Visibilising Violence: Strategising For Change

VISIBILISING VIOLENCE: Strategising for Change

Souvenir 2006

Saheli emerged out of the campaigns against dowry and custodial rape in the late 1970s, which shook the country and catalysed the emergence of women’s groups in several cities. In the initial years, as Mathura, Rameeza Bi, Maya Tyagi, Sudha Goel… became symbols of the women’s movement these issues and the issue of domestic violence remained the focus of Saheli’s work. At a time when wife battering was just a ‘private matter’ to be whispered about, we raised our voices against it, slowly broadening our understanding of such violence as ‘domestic violence’ that includes all female members of a household vulnerable to violence from male members.

Over the years, we have developed our understanding of the correlation between violence on women within the family, home and community and violence on women on roads, at the workplace, and during caste/communal riots and war. The lack of sensitivity to these forms of violence, and the social approval – including among women – of the culture of machismo, poses many a challenge in tackling violence against women.

Twenty five years have gone by. Images of the vocal woman in the mainstream media and in soap operas and the increased visibility of women in the public arena seem to reflect a dramatic change in women’s lives. In fact, many believe that there is less violence in women’s lives now, but statistics indicate otherwise. We find that not only has violence increased, it is also emerging in newer forms – some obvious, and others more hidden.

As our work expanded we came to understand various other kinds of violence in which women’s lives are enmeshed. Breaking the silence on taboo topics like marital rape and violence against lesbian women, through our work on health we also exposed the violence of coercive population control and the misuse of technology to eliminate female foetuses. Protesting the violence and rape by the Indian Army on the women of the North East and Kashmir have remained an essential part of our interventions and campaigns.

From sexual harassment at the workplace to selective elimination of girls through embryo sex selection; from sexual violence in so-called ‘normal times’ to that during communal and caste riots where women have been targeted in the name of ‘honour’ or widows immolated in the name of ‘Sati’, women are in fact experiencing increased violence and control over their lives by communities. And, of course, the age-old problems like dowry harassment, wife battering and rape continue to be rampant.

Domestic Violence: Myth of ‘Home Sweet Home’

In the course of our work in the early 1980s we found that a major dimension of violence against women remains hidden because it occurs within the confines of marriage and family. A deafening silence surrounded the issue of domestic violence, which was seen as ‘acceptable’ by the patriarchal social structure. Thus, a public discourse on domestic violence was extremely difficult. The police, the judiciary and society insisted on viewing domestic violence only in the framework of dowry demands, or else as a ‘personal’ problem that could be dealt with through ‘adjustment’ and ‘compromise’ on the part of the woman. A majority of women subjected to domestic violence silently tolerated it, seeing no other viable options in life, but whenever women’s groups have raised the issue of domestic violence, or strengthening of the legislation to deal with this crime, we have been labelled as ‘home-breakers’. So while many facts surrounding domestic violence still do not come to light, according to estimates, every six hours, a married woman loses her life in her in-laws home. It is still extremely difficult to expose the fact that the family is often not a haven of comfort. For women and girls, the family can be a source of extreme physical, emotional and psychological violence, and also, sexual abuse. Incestuous sexual abuse on minors continues to be an issue that is hard to speak about, and even harder to tackle, given the complex family relationships based on security, dependence and domination, not to forget love. And all this is despite many years of campaigning and efforts to reform the law.

In Saheli, our understanding of the issue evolved from our support to individual women, which remained our primary work for more than a decade. When Saheli started out to create a space for women to come and share their experiences of being women in a male world, of dealing with violent, indifferent, oppressive or incompatible marriages and families, there were no prescriptions, no manifestos or blueprints. Only a conviction that together, women could support each other, find alternatives and create a better world. And we continue to hold this conviction in the face of popular culture propagating the myth that ‘women are women’s worst enemies’.

