-By Sugatha and Salini
Not just statistics we hear on news channels or read in newspapers, but our very own experiences expose us to the harsh realities of how strained, restricted and tormenting women’s access to public spaces is. The mental agony we go through to when we have to access these spaces, or while we are already doing so, or post this access is disheartening. Haiyya has kick started a strong, hard hitting campaign to claim this very basic right (that is actually even constitutional) of equal access to public spaces in Malviya Nagar, New Delhi. It is directed at bringing the communities together to develop leadership among themselves and take ownership of this campaign in a sustainable and powerful way, thus making public spaces in their neighborhood equally accessible to women.
The campaign aims at reclaiming public spaces in a way that women feel safe at all hours and there is firm intolerance towards violence against women. Also, when we talk about impact and social change, art is the strongest and most effective tool of social engagement and change. It is undoubtedly the most dynamic agent to give actual shape to emotions and values and to actually get people to think, absorb and act. The power of art motivated Haiyya to integrate it with our campaign and thus came into light Fankari, our art hub; it’s an institution of social change in its might and strength.
Over all in our people sabhas, one thing has been common and rampant and that is victim blaming. Women are actually blaming themselves for the act of violence on them and other women, and the rest of the society is actually doing the same as well. To be precise, everyone is blaming women for everything. Now, this makes us extremely angry and drives us to actually make every woman realize that they are in no way responsible for, accountable to, or to be blamed for any act of violence on them. Deep inside, we know that every woman knows this and with push, comfort, and bonding, this can be definitely extracted from within them. This can be converted into action, and by action, we mean real action.
From the very beginning of the past week, we were extremely charged and fired up to make this one hell of a week on the field. As soon as we decided on the theme of the week to be around victim and self blaming, all our emotions surged forward and shaped in the form of anger, hurt, resentment and all of this put together became our energy to say- “stop blaming, we have had enough. ” There is absolutely not one day that passes without having been subjected to victim blaming. Why are you wearing this, don’t you know what will happen on the street; you should keep your voice low in public spaces; tie your hair, it would attract lesser people and on and on.
We seriously have had enough of this gender bias. What do we mean by rules for men and women, girls and boys? How and why have we framed these rules? Aren’t they bizarre themselves? The minute you hear yourself say it, don’t you feel pathetic? Battling through all these questions, we as a team started working on the theme of the week ahead.
The taunts that start from childhood, the subtle reminders that the way you dress can invite trouble is sometimes inscribed in young minds by the ones that encompass them. Since this nurturing of mind is done over a course of time, just like how sometimes a lie said over a 100 times appears to start feeling true, the victim tends to believe it was she who instigated the behavior from the counter side that transpired to what took place.
We all know that this notion is a wrong one to be carried forward, yet we feel it easier to tame woman and keep her under covers than push some sense into the actual delinquent. It is funny how sometimes the society teaches one to “not get raped” rather than NOT rape! An act as small as teasing of a girl by a boy when not corrected at the right time and age can lead to a personality built around this trait. Talks and behavior at home deeply influences the child’s outlook.
Looking at the various tools that can be adopted to get the message of victim blaming out there, the one we adopted for kids was representation of thoughts through visual art.
Among the many tools we felt, art is a form that tends to stick and also impart a sense of creation when engaged with. Young ones best respond and interact when exposed to colors and sketching when compared to mere exchange of words. Hence we started off with a skit on victim blaming to break the ice and get the thought process flowing among the kids who were participating. It was a role play on how a girl child is asked to dress in a particular manner and if any wrong doing befalls on the child it is the clothing to be blamed. In the second scene there is a boy who is beaten up for wearing shorts but that very scenario is alien to us as “what is wrong in that” comes rushing to our minds. The bias that we are brought up in entangles and sometimes even blurs out our understanding of the victim from the offender.
On completion, many kids could connect to the thoughts relayed. They were more open to discussions and thoughts around the idea of gender equality and notions. The children were then asked to put down their thoughts and emotions in the form of a visual representation. Their drawings resonated strong emotions as in, if boy and girl are to be viewed with the same lens then why the bias in certain situations alone?
Why is it that the girl child is sometimes in the name of protection asked to even abstain from opportunities? The entire activity was to build sensitization around the topic of victim blaming. To erode away the tiny seeds that may have been planted over the course of time and experience. To empower them to have a voice to approach their parents and loved ones without the fear or the guilt of self blame.
The raw experiences of the young ones were then carried forward the next day into the people sabha, this being the last people sabha for the month of March in Khirki, Malviya Nagar. It was volatile, progressive and best put, rocking. The people sabha was structured and planned in such a way that we could create a sense of urgency around the issue of women’s access to public spaces and how they and the society at large need to stop blaming women and actually address the issue.
Anjali, our field & legal intern, shared important existing laws around harassment in public spaces which women were not aware of. This engaged women strongly around why implementation of law fails and therefore allows violence against women to perpetuate. It angered them and steered the conversations around how victim blaming needs to stop completely. All women in the group resonated with this thought and vowed to restrain from victim and self blaming.
There was friction and conflict in the group when a couple of women actually advocated the idea of women staying covered up as a potential solution to prevent harassment in public and private spaces. The larger group hearing this radicalized the conversations to stop restricting, blaming, or covering up women and actually addressing the core of harassment and its real prevention.
The sabha discussions were intense. Twenty women were themselves doing issue cut/target identification around why people blame women, the role of police and public at large in perpetuating violence, lack of awareness of both legal and fundamental rights, especially among women.
A strong observation from last week and one which cannot be ignored is that most men are intimidated by groups of women taking charge and immediately take a protectionist, yet uninvolved attitude, as if trying to perpetuate gender bias in whatever they can. It is essential that all these barriers of gender bias which directly and indirectly perpetuate violence against women need to break and pave way for gender equity. People strongly need to understand the essence of community organizing over service provision and the sustainability and efficacy of the former. Breaking silence takes time and people sabhas are the perfect platforms that actually allow a lot of women to share their public narratives. This brings the community closer and raises the urgency on the issue. We as a community need to build on our collective strength and actually live it out to “Zor lagake haiyya. ”
Sugatha Balagopal works as an intern with Haiyya in Delhi for past 3 months
Salini Sharma is the community leadership organizer on Haiyya’s campaign directed at reclaiming women’s equal access to public spaces; a right that is anyway and equally theirs. She is driven to make violence against women of all forms intolerable as clearly women have had enough! Zor lagake Haiyya!