Sunday, 11 October 2009

July 30, 2009: (Session 4)

The non-availability of Kodak cameras for the participants of the workshop on Thursday, July 30, 2009, led us to believe that it was the best time for the photographers to show their work, the diversity therein, and thus encourage a platform for discussion and debates on various topics.

Hasina said that she had been in the process of penning her thoughts over issues of an egalitarian society with men and women respecting each other and their differences. She read out her article, which she had jotted down in Hindi and began with her views on the burqa. This, she said, was especially after Nicholas Sarkozy, who was the guest of honour at our Independence event in New Delhi last year, had to face opposition by certain fundamentalists when he had his then girlfriend model Carla Bruni seated next to him at the event. Fundamentalists argued that only the legal spouse of the head of a state or nation could be permitted to such an event alongside, and not a girlfriend. Sarkozy was in the news recently when he proclaimed that the burqa would be made history in the annals of modern France.

Hasina was speaking in that very context of the burqa. According to her, the image of Muslim women portrayed by the media is always a stereotypical one – one that has women in black burqas to connote the suppressed lives they lead. It is indeed sad that a woman’s identity is determined by the religious norms that she is bound to follow, and that leaves her own identity, or even the quest for it, to a naught. At the same time, due to the over-zealous attempt in protecting the religious sanctity through the compulsions forced upon women, her health, financial and personal issues are sidelined. The importance of women and thus her essence in the society have been gravely neglected and more often than not, it is the women who are the first ones to fall prey to any kind of malice. And yet, despite being “protected” by the burqa, there is no respite for women from the atrocities upon them, and their right to justice is denied. In some fundamentalist countries, a girl is subjected to wear the burqa from a tender age of five-years-old – even before she may learn the basic alphabet. At the same time, there is also a good chunk of women who also feel that the burqa completes them.

But Hasina wanted to make her opinion regarding the burqa very categorical – the whole idea of burqa has precipitated to become that of a mental burqa. Similar is the case of the Hindu woman who has to wear a mangalsutra or a bindi to communicate to the world that she is a Hindu married woman. These are rules made to follow for the women in a society that is patriarchal.

Hasina concluded her talk with the way the various elements of the society reacted to the Delhi High Court ruling of legalizing gay sex. According to her, this ruling was strong enough to suddenly unite the different fundamentalist factions in the country, each of who proclaimed that anybody from their community found to be gay would be exterminated from the community.

“Why are always certain limits drawn only for women? When a woman is not allowed to make her own choices regarding what she wear and the way she follows her religion, where does her own identity lie? When a homosexual woman is termed as a non-woman and is also ostracized from her religious community, how is she able to exercise her own choice?”

A discussion soon ensued among the women regarding the meaning of burqa in their lives. Badrunissa explained how none of her family members ever wore a burqa. Her sister’s daughter, who had studied fashion designing, is now working at a designer’s firm, where it is a norm to for everyone to wear jeans. Some of her colleagues too insisted that she should wear jeans. So her niece had begun to wear jeans, with long kurtas and a scarf too. But the men in her household have vehemently opposed to such an attire. They have made it a compulsion for her to wear a burqa over her jeans. It is weird that despite her wearing clothes covering her entire body, she has been forced to wear a burqa, simply because jeans do not fall into the usual clothing bracket for Muslim women. Something as strong as a fatwa was issued against her niece, with the men stating that she would not be able to get out of the house henceforth if she did not wear the burqa. Suddenly, a regressive force had begun to strangulate their hitherto unorthodox family.

While Paigumberi voiced her strong sentiments against strange and unacceptable rulings, Fatima was of the opinion that the girl’s father’s viewpoint should be taken into consideration. She said that the girl’s father would have been aware of the kind of looks that his daughter would fall prey to, and there would be nothing that he could have done about it. The family’s esteem must have come into play here, and since nobody from their surrounding locales would have ever worn jeans before, his daughter was likely to be subject to the greatest amount of leering, and this must have been something that he had foreseen. Hence he must have issued the rule that his daughter should wear burqa anytime she had to get out of the house.

