DAY FIFTEEN: Playing politics to get sex workers’ rights on the agenda

Playing politics: so what do you do to get your voice heard – as a small South African sex workers rights advocacy organisation -during an election campaign? Run for President!

Picture above: ‘Campaign’ materials for SWAG. Reproduced by permission

Ishtar Lakhani

Studies show that female sex workers are 18 times more likely to be murdered than other women. As a result of criminalisation, stigma and discrimination, sex workers are unable to report violence perpetrated against them by clients, law enforcement officials and members of the community. Criminalisation also increases risk of violence as sex workers have to work in isolation far from the reach of healthcare and justice services and have no access to labour protection for the work that they do. As sex worker rights activists in South Africa we decided that the best way to ensure that sex workers and their issues are represented in political spaces, was to create our own sex worker-led party, as the saying goes, nothing about us, without us. 

It is 2019, time for South Africa’s general election. The media is bloated with the usual pre-election diet of scandal, corruption, and political statements. I am in a meeting having the usual vent about the state of our nation with a collection of social justice activists. Many of the organisations represented in the room have decided to lay low until the election is over, reasons being: “trying to get the media to cover anything that isn’t election related right now is useless” and “what’s the use of lobbying, in 3 months’ time we’ll have start again with new people?”. I understand these approaches. Given the serious lack of resources experienced by social justice organisations, it is essential to pick your battles wisely. It is necessary to be strategic on when, where, how and on what you deploy your ever-shrinking reserves of energy, time and money.

However, we at the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) saw the 2019 South African National Elections as a prime opportunity to deploy our creative activism. 

At SWEAT (a South African based human rights non-profit), a core part of the work is advocating for the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa. This position is supported by rigorous research, international human rights frameworks, and most importantly, by people who sell sex themselves, so I will not dive deeply into why you should support decriminalisation. Merely to say, if you support human rights, you should support decriminalisation. Now back to the elections. 

We asked ourselves: in a pre-election context, how do little-old-us gain access to these influential spaces and people? We certainly did not have access to the kind of money needed to buy a plate at political fundraisers. None of us had any desire to learn how to play golf. And we did not have the patience or moral ambiguity to implement the long-game strategy of joining a political party, rising through the ranks and eventually become president. So, we thought: if we can’t beat them, join them. 

The idea of a sex worker for president is not new. Emboldened by the story of Gabriela Leite, the first sex worker to run for Brazilian Congress in 2010, we decided to start our own sex worker-led political party. SWAG, the Sex Worker Action Group (to be perfectly honest, we chose the acronym before we chose the name because who doesn’t like a good acronym?). Now that we had a name, we could really start organising. But when we looked at what it would take to formally register SWAG, the wind was quickly taken out of our sails. None of us had the stamina to climb Mount Bureaucracy. We looked back on our campaign objective: to put sex workers rights on the political agenda. Surely we didn’t have to have an “officially” recognised political party to do that? And so we decided to confidently ignore and navigate ourselves around Mount Bureaucracy. We created a logo and campaign badges, t-shirts and posters (a campaign isn’t a campaign until you have SWAG). We placed our realistic political party posters up on lamp posts directly under our oppositions. With the help of social media we only needed a handful of posters strategically placed and photographed at multiple angles to give the illusion we had national coverage. We even filmed a low budget but surprisingly convincing campaign video, complete with our candidate shaking hands with hard working people, kissing babies, and saying inspiring one-liners like “Your Rights, Your Freedom, Your SWAG”. 

Video above: SWAG campaign 2019. Source: Youtube.

So, what did all this “fun and games” really achieve one might ask? Firstly (and importantly), it was enormous fun. When you are involved in the serious work of human rights activism, there is very little frivolity and burnout is common. This campaign gave us and our organisation a much needed energy boost. Secondly, people believed the campaign!

We were caught off-guard at the amount of support we received. This led to conversations, platforms and events where we could talk about the rights of sex workers in South Africa.

It became abundantly clear that South Africans were hungry for something different and more progressive than we had given them credit for. Finally, one of the biggest impacts of our SWAG Campaign was that the 2 largest opposition political parties both included the rights of sex workers as an issue that needs addressing in their election manifestos, something that has never been done before.

Image reproduced by permission of SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce)

This Campaign showed us what we could really achieve with a passion for human rights, a little bit of money, and a lot of SWAG. 2024, watch this space! 

