‘And Still I Rise’: Voicing gender equity through creative expression
Initiated by Creative Services Support Group (CSSG), the project ‘And Still I Rise’ tackled the issue of gender discrimination by working through art and literature through a 2 part workshop series designed and implemented by Flow India- the Writing workshop in December 2014, culminating in the Art workshop in April 2015. Our fantastic team of facilitators write their experiences during the workshops:
Sitting at home and sewing or cooking and crying at the TV or not reading and
staring out the window or sweeping away ambitions under carpets of
indignation and not speaking up or thinking out loud
are things I’ve never been through
and never will in my entirety
because change is present
and change is constant
just like the blood that flows through our all veins,
red and pure,
I hope that 15 years from now,
you are exactly where you want to be,
where sex is just a ratio and gender discrimination a thing of
Tamanna, Age 14
Ten schools, ten days — December 5 concluded a series of creative writing workshops organised by the Creative Services Support Group (CSSG), Instituto Cervantes Delhi, and Flow India. The participants were girls aged 14–18 from schools in and around New Delhi, invited to come and write a letter about their lives and times. The lines above are part of an experimental prose poem written as a response to an hour and a half of intense, thought-provoking discussions and debates about the world we live in today, and what it has to offer women — and how, if at all, we see it changing for the better in the coming decades.
The most important question we asked ourselves at the workshop were “Why write a letter?” The answers were diverse and on-point — because writing gives you the space to be truly honest and personal, because in setting your views down on paper you are asserting both power and independence over your thoughts, and because letter-writing, for the longest time, has been a domain for women to engage in conversations about the spaces they inhabit. The letters written by the girls — to the world, to themselves in the future, to family members, to (in some cases) nobody and everybody — definitely echoed their desire to be heard. From deeply personal stories to musings on the larger realities we inhabit as women of a particular nationality, religion or economic background, the girls seemed to enjoy reflecting on their life outside of their school curriculum.
As a facilitator, I was constantly struck by the ease of conversation during the sessions. We weren’t discussing anything we hadn’t already thought about — gender discrimination and violence against women were topics that everyone had an active engagement with already, it was just the space to speak out about them that hadn’t found these girls earlier. I had several requests, from students as well as teachers, to continue these workshops with parents present, to involve boys in the discussion too (this was from participants from the co-ed school), and to have larger sessions for pre-teens as well. If the letters written during these workshops are anything to go by, the larger discourse around gender and gender equality is not in vain — we have here words that are rational, feisty, angry, and optimistic; a true marker of the times we live in. I am thankful to have met and spoken to each of these wonderful, intelligent, passionate women. — Priyanka Kumar, FLOW India Facilitator.
These letters, that then found their way to prominent international artists, prompted a series of visual responses to issues that they spoke about, culminating in the exhibition on view at the Instituto Cervantes New Delhi from 27 March till 12 April 2015. At the opening, we noticed how different artists had picked up on different pieces of what is essentially a larger narrative around the idea of gender itself. While some had chosen to create art with the letters themselves — Puja Bahri’s chandelier centrepiece made out of burnt and wax-dipped letters being the best example — others had chosen to depict how unspoken and unquestioned compliance with gender norms creates unrealistic roles for men and women (Nandan Ghiya), or is a lost game from the very beginning of a person’s birth (Manil Rohit’s The Rigged Lottery). There were also artworks exploring how gender binaries dictate, to borrow from Arundhati Roy, “who should be loved. And how. And how much” — Pratul Dash’s Love Difference and Banoo Batliboi’s Hearts being notable examples.
A second round of workshops took place at the exhibition space, this time with two significant features — one: the artworks and the exhibition space would be used as a point of entrance to discuss issues surrounding gender, and two: boys would be invited to participate in the workshops too.
The results were tremendous. We saw participants as young as 7 and as old as 19 try and uncover the complexities of gender and inequality through the exhibition, with interesting results. We realised that in order to discuss gender discrimination, one effectively needs to tackle what gender essentially is at the very beginning of the discussion. Interestingly, this was something that everybody in the workshops enjoyed doing — we would ask if anyone could think of stereotypes associated with gender, and receive a barrage of answers all at once. A boy us he wants to be a world-famous chef when he grows up, but boys are frequently shooed out of kitchens. We had a girl tell us that she is perceived as bossy in school when she tries to take charge of projects, but with the boys in her school it’s marked as a leadership skill. A brother and sister duo bickered about what is “acceptable” attire to wear for girls, and who should decide that, while a small boy told us mournfully that boys are never allowed to wear their hair long unless they are rockstars.
The art at the exhibition was used as a medium of exploring the stereotypes and inequality we had just discussed. We had only to ask “What do you think the artist is telling you here?” to hear a clamour of voices about the roles we are expected to play as a society, the rules that are laid down for us, and the often violent outcomes of attempting to break these rules. Princess Pea’s otherworldly, colourful art evoked strong reactions from both girls and boys, who acknowledged to creating alter egos and personal superheroes who could do everything they couldn’t.
The workshops ended with a thought-provoking self-mapping activity, where participants considered their lives in the future, and how they would try to live without being fettered by the framework of gender inequality. Most of the girls imagined their future selves as independent and widely travelled. Some wanted to become teachers or work with NGOS in rural areas. A lot of boys wanted to become doctors and realise their dreams of excelling at sports. Almost all the children who participated seemed to view education as a means to better their worlds, with a lot of them listing admission into a reputed college as a necessary goal.
After two weeks of workshops with Teach for India schools, care homes and NGOs, English-speaking and Hindi-speaking schools, I found that the most significant takeaway that the participants had from attending the exhibition workshop was the power of using art to speak out about the social injustices that one witnesses. Covering a vast range of topics, media and approaches, each artist’s work in its own way birthed a plethora of arguments and discussions. Once again, I enjoyed facilitating these workshops thoroughly, and came away having learned a little more about the world we live in through the stories and tales that we shared during the workshops. — Suryanshu Guha, FLOW India Facilitator.
“… on the way back home, they kept talking about the discrimination between the genders and it opened up the girls’ minds also. They also shared that sometimes even boys feel discriminated and one should not support this as all human beings are equal. The workshop has give them a platform where they could openly discuss about the thing they usually don’t and this new experience will surely make a difference” Shikha Agarwal, Director, Udaan- Ek Meetha Sapna.
“ The group really enjoyed the workshop which left them with memories so crisp that they would stand the test of time like the words engraved on the stone. This workshop was truly one of it’s kind!” Reetu Srivastava, Venkateshwar International School.