As mentioned in an earlier post, Nupur and I were invited to participate in an exhibition titled ‘HERS.’ The exhibition took place on 24 and 25 August in Delhi. The exhibition was curated to examine the complexities of gender, masculinity and femininity in India – a perfect fit for the two projects we developed while in Delhi.
the exhibition received some media coverage in the Delhi press. You can read about it here: http://www.dailypioneer.com/vivacity/women-and-their-city.html
Below are moments captured during the exhibition.
The streets of Delhi are quite an experience to behold: incessant hooting, endless congestion and the constant negotiations of the auto-rickshaws, cars, lorrys and pedestrians trying to make the traffic madness work. But I find the pedestrians on the streets are where the really interesting stories are. For instance, a pattern we observed is that the majority of the public spaces are occupied by men. We see men standing about together having a chat and watching the street, or congregating around a teashop or a Paan stand. We see women too, but they appear to always be en-route to somewhere else. Seldom do we see women gathering together or gathering with men outside in social, public spaces like on a bench outside of a neighbourhood market where they can read a newspaper, have a chat and a tea. We see men doing this.
In response to this, Nupur and I decided to place women in traditionally male occupied spaces, like the teashop. In doing so, we hoped to comment on as well as stimulate dialogue and introspection about complicity in perpetuating this kind of segregation in public spaces in Delhi.
What we did was we photographed groups of women in the middle of seemingly innocuous gestures like drinking tea, reading the newspaper or talking on a mobile phone. We then pasted these images on the walls of these male occupied spaces in CR Park, a neighbourhood in Delhi.
The response to the project in the areas where we pasted as well as at the art exhibition ‘where we showed the documentation of the project, has been interesting. The project did provoke some thought and a lot of dialogue. Many said that we were commenting on something that they hadn’t really noticed before. One comment however was that occupation of the public spaces was more of a segregation of class than of gender.
We named the project Adda Baazi. Adda Baazi is a Hindi slang word that refers to ‘hanging-out’ as a habit.
It’s been a while I know, but we will be giving an update on the project soon. This post is to let you know that we will be participating in an art exhibition titled ‘HERS’ this weekend in Delhi.
We will be exhibiting two works. One of the works (still a sketch) is a series of audio pieces curated to illustrate the underlying drivers of the complexities of gender here. The other piece is the documentation of a public art project that we are doing, the project comments on the largely male public face of Delhi.
In a future post we will upload images from the public art project and also excerpts from the interviews we have conducted.
I heard a story the other day.
The lovely family hosting me are called the Pandeys. Incidentally, they are a family of artists. Anyway, the Pandey’s have a male Dachshund dog called Arnie. Across a small park from the Pandey’s house lives a family with a female Dachshund. This family wanted Arnie to mate with their Dachshund, so they went to the Pandey’s home armed with gifts (a dowry of sorts) to introduce the idea and ask for permission for their two dogs to mate. The Pandey’s agreed and Arnie moved to the neighbour’s home for a couple of days to consumate the agreement. When he returned to the Pandey’s he slept for two days.
There is something so customary about the gesture of gifts and the agreement that was made between the Pandey’s and their neighbour. Traditionally marriages in India are arranged. ‘Love’ marriages are more frequent these days, but still the majority of people enter into marriages arranged by their families. Customarily, when a woman enters a marriage here, she enters it with a dowry that is offered to the family of her husband. And so it really interested me (and I found a beauty in the internalization of it) that this same gesture that is deeply embedded in tradition, had been extended in this case to the mating of household pets.
I think traditions and their related customs are some of the things that shape a sense of identity and belonging and they ground us in this big world. However, the fact that love marriages are becoming more frequent is a testament to the notion that traditions, customs, cultures, social norms are not static but evolve over time, slowly. Where these small evolutions can be observed, I think, is in the minutiae of every day interactions and attitudes. However, conversely, it is in these same minutiae that we can observe the perpetuation of assumptions that lead to problematic actions and attitudes about so many things.
So Nupur and I have decided to focus our attention on illustrating how the most quotidian of actions in the day to day perpetuate a problematic system of assumptions about sexuality and gender.
