Newsletter July 2000

Sweat dripping down our backs, soles of our feet burning, we wait that interminable pause before someone, somewhere, starts clapping. Clapping gets louder, and shoulders sag with relief. lt’s worked again! We got across, we think gleefully. Our play has said what we wanted to. It's the hostel in the National institute of immunology, and we proceed to have a spirited discussion about sexual harassment at the workplace with about 40 budding scientists.


It takes a while for the women to open up. But before long, the stories pour out. And along with them, the same dilemmas — why rake up things, who will believe me? ls a complaints committee any good? What practical help can groups like yours offer? And of course, the standard contributions from men which always liven up any discussion — if women don’t protest, how do we know we are offending them? If a girl is being harassed in a bus, unless she objects we can’t intervene, because after all, she may be enjoying it. And blame it all on the mother who socialised her son wrong, or better still, intellectuals always find a ‘social structure’ and conveniently far away ‘society’ to blame. When we turn around and say — but hey, WE are society, and YOU are society, there is a stunned disbelief.


That’s what our play has been about. To make sexual harassment at the workplace a real issue, right in our midst, and not somewhere ‘out there‘, as many people like to think. We were also conscious about not making the usual kind of street play which, we felt — though it has remained an important contribution to the movement— has lost its impact. We wanted to communicate the nuances of the issue in a way that would stimulate thought, and present issues in a fresh format.


After doing a survey on sexual harassment at the workplace in 1997-98, we felt the need to take the issue forward. And take it out of seminar rooms and ‘in-depth" discussions amongst our own limited circle of ‘converts'. We wanted to get a feel of what women in different workplaces really thought about the issue, how did they feel? The play was to be a starting point for discussions. In fact, we wanted to incorporate a two-way dialogue as part of the play, where we interact with the audience, talk to women, and include the impromptu script as part of the process. Unfortunately, we couldn't manage to achieve this. But throughout, we were clear that the play was not to be a spectacle to watch and go away, but a way to reach out to people. With a desperate need to communicate to other women, and also men, we set about making a play.


Highs and Lows of Developing a Play


Evolving the play was a fantastic experience for all of us. Most of us had no experience with theatre, and some of us quaked even at the thought of going on stage. We also thought it would be a good time to involve friends, and people who may be interested in doing a play with Saheli, but not necessarily become‘ members’ of Saheli. So, it was left open.


Starting off was the most difficult part. We were convinced that sitting and thrashing out a script right in the beginning would be the death of the play, given our in-depth experience of ‘discussions’ which could go round and round, putting a mouse in a maze to shame. So, we started with a sort of theatre workshop — exercising, limbering up, loosening out our bodies, voice training, and getting comfortable with movement, and learning how to move in rhythm with a group. Though some of us chafed at what seemed to be an unnecessary waste of time, the utility of this training was driven home time and again. Whether it was in the new-found flexibility  of our rusty bodies, or adjusting with marvellous ease to confining our movements to a minuscule ‘stage’ in a classroom in a basti. We had got so used to practising in our crowded and noisy office, adept at moving around without bumping into each other, unobtrusively making space for flailing arms and legs, that performing on makeshift ‘stages’ of rickety wooden cots with uneven carpets thrown on them, became second nature.


We had a fairly clear idea about what we wanted to say, but weren't so sure about how to say it. But the fact was, we were even clearer about what we DID NOT want to show. For instance, we did not want to show sob stories of women as victims, or miserable, hopeless situations. Nor did we want to show pat solutions to the problem. We wanted to try to present the complexity, the subtlety, the nuances. We didn't want to show women as sexless creatures or outraged prudes straight out of hindi movies — the ‘Shut up! Eediot! Battameezl’ variety. But we did want to forcefully depict the violence, humiliation and terror brought upon by acts of sexual harassment.