Ishtar Lakhani is a feminist, activist and trouble maker in the field of social justice advocacy. Her passion lies in using creative activism to advocate for the rights of sex workers and the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.

You can find her on twitter @IshtarLakhani 

DAY FOURTEEN: Due to (Covid-19)

How do we encapsulate the experiences and voices of those who occupy liminal spaces in society? Qri Kim writes about her project ‘Due To’, and the reconceptualisation of the Nomadian in her art.

Picture above: The Nomadian. Credits: Qri Kim. Reproduced by permission.

Qri Kim

We have lost our day to day normality, our intimacy, our generosity, and our sense of humanity. “Due to Covid-19” has become an indispensable sentence or comment in our conversation. We have found ourselves tacitly accepting the demands of social distancing. I would suggest that this agreement is based on our wish to be good citizens. But, how can we know if we are good citizens? How can we actually distinguish between being a good or a bad citizen? If we follow the standardised Good citizen guidance, would the pandemic be over? Could we then get closer to each other? I would ask: before Covid-19, how many times have we made excuses and drawn a line between us and our neighbours? 

Many countries have enacted laws for protecting minorities, calling for social change. However, some of the rules seem to result in making an ‘In-Between Minority’, a liminal group of individuals who cannot attain neither minority nor majority status. I call this group ‘Nomadian’.

In this project, I intend to focus on the Nomadian’s struggle straddling the line between two different worlds and to explore the question – How can art convey the experience of Nomadian liminality and struggles to those outside, that which cannot be articulated through language?

I intend to carve out the imagery of the frontier between outsiders and the minority by shaping the Nomad’s struggles into a line through a series of workshops held over 16 days. These workshops consist of writing sessions and forming lines using the mise-en-abyme[1] technique. Through these workshops, I tried to make sense of the Nomadian’s melancholy through their writing.

Picture above: Excerpt from the diary of Qri Kim’s participant from the 16 Day workshop. Reproduced by permission.

My project started with the LGBT community in South Korea, a country that is classified under Zone 2. There are no explicit anti-discrimination laws in the country and the constitutional and society in general are not ready to fully welcome the LGBT community. I think some LGBT Koreans are a good example of being nomadian as they are isolated at the border, excluded through hegemony, conventional norms, mainstream media, and bias.

In my art I prefer to use the term “learn” when regarding someone’s personal history and not to intervene in their narrative. I think that it is not possible to participate in another’s inner story, ever. What we can only do is learn and try to include minorities through our actions. My aim is to find possibilities to bridge the margin which already exist around us, through my conceptualising-line practice. I would like to name this project “Due to”. Below are stories of individuals in South Korea, who have been excluded, who sit at this boundary between mainstream society and those marginalised.

“Due to (the Covid-19 virus)” 

There is a serious problem of an anti-gay backlash in South Korea due to Covid-19. A man was infected with coronavirus after attending clubs in Seoul’s gay district, which was reported in the media. His reluctance to have a Covid-19 test brought about a 7th wave and placed the LGBT community in danger. He asked for the mercy of the law, however, unfortunately, he has got an actual prison sentence. He stated “I was extremely worried to test positive for the Covid-19 virus. I was in fear of the social and professional humiliation…”. 

“Due to (your changed sex)”

Byun Huisoo joined the army as a man but had gender reassignment surgery after suffering from gender dysphoria. “I will continue to fight until I am allowed to remain to serve in the army…” The Korea government employs mandatory conscription system for men; however, the government has not yet taken appropriate countermeasures.


My name is Jang. I am not a monster and I am not a prostitute. I am a transgender-bar owner in Busan. I have a lovely husband and his family accept me as a member of family. I am a Youtuber and communicate through/on social media. I can feel that society has been changing slowly. I am a bit of a plastic surgery addict… Through several surgeries, finally, I have got a proper women’s body. However, I still feel that I am in between male and female. Therefore, I try to renew my gender identity with surgery… There are a few colleagues working with me. Most of them need a lot of money to get gender reassignment surgery but their only choice of employment is low-paid bar work. Some of them are still undecided whether they get surgery or not. 