Working with women who were being harassed for dowry uncovered another reality – wife battering was rampant, even when it was not connected with dowry demands. The campaign against domestic violence exposed anti-women attitudes at all levels: within the family, the police, courts, and society at large. “She asked for it”, “She must be doing something wrong for her husband to beat her”, and the horrifying acceptance of domestic violence as a routine way to keep women in ‘their place’, was hard to fight.

Supporting women, building confidence in themselves, recovering self-esteem and the sense of self broken by domestic violence, was not easy. Those of us who had been through similar experiences often shared it with women who came for support. Extending practical help in the shape of shelter, legal aid, skill training and jobs, was also challenging. It seemed as though every system was pitted against women. Women found it hard to leave violent relationships, and many kept going back to them. This dilemma was not surprising since it happened at times to many of us too. But understanding this process was challenging for Saheli volunteers. In our experience the complexity of emotional and sexual relations often tied up with financial and social support makes it difficult for a woman to carve an independent place for herself in a society where high premium is placed on marriage.

To quote the Saheli newsletter of April 1987, ‘At our level, what we really try to get across is empathy with the woman’s pain, bewilderment, insecurity and show her that there is an alternative, which also is not easy to cope with, but that it would be her choices which count with us and not the demands and expectations thrust on her. We try giving her a sense of security, the knowledge that she is not alone in her struggle, we are all with her, and show her linkages between her personal oppression and oppression of women within our society. In short, it is a process of empowerment in terms of support and developing consciousness. Some women learn to talk more openly and seek help and some may even retaliate. We can provide, by and large, only intangible support. While it is necessary, it is by no means enough. Safe housing and employment do need to be offered so that women do not go back and suffer a worse fate. Our resources to provide material and tangible support are quite limited.’

Contrary to stereotypes that still abound, our work with individual women revealed that domestic violence cuts across class, caste and religious boundaries… and includes not only physical violence but sexual, emotional, verbal and psychological abuse. It is a means of subordination to show a woman her place, humiliate her and use brute force to coerce her into playing her role as dutiful wife, daughter, sister or mother.

While both society and the legal machinery were unwilling to accept the gravity of the problem, Saheli had to act on another front. The women who were either thrown out of their marital homes or those who wanted to leave because they were unable to cope with the violence did not have any place to go. Parental homes were also not open to them. While many times volunteers of Saheli took women into their homes, this was not possible on a long-term basis. So when the number of women approaching Saheli increased manifold, we started a shelter with some financial assistance from the government. But the experience revealed what a low priority issue this was for a government that was unwilling to pay enough to provide for food, rent, maintenance, salaries etc. to give a reasonably decent living to women in such crisis situations. We ran our own shelter for about four years, and dealt with several complex issues. With the setting up of Shakti Shalini’s shelter, our small shelter was gradually wound up. Yet, the endeavour to link individual women’s oppression to iniquitous social structures remained.

Our work constantly brought us up against patriarchal forces in several forms: unsupportive families and neighbours, disbelieving police constables at the local thana, unscrupulous lawyers out to take advantage of a woman in a vulnerable situation, unsympathetic magistrates, to a media that persisted in blaming the victim.

Saheli’s encounter with the police in its early years highlighted their high handedness: When we gave shelter to a young woman who wanted to leave her house, the police accused Saheli of running a brothel, charged us with abduction, barged into the premises and manhandled Saheli volunteers. The media attention about this incident (also because a sympathetic journalist who arrived on the spot was arrested!) led to the transfer of the concerned policeman.

We also came up against the stranglehold of religious and community laws that denied women equal rights in marriage, divorce and child custody. Ironically, the very community that provided support and a sense of belonging was also a source of control. We continuously learnt to develop strategies while supporting women to negotiate these complex structures. The lacunae in laws became apparent, as did the limited possibilities of jaat and religious panchayats. The inequities in religion-based personal laws governing marriage, divorce and family were glaring. Even as we campaign for an Egalitarian Civil Code (ECC), direct actions, such as pressurising the husband and in-laws to part with the woman’s rightful property, or enabling a woman to take custody of her own child, were the hallmark of Saheli’s early years.