Fatima said that it was for the first time on Thursday too that she had worn a short kurta – above her knees. With a blush on her face that lit up her whole being, she explained that it was only within the closed doors of Awaz-E-Niswaan that she felt comfortable to be herself, and wear a short kurta. But despite this freedom for the three hours on a Thursday, she would surely wear back her burqa on her way home.

The discussion soon veered towards sexual abuse on the road. It was becoming a heated one-sided discussion, with all women resounding each other’s thoughts and reaffirming the fact that nobody had a right to a woman’s body other than the woman herself. Hasina drew an end to the discussion explaining that if a woman had her own educational and financial strength, there is hardly anything stopping a woman from achieving what she wants, and deserves. Educational and financial strength alone can give the woman the confidence to be herself, fight her own battles – big or small, and be able to say no to injustice.

Pushing the women to voice out their pent up anger regarding societal norms and suppression was Sudharak’s presentation on the female guards in a village in Manipur. The presentation was about the women of the village who tried to do away with the perils of alcoholism in the village. The women stood guard as sentinels to prevent the armed forces from forcefully attacking the villagers and disappearing into the night darkness with the young men and girls. But this was a larger goal. Their primary aim was to draw public attention to any kind of abuse against any woman and subsequently tackling the issue with force, rather than by being meek.

The mornings in the village had a past of blood strewn into the jungles leading to the mangled bodies of the raped girls and no sign of the men kidnapped. The senior ladies of the village then decided to take law in their own hands – a group of women with torches and machetes would guard the village boundaries until the wee hours of the morning. At the same time, if a woman would hear of any trouble brewing in the village during the day, any woman would continuously bang a kitchen utensil against an electric pole, and within minutes, a group of 200 women would gather. Nobody could defy their combined strength; nobody could dare to outwit them. The photograph of a particular senior lady was very endearing – what with the explanation about her provided by Sudharak. The lady was known to lead women in many marches, and in one instance after a violent day, the women stripped naked completely and marched into the state legislative assembly. That particular woman had led the march, shouting out slogans condemning the government. That village in Manipur was the perfect example of a matriarchal society whereby law was taken care of, with the official state and central armed forces having no say in the security of the village, and perfect harmony amid the villagers.

The participants at the workshop were charged after seeing the strong visuals. Sudharak casually asked what could be done next. Raheema, then muttered, “Ab toh ghar mein jaakar sab ko seedha karna hai.”

From the hinterlands of Manipur, the women were catapulted back to the refined aura of Bollywood stars. Sudharak started with by telling the participants that taking photographs of filmstars was what he did for a living, but that statement did not exude any response – as much as when the presentation began, with Karisma Kapoor smiling from a door. The response was a resounding “ahh!” and a volley of questions soon followed, addressed towards Sudharak. “Have you really met her?” “You were really in front of her?” “Was she really standing before you?” “Did you really ask her to stand and pose in that particular way?”

And soon there was one photograph after another, of pin-up stars of Bollywood. Be it the close-ups of dashing actors or the shy smile of the actresses, the participants continued to be in awe of the photographs. But the most number of resounding “aahs” were heard for Salman Khan and Shahid Kapoor. The participants were speechless for a moment but soon gained ground when Sudharak decided to show them his project on conservancy workers. The presentation was a testimony to the tough lives of the conservancy workers of Mumbai who are hired by the BMC. These workers maybe paid a salary of around Rs 7,500 but their lives are distraught by unhygienic working conditions and addiction to drinking to get away from their pain of unable to improve their situation. Sudharak explained that there is high mortality rate among these workers because they are in constant contact with toxic materials and gases, and their employee doesn't provide anything for their safety. Once they dump all the waste into dumping grounds, they do not even have soap to wash themselves clean. Then, when they board the bus to get back home, they are often shooed away by the passengers due to their stench. Besides, these workers have to deal with just any kind of waste – be it old furniture that is dumped and flushed into the gutters or dead animals or even just-born foetuses.

