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Awaaz-e-Niswaan works towards breaking the stifling silence around patriarchy and women in India.
By Chaya Babu
This article was originally published at The Alternative – an online publication on social change and sustainable living.
In India’s vast and diverse democracy, where a cacophony of people and cultures echo to far corners of the world, silence seems to hardly be the big issue to tackle. In 2011, many women continue to live within the confines of a traditional paradigm that stifles them. Still, efforts to bring these historically hushed voices to the forefront offer hope and a path to progress, however long and sinuous.
At Awaaz-e-Niswaan’s Kurla office, Mary Binnu, 26, comes for the first time on a rainy Wednesday looking for help. She’s petit, with pouty lips and a purple dupatta. “Here, I am safe,” she says. A Christian, she’s the only one of six women at the weekly counselling session with her head uncovered.
She tells her tale, uninterrupted, to three counsellors, a slight lisp visible on the edge of her words. Her account of her arranged marriage a year ago that quickly soured to regular arguments with her alcoholic husband, one preventable miscarriage and one forced abortion, strict limits on her contact with others, violence and threats of death, physical and emotional anguish, seven occasions of running back to her mother, and finally, a sense of futility – none of this rouses emotion in her. She’s resolute in searching for refuge and an ally in Awaaz-e-Niswaan, which literally means “voice of women.” It is a collective of domestic violence survivors, started in 1985, with an intent to focus on Muslim women’s issues and create an understanding of the shared struggles of all women in a patriarchal environment.
How could I tell them this is what my life has become in one year? To the public, I am married.
“I want a divorce; I have tried to reconcile,” says Binnu. “A woman should be able to stand. I can stand. I have that confidence.” Educated at SNDT Women’s University, Binnu once worked at a shipping company near Churchgate. She was born and raised in Mumbai, but her roots are in Kerala. Her strength is apparent in her unwavering speech and upright manner. She feels optimistic about the prospect of Awaaz-e-Niswaan’s guidance and support in pursuing a legal split from her abusive husband.
But when I ask if she discusses the pain she’s endured from her marriage outside the walls of the collective, if she’s talked to her friends, it visibly strikes a chord. Her right eye is slightly swollen, but both start to water. “No,” she says. “They should not know that this is what marriage can become. It is my matter. How could I tell them this is what my life has become in one year? To the public, I am married.”
“There are lots of ways of restraining and constraining women in a male-dominated society,” says Ritu Menon, co-founder of Kali for Women, the first feminist publishing house in India, launched in 1984. “A woman’s expression is like her gesture, and like all gestures, it is subject to social codes. The way she dresses, who she meets, who she associates with, what she says – they are all controlled. That’s patriarchal control. And if she were to talk about family, violence, sexuality, and all the kinds of restrictions put on her, of course it’s not going to be welcomed. It is going to be censored.”
Menon has been working in this space for a decade. She stresses the fact that the channels and rights to expression may be there, but that the market, political ideology, and patriarchy work in tandem with family, culture, and religion to create a vacuum in which women are repressed and ignored. “We’re not talking about heavy-handed banning, proscribing or killing,” she explains. “The fatwa is totally unnecessary as far as most women are concerned. Formal censorship doesn’t need to come into effect because the non-formal ways of censoring are so powerful.”
On top of this, a pervasive value system that belittles and invalidates women’s experiences and the entire domain of the feminine, even as this takes on a broader spectrum, is an ingrained element of Indian society. “When women begin to begin to express themselves, the domestic is underrated, devalued, discounted, because it’s not important, it’s not public, it’s private,” says Menon.
“And who do you fight?” she asks, pondering over the difficulty of eradicating deeply-entrenched mechanisms. Ultimately, these invisible forms of subjugation give rise to the most insidious of all silencers: self-censorship.
