Make My Space- Ab Nahi Toh Kab?

By Mahima Dev

Hoshiyaar banoongi, sabse main ladoongi,

Arey mujhe kya rokegi yeh duniya,

Kal logo ke bandhan ko sehme main chali thi,

Aaj bandhan ko tode main aage chaloongi,

Duniya tere samaaj ka hoon ek hissa main,

Apna adhikaar lekar rahoongi!”

A pleasant poem with a strong message, recited by Vacha girls during their street plays and performances.

Every now and then the brave girls at Vacha shed light on important social issues and bring public awareness through street plays. But brazenness is not always welcome, especially in the Bastis they call home.

When the girls and Vacha mentors first started presenting these street plays in Bastis and public areas, they were greeted with dismay. Most girls’ own families and neighbors discouraged them. There was an unnerving incident wherein a brother pulled his elder sister by the arm, screamed, “How can you do all this” and dragged her home. After much pleading and persistence on the part of the girls, their parents reluctantly permitted them to perform but with the caveat that they would do so in Bastis far away from home, “Do whatever you want but we will not be party to this nonsense!”

The girls felt dejected but jumped at the opportunity of being able to enlighten the people of other Bastis. And they did. Overtime, people started speaking and praising the girls’ enjoyable and hard-hitting street plays. The girls were motivated to work harder. Eventually, there came a time when the Basti leaders, who had once shunned the girls’ plays, invited them to perform at events and occasions. They have really come a long way and we are very proud of our girls!

One of the most impactful plays by the Vacha girls is called Make My Space- Ab Nahi Toh Kab. It deals with a topic which is usually taken for granted: access to public places. Due to the obsolete social outlook towards girls freely accessing public places, amplified by the lack of security thereof, an important aspect of a girl’s developmental process gets obstructed. The girls have put it in a rather clear manner – “What is a public place? Is it a religious place…? But people of all religions are present here today. So, it cannot be. Is it an educational place? But people from all walks of life- uneducated and scholarly- are present here today. So, a public place is all these things and much much more. Public places such as libraries, sports grounds, hospitals etc. are the most essential contributors to our growth. It’s the valuable social setting where we get to interact freely with people of diverse religions, cultures, languages, ages and sexes. Yet this right is sometimes taken away from us.”

In a survey of 1000 Mumbai girls/women conducted by Vacha in 2015, it was discovered that-

1) 60% of those surveyed were scared to use public toilets.

2) 40% found libraries unsafe.

3) 40% found roads and sports grounds unsafe after sunset.

These figures are appalling.

We tried unearthing the causes of these findings and found case-specific reasons.

Public Toilets-

Public toilets, a basic necessity, are not accessible to women mainly due to the fact that places around such bathrooms have transformed into frequent meeting spots for drunkards and substance-abusers. The ladies bathrooms neither have lights nor proper doors. In some cases, no water or dustbins are available in the toilets. Women are charged more than men at such toilets because apparently women make more of a mess. All these factors mean that parents often times do not allow their young girls to use public toilets. Parents believe public toilets contribute to more sickness than open defecation.

Sports Grounds (Maidans) and Public Libraries-

These areas are often desolate and have therefore turned into hubs of eve-teasing and sexual harassment. Instances of serious sexual crimes perpetrated in desolate areas or abandoned locations, are abundant. These areas are mostly frequented by men, with little or no women in sight. This makes not just the girl but her parents very uncomfortable as well. In addition to this, girls coming out of home at night is a taboo and their parents have to hear taunts by neighbours. For these reasons, girls are not allowed to freely access parks, maidans and public libraries.

These issues need the attention of the government and local authorities, but above all awareness of the general public is imperative. We must realise that these are problems of our own and need our initiative and cooperation to be solved. If around 40% girls feel unsafe in ‘public places’ then can we truly call them free and independent. Can we call ourselves and our nation free?

Vacha has initiated the first step to help all girls reclaim public places. We have been actively involved in renovating toilets in certain wards, by putting in petitions and following up with local authorities. In addition to this, gender sensitization classes have been held with young and adolescent boys for an all-rounded understanding of girls’ issues. Awareness sessions in bastis in the form of Sports Days in public maidans on Republic Day and Independence Day have been a huge success.  The Learning Community of which Vacha is a coordinator, holds Seminars by the name ‘Reclaim the Public Place- “Ab Nahi Toh Kab”’. The next seminar will be held on the 10th and 11th of February 2017. You are welcome to attend, find details here-

We hope you will join us in this bold endeavour.


