DAY NINE: Women’s Resistance in Three Acts: Experiencing 21st Century Delhi

Delhi as one of the most unsafe cities in the world for women but it is also a site of creative resistance.

Picture above from Wikimedia.org

Meenakshi Nair

Across India, and indeed the world, gendered domestic violence has seen a sharp uptick on account of stay-at-home orders during the Covid-19 pandemic. Crime statistics, news reports, and personal experiences construct Delhi as one of the most unsafe cities in the world for women, especially after the horrific gangrape and murder of Jyoti Singh in 2012. In the face of violence, Delhi also emerges as a site of creative resistance. In this blog post, I will briefly explore three acts of resistance by young women in Delhi against gender-based violence.

Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai!

Enjoyment and revelry are often coded with violence and are therefore exclusionary. For instance, the onset of spring in North India is marked by the celebration of Holi, or the festival of colours. Holi includes an element of playfulness – people smear colour and fling water balloons at one another. It is a festival that is meant to be fun, full of revelry, and for all alike. However, this revelry is gendered in nature and not as inclusive as it claims to be. The rallying cry for Holi play is “Bura na mano, Holi hai” or “Don’t be offended, it’s Holi” – and it is a rallying cry that seems to excuse all manner of sins. 

In the days leading up to Holi young women experience a heightened sense of both violence itself and the fear of violence while negotiating public spaces. This is because of a street harassment, or “eve-teasing” that, during Holi, takes the form of non-consensual Holi play – groups of young men throw water balloons at young women who have not consented to play Holi with them, and are instead going about their everyday activities. These water balloons are filled with a variety of fluids ranging from coloured water, mud, eggs, and even semen. 

In some cases, young women are able to file police complaints follow the case all the way to testifying in court. In most instances, however, young women receive no redressal. Revelry and celebration are meant to be creative, joyous occasions, experienced by all members of a community. However, the nature of Holi revelry is violent and exclusionary.

Khadar Ki Ladkiya: Young Women Speak Back!

In her work on young women from Lyari, in Karachi, Pakistan, Nidah Kirmani writes about how research often conducts women from the global south as passive recipients of violence. Kirmani finds this limiting and narrow, and instead argues that should also acknowledge and value the everyday experiences and enjoyment of women from the global south to construct a more complex and textured understanding. 

Khadar ki Ladkiya is a spoken word video shared on YouTube, written and performed in by the young women of Madanpur Khadar JJ Colony, a slum resettlement area at the outskirts of Delhi. On the one hand, it resists several kinds of violence and erasure that the young women of Khadar face. On the other hand, it bears witness to their everyday lives.

One of the violences the young woman of Khadar face, perhaps more subtle than overt sexual assault, is the kind of epistemic violence that Kirmani talks about: these young women are treated as readily available ‘samples’ for researchers or as passively waiting subjects for workshops on education, empowerment, and hygiene by civil society organisations. These young women are not considered to be legitimate producers of knowledge who are actively capable of creating knowledge about their own lives and experiences. 

In their collective spoken word piece, these young women recount the challenges of living in the city as young women seeking to be independent.

They acknowledge the larger culture of silence and impunity around gender-based violence and sharply critique the culture of protectionism that would rather young women remained within the domestic sphere than make public spaces safer and more inclusive. They also highlight how law enforcement and the police are at best, in dereliction of their duty, and at worst complicit in the violence.

The spoken word video functions as active resistance, but also bears witness to their everyday lives and enjoyment. 

Bharatanatyam in the Wild: Women’s Bodies as Spectacle

In the winter of 2017, I was part of an online dance project called Bharatanatyam in the Wild. It was imagined, shot, directed, and performed in by young women. The project took the classical south Indian dance form Bharatanatyam out of its usual contexts of the temple courtyard or proscenium stage and into the ‘wild’ – the public spaces of Delhi. These spaces included metro stations, public parks, and traffic intersections. While on the one hand the project explored the nature of the classical form itself, it also explored the presence of gendered bodies in urban public spaces. 

Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, and Shilpa Ranade explore gendered experiences of public spaces, focusing on Mumbai, India, in their book Why Loiter? (2010). They demonstrate that men are free to be in public spaces safely for both work and leisure, and are free to loiter or hang out in public. Women, on the other hand, must have a purpose to be in public – either for education, employment, errands, or to add to the economy by purchasing goods. Women are not free to loiter.

Bharatanatyam in the Wild sought not only have women ‘be’ in public spaces, but also to engage in performance and spectacle in public spaces. The project drew attention to women who were using their bodies to occupy space and make art.

Personally, I did not feel unsafe or scared while engaged with this project: I knew that the moment I felt uncomfortable, I would be able to get myself away from the situation and to comfort by any number of means of transport. 

Additionally, the embodiment of the dancers and videographers perhaps also signalled a privileged class-caste background – our clothing, the presence of multiple video cameras, and the fact that we communicated to one another in English – and thus granted us a degree of safety perhaps unavailable to young women from, for instance, a slum or resettlement area. 

In some contexts, young women turn to due process for justice by filing police cases and going to court. In others, they bear witness to their own lives and experiences, resisting gendered (and classed) erasure and violence. In yet others, the body is made into a spectacle in order to reclaim public spaces. Resistance thus exists in many forms and is embodied in many different ways. 

