The woman who collects garments worn by sexual assault survivors

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Anna Brech
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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. 

The number of reported sexual assaults has doubled in the past four years but conviction rates are falling, in a bleak outlook that is echoed all over the world.

Survivors of sexual abuse are often left feeling voiceless and traumatised. In the unlikely event that they report the crime, justice is far from guaranteed.

There are so many fronts to fight here, from combating an entrenched culture of victim-blaming to biased juries and inconsistent police work.

But amid all the complexities, one woman has decided to make a stand in her own way, with an unusual and highly personal approach. 

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.”

Blank Noise

Image credit: Blank Noise/Facebook

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.

Images: Jasmeen Patheja/Instagram, I Never Ask For It/Facebook, Blank Noise/Facebook


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Anna Brech

Anna Brech is a freelance journalist and former editor for Her six-year stint on the site saw her develop a vociferous appetite for live Analytics, feminist opinion and good-quality gin in roughly equal measure. She enjoys writing across all areas of women’s lifestyle content but has a soft spot for books and escapist travel content.