Yena is a famous trans-gender Youtuber. She used to be a popular academy teacher and she graduated from the top university in Korea. She was proud of her job and her previous students still remember her as a good teacher. Once she became Her, she lost her job. She could not find another job for a long time so that she often went without meals during the day. What she can only do is to become a Youtuber. She enjoys sharing her story with her viewers, however, still she wishes she could stand in front of students.

“Due to (being from South Korea)” 

“Citizenship and Immigration Canada has a list of ‘safe’ countries considered to be ‘non-refugee producing’. Individuals coming from these designated countries are given an expedited refugee process of three months and no right to appeal a negative decision to the Immigration and Refugee Board Appeals Division” (Fobear, 2017). Since South Korea is considered as a ‘safe’ country, LGBT South Koreans cannot be part of the expedited refugee process, leading to the ironic consequence of LGBT South Koreans remaining in danger of discrimination in their home country.

“Due to (Christian doctrine) 

Kim Wook-suk had spent years carefully and quietly trying to hide his sexuality. He was raised by a devout Protestant mother who taught him that being gay meant burning in hell. He listened fearfully in church as the pastor preached that homosexuality was a sin and encouraging it would bring disease. His mother, he says, kept trying to “save him”, but her actions meant he feared his own family at times. “Using people from her church , she tried to kidnap me multiple times to go through conversion therapy. I was forced to go through some of these therapies, however there were times I managed to avoid them and escape.” From the interview on ‘Gay in South Korea: ‘She said I don’t need a son like you’ (BBC,2019).


There are a lot of differentiated lines in our society and in our minds, and we are faced with lines every day. However, most of these are intangible so that we hardly can recognise them and disregard their significance. Through a re-conceptualisation of lines, I have attempted to visualise these social dissensus into a physical line. While society has tried to embrace difference and enacted rules to protect minorities, some of these rules have produced unintended forms of discrimination. Through my participatory workshop, I translated the struggles of an African gay participant into art. Using a rainbow image, I hope to pose the following question to viewers and readers:

  1. How can we quantify and measure the agony and pain experienced by minorities?
  2. How does one divide red and orange in a rainbow?
  3. How can one say that another is different?
  4. How does one judge the lightness of one sorrow over another?

[1] this is a particular technique in art and film to insert stories within a larger narrative, commonly overlapping with each other.

Qri is a PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh in Fine Art. Her research aims to shed light on the history of Korean comfort women, who were taken by the Japanese as sex slaves during the Second World War. She looks predominantly to archives and participatory workshops as her data collection method. You can follow her on Instagram @kim.qri

DAY TWELVE: Violence Unseen Reimagined – arts activism in the time of COVID-19

When the pandemic curtailed the travelling exhibition Violence Unseen, the organisers had to reassess. And they re-imagined and ‘digitally painted’ the images onto cityscapes.

Jo Zawadzka

Violence Unseen Re-Imagined is an online photography exhibition that aims to put unacknowledged and often unseen forms of violence against women on the map.  

The images used in this exhibition were originally created by the photographer Alicia Bruce, then re-imagined and ‘digitally painted’ onto the city landscapes by the visual artist Szymon Felkel.  

Before the pandemic curtailed the Violence Unseen exhibition’s travels, it was displayed in around 40 locations across Scotland, and seen by around 2000 people.  

However, with COVID-19 measures forcing a mass shift to online campaigning in recent months, our travelling Violence Unseen exhibition has taken on new significance and moved online. The Re-imagined exhibition features the Violence Unseen images in public spaces to convey the message that, whilst often hidden, violence against women hasn’t disappeared. In fact, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic.  

The forms of violence against women featured in the exhibition are not new, but some groups of women are more vulnerable to certain types of violence. This is especially true for women who face other forms of discrimination, such as women with learning disabilities, women who sell sex, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans women, and minority ethnic women. Moreover, we know that lockdown has acted as an enabler for perpetrators and made violence against women even less visible to the public eye, making getting this campaign seen by the public, even more important.  

Alongside the re-imagined images, we will be sharing links to research, articles and projects to help to broaden understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on violence against women. I would therefore like to spotlight three of our images here, as examples of our informative campaign. 

Picture above: Diane by Alicia Bruce/Szymon Felkel. Reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

Our first image features Diane Abbott with the backdrop of the houses of Parliament. This image is a significant representation of Violence Against Women in Politics and Elections (VAWIE). VAWIE was extremely prevalent during the run up to the 2017 snap election in which 45.14% of all abusive tweets were directed at Abbott, largely focussed on her gender and her race, largely in the form of threats of sexual violence.