BLOG ENTRY 3
New Delhi July 30th 2013
In the last post I had put down three possible directions we could possibly go in. Since then we’ve zeroed in what we will be doing here, if you scroll down you can read our project note. In all honesty the process of working out what we need to do has been a challenging one and we find ourselves wishing for 8 more weeks rather than the four we have left. That being said the next four weeks promise to be action packed.
A STORY OF SEXUALITY (Title TBD)
Bathsheba Okwenje & Nupur Mathur
In collaboration with Pattie Gonsalves, IDEA | Supported by the RISD Maharam STEAM fellowship
The purpose of our project is to stimulate and sustain dialogue on issues relating to gender disparities that lead to problematic ideas about sexuality.
The project will draw from and represent real life accounts of instances in which men and women have been confronted with gender-specific assumptions in behavior and attitude in the context of sexuality. These experiences will include, but are not limited to the following:
- Ideas, expectations and behaviours related to masculinity.
- Ideas, expectations and behaviours related to femininity.
- Attitudes and assumptions surrounding the idea of service as an action of femininity.
- Attitudes and actions that contribute to the suppression of female sexual desires and the resulting behaviours.
- Assumptions, behaviours that are established as a result of a separation of the sexes and how this impacts the quality of relationships.
- Attitudes and judgements based on the way women / men represent themselves through clothing and / or adornment.
- Assumptions and actions that allow the public face of Delhi to be largely male.
Our aim is to illustrate how our individual actions and attitudes, especially those that live in the everyday, contribute to and perpetuate a problematic system of assumptions in the context of sexuality.
Through a series of interviews, we will collect experiences from a diverse group of men and women within the urban middle / upper class in Delhi. The demographic will include young unmarried men and women, young married men and women, middle-aged married men and women, and senior citizens.
Personal intimate experiences in the form of anonymous, audio narratives will be layered with video footage that illustrates the day-to-day activities or actions in Delhi that contribute to assumptions around gender and sexuality.
Each video will be approximately 30 seconds to 1 min long.
Video: Inside a general store/chemist shop an over should shot shows a woman buying a packet of sanitary napkins that is put inside a black plastic bag and handed over to her. Other customers buy other products that are given in regular transparent plastic bags.
Audio: A man speaks about when he first heard of menstruation. He recounts a childhood memory from his school days when all the boys were asked to leave the class while the girls were being explained something in private.
Every train on the Delhi subway has a car that is reserved for women only. A couple of days ago I took the Delhi subway for the first time. I stood on the platform, underneath a pink sign with swirly type announcing the entrance to the Women’s only section, and waited for the train to arrive. When it did I stepped in to a really comfortable environment that was air conditioned and roomy and with lots of women laughing and talking without any discernable restraint. It was a pleasant ride.
At one of the stops on my subway journey a man was just about to enter when he realized it was the women’s only section of the train. He stood at the entrance for a while looking up and down the car, I presume contemplating whether to take his chances and enter. The women inside the train turned to look at him gauging his movements. At the last minute he decided against entering and ran to the part of the train that accommodated both men and women.
I started to think about this voluntary gender segregation and what it says about the politics of gender and patriarchy in Delhi. Using the subway as an allegory, I don’t think that the separation of the sexes is a useful tool to mitigate the imbalance that patriarchal systems cause, nor do I think that here it is intended to do that. I do think, in the case of the subway, its intention is to create a space for women to travel without the ogling, teasing, groping of lascivious men. But this I believe just reinforces the tenets of patriarchy and I also believe it condescends to not only women but to men as well. It presumes that men, in the unrestricted company of women, cannot control an impulse to violate. When men are faced with a society that presumes this behaviour of them as a default and organizes itself around mitigating it, this same society is paradoxically supporting (or encouraging?) the same behaviour. It does not give men a chance.
Additionally, the section for women on the subway train is only one car of the whole train. It is at the back or the front of the train depending on which direction the train is going. This voluntary segregation asks of women to separate themselves; in doing so it places the burden of men’s behaviour on the women. As mentioned, the segregation is voluntary, if women choose to ride in other cars on the train and they are violated in someway, the blame would be placed on them because they opted to ride the subway in a section that included men when one has been provided for women only. It therefore punishes women for the bad behaviour of men.
