In February, I went to one of Mumbai’s grandest annual events, the Kala Ghoda Art Festival. To quote the Kala Ghoda Association, “The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is a community celebration of the arts within one of the most beautiful and historic precincts in Mumbai, the Kala Ghoda Art District.”
I went last year, too, and had quite a lot of fun. “KGAF” as it’s known, is pretty cool; part of the streets and public walkways are cordoned off, and there are performances, street art, vendors, workshops, and projects, both in open public spaces and in art galleries and workshops throughout Kala Ghoda. The shopping, truth be told, is fantastic, and is a place those generally uninspired by the regular gift-shop kitsch of Mumbai or run-of-the-mill art houses can find a new and interesting treasure, often with an historic or traditional Mumbai flavor.
One of the reasons I went, honestly, was to see some of the public art, specifically a mural by American artist Joel Bergner. The Consulate participates in KGAF every year, and this year it helped get Joel out to Mumbai. Joel is described by his website as “a nomadic artist, educator, and advocate for social change”. http://joelartista.com/ He’s done some pretty awesome stuff – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joel_Bergner , and his art has focused on issues such as Syrian refugees, Middle East peace, and sex trafficking awareness. He works with artist groups, community groups, and students to develop and paint murals on buildings, walls, and canvases, and uses the workshops where the murals are planned and painted to help facilitate discussion, education, and awareness. He’s worked in refugee camps, juvenile and adult detention centers (that’s fancy talk for “prisons”), and Washington, DC. In short, he’s a talented, artistic, social justice badass.
Joel’s focus for the mural was gender-based violence, otherwise known as GBV. It’s an important social issue. It’s relevant. But I was very curious what Bergner was going to actually DO with this topic. Sure, I’d seen his other works virtually, and the scale and impact was amazing, but I was wondering what he was thinking of – or actually what his workshop participants were thinking of – when it came to GBV and bringing a message to canvas.
As I frequently say when I start to wade into topics other than my experiences with Indian culture, travel, and the DBs, as you continue to read on (if you do), remember that (a) these views are mine and mine alone and that (b) I’m not the diplomat.
GBV is a serious problem in India. You know about it from the world news, probably – the woman who was gang-raped and beaten by six men on a bus so severely that she died of her injuries. The Indians refer to her as “Nirbhaya”, which translates as “fearless one”. Nirbhaya’s rape and resulting death sparked a revolution in India, the likes of which shook the nation to the core as protests sprung up across the country, politicians and celebrities commented and voiced their outrage, and news media ran countless articles, bringing the issue of GBV into the spotlight of public discourse. Her parents have recently decided to reveal her name, Jyoti Singh, maintaining (correctly) that she has done nothing to be ashamed of and should not hide. Her story was in the news most recently in December of last year when the one juvenile attacker (at 17 years and 6 months, he was just shy of being tried as an adult) was released from his maximum sentence of 3 years in a juvenile facility.
GBV certainly is not limited to within the borders of India, and the U.S. is definitely not devoid of it. But it seems to me that India is still going through a rather painful period with respect to violence against women. According to recent statistics, GBV is actually on the rise within India, and it’s not just confined to rural areas where a large portion of the population is illiterate, patriarchal, and clings to outdated gender roles that don’t serve India or her society. It’s on the rise in the capital, and in my own beloved city of Mumbai. I read the newspapers every day, and there are always several reports. I decided to do an experiment and track the instances of GBV reported in the local papers for a week. Beginning on Friday, February 5, 2016 and ending Thursday, February 11, twenty-seven stories about GBV attacks ran in the major English-language newspapers in Mumbai. It’s depressing.
Honestly, it weighs on my mind, but it doesn’t really affect me directly. Being a “giraffe in the zoo” means that I stand out. Being memorable means that I attract attention, and while I might not exactly have hundreds of people flocking to my aid were I “Eve teased”, I’m certain that in a group of people, I’d likely be skipped because I am probably regarded as a more “complicated” target. In other words, I won’t play by the rules. There’s probably a foreign company, government, or organization that will raise holy Hell if anything happens to me. Heck, I might even raise a ruckus as a woman journalist did last year when she was confronted. In short, it won’t get swept under the rug or ignored, and I won’t be told to just “forget about it”. I won’t just roll my eyes at it or fight back and forget it and continue on my way, knowing, as some of my local friends have said, that “it’s not permanent, so it’s not worth it.” Sure, expats/foreigners are subject to GBV, and I know a few who have been, but it’s not the same as what happens to local women.