Case work closure debate

After working for nearly ten years as a centre for women in crisis situations, in 1991 we took a decision to discontinue handling new cases and decided to review case work in Saheli. This decision was a difficult one, the process of arriving at it fraught with contradictions, and followed by several years of questioning of some of the basic premises and assumptions underlying our work. Besides this, was the impact of no longer directly supporting women in crisis, the dynamics within the group – be it the change of roles for full timers, or the burn out experienced by some members, or the difficulty in telling women who approached us that we would refer them to another women’s group – were extremely challenging.

During an exercise of ‘case work evaluation’ in the early 1990s, we also tried to go back to women who had come to Saheli seeking support in times of crisis, to find out how they are doing. To our surprise and disappointment, we found that many of them did not want to rake up that part of their lives again as they feared that this might break the ‘peace’ in their homes. We also tried to set up ‘mutual support groups’ in an attempt to revive the notion of women helping one another. Although the experience did prove positive for some women, overall, it could not emerge as a viable alternative.

At the time the decision to limit case work was taken, there was a sense of frustration with the stagnation we seemed to have reached. However, not all of us were convinced that the source of this inertia was the nature of case work per se. Several of us felt strongly that helping individual women should continue to be a priority since such work continues to be relevant as long as sexual harassment, subjugation of women and the threat of family violence persist in society. Nor were we convinced that the issues which we sought to highlight through case work have gained enough visibility.

Besides these discussions within the group, there were some other developments which impacted our decision to curtail case work. As a response to the mounting pressure from women’s groups, the State had taken a number of measures to tackle violence against women. The setting up of the Crime Against Women Cell (CAWC) by the police, the introduction of new legislation as Section 498-A Indian Penal Code (IPC) against domestic violence, counselling centres run by the State, NGOs and women’s organisations, had grown in number since 1981. However, the perspective of some of these agencies, especially those run by the State, is not necessarily pro-women. Often, instead of looking at the situation from the woman’s point of view, efforts are made to preserve the sanctity of the family, and women are ‘reconciled’ with the most abusive of husbands. In fact, centres funded by the State are even called Family Counselling Centres. In such a context, feminist crisis-intervention has not outgrown its utility or relevance today.

Though we did not continue as a crisis centre, and our active work on this issue declined, our linkage with it remained alive through our work at several levels: the ECC, communal and caste violence, and other processes like trying to bring a civil law on domestic violence. We attempted to remain part of these discussions and debates using our own understanding as well as gaining from the experience of other groups working at the grass roots level, constantly exposing patriarchal trends in the law enforcement system, judiciary and media… be it a court judgement ordering a rapist to marry the woman he raped, or a trial by the media of Gudiya, whom the jaat panchayat had ordered to go back to her first husband who had been presumed dead.

The decision of closing case work was certainly not easy, and we are still approached by women for help. However, the debate is an open one, coming up time and again, and we hope to keep alive the discussions on it since domestic violence continues to be a looming threat over many women’s lives. It is imperative for all of us in the movement to weave together the various approaches: individual support work, campaigning and agitating, legislative reform, gender sensitisation of police and judiciary and women centred research in order to carry forward the struggle.

Experiences with Law and the Legal Machinery

In the early years, Saheli’s work with women in crisis was marked by direct/street action. From demonstrations outside in-laws homes where women had been murdered for dowry; going and retrieving stri-dhan and a woman’s property from her marital home; demanding accountability in workplaces where women had been harassed.. shaming men who beat their wives… there were many ways Saheli responded to situations. So much so that some women approached Saheli to ‘demonstrate on demand!’

We often resorted to direct action knowing too well the pace at which the courts would help a mother retrieve her child or the police the belongings of a woman. While these actions were exhilarating, some of us wondered whether it was ‘right’ to do so while some even questioned the expression of ‘aggression’ within us.