Young girls in Literature

I love to dance. And sing. And jump. And speak.

These are the things most young girls enjoy doing. The last activity—speaking—which changes its nature from hushed whisperings to boisterous chattering with changing company of people, goes beyond its role of being a communication medium and weaves together our emotions, dreams, desires and even frustrations. Speaking up allows us to create a collective consciousness of ourselves, to tell others about our experiences. Speaking up – whether by talking or by other mediums of expression – allows us to share ourselves with others and thus validate ourselves.

But what if we are stripped of this basic human right of speaking up? What if we are taught not to speak up?

Maya Angelou, the famous American poet and feminist had once said—

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

She had indeed experienced this incisive pain of keeping silent. Raped at the age of seven by an uncle, she went into trauma and did not speak for a long time. But, she wrote. She wrote about the pain the girls undergo at the hands of their acquaintances but never speak about. Nobody speaks about it, in fact. The girls are initiated into the tradition of silence, they are asked to ignore and move on. Most of the women writers have talked about the instances of pain, suffering and deep humiliation they went through during their girlhood and adolescence, many years later.

It is ironical that the experiences of innumerable young girls never see the light of day owing to social shame, hesitation and the trauma of “shutting up”. However, many girls have chosen to break this silence and give words to their emotions—without waiting for years to pass, or the pain to heal.

Writing down the experiences also has a deep significance; it documents the tone of awareness (and eventually resentment) against a subordinating, humiliating or heart wrenching instance/practice. As the saying goes, “watch your words, they become your actions”, the words of resent boost the strength to question and then to protest.

Expression as the form of emancipation has been recorded in the pages of history even before the coming of modern ideas of feminism. The bhakti movement of ancient and medieval periods in the Indian subcontinent saw significant participation of women, for whom moksha (salvation) was metaphorical to freedom from the patriarchal social norms as well. Andal, an Alwara (worshippers of Vishnu) saint from Tamil Nadu, expressed her passionate devotion and longing for Shiva by openly flouting prescribed norms of conduct for women. Right from her adolescent years she meditated in the forests, roamed around in ‘disheveled’ state, sunken eyes and emaciated body to defy the norms of feminine beauty. Her poems not only express her longing for Vishnu as her husband, but also express her love for God without any social apprehension. Mirabai was another bhakti saint of the medieval period who embraced Krishna as her husband from a very young age, and continued her devotion even after getting married, much to the resentment of her husband and of family members. While many argue that these women bhaktas’ devotion was guided by patriarchal subordinating principles, it should not be forgotten that their expression of love in practice was an act of rebellion against practices which fettered the women of contemporary period. Mirabai’s famous verse, “मेरे तो प्रभु गिरधर नागर, दूसरो न कोय/ जाके सर है मोर-मुकुट, मेरो पति सोय” is a strong assertion of disassociation of her identity from that of her husband, the male figurehead who represented and ‘owned’ (and still does) the identity of woman in society.

Anne Frank, a young 14 year old Jew living in Germany at the time of Hitler led Nazi regime has penned down her experiences in form of a diary, The Diary of A Young Girl (published in 1947, posthumous) , which has been widely read across the globe. The Nazi government was carrying out mass killings of Jews and non-Aryan/Germans and Frank had to stay in exile with her family for around 2 years before they were caught by the Gestapo (German police). Although it has the gory narration of the German holocaust as its backdrop, the book is full of interesting anecdotes about the everyday life of a bubbly teenager—her aspirations, her love for the family’s pet cat, her love-hate relationship with the boy of the same age whose family shared the room with the Franks during the hiding. The positivity expressed in each of the diary entries brings us face to face with the irreversible hatred and repercussions caused by war and genocide. But alongside, it also pleasantly reflects how severities and adversity are not powerful enough to take away the zeal and dreams from the eyes of young, cheerful people.

Closer home, Sufia Kamal from Bangladesh had been a leading feminist and poet who interwove literary aesthetics with the cause of raising the voice of the marginalized women. She wrote her first poem, Boshanti (The Spring) published at the age of thirteen in 1924 which talked about happiness and joys that natural beauty entails. She often made use of motifs and metaphors from nature to express the desires and aspirations of women.