The International Herald Tribune recently shed light on a number of Indian female bloggers in an article titled “Indian Women Find Their Voice, in Their Own Language.” Nilanjana S. Roy wrote that with the advent of Google Translate’s Indic Web, women who blog in regional languages are now able to connect with a larger community on the blogosphere, in essence raising their voices a few decibels. And what’s more remarkable is that these local language bloggers hail from many walks of life – from urban to rural, young to old, professional to homemakers. “They discuss the joys and trials of more intimate but often more conservative communities, and the challenges of life within the extended family,” Roy says, while others allude to the “tightrope walk of being a woman in modern India.” This modern India, however, is still out of reach for most.
The Population Reference Bureau estimates that the percentage of Indians with a computer at the home is 3% in urban areas and 1% in rural areas. And in 2010, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) measured the proportion of internet users at just 8.5%, far behind both the world average (30%) and the developing country average (21%).
Based on sheer numbers, the opportunity to share personal stories online is nonexistent for the vast majority of Indian women today who are poor, uneducated, lacking the resources to access such tools, and most saliently, embedded in the stringent oppressive power structures which Menon describes.
While Roy makes a very valid point – that some women have indeed found their voice, a fact that should no doubt be celebrated – more media ought to draw attention to the gulf that remains between many others and the freedom to realistically talk about their lives. “A few women being able to blog and write about their family situation – that’s a good thing, it’s a very positive thing, but it’s not an indication of a sea change,” says Menon.
Bishakha Datta, an Indian journalist and film-maker who is known for her work in documenting the role of women in different sections of society, adds that when it comes to issues long associated with shame, the chasm between what’s private and public endures for all women. “I don’t want to make it sound too dire, but really, with issues of sexuality, violence, etc… tremendous silence. Across. That cuts across class.”
Awaaz-e-Niswaan is just one of several partners that work with Point of View, an organization which focuses on bringing women’s perspectives to the mainstream through media, art, and culture. When Datta founded Point of View in the mid-90s, big efforts weren’t being made in the media to place women’s voices at the centre of issues that pertained to them, even when talking about domestic abuse, sexual harassment, violence etc. But since speech is intimately tied to agency, her goal was to work at a systematic level and rock the foundation in which women are expected to be seen and not heard.
“I feel like this is one of those issues where, ultimately, if you’re fighting for gender equality, you have to get people to shift their headspace,” Datta says.
One of Point of View’s most notable initiatives has been to train 16 domestic violence survivors, Muslim women who had joined Awaaz-e-Niswaan earlier, in photography. The POV website proffers: “What happens when those who are consistently documented within public space begin to do the documenting? Can a new way of seeing simultaneously forge a new way of being seen?” By providing a creative means of expression through their own lens, literally, POV gives these women the chance to reframe a world which has victimized them, effectively reversing the gaze.
We thought what happens to us is just society going on. Now we know what violence is and how to stop it.
Reshma Rafique Pawaskar, one among those who have been practicing photography for two years now, says, “I’ve always had eyes. I’ve always seen the world around me. But after photography, the perception has changed completely.” She talks at length about the many ways her confidence has improved: interacting with people from outside the Muslim community, communicating with strangers in different professions such as doctors and lawyers, and travelling alone both in and outside of Maharashtra. One of Pawaskar’s biggest moments was seeing her name on her work at the Kala Ghoda photo exhibition, contributing to a sense of pride and identity that is far from what she felt before coming to Awaaz-e-Niswaan.
The circle of nine women sitting on the floor is not a picture of victims. There is an obvious affection in their familiarity with one another’s stories and in the way they sit close together, laughing and teasing. “Before, we did not know what violence was,” says Saher Ansari. “We thought what happens to us is just society going on. Now we know what violence is and how to stop it.” From discovering that the others had experienced similar cruelties in their homes and marriages, they were able to put their realities in context and learn that they have a right to a better life.
All the women featured here have taken huge strides in assuring they get heard in a social order that endeavours to mute them. Yet much more needs to be done.
“The censorship hasn’t reduced,” Menon reminds us. “The point is not that there will be an outcome immediately. The point is that the issues have to raised, they have to be discussed, they have to be debated, they have to be brought into the public.”
*Photo credit: Addicted Eyes (Used under the Creative Common Attribution License.)
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