During our practice sessions, we tried to evolve the scenes of the play. Overcoming cliches was the difficult part. We were also fairly clear that we did not want to show the harassers, or the actual incident of molestation. We felt it ran the risk of caricaturing the harassment, or worse, becoming a source of titillation, like rape scenes in much of popular cinema. Yet, we weren't sure how to work this out. The real breakthrough came when the scene of the domestic maid worked out. As one of the Sahelis said, it was hair-raising. A stunned silence. Churning stomachs. Lump in the throat. The terror, the helplessness of the young maid harassed by the ‘uncle' of the house, the utter loneliness, the awful knowledge that ‘auntie' would not believe her. Most significant, though the harasser, the man, was not shown, his presence was felt. All of us knew he was there. The maid knew he was there, following her, looking down her blouse, and then reaching out for her. After that, other scenes flowed — the secretary, the nurse. We tried to develop scenes which could be added on to the relevant situations where we performed — a scene of a student for the college crowd, a situation of a factory worker for a Trade Union audience.


Another tricky aspect was trying to show the prevalent social atmosphere of blaming the woman. A woman who is subjected to harassment is treated as the accused in a crime, and she is made to feel that she brought the incident upon herself. After a lot of brainstorming, we felt that pointing to the absurdity of the situation would hit the message home. We used an analogy of a man walking on the road, with a wallet in his pocket. When he gets pickpocketed, fingers are pointed at him for making a huge fuss over nothing, and he is blamed for daring to walk outside the house, for stitching a pocket in his trousers, and for keeping his wallet in his pocket! The ridiculousness of the situation made a hard-hitting critique of the tendency of blaming the victim, and whenever performed, received much applause. And just in case you are wondering - the man was played by one of us.

Working out how to present the Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace was another challenge. How can we give information without becoming ponderous and boring? How can we present the guidelines as a potentially useful tool, but definitely not manna from heaven? And alongside, could we poke a bit of fun at ourselves? Because, as is well known, angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. And all of us want to fly, don’t we?

What terminology to use took intensive hammering out. Conveying the complexity of the concept of sexual harassment at the workplace was extremely challenging. The campaign against sexual harassment had made a strong point in rejecting words like ‘eve-teasing’ as trivialising the issue and denuding the phenomenon of violence and exercise of power. The Hindi equivalents were hard to decide upon. ‘Youn utpidan’ sounded so heavy, but we persisted with it until we hit upon ‘youn atyachar’. But in discussion, we often reverted to ‘ched-chaad’ since it seemed to be what women understood best. ‘Youn utpidan’ and ‘youn atyachar’ seemed to connote more ‘drastic' forms of violence like rape or physical molestation.

The play took almost four months to be worked out, prey as it was to the vagaries of the functioning of a group like ours. Making time from full-time jobs, from other Saheli commitments, prioritising the rehearsals. Bad backs, sprained ankles, busted knees, menstrual cramps and plain ennui, all had to be overcome. Sudden enthusiasm followed by periods of lull, when we felt it would never ‘happen’. Deadlines came and deadlines went, invitations came and more shows were fixed. But the play took its own time. But it was worth the wait. Hitherto hidden talents in the group surfaced, and we found lyricists, music composers, script writers, costume designers, dancers and choreographers in our midst. Even the 10-year-old daughter of one Saheli pitched in to suggest some dialogues. The 20-minute play was a vision of orchestrated movements, colourful tunics (all of us were tired of khadi kurtas — the uniform of street plays), and vibrant songs. The muted notes of a mandolin played by a friend, were an added bonus during rehearsals and in the first performance.


Going Public


Our first performance was one of the most difficult. A convention on literature and democratic rights organised by the People's Union for Democratic Rights (PUDR). ‘Dissenting Voices’, said the banner strung up on stage. Shaking with fright, performing to an audience of about 200 seasoned activists. But what a reception it got! Unexpected volley of claps after the scene where we show the analogy of the man whose pocket is treated like a criminal. It really clicked. And the entire audience clapping along with our final song was the most fitting finale we could have hoped for.