The rise of the Dalit and anti-caste movement in Maharashtra in the 1970s and 80s led to the emergence of rich literature by women writers. The inspiration interestingly was drawn from an essay by Mukta, a 14 year old student of Savitri Bai Phule who in 1868 wrote a critique of the monopoly of Brahmins and upper castes over determining the access to education. Many of the Dalit women writers, like Hira Bansode, Kumud Pawade and Urmila Pawar have written vivid accounts of their adolescent years and the struggles they and their families went through in the caste ridden, patriarchal society. The rebellious attitude and resentment to submission showed by them in their youth gave them the power to raise their voices against injustice later in their lives. It is these women’s writings that enrich and make possible sharp criticisms of Brahmanical patriarchy by connecting gender-based discriminations with caste violence. Bansode’s poem, Bosom Friend, talks about a young Dalit girl who sarcastically condemns the attitude of her childhood friend who could not free herself of the shackles of caste prejudices.

Such voices, however, are few and far between. It is important to question the reason for the dearth of young women writers in the literary corpus around the world. Denial to education and social barriers to expression are two of the many reasons behind the absence of documentation of works by young girls. Also, voices of which women and girls get recognition and respect as ‘authentic’ voices has historically been dictated by caste in India. The women’s movement in India after the 1980s has tried to deal with this issue by starting initiatives to record oral histories, where spoken experiences are documented into biographies and life histories to give words to the priceless expressions of women who could never get a chance to dress them up with eloquent words.  For example, the Black Women Oral History Project is a project to document oral histories of young women survivors of the 1947 Partition. The mainstream women’s movement, however, continues to fall short in documenting and presenting voices and analyses of women and girls from historically marginalized groups – especially Dalit women and girls in India, and women and girls of colour worldwide.

VACHA too makes a small effort in bringing out the voices of young enthusiastic girls who have never been given a chance to speak their minds or hearts out within the four walls of the family and the societal periphery. Here’s a poem written by a young girl which gives an insight into how silence and compromise is sadly glorified for women in our society.

मैं जब स्कूल से आई

माँ के साथ खाना खायी,

बासी रोटी में मेरा हिस्सा

माँ बोली ये तो परंपरागत किस्सा

ससुराल में जाएगी तो भाग्य अपने से खाएगी

आदत होनी चाहिए, नहीं तो सह नहीं पायेगी…”

(Source: Hum Sabla: Jagori Newsletter; Jan-June 2015)

However, it is not only pessimism which speaks out in the works of young girls. Amidst all the socio-cultural and economic problems, they still talk about hope and happiness. Here’s one such poem written by a fourteen year old girl from Mumbai—

Therefore, we must acknowledge and appreciate the power of the written word.  We must appreciate the power of expression as a political right, as an act of subversion, as rebellion and as a way of creation of own histories.

Fight it out they say….. really is it always that easy?

The article ‘Fight your attacker Tooth and Nail’ appeared recently in Hindustan Times on March 8th, 2014. You can access the article here (bottom right corner). The article was an excerpt from a recently released book Fit to Fight by Vesna Jacob. This book seems to have come out in an opportune time, with rising media coverage of and public attention given to crimes against women.

From what could be gleaned from the article, Fit to Fight is meant as a guide for women to protect themselves from attackers. It has self defense lessons for women and girls and also a section that advises women on different ways to save themselves from attacks. One example is – ‘..Ask him if he has a daughter or a sister, and how he would feel if they were in your shoes..before you get to the physical part of the attack try to use every single thing that comes to your mind that can make your attacker hesitate..’. The book seems to have many more such lessons for women.

This book is only one among many such self-defense books, which focus on ways that women can use to prevent attacks against themselves. Also, in recent public debates about crimes against women, there has been a recurrent argument about women needing to know how to protect themselves from attackers. Well meaning films, articles, and other media have focused on how women need to be strong and fight against violence. However, such arguments leave me disturbed at some levels, because they put the responsibility of preventing violence against women, on women themselves.

What kind of message does a book like Fit to Fight give to women and girls facing very real threats of violence every day? What do we think of teaching self defense to girls as a way of protecting themselves? Does such focus on girls and women give them a sense of agency to fight violence, or does it put additional burden of preventing violence on the victims/survivors of violence?