Understanding intersectional discrimination is essential to understanding Violence Against Women and Girls, the different ways violence is enacted, and the varied impacts it can have on people who are multiply marginalised. 

Picture above: Margaret by Alicia Bruce/Szymon Felkel. Reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

The second image I want to focus on is of Margaret, very powerfully superimposed onto a Princes Street bus stop. This image discusses disabled women and carer abuse. Disabled women are twice as likely to experience men’s violence as non-disabled women, and 73% of disabled women have experienced domestic abuse. This image is captioned “How are you supposed to get anyone to believe you if everyone thinks he is a ‘Saint’ because of how he helps you?”, emphasising how much abuse towards disabled women goes unseen, diminished, and un-prosecuted.  

Picture above: Mridul by Alicia Bruce/Szymon Felkel. Reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

Mridul Wadhwa’s image has been ‘digitally painted’ onto the side of the Scottish Parliament building, thus placing a trans, migrant woman who describes how she is seen by the world as “outsider everywhere”, straight into the political sphere. 83% of trans women have experienced a hate crime, whilst migrant women’s experience of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ can leave them more vulnerable to violence. This demonstrates another way multiple marginalisation can lead to increased exposure to violence. 

Visit virtual exhibition here

An accessible version can be found here

See also Day 10 Blog by Alicia Bruce

Please note that some of the content in this exhibition deals with sexual violence, abuse and exploitation which some people might find upsetting. Some of the women featured in the pictures are models. 

List of helplines for anyone who lives in Scotland is available here:

Jo Zawadzka is Campaigns and Engagement Office for Zero Tolerance, the Scottish charity that works to end men’s violence against women by promoting gender equality and challenging attitudes which normalise violence and abuse. Their work began in 1992 with a series of mass media campaigns designed to raise awareness and challenge attitudes about violence against women. Today their work continues to challenge the social attitudes and values which permit violence to occur. They take a practical, evidence-based approach targeting primary prevention of violence and promoting change. 

Throughout the 16 Days of Activism, Zero Tolerance will be sharing our seven images across their social media platforms. They will also be available for campaigning purposes – if you are interested in accessing their Violence Unseen Re-imagined resources, please contact Jo at jo.zawadzka@zerotolerance.org.uk.  

You can find Zero Tolerance Scotland on Twitter @ZTScotland, and on Facebook and Instagram @ZeroToleranceScotland. Their website is www.zerotolerance.org.uk

The photographer, Alicia Bruce can be found on twitter @picturemaking, instagram @aliciabrucephoto and her website at www.aliciabruce.co.uk. Szymon Felkel, the arts activist, can be found on instagram @szymon_felkel and at their website at www.saymoonstudio.com.

DAY NINE: Unmasking the Issues of Cows, Women, and Safety in India.

Today’s post focuses on the creative provocation -The Cow Mask Project- which highlights that, in India, women are seemingly less safe and less protected than cows.

Picture above: “The holy Cow personified as World Mother”, Wellcome Collection. Reproduced by permission.

Anisha Palat

Imagine taking a walk to an iconic landmark of India. Perhaps you are in Kolkata, staring at Howrah Bridge. Or you’re strolling past India Gate in New Delhi. Maybe you’re at the ghats of Varanasi, wistfully staring at the Ganges River. Suddenly, a man walks past you holding what looks like a black and white spotted mask. You look closer- is it an animal? Perhaps a cow? A woman accompanies him. She dons the mask (you now realise it is indeed a cow!) and poses in front of the landmark. He takes a picture. End scene.

What I have described above is a simple overview of India artist-activist Sujatro Ghosh’s Cow Mask project (2017-present). The essence of this project is an exploration of the safety of women in India.

“Do women need to be cows in order to feel safe in this country?”

Sujatra Ghosh, artist-activist of the Cow Mask project
PIcture above: Collage taken from Sujatra Ghosh’s website on ‘The Cow Mask Project’ (https://sujatroghosh.com/works)

The artist is making a bold statement in the land of the Holy Cow: in India, women seem less safe and less protected than cows. Sujatro’s concept is rooted in an extremely simple yet powerful aesthetic, where a cow mask donned by a woman provides a layer of protection to the said woman; the woman is safer now, on account of having a cow’s face, than she will ever be in India.