Comments came in, many of which we incorporated to make the play tighter, faster-paced and less obscure. in fact, so seriously did we take suggestions, that we made changes after almost every singleperformance. After a few performances, we acknowledged that the problem was coming across as too uni-dimensional, we tried to incorporate the excruciating doubt, confusion and dilemma that a woman goes through before she articulates the problem, talks about it or makes a complaint. It was only after more than a dozen performances that we were ready to write down the script.


Each performance was unique — in the setting, the audience, and the reactions the play generated. But a certain thread did run through.


The Academic Crowd

We did the largest number of performances for the college/University crowd. Maybe this was more ‘natural’ for us, since some of our members are college lecturers, many of our friends and contacts were working in groups like Gender Studies Group, Forum Against Sexual Harassment (FASH) in Delhi University, and the Gender Sensitisation Committee Against Sexual Harassment GSCASH in JNU. In all these places, there was scope for discussion, and we were able to tackle many of the questions which came up, though we would have liked the group which had arranged the performance to take a more active part.

Some of the points which came up:


·         Why focus only on sexual harassment at the workplace —- there is so much discrimination in the family, harassment on the roads, in buses, etc.

·         Women ask for it by being over-friendly and flirting.

·         Retaliating to sexual harassment earns you the reputation of ‘tigress', etc., so its better to keep shut about it.

·         Even though we want to complain, there is no mechanism to deal with it.

·         There's a need for awareness raising among men, because they don't understand what constitutes ‘harassment’.

·         What can/should sympathetic men do about this situation (a query from some ‘sympathetic men’)?

·         What concrete help can groups like yours give?


These discussions made one point amply clear to us— the need for local groups/unions/associations to take up the issue.


Truly Public Performances


March 8th. International Women’s Day. We performed to an audience of about 300-400 women. And a few onlookers on the street. The ‘differentness’ of the play was much appreciated. Performing for a receptive audience was great —- heads nodding, smiles of appreciation and loud claps at the end. Despite the distractions of the open air, traffic, casual passersby and noise, we managed to hold the audience today, despite it being the last item of a tiring day of rally and speeches.

A rapt audience, but of another species greeted us on May Day, where we were invited by the Poorvanchal Mazdoor Trade Union and the Delhi Leather Kamgar Sanghatan. The fact that a trade union was inviting us to be part of their Labour Day programme was important for us. And the prominence the issue was given, the reception to the play, and the reactions following it were very heartening. More than a 1,000 workers watched the play with intense concentration. The speeches following it clearly indicated that the message had hit home. All the leaders who spoke referred to sexual harassment at the workplace as an important issue to tackle. Some even spoke of the need to introspect, to ensure that as men, they don't knowingly or unknowingly, commit acts which women find objectionable. informal chats after the play with trade union members, selling the survey report on sexual harassment-— were small steps towards forging alliances with other progressive forces.


Reaching out to Women in Different Workplaces

One Sunday afternoon, we did the play for a group of domestic workers - about 35 of them. Mostly migrants from Bihar and Orissa, adivasi Christians, organised under the banner of ‘Nirmala Niketan‘ by the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangham. A room full of earnest young faces, bright eyes fixed on us. It was a small room, no stage, squeezed into a corner, tripping on the carpet. But it was one of our best days yet. The sense of communication was intense, and their identification with the maid in our play was palpable.

The discussion was free-floating, with many of them recounting instances they had to deal with. The prisoner-like existence they led — restricted, in someone else's home, cut off from their community, family and friends, being locked up in the house purportedly for their own safety, denied of even basic food, leave aside choice tit-bits. A loss of liberty and a complete absence of privacy, they had no life of their own. In simple, hesitant sentences, they articulated the alienation and isolation they experienced. They also spoke about many subtle forms of harassment we had never thought about. For instance, one young woman recounted how the teenage son of the house where she was working came and slept on the sofa close to where she was sleeping. She perceived this as testing the water, and felt threatened by the possibility of molestation in the future. She decided not to tolerate it, and asked the Sangham to change her placement.