A large part of India is patriarchal. The patriarchal system is supported by culture and by society. It is also for a large part internalized and perpetuated by both men and women. And it is in this patriarchal system that the gender imbalance is located. Other added complexities are the classifications that work in tandem with patriarchy; these are class, caste and religion. All of these Nupur and I need to take into consideration when producing our project. If looked at as a matrix with the social classifications (including age and geography) on a horizontal plane and the gender classifications on the vertical, each point on the matrix requires a different intervention. Daunting!
So after some thought, advise and analysis, we have tentatively narrowed down our entry points for the project to:
- The male voice – men speaking to men; the expectations and effects of patriarchy on the man;
- Sexuality education – addressing the gaps in sexuality education. For instance responding to the lack of communication between intimate partners. As an aside, we had a meeting with an amazing organization called TARSHI, they told us as an example that in Hindi there isn’t a word for breasts that is not vulgar, therefore it is difficult for a woman to say tell her sexual partner that she would like him to touch her breasts because a polite way of saying it doesn’t exist. Additionally, even if she could and iassuming her partner is male, he would see her request as an assault on his masculinity;
- Disseminating women’s rights – Laws have been amended since the 16 December incident; and women have many rights (ie the right to free legal counsel etc) but the majority of women don’t know what they are.
Additionally, we are interested in exploring the idea that because of the stringent mores around behaviour, people are living double lives – the one that they have at home and the one that they have with their friends.
BLOG ENTRY 2
New Delhi July 20th 2013
Since I last wrote Pattie, Bathsheba and I have met a number of people working in the area of gender based issues.
One of the first people we met was Dhruv a young 25 year old male activist that actively speaks out about issues related to gender via his online platform called got stared at (www.gotstared.at/) and at ‘must bol’ (www.mustbol.in/) a voluntary youth driven platform where people share their personal stories about how gender plays a role in their day to day lives. Dhruv got me thinking about the male voice and how the male voice is not a big part of gender related dialogue. For me it was the first time I was seeing a young man that is addressing other young men as well as women of his age about gender, equality and perceptions of sexuality. I personally feel that a male voice is extremely important for sustaining a healthy discussion surrounding gender. Gender based issues not only affect women they affect men too. Male masculinity is a big part of the male psyche perpetuated through advertising, bollywood films and other mainstream media. More often than not men are faced with pressure from their peers and family to not show pain, to not cry and be ‘strong.’ Men are often made to feel uncomfortable about sharing or showing their emotions and a boy’s peers would ridicule him and call him names because he’s too sensitive.
On a more complex level, at home men live out patriarchal roles that are perpetuated by their mothers, sisters and wives. Men grow up thinking it is their right to behave in a certain way right from childhood. I think there needs to be a space for an open dialogue between young men about how internalized patriarchy is and how it plays a role in their lives. Dhurv and others like Anshul Tiwari (founder of www.youthkiawaaz.com), are men who have examined their own internal relationship with patriarchy and are catalysts that open up and sustain such dialogue.
We also met Ushinor a journalist from a newspaper here in India called Tehelka (http://www.tehelka.com/). Ushinor gave us insight into how our initial proposal was nothing new and that everyone was speculating constantly about the state of affairs in the country. Digging deeper and targeting a small audience was something that most people were not doing. After meeting him we’ve been trying hard to narrow down entry points for this project both in terms of what about gender but also what target audience. So far through our countless conversations and meetings we’ve identified that working with the male voice is a potential entry point Another thing that at a very core level needs more of a voice is sex education, or rather as it’s been brought to our attention by TARSHI (www.tarshi.net/), a more holistic term is sexuality education. As sexuality is something that we encounter at every stage of our life it is limiting to speak only of sex education as often young people get a narrow perspective.
Here for example when girls start to menstruate boys are not told what is happening or why it is happening. In school if girls are being told about sanitary napkins and how to use them, boys are told to go stand outside while the girls are spoken to. The result is a very awkward set of adolescents where the girls are shy about what they are going through and the boys are making up their own theories of what is happening to them, while alongside laughing and making jokes about what are fundamental changes in a woman’s body. Moreover menstruation in the home is seen as something impure and women in hindu households are not allowed to enter the kitchen until their fourth day after they have washed their hair. They are also not allowed to enter the pooja (temple) room in the house for prayer. Until recently this was a common thing in my family, it happened for generations and no one thought to question it. As a young woman growing up I never completely understood why it was happening, but I complied. It now no longer happens, even though my grandmother would rather we stick to older ‘traditions,’ as these things are extremely internalized in her. It makes me wonder, and makes me extremely vigilant of myself to question what is internalized in me.
