‘Being An Explorer Is Rooted In A Forbidden Desire’

Jasmeen Patheja, founder of Blank Noise, talks about women travelling alone and how their stories are always different from men traversing the world
Action Shero, Indri in an "Akeli Awaara Azaad" t-shirt
Action Shero, Indri in an "Akeli Awaara Azaad" t-shirt

The main difference between how women and men explore spaces as travellers is the preparedness. Women prepare differently. From deciding on a destination to figuring out how they'll get there, to when they'll arrive, to whether they'll be picked up at the airport, bus terminus, or train station, they would have researched all of this in advance with safety in mind. The weight of these decisions is an everyday experience, located in thinking through ways of being safe from violence. And, if safety is afforded financially and is within their capacity, women will travel.

The cautious preparedness for risk and safety is a lesson women have been raised with. These lessons have been heard, challenged, re-assessed, re-negotiated, and rejected while building the "I Never Ask For It Mission" to end victim blame: We are done defending.

I am reminded of a young girl I met who was visiting Bangalore from Kolar. She showed up at a Blank Noise meeting and said she carried a jar of red chilli powder on her bus commute. She told us she wanted to give it up, thereby giving up the fear she was taught to carry.

I am reminded of the countless testimonies of women travelling to places alone and being groped while commuting. I remember the conversations with women who slept in hotel rooms only after checking every lock, sometimes double-locking it, looking out for hidden cameras. Women prepare differently.

I remember when I was in Berlin and taking the last tram to the Airbnb. It was past midnight, and I was still determining if it was the right destination. I saw a woman walking behind me, and I turned to ask her for help. She leapt back, assuming I was a man. A few moments later, she assured me it was the correct address. She invited me to walk with her, making me cross the street because the park wasn't safe. While walking, she shared that she usually took a longer route because the shorter one wasn't safe. She dropped me at my Airbnb and hugged me. I do not remember her name, but I know that shared experiences of navigating our stories of fear are the seeds of solidarity, friendship and change.

Last year, I acted on a desire. I visited the Taj Mahal alone. I sat on the much-photographed bench, alone, wearing our "Akeli Awaara Azaad" t-shirt. It was a declaration and a celebration of being on my own. I know this resonates with many women. Recently, eight women in their mid-fifties who were travelling together got the tees. It is an act of overcoming and changing a deeply learnt narrative. To travel alone, or alone together, for pleasure is a significant step towards claiming freedom.

Over the years, the projects at Blank Noise have been directed at claiming defencelessness. 'Meet To Sleep' (initiated by Blank Noise and built by citizens and collectives) works with over 50 partner organisations across India, where women sleep in the open. A woman in our partner organisation, Sadhbhavana Trust in Lucknow, said, "I had never seen the sky this blue. I had to lie down to see this colour, this blue sky." Others said, "What stopped me from doing this all my life? This was so simple."

For most, walking alone or sparking the idea of being an explorer is rooted in a forbidden desire. It is a significant moment to act on it.

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