By the end of the presentation which comprised around 30 photographs the participants of the workshop were awestruck at the way in which these workers, without whom Mumbai cannot survive, are treated by their employee and the society at large. The participants had various perspectives on the subject – while one of them said that humanity had literally gone down the drain as the workers faced the same horrible plight as the dead foetus, another said that as a society we never spare a thought to think how we dispose our waste; yet another participant was of the view that the West had been successful in recycling waste which we ought to adopt too in India.

Fatima then remarked, “After seeing these gripping black-and-white photographs of the conservancy workers, the photographs shown from the glitzy world of Bollywood had faded from my mind.”

Sudharak then moved on to talk about his work with the women in Chitrakut in Uttar Pradesh, who had won their own personal battles against domestic violence. The women, who had managed to get moral and legal support from a local NGO, had manage to fight cases against gender inequality head on. Some of the women were fighting cases against an abusive husband, another was fighting against her rapist who had raped her few days after she delivered a child, while yet another had managed to get her in-laws build a separate living space for her after a prolonged abusive relationship. The presentation contained photographs of a the wife of a police constable who was beaten up by her husband mercilessly, of a woman who had lost her leg due to incessant beating by her husband on her leg, of a woman whose nose was cut by her husband during a trifle fight over dinner, of a young girl who had been raped as a child and now had a male demeanour.

Post the presentation, it was evident that there was a renewed vigour among the participants – they suddenly sat up with an erect back – maybe a sub-conscious realisation to take stock of their own situations and their life. The women began to feel renewed, and Ravi Shekhar then made a statement that a person who always remember old encounters but would never forget the gender of the person with whom the encounter took place. He stated that it would take many donkey years for the society at large to do away with the idea of gender, and instead work with just the idea of a person as he or she is. But Priyanka then rose up and put forth a counter argument to his point, stating that why wasn't it possible to simply respect and celebrate the gender difference? All that was needed was only respect for the individual and that the male or female identity was immaterial. She then spoke about the need to love oneself first before anything else. She spoke about her own ideas of freedom and her struggle with her family when she decided to go bald on her birthday.

Priyanka then elaborated on her own personal experiences of being witness to two women in her family who were victims of domestic violence, and who were helpless about it. She further said that there was a desperate need for women to realise their own worth and that that alone could help them get to wherever they wanted to go or do.

The clock was ticking but there was a desire to talk, discuss and have an exchange of ideas on issues of gender relations and the society. In a sweet way to conclude the workshop on that particular Thursday, Sudharak gave the audience a glimpse of the photographs that he was to showcase for his upcoming exhibition to be opened on September 4 at Cymroza Art Gallery, along with a German photographer. His photographs would depict Germany as he saw it, while his German counterpart who showcase India as she saw it. The participants were enthralled to see Germany through Sudharak's eyes – the Germany which is pristine and garbage free, the Germany which was many decades technologically ahead of India, the Germany where people do not fear to express love openly, the Germany which celebrated independence in the fullest form, the Germany where the government had real inclusive projects for the citizens, the Germany where people loved their spouse, their children and their pets the most – in that very order. It was a refreshing break to see colours of a country different from our India, and each one privy to the photographs was sub-consciously comparing the lifestyle of the Germans with Indians. The presentation ended and in the dark room of Awaz-E-Niswaan office, all one could see was many smiles – positive smiles of seeing something beautiful, hopeful smiles asking whether our lives would ever be able to match up to the lifestyle of the Germans?

The workshop concluded with Sudharak's quick presentation about the children in a Swedish school, who belonged to many different countries of the world, who had sought refuge in Sweden. The plan was then set for the next workshop session, with a field trip to a few art galleries in South Mumbai. It was decided that we would all congregate at the footsteps of Jehangir Art Gallery in Kala Ghoda on July 5 at 2 pm.

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