And of the course, the ubiquitous and difficult ‘what-to-do-about-sexual-harassment' question came up as expected. Mechanisms to deal with the problem were discussed — the union should take it up  with the employers, deal with it there and then, the maids should be immediately brought away from the situation. The possibility of creating a mechanism to check out if everyone was well, was also floated — everyone takes turns to ring each other up, and if the employers don‘t allow the maid to talk on the phone, suspect something fishy, etc. The interaction with them left a deep impression. For some, it was a first time engagement with the modern day slavery of domestic maids. An eye-opener to what is otherwise a part of one’s daily life. For others, the uphill task of forming a union of domestic maids began to germinate.


Dealing with “sick” behaviour - nurses at the TB hospital


When the news about the reinstatement of Dr. V K Arora, Director of LRS TB hospital became public, we felt outraged. The Director had been suspended for sexually harassing a nurse, and had now been given a clean chit by various inquiry committees. We managed to contact the Employees Union active in the hospital, and fixed up a show. Performing the play at a specific workplace once more had the effect of spontaneous and immediate identification with the issue. During the nurse's scene, one could feel the connection between us and the nurses watching.

Although we had expected an intense interaction, since the issue was so alive here, it was difficult to get the discussion going. Given more time, the women present may have opened up, but the situation not being totally in our control, we could not prolong the discussion. This was one place where we felt that our play had merely nudged the issue, and we needed to engage more deeply with the nurses and other employees. This experience made it clearer that the play cannot stop at being a one-time event, but has to be seen as part of a process.


Some Missed Connections


The occasions where we were left with a feeling that the play had not clicked, were times of reflection. Intense post-mortems followed. Was it our acting, was it the noisy surroundings, was the issue not important? Or what?

The first time this happened was a bit of shock for our fledgling natak group flushed with the success of its premiere! Outside the Dilli Haat, we staged our first (and last) performance of ‘Mahaul Badalna Hal’ as a ‘street play.’ lt was no doubt a tough situation —no stage, a drifting audience more interested in shopping, a cold winter evening, street lights going off and plunging us in darkness. But we also realised how much further we had to go as performers — our lack of voice training, the long gaps during the scenes, the inability to hold the audience or generate a discussion.


The unsuitability of the play for street corner performances also became apparent. After this, we decided to perform the play only when we were sure of a ‘committed’ audience i.e., an audience which had gathered to see the play, and not an audience which we had to muster up ourselves. Given our limited energies, we felt we should concentrate on doing the play in areas where we open up a discussion which could be taken further by a local group, or we ourselves had the possibility of going back another time.


Performing the play on two occasions in bastis, where the show had been arranged by trade unions


— once by the Nirman Mazdoor Panchayat Sangham, and once by the All lndia Federation of Trade Unions (AIFTU), taught us some other lessons. While both times we did the play in difficult situations


— no stage, very little light, multitudes of noisy children who occupied the little available space etc., we still managed to put up a good show. But there was an obvious mismatch between our agenda and that of the women watching the play. Besides the few who worked as domestic maids, most of the women in the audience were not employed outside the house. issues of sexual harassment at the workplace were not significant in their lives. During the discussion, problems like domestic violence, wife-battering, sexual abuse of minors, alcoholism, lack of educational facilities, lack of employment opportunities and other such issues seemed more central, and we were not geared up to respond to these. Again, it was clear to us that we need to be clear about the nature of the audience and their priorities, in order not to reach a dead end.


Male and Female Reactions to the Play: A Study in Contrasts

We were convinced that we also had to address men, raise the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace, get across our point, and move on to a constructive dialogue with men. Opening up the issue with trade unions was a mixed bag. While we felt that the male trade union leaders we dealt with were open to raising the issue, they were not adept at handling the nuances of the problem. Often, in discussions where the male leaders were present, the discussions reached a stalemate very fast. Their assertions, albeit well meaning, that ‘these ladies would never speak about these "personal" matters,’ would effectively scuttle the beginnings of a tentative discussion. We found it much easier to carry forward the discussions when we were more in control of the situation, rather than dependent on the ‘leader’ to start and end the discussions.


