Thursday, 15 March 2018

When young people spoke about reclaiming democratic rights in Unversity spaces

“Ye wo saree hai jiske bhagwe rang mein jabardasti tumhne bharat maa ko lapeta hai
Issi saree mein tumhne bastar ko baand ghaseeta hai
Ye saree kisi ke baap ki jageer nahi
Ye tumhare sanskriti ke wet dreams ki tabeer nahi hai
Isse hum tumhare bematlaab sawalo aur illjamo bhare muh ko baand dete hai
Aur jab maan chaah jaise man chaha isko pehan chal dete hai”

We got an opportunity to participate in “Voice Studio: A dialogue among youth to explore ways to a democratic discourse” organized on the last day of the IAWRT 14th Asian Women’s Film Festival on 7th March 2018.  

Women’s rights activist and documentary filmmaker Vani Subramaniam began the discussion by highlighting the fact that in the recent years, how national politics has influenced the education spaces in a way that the democratic university spaces are under constant attack affecting the women students most. Yousuf Sayeed’s film ‘Campus Rising’ was screened which showed student agitations in colleges and universities in India over the past few years challenging the patriarchal and structural shackles. 

The film worked perfectly as the mind jog for the discussion ahead. Usha Shiv from Jadhavpur University talked about the issues girls are facing on daily basis, struggling with the patriarchal mindsets, and also how state misuses its powers and exerts it upon the students by holding their admissions ransom in terms of even molesting the girl students. Along with the challenges she spoke about how they are making impacts for example setting up vending machines for sanitary napkins in the campus. 

Prajakta Prabhakar Shedde from Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University Aurangabad, highlighted the issues of gender and caste in her University, struggles of SC/ST students who have been denied scholarships and their ongoing protests. She widened the horizon of the discussion by talking about how State is shutting down schools in backward areas giving the excuse that there are less number of students without thinking the “even if there is a single student, there has to be a school” Also the lack of infrastructure in terms of road connectivity how will a student go from his/her village in rainy season to the school which is miles away. She shares an interesting example where because of their efforts, the authorities started a bus service for students of a remote village to their school. Prajakta shared an incidence when she went to talk about menstrual hygiene in the remote areas, women actually said that with the cost of sanitary pad they can buy food for their family then why would they invest their money for their personal benefit? This shocked her and at the same time highlighted the deep gap in what is said, what is offered and what is available to the people belonging to various strata of society.

The struggles of students trying to fight for the democratic rights in University would have been incomplete if there was no discussion on Rohit Vemula.  Sirisha from the Centre for Women’s studies, University of Hyderabad spoke about how the university spaces have become threatening not only with the gender perspective but also in terms of caste and class. She spoke about her personal experience of becoming first women president in the University, the struggles, the cat calling and her constant fight with the administration for even small decisions precisely because she is a women representative.
The discussion headed to an interesting turn when girls from a village about 25 kms away from Rewari took over. These brave hearts forced the state government to accept their demand of upgrading the village school from class X to class XII, making it a senior secondary school. The nearest senior secondary school is about 3 kms away and the female students of classes IX and X, feared being molested on the way and many of them had to drop out because of this. These girls were accompanied with Sarpanch of the village and another lady who supported them in their fight. One of the girls said, “When we told about what used to happen to us on our way to school, our mother would say that leave school. But that’s not a solution. Education is our right and every girl should have that right. I need to study and nobody can stop me from that, so we sat on anshan”

Sarpanch Suresh Chauhan elaborated the struggle that they went through, the allegations, the pressures from all spheres, no support from villagers. But when he had of all reasons to give up hope, he motivated all the villagers to join the fight and then finally their demands were met and they got recognition from media as well.

“We were constantly reminded that you can’t do this. They used to say that when they scrapped older people, don’t think that you kids can do anything? Ye baccho ka khel nahi hai” shared the other girl with determination beaming in her eyes.

Satrupa from Jawaharlal Nehru University in her most natural flair began the conversation on nationalism and how students of JNU or practically anyone who raises questions are termed as Anti nationalist and are threatened in the most convenient way. She also highlighted how JNU is a constant target since last 3 years when Modi government came into power. She gave an entire different perspective to their ideology and then discussion contrary to what is being portrayed by famous Media houses.

Lubna from Aligarh Muslim University very quickly shared how our history and education is being corrupted and the facts are manipulated as per the change in socio political atmosphere. She with the example of recent Bollywood movie “Padmavat” talked about how media easily modulates their thought process into the historical facts and glorifies patriarchal mindsets. It was also interesting to hear her talk about gender and sexual identities on the backdrop of medieval history.