We always tried to use the legal machinery as the last resort, after the avenue of real dialogue ceased to be useful and social pressure and direct action failed to make an impact. Many times we felt that the issues of custody of children or maintenance could best be settled out-of-court. Even divorce by mutual consent was a better way out. But there was no way to totally circumvent or avoid law.

Yet, as the volume of women pouring into Saheli increased, sustaining ‘direct action’ was difficult. Moreover, there were some situations where the legal machinery had to be used. While dealing with the issue at all these levels, we found that law was not only biased against women, but also that there was neither recognition of the violence meted on women in marital and natal homes, nor a law to deal with domestic violence. So where do women turn? At a time when there was hardly any other data available, our own data showed that seven out of ten women coming to Saheli had been subjected to domestic violence. Because of the campaigns against torture and killing of women due to dowry demands, the public perception of violence within the confines of the home remained limited to dowry related violence. One of the outcomes of the anti-dowry campaign was to have a more stringent law against it. The 1980s witnessed reform in laws relating to dowry, and the introduction of two new provisions in the IPC, Section 498-A and Section 304-B, which ensured that violence by the husband and in-laws came under the purview of criminal law. Although these provisions were broad and included a wide range of violence, the police and courts continued to equate domestic violence with violence related to dowry demands.

On the one hand, women were accused of registering false cases, and on the other, they were unable to prove the existence of other forms of domestic violence that were widespread as well as socially sanctioned.

498-A – Belying expectations

Section 498-A defined cruelty both in terms of mental and physical cruelty and gave a wider scope to women to use it in different situations. But our experience showed that the section was usually invoked by women to seek redress in cases where dowry was cited as the prime reason for violence. There were various reasons for this, the most important being that the police and judiciary responded more sympathetically if the torture or harassment was linked to dowry demands. Typically even support from the parental family came (if it ever did) mainly if the case was of dowry-related cruelty, while family support was absent if the woman accused her husband or in-laws of beating and harassment for reasons not related to dowry. Statistics also revealed that very few cases registered under Section 498-A resulted in conviction. We also found that in many cases women opted for out-of-court settlement instead of wasting time with police and in courts.

While the debate on the utility of law goes on, in our work we found that Sections like 498-A, however limited, are helpful to the extent that they help women tilt balance in their favour.

Campaign for a law on domestic violence

The years when Saheli was debating on the issue of closing case work, women’s groups including us were also working on the need for a comprehensive law on domestic violence that would recognise all forms of violence within the home, provide legal recourse and establish social recognition for the seriousness of the crime. In 1991, Lawyers Collective drafted a model Bill on Domestic Violence. The objective of the Bill was to create a framework for redressal and relief from such violence and raise the issue of women’s right to matrimonial property. The Bill was debated amongst many women’s groups, including Saheli.

The emphasis in the Bill on domestic violence was to stop violence and ensure the rights of a woman to live in a violence-free home. The Bill went beyond the traditional approach of considering only wives and daughter-in-laws as victims of domestic violence and includes mothers, sisters, daughters and widows in the family. Another important feature was that the term ‘shared household’ was preferred over ‘matrimonial home’ with a view to widen the ambit of law to cover relationships beyond matrimony. The response of the government to the Bill was to bring a government Bill on Domestic Violence in 2001. But this Bill defined domestic violence as ‘habitual assault’ and making the life of the victim miserable by cruelty of conduct. The Bill also said, ‘..nothing contained in the above Clause shall amount to domestic violence if the conduct by the respondent was reasonable for his own protection or for the protection of his property.’ This clause clearly provided for an escape route for the potential accused. This, and other problematic aspects of the Bill led women’s groups to launch a nation-wide campaign to pressurise the government to redraft the Bill on the basis of the proposed draft given by women’s groups.