Talking about menstruation, buying tampons here in a shop is the most uncomfortable experience. Most often there are only men working in the shops and even if there is a woman its still uncomfortable because they immediately start judging you. You get odd smiles as if insinuating you are now having sex, even though the reason you are there is because you have your period. It is a common myth that if you are using tampons you are no longer a virgin. In any case this is how it is to buy tampons so you can only imagine what its like to buy condoms.
The other day I asked my mother about sex education before marriage and how it was for her because she and my father had an arranged marriage. Even now she is embarrassed to speak of anything related to sex, it is so internalized in her that sex is something hidden, something you don’t talk about. Even while speaking with me she couldn’t control her embarrassed smiling face. She told me about how her mother a few days before she got married gave her a book called ‘Everything you want to know about sex,’ and how excited that made my mother to get such a book to read after years of being kept away from such information.
The state of affairs in my country from villages to towns to cities are all equally challenging. I’m burdened by a sense of helplessness of not knowing where to start. I must say however that after meeting all these lovely people who have managed to find space, provide space, create a voicee, articulate clearly and create a vocabulary to sustain a dialogue on gender based issues I also feel empowered. I find myself talking about these issues with ease everywhere I go, whether it is at home or with friends. It is harder at home and I’m trying to think of ways to create a casual environment where these things can be openly discussed without a sense of embarrassment, or shame. If I don’t know where to start in terms of the country, I can certainly begin at home, the most challenging space of all.
I arrived in Delhi three days ago.
I see echoes of home (East Africa) everywhere. I see it in the architecture, the chaos, the smells, the food; I even hear it in the language and see it in certain customs. East Africa is home to a very large population of Indians the majority of whom descend from the Gujarat region of India. Although largely segregated from the African population, their influence extends deep into our cultures, impacting our language, our food, our homes and some traditions.
My first impression of Delhi, therefore, is that of a strong familiarity, forcing me to think about what we carry with us as move through the world, what we pass on through the generations and what we attach identity and belonging to. The familiarity I feel here in Delhi is also a testament to the strength of a specific Indian culture – that it can survive multiple generations in a faraway region (East Africa) and I, an East African, can come to Delhi and find echoes of my home here.
Nupur and I are here to do work on gender politics and sexual violence. My understanding of the underlying drivers of gender-based violence is that, among other things, it resides in certain social norms and cultural ideas of masculinity and femininity. It is through the prism of this ‘knowledge’ that I have been trying to understand what I’m seeing around me. In the many social spaces that we have been to in the past three days I see public demonstrations of a certain egalitarianism between the genders. The women are very present and vocal and the men aren’t overwhelmingly patriarchal. Most conversations we have entered into with strangers, both men and women (and unprovoked by us), have been about gender politics in India. A man we met one evening said he felt that the only way to address gender-based sexual violence in India is by enforcing harsh draconian measures on the perpetrators, which we took to mean enforcing castration or even the death penalty. Another stranger we spoke to, the sole woman in the company of five men, said that she was a feminist. When we asked how she defined feminism, she said that to her it meant a belief in equal rights for all people, women included. One of the men in her company disagreed with her and didn’t believe we were all entitled to the same rights, as an example, he asked us whether he had the same rights as President Obama. His concern was about equal rights across social stratifications as opposed to gender lines.
We were at a party last night and everyone was free to smoke and drink and flirt and dance without judgement, recrimination or segregation. But again, this was a public space and a public display. As I looked around me at the party last night, I wondered what happened in the private spaces, in the homes, where traditions are passed down, identities are forged and social norms are first learnt? Does the public display of egalitarianism reach into the home? Or maybe yet, could this public display of egalitarianism actually originate in the home?
For the rest of the week Nupur and I will be meeting with activists, artists and members of civil society. These meetings have been organized by Pattie Gonsalves, our focal point at the IDEAS NGO. We will be using these meetings to inform our understanding of the politics of gender in India and to shape and sharpen our ideas about our outputs for the fellowship.