Sabika Abbas Naqvi, a gender rights activist and founder of Sar-e-Rahguzar, a movement to bring poetry onto the streets was the last speaker of the session. She strongly brought out the concerns of the women on campus and pointed out that there wasn’t much difference between the masculine politics that one faces inside and outside the campus. “Many years back, the hostel rooms were shut down at 9.30 pm and now at 10 pm, we have just got half an hour ahead in all these many years. Our struggles began with getting clean water to speaking out about rights loud and clear”. She highlighted the need of reclaiming public spaces where she also mentioned her recent work where they perform protest poetry along with bharatnatyam  in public spaces to shake people out of their comfort zones, force them to pause whatever urgent journey they’re on and listen.   

Each of her words demanded freedom from the shackles of patriarchy, caste and religion discrimination in the most fluent way which made audience instantly connect to her. She spoke about one of the poetry events in Lucknow where she was the only female poetess among many poets and the moment she started the poem of resistance their jaws dropped!

She closed the session with her poetry on “Meri saree” which was about the traditional nine-yard cloth that has been objectified, sexualized and yet remains one of the strongest symbols of female courage and identity. She embodied the struggles of women from Kashmir, to Bastar to North east to challenging the toxic masculinity inflicted on women not just in her day to day life but also what media projects. To hear "meri saree" please click on the following link-

Sabika Abbas Naqvi Performs 'Meri Saree' at Marine Drive

It was overwhelming, difficult and inspirational at the same moment to witness the power of woven words by Sabika, it actually left many of us teary eyed, with a hope and believe that though the struggle is long but we are not alone!  

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

"Weaving Peace" : Narratives of invisible women and their struggles of negotiating peace in conflict areas

“She asked him, if she was under house arrest to which cops used to say No, you are not. Then she asked again whether she can just go outside and buy cigarette? And again the answer was No! What does this even mean- I am not under house arrest and I can’t even go out? She questioned again to meet just silence. This used to continue every day, the cops came every day to monitor house to see if there is change even if that means shifting of chair from one place to another in the same room. So just for this she started changing the position of the things which were there in the house. This was her way of showing resistance, these small acts of dissent which made it clear that she doesn’t accept the authority who in the name of law has taken her independence for granted”

picture credits : WISCOMP
We were invited to participate in the panel discussion “Weaving Peace- A Women’s Perceptive” organized by WISCOMP (Women in security, conflict management and peace) in collaboration with IAWRT India with the main focus on gender, politics, building peace in conflict ridden areas. The first thing that caught my attention was the seating arrangement – it was a round table where the participants were sharing the space with the speakers unlike the usual seminars where the speakers sit on a distance with where participants are sitting or probably on a stage, they speak from a podium and usually through presentations. 

picture credits : WISCOMP
The panelists included Rosemary Dzuvichu, who is an advisor to the Naga Mothers Association and has served as the Kohima District Mahilla Congress president. She is also the chair of the department of English at Nagaland University; Sumona Dashgupta who works as an independent researcher and consultant, she had also served as assistant director at WISCOMP and Lubna Sayed Qadri who works on the revival of traditional art and craft forms, and community-based tourism in Kashmir, specifically in the rehabilitation of the Tosa Maidan in Jammu and Kashmir.  
The panel was moderated by Dr. Meenakshi Gopinath, Founder and Director of WISCOMP, who initiated the discussion by introducing the panelists and emphasizing on the “need of sharing and hearing more stories” in terms of working on peace in contemporary society especially in conflict ridden zones. 
picture credits : WISCOMP
It was an insightful experience to hear Rosemary talk about the politics and women’s rights in the conflict zone Nagaland, where she kept referring to Nagaland as a separate entity not as state of India. She strongly pointed out the patriarchal structure of Naga tribes and communities which are being constantly hostile towards women representatives in spite of getting support from the Government of India and Judiciary. She also spoke about the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act, the conflict between militants and the Indian government, constant struggles of women residing in the conflict ridden zones and the way they are fighting structural violence in their day today lives to reclaim their rights and negotiate peace. It’s a common stereotype that women from North East are way too independent and they have matrilineal society but on contrary they even lack land rights which also questions their citizenship.  
picture credits : WISCOMP
Sumona Dashgupta talked about stories of resistance by victims in post conflict society – particularly three episodes of life restoring acts by women from what she calls “the theatres of conflict” in Guatemala, Palestine, and Northern Islands. She referred to a collaborative research where through art, women who were victims of severe sexual violence narrated their stories of suffering and challenging the violence in the form of paintings. She emphasized that though the narratives of restoration have largely been based on research and documentation are about truth telling, the focus should now move to truth seeking so that we have comprehensive outlook on the role of women in conflict zones and how that can contribute towards peace building.
picture credits : WISCOMP