The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was finally passed in 2005 and included most of the demands of women’s groups. It is the first time that domestic violence has been legally recognised, and remedies to tackle it legally accepted. But it is equally clear that there is a long battle ahead. For many of us in the women’s movement, legislative reform has only been one part of the struggle against patriarchal institutions and norms. We recognise that it is not sufficient, and know that there are several questions about the effectiveness of such legal reform. Still, passing of the Act has been an unprecedented step, and ensuring its effectiveness is a challenge before us all.

Campaigning against Rape, Defining Sexual Assault

The countrywide campaign around 1979-80 in what has come to be known as the ‘Mathura Case’ brought rape on to the public agenda. The rape of a minor adivasi girl by local policemen near Bombay and the subsequent acquittal of the rapists led to nationwide protests against patriarchal notions in the judiciary. Two years before, the gang rape of Rameeza Bi by policemen in Hyderabad had also hit the headlines. The campaign to demand accountability from policemen and rapists was fast gaining ground. On 8 March, 1980, thousands of women in cities across the country marched to demand the re-opening of the ‘Mathura case’, after Lotika Sarkar, Upendra Baxi and others had sent their famous ‘open letter’ to the Chief Justice of India in September 1979.

The agitation sparked off by the Mathura case led to significant changes in the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) and the Indian Penal Code (IPC), especially shifting the onus of proof onto the accused in custodial rape. But the amended law still continued to be problematic. In the post amendment period in the cases of mass rapes and gang rapes, the ‘character’ of women was brought into question and the accused were either acquitted or their sentences reduced on the plea that the complainants were of questionable character and might have consented to sex. Many times the accused were acquitted because the definition of rape was restricted to forced peno-vaginal penetration and did not include rape by penetration using objects or fingers, forced oral sex or forced anal sex.

Clearly a sustained campaign was needed to raise the issues emerging from all such cases. Our experience led us to pursue a campaign to demand the widening of the definition of rape and using the term ‘sexual assault’. Along with other women’s groups, Saheli has been active in the campaign to amend laws relating to rape. In the early 1990s, the National Commission for Women soon after its inception, held a series of consultations on amending the rape law, by broadening the definition to sexual assault. Saheli was part of the Committee that suggested widening of the definition to include forms of sexual assault other than the penis in the vagina, a focus on rapes of minors, and an amendment to procedures to make them more suitable for traumatised women and children. On the issue of character of the woman to be used in deciding rape cases, it was only in November 2002, after over two decades of campaigning, that the Union Cabinet approved an amendment to the archaic Indian Evidence Act of 1872. The amendment debars questions related to ‘moral character’ in the cross-examination of a woman who has initiated proceedings against rape.

Consultations are on amongst women’s groups over the proposed Sexual Assault Bill 2006, that is ready to be placed before Parliament with a view to ensure that it takes care of all the concerns raised to this date on the issue. In this Bill too, while it brings on board marital rape, women’s groups have raised concerns about gender neutrality. Another concern is that some sections could be used against gays and lesbians. In the context of the campaign to repeal Section 377 IPC that criminalises same-sex sexual relations, the lack of consultation with queer groups and women’s groups while finalising the Sexual Assault Bill is problematic. While the campaign to decriminalise same sex relations is ongoing, negotiating legal reform is yet another challenge that confronts us.

Our work on rape has not been restricted to policy level alone. Street protests, reaching out to the public, and attempting to change the culture of acceptance of rape as a ‘normal’ part of society, has been an important aspect of our campaign. We carried this campaign forward working with other women’s groups and groups working in Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University. Climbing on to over-bridges and flyovers, we have hung our banners saying “Speak up Delhi! No more rape”, “Dilli, Chuppi Todo, Hinsa Roko”. We also distributed leaflets in crowded bazaars, in street corners and on the University campus. Stickers declaring “No More Violence” made their presence felt in many parts of Delhi, on cars and scooters. Through rallies and “Take Back the Night” actions, we have attempted to reclaim our space, and our right to move around freely on the streets of Delhi – by day or by night. Yet, as women’s groups, we have been unable to tackle the spiralling violence against women in the city, necessitating a re-look and perhaps change in strategy. The recent citizens’ mobilisation in high profile cases such as the Jessica Lal case, and Priyadarshini Matoo case, makes one hopeful of public support, and the presence of a public conscience, which we can build on.

From ‘Eve Teasing’ to Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment, which constitutes acts of mental, emotional and physical violence against women, is often trivialised as ‘eve-teasing’. The fact that sexual harassment can leave a deep and adverse impact on the psyche, is totally overlooked. Being located in Delhi, we could not but be confronted by street harassment – the daily aggression, humiliation, stalking, bumping, pinching and pushing that women are subjected to. We took up harassment in public places, on the streets and in buses and campaigned to make Delhi safe for women.

Sexual harassment at the workplace was yet another dimension of the issue, where the woman is often forced to share the same space as the perpetrator of the violence - be it her colleague, boss, or junior. At Saheli, our work with individual women and helping them to get employment also threw up problems of sexual harassment at the workplace and this began much before the Vishakha judgement. We used to get cases, from both public sector units and private offices, even before ‘sexual harassment’ was so defined.

For instance in 1987, Saheli members at a weekly meeting ask: “What should Saheli’s responsibility be in the case of the employer of a domestic worker?” So we spelt our role out as: making sure that the minimum wage is paid; hours of work are not unlimited and some days are off. As regards sexual harassment at work it was felt that there was no way of finding out in advance how a man may behave, so we should ensure at the minimum that: women who approach Saheli are not sent off as domestic maids to ‘bachelors’ and they are not sent to establishments where no other women are hired.

In 1988, a major case hit the headlines: When IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj was sexually harassed by KPS Gill, ‘hero’ of Operation Bluestar in Punjab, she took the legal route to justice. So, when the proposal to award Padmashri to Gill became public, Saheli was one of the signatories to a writ petition in the Supreme Court questioning this move. Although he got the award, after a long legal battle, in 2005, 17 years later, Rupan Deol Bajaj got justice when the Supreme Court upheld that Gill did indeed ‘outrage her modesty’. Another high profile case around that time was Mukti Datta, an activist from Almora, who was sexually harassed by a Minister of Environment. Saheli, along with many other women’s groups in Delhi rallied around Mukti.

We took up sexual harassment at the workplace as a major campaign in 1997 following the Supreme Court Guidelines in the Vishakha case. When the Supreme Court Guidelines came into being, they drew plenty of attention - from women’s groups, the media and even the public. On one hand, the judgement was a vindication of the struggle to get sexual harassment at the workplace the attention it deserves. But our experience with legal measures in various campaigns, especially those related to violence against women had taught us caution. Struggles for legal reform have always been ridden with contradictions: the best of laws lose their teeth in implementation, and are often easily subverted due to the dearth of political will, or the lack of change in social attitudes.

With the initiation of an institutionalised mechanism to deal with sexual harassment at the workplace, we wanted to analyse how far the situation was likely to change. So, Saheli embarked on a survey, and also a campaign to spread awareness about the issue, since almost a year after the judgement, most workplaces still did not have information about the guidelines. The report, called ‘Another Occupational Hazard’, reveals many interesting complexities. While some women were very open, a few denied the existence of the problem, and others were reluctant to dwell on the subject. Women narrated a wide range of experiences of the nature of sexual harassment they have faced at work. They spoke of ‘explicit’ or direct sexual harassment as well as ‘subtle’ and indirect forms of sexual harassment. Most women have experienced the potential threat of sexual harassment and many spoke of its very frequent occurrence. Another correlation was between job insecurity and the heightened perception of the risk of sexual harassment.

As awareness of the Vishakha guidelines spread, our outreach through the survey and subsequently a play, visibilised our work on the issue. Gradually, more and more women began to approach us with complaints of sexual harassment.

Handling cases of sexual harassment

So it is that in a manner of speaking, Saheli is back dealing with individual cases of sexual harassment... dealing with a whole range of systems – the police, labour courts, sexual harassment committees, and legal cases. It has been a learning experience as much as it has been frustrating. We encountered yet again the lack of responsiveness, as well as anti-women bias of these structures. But a major difference between victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment at workplace was that employed women seemed better able to negotiate these bureaucracies and systems of law enforcement, with some support from us.

“Saheli se himmat aur takat bani meri. Apna case ladney ka hausla mila. Vakil, police, court, sab jagah, har tarah se, madad ki Saheli ne. Saheli mere liye meri reedh ki haddi hai.” Rajaati, July, 2006.

Anita Mehta, a senior scientist from one of the top institutions of the country was continuously facing harassment from the director of the institute. Saheli supported her during her struggle. This is what she asks “why was a top performer of the institute subjected to a string of indignities ranging from illegal salary cuts to petty insults from the juniors? Why did the ministerial committee dismiss the perpetrator?”

Following the harassment of a PhD student by her professor in M.S. University, Baroda in 1999, several women’s organisations (including Saheli) wrote letters to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to bring to his attention that the University did not have a redressal mechanism in place according to Vishakha. To our great surprise, these letters were treated as writ petition (Medha Kotwal & Ors case) which is still ongoing.

Through our survey, we were very much aware that women working in the ‘voluntary sector’ are very vulnerable to sexual harassment because they are already beyond the conventional social norms, working ostensibly to change the existing situation. However, the number of cases who approached us threw up several complexities specific to NGOs.

Taking up the case of a woman employee of CREDA, an NGO in Mirzapur, along with other groups, has been a frustrating experience. While the complainant lost her job, and due to false criminal cases has been forced to flee, Shamshad Khan, her harasser boss roams scot free, and to add insult to injury, was even awarded – despite protests from women’s groups - an ‘Outlook Speakout’ prize for his ‘contribution to society’.

Dealing with these cases we faced a lot of incredulity that these organisations working towards the betterment of society could not possibly have such an anti women atmosphere. Often, this has also resulted in the vitiation of relationships among NGOS and activists in Delhi who become divided over the veracity of case or the handling of it. We have analysed several instances in our reports and newsletters, and highlighted the pattern that they follow. There is a dire need to press for accountability in NGOs, and ensure that minimum labour standards are met, and women have a conducive atmosphere to work, free from sexual harassment.

Curtains up on the Saheli play: Mahaul Badalna Hai!

Coming to a gallinukkad…street near you! The exciting Saheli play on sexual harassment.

We have been trying to change the mahaul for a long time....and the street play on sexual harassment at the workplace was one such effort.

After the survey, we felt that it was important for us to take the issue forward and get a feel of what women in different workplaces really thought about the issue. The play was to be a starting point of such discussion. We were clear from the beginning that the play was not to be a spectacle to be watched, but a way to reach out and start conversations…

Evolving the play was a fantastic experience. We had to work at two levels - first was the ‘how’ part – production of a play on a sensitive issue by a group of nearly all first-timers; the second was the ‘what’ part – the constant thrashing out of the issue and its nuances. We were clear about what we DID NOT want to say or show – sob stories, miserable situations, or pat solutions. We wanted to present the issue in its complexity and with all its nuances. We did not want to project women as sexless and prudish, but did want to depict the violence and horror of sexual harassment.

We did not want harassment to be transformed into titillation or caricature, as seen often in popular cinema. Therefore, neither the man nor the actual act of harassment was shown, but both were very much present – the focus was entirely on what the woman was being subjected to.

What terminology to use took intensive hammering, as did each and every word that we used. The campaign against sexual harassment makes a strong point against using trivialising terms such as ‘eve-teasing’. At the same time, Hindi terms such as “youn atyachar” or “youn utpeedan” seem to connote more drastic forms of violence. However, we had to stick to these, for the want of any other.

