Women across region, class and age have always expressed a serious concern for their physical safety. Take the capital city of Delhi, for instance: It has regularly faced indictment for failing to provide safety to its women residents; a 2012 survey by the UN and the International Center for Research on Women showed that 95% of women felt unsafe in Delhi, and 51% of men interviewed there admitted to having sexually harassed women in public places.
Therefore, in an effort to examine the access – the lack thereof, and the challenges therein — to public spaces by women in the city, The Pocket Company launched Genderventions (directed by Niranjani Iyer), a theater project, of which I was a part. Through a series of street performances in different areas of Delhi, we set out to assess how comfortable and confident Delhi’s women felt outside their homes, and what men viewed as harassment, its causes and the possible solutions.
Here’s how the project rolled out and what we found.
It started with a workshop, during which women members of the Genderventions team re-enacted scenes of harassment, the ludicrous suggestions — like “do not go anywhere alone” – that they and women at large are routinely given by society as solutions to women’s safety, and possible ways of resistance against these expectations.
For example, thinking about how women deal with the lack of public toilets, a high-stress scene, led to a skit in which one woman acted out peeing, while two covered her, and another stood guard.
As one of the activities in the workshop, women from the Genderventions team went to a park on a winter night. When men huddled around a bonfire saw them, the men asked why the women were out at night. Upon explaining that they were trying to reclaim public spaces at night, the men seemed to realize that the spaces they take for granted are daily battlefields for women.
During the workshop, too, women spent time learning the expected postures of a male body. This led to an exercise in which the Genderventions women occupied public spaces while assuming postures commonly associated with men. I participated in this, visiting a Delhi tea stall – the only woman there. I remember sitting with my feet up, or standing in the middle of the road with arms behind my head, while bystanders stared with a mixture of shock, awe, or, if they were women, of amusement and admiration.
In the same exercise, Gendervention’s male members tried to walk and carry their bodies like women. We took this exercise to the male members of the audience and gave them instructions usually given to girls about how to sit, stand, walk, laugh — be graceful; don’t be too fast; don’t walk so slowly that you seem dull; smile, don’t look morose; don’t laugh loudly; don’t put your chest out. This sought to help the men watching understand the undue pressure upon women’s bodies to simultaneously embody the obligation to be nice, and the fear of coming across as too nice. The men’s awkwardness was clear; they said they did not feel “natural” or at ease, and did not like being constantly instructed.
We found this to be effective experience-sharing, where the audience could empathize through having lived the same experience, albeit temporarily.
The project was taken to different areas, markets and street corners of Delhi and depicted the scenes of harassment developed in the workshop, and asked the audience to describe what they perceived. If they said the woman was being harassed, we asked why they thought so. They described how the woman was squirming and inching close to the corner of her bus seat, or scowling in anger if the man’s hand touched her knees.
We also depicted a scene in which a female actor started alone on stage, then male actors joined her. It allowed the audience to observe a woman’s body in a space free of men, and then observe how discomfort in her body started building up as more and more men’s eyes turned to stare at her. This was to shed light on how staring can constitute harassment for a woman.
Ultimately, men easily outnumbered women in the audience, because as an unwritten rule, women are not supposed to loiter and watch street performances. At one point, we even had to pause the performance and intervene because a young girl was not able to watch our play due to being constantly jostled by men. The only exception was when we performed in a team member’s residential area; there, women formed the larger piece of the audience pie because she had personally invited the women.
After our shows, women in the audience spoke of how the only place where they felt comfortable in their bodies was the bathroom.
When it comes to providing security to women, the focus of the government is still on CCTV cameras, SOS apps and helpline numbers, whose aim is either to help women stay safe or to provide mechanisms to report if they are harassed. It is still far away from proactively creating spaces that are welcoming for women, and encouraging women’s right to risk. It is still a time where irritated cops ask women to avoid trouble and go home when these women come together for their night walks to reclaim the streets.
Sometimes we do not believe in solutions or alternatives until we see them; art can help with the visualization. The performances and interactions we engaged in show that, despite laws, men’s take on harassment came a lot from what they, and not the women, “believed” should be defined as harassment. Victim-blaming is still rampant.
In our “ideal city” exercise, we asked men and women to describe a city that is equally accessible and comfortable for men and women. When our female actor gave an example by sitting on an imagined bus seat, with closed eyes and a relaxed body, taking up enough space for herself, some protested that it was not the correct or proper way to sit.
Once, a member of the audience said a harassed woman on the bus should stand up on her seat and call attention to the harasser. After a team member carried out the suggestion and enacted that scene, I realized I had never considered the possibility — but after I had seen it “in action,” I felt I was ready to literally stand my ground the next time somebody tried to attack me. Ironically, but not unexpectedly, I had to confront a harasser on public transport even as I was on my way to one of these performances.
Delhi is home to women from diverse backgrounds. Some come seeking education and employment. Others have lived there all their lives. Both look to the capital with the hope that it would provide them with opportunities they do not have access to elsewhere. These women deserve better. They deserve more interventions by the state and its citizenry, more gender-ventions that change attitudes and actually prevent crimes against them, so they can equally and fearlessly claim every inch of the mega-city.
First published in The Swaddle, 7 Jun 2019.