This was followed by young and vibrant  Lubna Sayed Qadri, who spoke about her work on the closure of the Tosa Maidan firing range and minefields, conservation, development of community-based tourism model, provision of (individual and collective) compensation for victims in Jammu and Kashmir high court, and strict implementation of rules for operational firing ranges in the state. She also shared about use of collective RTIs and PILs to fight fearlessly against oppressive state machinery. It was truly inspiring to hear a young woman leading the change in one of the most conflict ridden state of India.
picture credits : WISCOMP
After this, the session was opened to questions and comments; I was really intrigued by the sharing of all the three panelists. 
picture credits : WISCOMP
My mind was constantly hammered with the thought that it’s not just conflict zones but also in the most regular spaces women fight for their very existence in their day to day life. Also when we talk about conflict zones, what does “Nation” mean to them especially in the current socio-political framework when there is always a sword called anti nationalist hanging on our head? 
picture credits : WISCOMP

picture credits : WISCOMP

This actually lead to very interesting discussion where Sumona Dashgupta referred to Rabindranath Tagore’s poem where he says
“Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
 Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls”   
picture credits : WISCOMP
She said that the current situations makes us question whether we belong to this nation or not, also we need to reflect on the fact that when we don’t even have land rights and our citizenship is questioned, do women actually have a nation?
picture credits : WISCOMP

picture credits : WISCOMP

The discussion came to an end with the thought of finding enabling spaces for women in order to work towards ensuring, restoring and negotiating peace at all levels. This discussion was very crucial, informative, participatory and also very insightful because when we talk about gender based violence we generally don’t talk about the situations of women in conflict zone, also many of us do have an idea of what is going on in Kashmir but we are totally clueless about North east struggles, how women are struggling facing structural violence at each level. These discussions not only broadened the perspective on Feminist discourse but also left us with numerous questions to reflect upon.

Papon controversy: Social media trolling and challenging toxic masculinity

“Wtf! U studies all these years to post this shit?”
“NGO also teaches how to insults someone when they don’t have a proper answer. Miss***** learn something …. And in case you want a few moral science classes go back to school”
“To me, his music still remains good despite the fact that he molested a child”
“People like you spread hatred, when you have nothing to do you write shit which makes no sense.”
“Do you even know him in person to say all this? Who are you?”

These are few of the many demeaning remarks/comments/slurs thrown without hesitation to the girls who shared their opinions on “Papon controversy” on a Facebook post. Talking about the controversy- A video of very popular singer Papon 'kissing' a minor participant of a music reality show went viral on social media in the last week of February this year. It all started when a Supreme Court advocate Runa Bhuyan shot off a letter to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights terming the singer's act as "inappropriate". Runa filed a complaint against him under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.

A lot happened after the controversy, where girl’s parents and she herself denied Papon’s act as inappropriate to Papon referring his kiss as mere showcase of his affection same as “Guru shisya parampara” to  the channel airing the show throwing him out of the show. The whole public being very much divided on the controversy while his fans were ferociously advocating his innocence by giving all sorts of arguments to others (which include many celebrities like Raveena Tandon, Farah Khan) questioning his actions. There is no denying fact that Papon is an amazing singer and is loved for his music; naturally for a fan, his actions defied the purity of magic he creates with his voice. 

So, a girl who is a fan of Papon’s music wrote in her Facebook post “I will not be able to listen to Papon 's music the way I used to and will never touch my heart. Papon- You have lost a fan today!”
Immediately to her surprise, people started questioning her with statements like-
“Have you seen the video?” “Do you have any evidence?” “How can you judge him based on a video?” When she tried to answer back, more irrational and demeaning comments made way to her wall “What if he had done the same but was never caught. Then you would have believed his soul and self is pure!” “Please think before you reply, you don't need to be offended by everything and anything.” “Have you personally had a chance to talk to that lil girl?