It took us four months to develop the play, accommodating full-time jobs, sprains, mood-swings, PMS and a busted knee. Hitherto hidden talents in the group surfaced in the form of song-writers, costume designers, script writers, dancers and choreographers. Even the 10-year-old daughter of a Saheli pitched in to suggest dialogues! The 20-minute play was a vision of orchestrated movements, colourful kurtas (we wanted to break out of the street-play mould of black or khadi) and songs (enhanced by the muted notes of a friend’s mandolin).

Since then, we have done several performances of the play with our special ‘rotating cast of characters’ and we will continue to do it because it is always amazing to see the gleam in someone’s eyes when they relate to the situations in the play, or join into the final song: “Hum ko nahi hai sahna mauhal ghinona”!!

On our path to strength – Feminist self defence workshops

In our work on violence against women, we have also attempted to be pro-active, to find ways of tackling violence at our own level. To build confidence, to be able to tackle day-to-day violence, especially on the streets of Delhi, self-defence has cropped up time and again in Saheli.

In the early 1980s too we used to conduct self defence workshops with a feminist perspective. To quote from an old Saheli workshop handout ‘Traditional martial arts rarely deal with the kinds of attacks directed almost exclusively against women – sexual assault. They rarely pay attention to the psychological aspects of a violent attack. This course focuses on such problems because sexual assaults have uniquely traumatising effects on the victim’.

We took up self defence in a big way in the 2000s. In February 2001, some of us from Saheli attended a Wenlido – self defence - workshop conducted by Gitta Ridder from Women Educating in Self Defence Training (WEST), Canada. That summer we invited Gitta back to India and organised a series of workshops. During the next few months we organised workshops in various colleges of Delhi University, Lucknow University and also some for our fellow activists and friends. In 2003, after one of us also became a Wenlido instructor, there has been no looking back. We have conducted workshops for students, activist groups, NGO employees, corporates, queer women, blind women, and transgender people.

Wenlido provides a language to talk about dealing with violence in very practical terms – no long speeches, just intelligent tips. The change in body language and the confident manner in which women walk out after these two days is something that’s hard to capture in words. As one participant put it, “It dawned upon me that unlike sports where the focus is to win the game, no matter who you played or how you played, here we were actually deconstructing the rules of aggression and understanding it from a different perspective.”

Some reactions of ‘Wenlido-ed’ Women:

“This was an important exercise in recognising the strength and energy that each one of us has but which was never explored because of our social conditioning.” Women’s Development Centre, Satyawati College, Delhi.

“I had great fun coming to the workshop. Now I realize that I don’t need any kind of knight in shining armour and I feel proud of having attended the workshop.” Swati.

“It was a lesson in believing we can deal with violence, confront it, take a position of power instead of victim-hood and that it wasn’t just about muscle but moves. It was with an empowered spirit and a slightly aching body that I left the camp.” Georgina.

Looking Ahead

From supporting individual women to campaigns on health, every aspect of our work has been linked with different dimensions of violence against women. Our strategies have varied, but as the challenges have become more complicated, different strategies were needed.

The key issue still is the secondary status of women in society and their becoming a pawn in the hands of men – to harass, to burn, to rape, to immolate, to eliminate. How do we envisage moving ahead? One can begin by asking questions. Has our agitational politics weakened, or has its utility as a strategy gotten over? Is asking for more legal reforms or revision of existing laws likely to yield any benefits? Should the State be held solely responsible to tackle violence on women? How can we increase participation of civil society in the debates on the issue? Do we need to think of changing school curricula to bring in changes in the attitudes of school-going children towards violence? Has the presence of media 24x7 contributed to the stereotyped or objectionable portrayal of women in all walks of life, and how does the sensationalised representation of crimes against women impact its perception in society? How can we involve men in strategies to curb violence against women so that, from perpetrators of crime, their role is transformed to one of preventing crimes against women? Our struggle for a violence-free society must thus go on.