Yet, in many situations we did feel we had succeeded in getting across. After several of our performances, the trade union leaders would acknowledge that the play had set off a process of questioning for them. In many ways, we feel the ground has been laid for further interactions touching upon what is usually considered ‘delicate’ matters.

A common reaction, from both men and women was a query about why we were focusing on a relatively ‘trivial’ issue like sexual harassment when violence against women is on the rise, and is taking such ghastly forms. Yet, further discussion would elicit very different responses from men and women. Men would continue to trivialise sexual harassment, while women would acknowledge how deeply troubling it could be on a daily basis. The other difference was that men would respond to some horrific incident of violence, while women respond even to the threat of violence, or the general atmosphere of intimidation and violence.


Another striking aspect of the reactions to our play was the difference between men’s and women's reactions. The ‘absence’ of male characters in the play was often commented upon. Mostly by men. ‘lt is not clear what is happening; the harassment will be more evident if you show a man, etc.’

But no women ever felt the lack of the harasser figure. As one woman student in our audience put it, ‘Of course the harasser is there — you can feel his presence in every scene.’ We wanted to focus on harassment from the woman’s point of view — how she feels, her reactions. Showing a standard harasser would deflect attention, we felt, from the woman, and once more project her as an object/victim, rather than an active agent, and may even be a source of titillation and amusement. And this attempt has worked well, we feel. No titters. At one or two places where the audience did tend to be amused by the woman’s angry reaction, we tried to change the tone, or the dialogue delivery.

Another related point is - why is there this standard comment that women will ‘misuse’ such laws’? ls it movies? But there are hundreds of films with women getting raped, and only one or two where the hero is falsely accused by a vamp. But, the point which came up is that men identify with heroes in films, so if even one hero is maligned by a false case, men empathise deeply.


Communicating with men is indeed a challenging task — one that needs subtlety and patience. Going hammer and tongs at men may certainly make a point, but it immediately raises hackles and barriers of defensiveness which are virtually impossible to surmount. We tried to underscore the point made in our play, that ‘we need to work together to make any difference.’ But often our style, which is more geared to be confrontative, would get some backs up, making communication difficult. Yet, in places where men were equally willing to listen, comprehend and empathise, it seemed possible to set up bridges of understanding.


Signing off


So, did we manage to achieve what we had set out to do? Achievement is too major a word, but did the glow we felt after most performances have a larger meaning? What did the play mean for Saheli as a group, and in what way did it help to take forward the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace?


Talking about the issue was a challenging task, and dealing with the discussions and relationship with the ‘host’ group was complex, getting refined after each experience. What was heartening was thecommunication with so many women, who opened up, despite initial hesitation and travelled with us on a journey of searching for answers.

The discussion on redressal mechanisms and complaints committees was particularly complex. In many situations, it was purely abstract, since there was no semblance of a complaints committee. in others, the specific committee existing in the workplace limited the discussion to the working of that particular committee, rather than allowing the discussion to go into the utility of legal mechanisms in general. The issue of dealing with individual cases of sexual harassment was also difficult. The discussions often led to a quest for the mythical ‘perfect solution.‘


Though many times we felt that the entire section on the Supreme Court guidelines was either too abstract, or too ponderous and boring and unrelated to what women are going through, it did play a role in making people aware of the existence of a legal instrument which had the potential to be of some help to tackle the problem. But where we felt the play moved forward was in the strong assertion that legal solutions are not enough, and we have to aim for a change in mindset if we want larger change.


We felt that the play has potential to raise the issue with a diverse cross-section of people - from domestic workers to academics, nurses to factory workers. There is a possibility of working towards creating some kind of mechanism to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace.