My Body, My Dress

A steady line of women poured into the Nutrition Centre at the intersection of 90 Feet Rd and 60 Feet Rd. In the ground floor, about 20 of us had gathered to discuss our bodies and draw them. The exercise named Body Mapping facilitated by Dr. Nayreen Daruwalla was a jovial method to understanding one’s own sexuality.

Long sheets of paper were generously spread on the floor on which three women lay down regardless of their sarees and onlookers. The rest of the women formed groups and huddled around the comfortably stretched women who acted as models. Minutes later, every group produced an outline of a woman – unembellished, jelly like, naked.

We had to do the hard task of thinking.

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What brings pleasure to my body?

When I am pregnant and my husband takes very good care of me.

When my husband asks whether I chatted with my mother or not.

The romance of the initial days of marriage: “Jawani ki khushi”

When my husband caresses my breasts.

When a look at my child makes all my pain disappear.

When my child drinks my milk.

What brings pain to my body?

When my husband ignores me.

When an unwanted stranger touches my breasts.

When my husband forces me to have sex.

When a child is born out of wedlock.

What is the difference between a man’s body and mine?

Breasts. Womb. Anatomy.

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Each question and its answer took into consideration a relevant body part as well. Most women chose to talk about their breasts or their wombs – a very obvious and strict manner of understanding sexuality. Sexuality, however, is a construct of gender, spaces and relations as much as they are designed by anatomy. So, other body parts can also lend themselves to comprehend one’s sexuality.

The exercise was an entertaining means to define the way in which we relate to our sexuality. Consent was seen as a factor that defined pleasure and pain to the body. A woman determines who can access her body (such as a child she is nursing) and who cannot (such as a person who makes unwanted advances) and also when (such as a husband forcing her into the act of sex). The body then is much like a house, with accessibility being controlled and varied.

As time passed, the drawings became more decorative. Feminine jewels, bindis and lovely locks of hair adorned what were once blobs of womanhood. One participant named Gayatri realised she had drawn buttons but forgotten to sketch the blouse. Riotous laughter followed.

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But She Asked For It

Balaatkar=Rape

Skirts should be prohibited keeping in view the rise of social crimes against women. The school should have pant-shirts or salwar suits as uniforms for girl students.

One of the reasons behind the increase in incidents of eve-teasing is short dresses and short skirts worn by women. This in turn instigates young men.

Blame it on her short skirt, her bright lipstick or her sari. Blame it on Westernization or blame it on education. Label her ‘dented-painted’. Believe that she provokes the rapist. Feel better by claiming she needs to be protected. Be a man.

Until three women (Anjali Amma, Usha and Nirmala) told us: But what about when a five-year old girl gets raped? What about a nurse in uniform who got raped and then went into coma? Did they provoke the act of rape?

Our first Art Box in 2013 addressed these apparent dilemmas and sought to break the myth of provocation. Planned by Nika Feldman and Susie Vickery, the Art Box was called ‘Provoke/Protect’ and brought to light the insensitive and sexist comments made by many a powerful person after the gruesome rape and murder of Nirbhaya in December 2012. The participants of the workshop were trained to make saris that carried symbols of protection and slogans against rape. These saris are armour against the belief that rape is the consequence of provocation.

The first few days of the workshop saw 35 women and nine year old Jhanvi discuss the falsehood of provocation. Many were aware of the moral policing and the judgmental attitudes that are enforced upon women in the name of rape. One of them even said, “I don’t think that the way a woman dresses has anything to do with rape. Women in traditional attire such as saris get raped as well.”

Most said that the perspective and perversity of certain men leads to rape. Furthermore, rape is an outcome of power struggles as well. The conversation took an interesting turn when one participant concluded that a major reason why some men have become perverse is because of the endorsement of such acts by the media. She said, “Women expose a lot on television shows and films. It leads to men desiring the same thing in their day to day lives. Women must not expose so much on television.”

But what if a woman wanted to reveal? Wear a bikini and come onscreen?

“Well, such women must be sent where they belong. To the red light area,” she affirmed.

We were journeying old paths and it is not easy to break through. Peer pressure and social conformity to so-called modern thought might lead a woman to claim that her kind does not provoke but dig deeper and you will find that she is still patriarchy’s daughter.

Opinions on clothing change across times and geographies and morph the nature of sexualities as well. Nika Feldman pointed out that in the West it is casual for women to reveal their legs but not their midriffs. The opposite is true for Indian women. Rajasthani women wear backless blouses which could be considered sexy in these parts of Mumbai. In certain tribal cultures, it is normal for women to be bare-chested, even while in the company of men. So, when is a woman’s body truly provocative?

Anjali Amma echoed Nika’s words when she said, “If you see a woman being sexually harassed on the road, make sure you go to her rescue. Don’t ignore what is happening in front of your eyes.”

Will you accuse or will you watch out for her?

When Ghar Pe went to The Kala Ghoda Festival

Last year, Dekha Undekha by SNEHA hosted Ghar Pe/At Home, an exhibition of art and health, in Dharavi, Mumbai. This year, we took it to the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival in Mumbai and had tremendous fun setting it up, talking to visitors and delighting in the compliments.

Sunita D’Souza and Asmabi, our photography participants, and other SNEHA sanginis stood at the helm of affairs and explained the messages behind the artworks to the well-heeled visitors. By the ninth day, Sunita says that she had been energetic all this while but now her energy levels were dipping.

Sunita D’Souza ardently explained the artworks to all who stopped by.

Our little green room stood in a triangular section and had a different visual appeal from the original exhibition held last year. The installation was spatially condensed and closer to the feel of a cozy room in which every corner had a story to share.

We are quite overwhelmed by the visitors’ responses. Many wished the artworks were on sale (and if not the artworks, then just parts such as the emoticon balls or the utensils with photographs stuck on them). We have some plans of merchandising and will keep eager customers posted. But as Sunita put it, “The exhibition is not for us, it is for you. We stand to gain not through sale, but by spreading the message of public health.”

Our installation evoked a variety of responses. While many men inquired about the meaning of the artworks, their wives inquired about the prices of the art pieces. Many a mother picked up ideas for her child’s art and craft class. Sunita also cleverly generalised issues of domestic violence to male audiences. She indicated to them that men have a duty to stop others who are involved in the crime of domestic violence.

As we blog on the last day of the KGF, we are reminiscent of the activities that went on for a year and culminated in Ghar Pe. We have just begun the second phase of the art for health project and we are calling it Dharavi Biennale. And we can’t wait to see the stuff that will come out of it!

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