Meenakshi Nair has been working towards her MA in Comparative Literature (Asia-Africa) at SOAS, University of London after studying English Literature at Lady Shri Ram College for Women, University of Delhi. She is interested in urban narratives across genres and media, performance, and in questions of curriculum and pedagogy. Her poetry is published or forthcoming in Nether Quarterly and Porridge Magazine

DAY SEVEN: The Zanana Ensemble – Women Perform Against Fascist Regimes

The Zanana Emsemble’s performance, “Zanana ka Zamana” (The Era is feminine) is a collective act of resistance against the Citizenship Amendment Act in India through expressions of solidarity using songs, poetry and conversations.

Picture above: Zanana Ensemble Performing in Shaaheen Bagh. Credits: Meghna. Reproduced by permission.

Shwetha Gopalakrishnan

The proposition of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in India exacerbated the vulnerabilities of marginalized sections like Muslims, Dalits, queers, transgender persons, womxn, people from nomadic communites etc. by attacking their citizenship. The marginalized were more precarious than usual as they did not have proper documentation to “prove” their citizenship. Muslim women and womxn, queers from different communities in solidarity registered their protests by claiming public spaces. This in itself was a reclaiming of the spirit of the constitution and its guarantees of equal citizenship and democratic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity and the spirit of standing against violence and discrimination.

The Zanana Ensemble came together amidst these protests in January 2020 with a play “Zanana ka Zamana”(The Era is feminine) as an act of expressing solidarity through songs, poetry and conversations. Deeply inspired by the resilience of the movement and in an attempt to echo its strength and struggles, Theatre practitioner Mallika Taneja gave an open call for Twenty Women to be a part of a play on “resistance and the everyday” in an attempt to try and bring together an army of women on stage and to speak to the women who were sitting in the protest sites. Despite the movement being led by women, she recalls that:

The stages were largely occupied by men as there are very few women performers. It annoyed me that the ears that were listening were women’s and the voices that were speaking were men’s .

Theatre practitioner Mallika Taneja

Since it was felt that this was not the space for a singular body and that the body on stage must reflect the watching body, an attempt was made to have multitude of voices and bodies as a collective on stage.

However there were differences with respect to class, religion, etc between the watching body and the body on stage.  The attempt was to look at ways of starting conversations with these women (in protest sites) without seizing too much of their space.  The Ensemble was not created by auditions but by an open call and was a multi identity group that comprised of womxn from different religion, ethnicity, sexuality etc. The members of the team chose to be a fluid Ensemble rather than a single piece for the purposes of long term resistance. This meant that available members would get together for performances and would join in whenever they could which gave space for rest and recovery within the team amidst constant resistance.    

Picture above: Poster for Zanana Ensemble performances. Credits: Meghna. Reproduced by permission.

“We didn’t want to make a play about the pits and falls of CAA, since there was no need to educate these people. I felt like these women sleep here, wake up here, get tired here, menstruate here, go back, eat, their children are here, even if they get a flu they are here. This is an everyday protest and resistance much like our lives- the walks we take, the way we step out of our house. How women resist on a daily level and keep making space through everyday resistance.”

Mallika who also directed the performances, on her interest in everydayness of resistance.

It is for this reason that the performances addressed the “everyday” and the “mundane” of resistance and primarily spoke to women through themes like dreaming, sleeping, stepping out of the house in the context of CAA. The origin of the piece is from a children’s book called “The world belongs to you” which was translated as “Ye Duniya Hamari hai” (This world is ours). “The language of the play was kept simple since it catered to a colloquial audience and catchy popular words with sounds were used to make the script interactive and receptive” shares Rajesh Nirmal who wrote many poems for the play. As far as the songs are concerned, a Hindi translation of Bob Dylan’s “The answer is blowing in the wind” was used. Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem “Hum Dekhengey”(we shall see) which had a history of being used to resist fascist regimes had become the anthem of the movement.  It was being banned by many institutions in the country and thus was used as a peaceful tool of resistance in the play. Many poems were written by the team internally and many songs were chosen collectively. The play was improvised according to changing contexts that the movement survived, for instance the state sponsored pogrom in North East Delhi, police violence etc.   

Picture above: Art Made By Khushboo from the Ensemble. Reproduced by permission.

Still from video: Zanana Ensemble performing at Shaaheen Bagh. Credits: Meghan. Click to view full video.
Still from video: Zanana Ensemble performing at Hauz Rani protest Site. Credits: Meghna. Click to view full video.

The performances were received with overwhelming love and warmth in various sites. There was reciprocity and mutual give and take of emotions and imaginations around resistance which captured it as a space of solidarity. Aman Mohammadi, one of the actors in the play commented that “It was a dialogue, collaboration, an exchange of energies, hope, vision, camaraderie and strength. Women of all ages chanted slogans with us. In that moment we were together. There was the magic of female bodies-a sea of women together.” The protest performances took place at a time when there were increasing anxieties, fear, trauma, grief, shock and violence in the country and so creating a space of solidarity, hope, resilience, strength, care and love was an important political act of resistance in itself to uphold the constitutional ideals. The Ensemble has now survived almost a year of togetherness.

Shwetha Gopalakrishnan is a Bharatanatyam dancer. She is a part of Zanana Ensemble and the cofounder of “Nritically Yours”. She has pursued her masters in Sociology from Ambedkar University and her Bachelors in Psychology from Lady Shri Ram College for Women. She currently works as a Mitigation Specialist in National Law University Delhi.