Cow protectionism in India is, without a doubt, at the forefront of the nation. Reports of lynching and violence in the name of this innocuous animal are a daily feature in the news. An official government body, the Rashtriya Kamdhenu Aayog, also exists, cementing the cow’s status as being the most revered, respected and protected amongst living animals in India. The bull does not afford the same kind of respect and status that the cow does.

The roots of this nationalism and protection for the cow lies in late 19th and early 20th century calendar art images. The figure of the cow in these early images was characteristic of Kamadhenu or the divine cow and Gaumata or the mother cow; these were spread through India to help underscore the message of cow protectionism (see featured image). These images cemented the cow as symbolic of the nation itself, highlighted by the presence of 84 gods within the body of the cow: a Hindu rashtra (a Hindu country), a space that literally embodied the Hindu ideologies of the time. The cow became representative of a spatial phenomenon in terms of her material body. The protection of the cow then lay in protecting India as a space, the motherland, and the cow, all intertwined yet separated in a complex web of identity, pride and nationalism.

An important distinction to make at this point would be that cow protection lies in protecting the cow from those that are not Hindu (Muslims) and those that are lower-caste (like Dalits). Upper-caste Hindus are of the opinion that these communities are polluted for they deal with the dead cow in terms of meat and leather work. Therefore, the lynching that takes place in the name of the cow is primarily against men from these communities, and largely the perpetrators of this violence are also men.

So how do women come into the picture if cow protectionism is not typically against them? As mentioned earlier, the cow in India has been established as Gaumata and Kamadhenu, especially through the spread of calendar art images.

These representations are female tropes of motherhood, goddesses and divinity, thereby placing the cow above the realm of human. This placement, while seemingly positive, has actually enabled negativity for women and cultivated a culture where mother cow as goddess divine should be protected by men for men of the nation, but at the same time, mother, wife, sister and daughter do not deserve the same kind of reverence (and in turn protection).

Video: ‘Holy Cow’, A documentary about ‘The Cow Mask Project’ by Al Jazeera (Trailer)

As Sujatro Ghosh points out through his photographs, the only way a woman can potentially be safer is by wearing a cow mask. The materiality of the mask, interestingly the face of a Jersey cow (which is foreign) and not the native so-called holy cow, provides protection to the female population. The hybrid creature that emerges in Sujatro’s photograph, standing with her masked head held high in recognisable spaces in India, speaks of a way of the cow and woman coming together to represent the women of India as a strong voice against horrific crimes against the female.

The Jersey cow mask stands out for its associations with the ‘foreign’: is protection for the woman in India an unknown, strange phenomenon? Will it never be a part and parcel of our society?

The cow and its entrenchment in holiness and motherhood is demonstrative of the gendered trope of the cow and her protection by the men of India. This article has just presented an overview of the cow image and the strength of its iconography. Scope lies in detailing these ideas along with examining aspects of the male gaze and the cow as well as the cow in relation to caste-specific gender crimes.

What is important to take away is that while women in no way need to be protected by men, if the same kind of respect and reverence given to the cow is extended to women, India might become a nation with fewer gender-based violent crimes. The coming together of cow and woman might illustrate a coming together of animal and human, as well as nation and individual. Currently masked as a single hybrid, cow and women appear safer together like in Sujatro’s photographs. In the future, will the possibility of unmasking cow as woman and woman as cow offer solace or spread more fear? Or will the cow forever remain the single most important being protected and fought for in India?

Anisha Palat is a second year PhD History of Art student at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on the cow image in Indian visual culture. She is exploring the visual vocabulary pertaining to the cow’s history as a symbol of mainstream cultural nationalism and looking at ways to decentre the current hegemonic and casteist links that the cow has come to represent. Anisha previously completed her Masters in Art Business from Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. She has researched the South Asian gallery sector as well as art and philanthropy in India for Art Tactic, London. She was also an art consultant and writer for Ashvita’s, an Indian online auction and gallery platform.

You can find Anisha on Twitter and Instagram through her handle, @anishapalat

Sujatro Ghosh is an Indian photographer artist-activist and feminist scholar from Calcutta, currently  based in Berlin. Sujatro works on women’s rights, LGBTQI issues and environmental concerns. Website: https://sujatroghosh.com Instagram: @sujatroghosh

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