BLOG ENTRY 1
New Delhi July 5th 2013
A week ago I flew into Delhi, a place I could call home. I say I could because even though I have family here and spent a large part of my childhood here the city seems more different this time than before. On a day to day basis I find myself angry, or feeling helpless. India is a giant country with a billion people. It is an extremely complex place with a complicated history.
My work here in India along with my colleague and classmate Bathsheba Okwenje is to use our artistic practice to fight for change in an area that has burdened this country for generations: Gender based violence
I ask myself what is gender based violence and why people only rise up to protest when something extreme like a gang rape occurs? Rape is everywhere in India. And by this I don’t mean physically. More so I would like to make a note, that what people refer to as women’s right’s, I prefer calling Human Rights. For me in the distinction itself lies the problem.
I have an older brother. When he was still young my parents were visiting my grandparents one summer. My mother who comes from a family with fairly liberal views asked my brother to take some glasses and cups lying on the table to the kitchen so they could be washed. My grandmother was astonished and scolded my mother, ‘How can you ask him to do that?” In India this is still common, especially in the upper middle class. Most men don’t enter the kitchen. They’ve never cooked or cleaned or washed or ironed their own clothes. It is a long standing patriarchal system that exists here, and men and women alike don’t realize more often than not, when they are enacting a role that they never chose themselves.
Everyday I notice something like this. Something small and it gnaws at me from the inside telling me that is is important to focus on these things. It is important to realize in your daily conversation and your daily choices where you are doing what you want to do, and where you are doing what this society thinks you ought to do. I feel it is important to realize, in order to bring change to how rape is dealt with in this country the responsibility lies not solely on the judiciary system or the police or on politicians. All of these people who have the power to bring about policy change are also people. People who live and work in the same city and country as everyone else. People who despite having moral and legal obligations will still make biased decisions and comment on the affairs of the state in a reckless and crass manner because they are not any different.
I’m interested in developing a method to document, archive and collate the subtle day to day instances that provide an insight into the complex world of gender based violence in India. Rape does not just happen, gang rape does not just happen, eve teasing does not just happen, dowry does not just happen, being scared to death on your wedding night does not just happen. I feel if we give importance and time to understand the smaller more internalized dynamics of gender roles in India, they might help us in our fight against gender based violence.
It has now been a few days since my colleague and classmate Bathsheba has arrived. I’m now seeing things from the perspective of introducing someone from outside of India into Indian culture. What is Indian culture? It’s funny because as I mentioned before the population of this country is huge. So in effect what I’m introducing Bathsheba to is life here in Delhi.
The friends I have here are almost all artists or musicians or designers. It isn’t important in our friends circle who is a man and who is a woman. Not to each other it doesn’t. At home however, scenarios vary. And in this I could speak for myself.
I come from Rajasthan, a state that ranks high in gender based violence and discrimination against women. My family which comprises of highly educated individuals living all over the country and abroad still have strong patriarchal ties. You cannot really date anyone openly because you cannot have sex before marriage. You certainly cannot date someone and bring them back home. So where do you go? To cafe’s and restaurants, and motels to hide from your family and other people who might recognize you? Women especially are escorted by their brothers or go out in groups of friends. They don’t just go out even for dinner or a movie with a man alone, unless they are married, or are siblings, or in a group. And people rarely, almost never go out alone. Everyone is shy and awkward about anything remotely sexual. In effect you grow up feeling extremely uncomfortable about sex and relationships and don’t really know what it’s like to be alone in the company of a man or a woman. In fact you grow up pretty awkward in terms of yourself because you’ve never been alone, and many times never lived away from home. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve gone to international schools most of my life and lived away from home. The kind of friends I’ve made and people I’ve met have allowed me to be the liberal person I am today. I’d be curious however, to ask my female cousin’s how it was for them. Many of them have had arranged marriages and are all now living their lives in accordance to the home of their in-laws.
Bathsheba and I met Pattie Gonsalves who is the representative for the NGO IDEA. She is a young woman working in the field of health, environment and gender based politics. Pattie is arranging for us to meet with several specialists, organizations and activists to give us a deeper understanding of the complexities at play here in Delhi, and India at large.