “subaltern counterpublics.”[7]

Against Jurgen Habermas’ conception of a common public sphere, exclusive of social difference, Fraser frames counterpublics as “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs.”[8] Some examples of such counterpublics might include women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. Fraser stresses that the transformative promise of these counterpublics resides in their “dual character,” functioning as “spaces of withdrawal and regroupment” on the one hand, whilst acting as “training grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics” on the other hand.[9] By asserting their right to visibility, the creators of “Talk to Me” opposed the language of danger and safety, traditionally used to limit women’s access to public space. By enacting this oppositional strategy through the medium of talk, they reclaimed their right to political participation. And, by aligning the project with issues of sexual violence in India, as well as the mission of Blank Noise, the participants maintained congruity between enduring structural concerns, critical academic studies, and specific public­-participatory engagements.

To have political impact, counternarratives cannot function at the level of individual critiques alone. They need to be debated and co-­produced along a public spectrum. This implies developing tactics to help challenge experiences of prejudice in spaces, both intimate and public. It also means engaging different groups on a sustained and strategic basis to bring about structural changes in policy with accompanying shifts in public opinion. “Talk to Me” is an example of an everyday praxis that grows with, and through, the dialectics of feminist counternarratives and direct public engagement. The potential for emancipation is built in their overlapping and mutually constitutive roles. Without the publicness of such dialectics, our efforts towards a more just and inclusive world may remain only partially realized.

[1] Blank Noise is a public participatory arts collective located at the intersection of gender and space, and affiliated with the Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bangalore, India. The collective seeks to confront sexual harassment in public spaces through performance, blogging, opinion polls, and street interventions. Among its several projects, “Talk to Me” involved working directly with students. To read more about the group’s mission, see:­and­labs/blank­noise
[2] Blank Noise Blog, July 1, 2013,­to­me.html
[3] Ibid. In the words of Blank Noise director Jasmeen Patheja: “Being defensive … to ‘making safe’ doesn’t ever lead to actually ‘feeling safe’. We tend to make ourselves feel safe by building defense. We need to make ourselves safe by making familiar instead. It requires a purposeful unclenching of the fist.”
[4] Ibid. Also see: Goodyear, Sarah. “Can a Couple of Tables Make Bangalore’s ‘Rapist Lane’ Safe Again?” in CityLab, July 3, 2013,­couple­tables­make- bangalores­rapist­lane­safe­again/6094/
[5] Safe City Pledge, Blank Noise:­bank­from­various­action- heroes.html For my project review and supporting pledge, see: “Making Cities Safe” in Who Speaks and Acts? August 22, 2013:
[6] Shilpa Phadke with Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, Why Loiter?: Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets (Penguin Books, 2011). The essence of Phadke, Khan, and Ranade’s argument is that patriarchal institutions have long employed the notion of safety to monitor women’s behavior in public spaces. “Safety,” they say, “is connected not as much to women’s own sense of bodily integrity or to their consent, but rather to ideas of izzat (honor) of the family and community” (p.53). In such settings, women are guarded against assumed sexual dangers from less desirable groups, including lower­class men. Due to such a deceptive opposition between class and gender, women are consistently marginalized in larger urban contexts. “Instead of safety,” they add, “what women should seek is the right to take risks …” for it is only by claiming the “right to chosen risk” that they can claim full access to public space (p. 60).
[7] Fraser, Nancy. “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy” in Craig J. Calhoun, Habermas and the Public Sphere, Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), 109–142.
[8] Ibid., 123.
[9] Ibid., 124.