In a world where rape survivors are routinely blamed and disbelieved, one woman is making an unusual bid to fight prejudice and help them reclaim their voices
Nearly half a million adults are sexually assaulted in England and Wales every year, and 1 in 5 women aged over 16 has experienced some form of sexual violence.
Indian feminist Jasmeen Patheja collects clothes worn by women when they’ve been sexually assaulted.
Her project, I Never Ask For It, drives home the fact that women are never responsible for being assaulted, no matter what they happen to be dressed in at the time (depressingly, a third of Britons believe that a woman is at fault if she is sexually assaulted while wearing a short skirt).
The initiative also aims to chip away at the sense of powerlessness felt by survivors of sexual assault, by making their garments a witness and voice to what their owners have experienced.
In a world where women are routinely blamed and disbelieved in the wake of sexual assault, Patheja’s project represents a small yet critical force for change.
“It [sexual assault] has got nothing to do with what you’re wearing, there’s never any excuse for such violence and nobody ever asks for it,” Patheja tells the BBC, in an interview this week.
“The project wants to contain and hold space for our collective stories of pain, and trauma.”
Sex assault survivors from all over the world donate their clothes to Patheja. Some can’t bear to see the items again, while others want their stories to be captured, somehow; the garment becomes testimony to the trauma they’ve experienced.
Patheja keeps many of the pieces of clothing - which range from swimsuits to school uniforms and ballgowns - at her home in Bangalore.
The project is part of the Blank Noise collective she set up in 2003, to combat sexual and gender-based violence.
“We believe that blame leads to shame, shame leads to guilt, guilt leads to more silence and that perpetuates sexual and gender-based violence,” says Patheja.
She and her colleagues invite women to write down and share their experiences when they donate their clothing, as a means of breaking this wall of silence.
“We found women often wondering about their garments,” Patheja says. “They’d say, “I was wearing that red skirt’, or ‘I was wearing that pair of jeans’, or ‘I was wearing that school uniform’. So it became a deliberate question at Blank Noise and we began asking, ‘so what were you wearing?’”
The project has a wider aim, too. Four years from now, in 2022, organisers at the I Never Ask For It project plan to display tens of thousands of garments and testimonies in sites of public significance.
Above all, it’s about reclaiming agency, says Patheja: “We ask people to remember their garments, bring them in because they have memory, and in that memory it’s been a witness and it’s your voice.”
If you or someone you know has been the victim of sexual assault, seek confidential help and support at Rape Crisis
Find out more about the I Never Ask For It project here.