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October 11, 2013

The Story of Gender … Our final blog post.


It has been over a month now since Nupur and I left Delhi.  The distance of time and space has given us the opportunity to really reflect on the project – the decisions that we made, where we succeeded, where we failed and what we finally achieved.

Initially, we were motivated by the gang rape of a woman that took place on 16 December 2012 in Delhi. We were also motivated by the mass activism and dialogue that ensued as a result of the rape. Nupur and I were determined to be part of it. We wanted our work to contribute to the dialogue and we wanted to create work that was truly meaningful. We left for Delhi inspired and motivated.

And when we got there we very quickly realized that making work that meaningfully responded to sexual violence was a lot more complicated than we had anticipated. Making this sort of work required a deep understanding of the underpinning complexities. If the work was to be really meaningful it had to consider amongst many things class, caste, tradition, religion, family, patriarchy, masculinity, femininity, social norms, education, cultural norms and so forth.

Through the Integrated Development Education Association (IDEA) NGO we met journalists, activists and NGO representatives working on human rights, masculinities, sexuality education and gender. These meetings reinforced our insight about the complexities involved. And with each meeting, the ideas that we had for our project became more and more daunting and overwhelming.

Then something happened. As we considered all these terms and constructs (social norms, masculinity, caste, etc) they started to flatten, their meanings started to collapse. They started to appear as forces in themselves as though they weren’t linked to or about people. I don’t think at the time we really articulated this ‘flatness’ of the terms but it is only now in hindsight that we are able to express that this is what we were responding to.

On reflection, we think it was this ‘flatness’ that was the catalyst in helping us define what the project was going to be about. We knew it was not going to be about finding solutions. And we knew it was not going to be about demonstrating our understanding of the underpinning drivers of sexual violence. What we wanted was for the project to be a record of how the complexities of gender (a complexity that underpins sexual violence) had been internalized in men and women’s lives. We wanted the record to act as an accurate reflection of who we are as a collective.

We decided then that we were just going to listen, record and discover.

So we started collecting stories from men and women within the urban middle class of Delhi. The narratives we collected were not opinions or analysis or ideas about gender, they were stories and memories about lived experiences that contributed to the constructions of gender.

We collected stories from men and women from the urban middle class. We decided on the urban middle class for a number of reasons, the primary reasons being that although sexual violence occurred across class and caste, the responses to it were primarily targeted towards people in the lower classes. And given the short amount of time and limited resources we decided to reach out to communities that we were able to access with reasonable ease. We hope in the future to broaden our scope of focus to reach across India and beyond.

When we started to log the stories we were collecting, we continuously bumped against the terms and constructs that overwhelmed us initially. Except now they had a particular dimension that we could see and understand; they were now attached to people and their values, hopes and anxieties.

We then decided to edit the stories into 1 – 1.5 minute mini narratives. We mapped these mini-narratives along certain threads and themes. By doing so we were able to illustrate how certain abstractions are reified and experienced. For example when we looked at the idea of protection, we found that men were encouraged to assume the role of the protector of women (sisters, mothers, daughters, Aunts) and women are encouraged to assume that they needed to be protected by men. This idea is reflected in individual behaviours, in social constructions and even at the institutional level (an example of this is in an earlier post where I wrote about the Women’s Only car on the Delhi subway). So in mapping the mini-narratives along themes like ‘protection’ the listener can hear how protection is experienced from various perspectives: enforcement, reception, and observation.

We will be developing an online platform to act as a repository for these mini narratives. We will meta-tag the mini narratives in a number of ways to allow the listener to curate them so that they get only the stories that they want to hear. For instance if they would like to hear a seamless stream of stories across age groups and genders along a specific theme, they will be able to get it. An example of this is if the listener would like to only hear about the first sexual experience of women and men aged 28 that is what will be played to them. The listener will have the opportunity to save what they curated so others have a chance to listen to it as well. The online platform will also give the listener the opportunity to contribute to the repository of mini-narratives so that their lived experiences can be heard alongside those of others.

We believe that when experienced as a whole, the repository of stories will show us the ways in which we have come to internalize constructions of gender with both harmful as well as beautiful consequences.

We are very keen to expand the collection of stories in the repository so that they are more reflective of the diversity of India. Additionally, our aim is to continue to collect stories, but to reach beyond India into other cultures and regions around the world.


We new that the collection of stories and the construction of an online repository for the stories would be a long-term endeavour and we wanted to do something as well that was a little more immediate and that referenced our observations.

One of our observations (as mentioned in an earlier post) is that we felt that men largely occupy the public spaces in Delhi. We saw men hanging-out on the streets together chatting, drinking tea, and watching the street. We rarely saw women doing the same. The women we saw appeared to be heading to a destination, they appeared to always be en-route to somewhere else and we seldom saw them ‘hanging-out’ or drinking a tea or having a chat on the street.

So we decided that our intervention would be a comment (or gentle confrontation) of what we saw as the male public face of Delhi. We photographed women in the middle of innocuous gestures and pasted these photographs in predominantly male dominated spaces in a particular neighbourhood of Delhi. We named this project Adda Baazi which when translated from Hindi means making a habit of hanging out.

The responses to our intervention were really affirming. A number of people (both men and women) felt that we were bringing to attention a norm that they hadn’t noticed. The most affirming response we received was from a group of young women who upon looking at the documentation of the intervention, went to a male dominated teashop and sat down and had tea. They felt supported in doing so.

We have created a website for our final report for the Maharam Fellowship. We will share that with you shortly.

Nupur and Bathsheba.

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