As an activist, who works with adolescents on curbing child sexual abuse, this incident itself is a big setback considering that it happened on a national television and is being viral on social media and nothing major came out of it. Secondly, the whole electronic media being obsessed and over crowded with the sudden death of a Bollywood actress completely ignoring this case reminding once again how media doesn’t want to address gender based violence and deal with it in our country. Thirdly, the blind followers trend that our country is famous for- just because someone is a celebrity, people conveniently either keep mum or give him/her a benefit of doubt without considering the gravity of the crime. Fourthly, we boost about having highest population of young people and on various platforms (be in politics or social sector) said loud and clear that it’s the young people who would bring bigger changes in the country or change the way we see things. Unfortunately our urban youth, the driver of change (so called) is more interested in doing moral policing, trolling and pulling down the people on social media (again by meaning youth I didn’t mean all). Why? Because it’s easier to do mudslinging on Facebook or twitter rather than having a meaningful conversation or debate on the issues which are of social concern or rather personal concern. 

It’s not for the first time, this type trolling has happened- considering how our spaces are constantly shrinking with respect to raising our voices about a particular issue or incident or a crime in public domain considering the changing sociopolitical environment.
It has become a trend to just write something random, slurs, abuses, threats, demeaning accusations, on various social media sites considering many a times people get scared of it, many of them either block them or refrain from responding on it. However these comments are representative of not only their mindsets but also the society where we live in- these needs to be addressed and challenged because they are inflicting fear and violence. On the similar controversy, I saw one of my friends who is native of Assam posting her opinion on a social media site “We cannot ignore the facts. I am also a big fan of Papon but cannot support here. I am feeling really sorry for all blind fans of him who are trying to defame Runa Bhuyan. She did her work, she raised her voice for what she found inappropriate. We all have seen what Papon did in the video and I too found it inappropriate, it may be acceptable for most of his blind fans but not for all.”

And the moment she posted, many men just jumped on and commented insanely questioning her education, credibility, accusing her as one of those who let girls down and defame her, and posting nasty personal comment. Reminding you once again that all these men are young, well-educated and have fare knowledge. I thought to engage with them on the issue so that an understanding of child sexual abuse, POCSO and maybe they could see the other perspective. On the contrary, they just inflicted toxic masculinity.

Girls are spoiling girl’s image.


“I stand by what I say! I won't take it back. I may be wrong or right. But this is what it is”

“May the almighty grant you with some more knowledge of other acts apart from POCSO

“It would be a good question to ask if we need courts anymore?? Moreover, kissing kid contestants in reality show was never been an issue for anyone in this India until the advocate filed the complaint against Papon.  Lots a time we have witnessed lady mentors or judge kissed minor boy contestants, but none bothered it as sexual assault. When a male judge kissed, it falls into POCSO! Law should be equal to all.”

“We the people of Assam and north east have more love n affection among us for our Youngers unlike the low mentality north and west Indian people. So that was just due to his upbringing. I have seen both North n west India and I know that there is a huge mentality gap between both the place in comparison to Assam

I mean who could imagine that discussion on child sexual abuse would turn into debate of regionalism throwing stereotypes as to whole of North India is corrupted with a mindset of hatred!
This discussion turned more interesting and intriguing when another girl joined in and send the message against sexual offence loud and clear – the people got so wary that they started dividing us (me and other girl as two teams) in terms of moral and ethical behavior. This whole Facebook drama actually gave a glimpse of the bubble (the society of course) that we live in- the clear showcase of power dynamics where a person who is man can do whatever he wants to that includes sexual assault and because he is a celebrity he is praised and defended by other man. In case a woman wants to raise her voice even if it is not challenging, she is immediately pulled down by verbal or physical abuse that include demeaning her in terms of character, knowledge, upbringing and etc. 

Interestingly if the woman is aware of her strength and supports her own gender, then they follow the policy of ‘divide and rule’ as you can remember the popular sayings that 2 women can’t be friends or women is worst enemy of other women! Lastly, soothing the violence by saying nice things or by comforting the other person thereby, completing the circle of violence.

However, here we tried shifting the narratives by not falling in the trap and breaking the circle of violence. We stood by each other, challenged their authority by giving them befitted and rational evidences to prove our points, supporting each other when they tried to build a rift and finally making them chew their words when they tried to normalize the conversations around child sexual abuse. 

Because, it’s not okay to keep silence on the gender based violence,

It’s not okay to troll or demean anyone when they try to put their opinions on social media,

It’s not okay to normalize the acts of violence,

It’s not okay to subdue violence against women and child by saying that even men go through it and you don’t say anything,

It’s not okay to always victimize manhood when we are talking about violence against women

It’s not okay to keep saying that “Women are women’s worst enemies”

It’s not okay to follow people blindly

It’s not okay to hide your mindset or maligned views under the word ‘Perspective’

It’s not okay to blame a girl for the violence that has happened to her.     
We need to question, reflect, challenge on the things we have been told and be open to other perspective before throwing judgments here and there to build a society which is gender equitable.