It took me a couple of months to realize why my evening helper, L, got nervous and jittery if DiploDad and I had a late night. I came home one night and she was as nervous as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It was SO not L.
Me: L, I have cab fare, and, (looking up at L) um . . . ?
L: Ma’’am, I don’t want to come home now. It isn’t good.
Me: ?? Do you want me to call you a cool cab? I can –
L: I –
Me: Wait – why? – oh.
L: The cab driver only takes me to the depot. He won’t go to my door. I have 10 minutes walk and the street is dark.
Me: You can stay here.
So she stayed. And now, when I know it will be late, I call her early in the evening or let her know in advance and her daughter comes to stay with her in our guest room overnight. Or I ask our driver D to stay a few hours later and drive her directly to her door before leaving. I’ve recently taken to calling her an uber – and I can send updates to her family and track where she is during the ride. I always ask both V and L to text when they are safely in their homes.
I have to say that although the newspapers depress me, I always try to see the good with the bad, and pick the shiny gold pieces out of the rubbish pile. And there are definitely gold pieces.
As with any crime where the victims are traditionally women and children – whether it is trafficking, domestic violence, or rape, an increase in reported cases means that more cases are being reported, and that tolerance for that type of behavior is waning. It signals that there is a shift in attitudes, and that victims are having the courage to confront attackers and file cases. Alongside that comes greater awareness through the publicity of these cases that enforcement of the laws is a positive thing, that the victims are not to blame, and that such events should not be ignored or regarded as normal. Nirbhaya set a spark to tinder in Indian society, and they’ve kept the pot on the front burner. Many people refuse to be quiet now, whether it’s a victim, a family member, or a friend, and whether they have personally experienced it or not, most people I’ve met have very strong opinions about it. Maybe it’s not just just an ‘opinion’, because I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks GBV is not a problem in India and that it should be ignored.
I’ve been amazed and heartened at the number of men involved in fighting GBV.
Some young men have invented apps that help women. Some lead student groups or participate in discussions led by victims of GBV. Men participated in the Consulate’s GBV Film Festival last December, and submitted several thought-provoking entries. Check the films out here – https://www.youtube.com/user/usconsulatemumbai/videos There’s an amazing group called MAVA – Men Against Violence andAbuse. http://www.mavaindia.org/ The interest is real, and the concern for their mothers, sisters, girlfriends and wives is real. Whenever I meet or read about these men in the paper, I hope that I can someday be as proud of the DBs for their attitudes on gender as the mothers and fathers of these young men should be.
And of course, there are the women activists. Women like Aarefa of Saniyo who speak out against female genital mutilation – http://www.dnaindia.com/health/report-international-day-for-zero-tolerance-of-fgm-ngo-sahiyo-s-petition-to-end-female-genital-mutilation-in-india-2174354 Women who work with the police to help train them to deal with victims of GBV in their work like filmmaker Vibha Bakshi. http://daughtersofmotherindia.com/ And there are women policemen, visible in large numbers, and who are there to serve as a bridge where men just might not know what to say at that moment, or who might not be welcome just then by a female victim. There are NGOs in different layers of society, all who support victims, educate, and spread the message that it’s not acceptable.
To be sure, it’s a hard thing to overcome certain entrenched ideas, practices, and reactions in a country of a billion people, especially one as diverse as India. But as we’ve seen, the people of India put GBV on the front burner after Nirbhaya, and I can assure you that it’s still there. It’s a gift that I had the opportunity to see Joel Bergner and his fellow painters help add fuel to the fire.
In 2013, Nirbhaya was awarded the International Women of Courage Award by the U.S. Department of State. http://www.state.gov/s/gwi/programs/iwoc/2013/bio/index.htm
In between starting to write this post and its publication, some notable events have taken place.
The brutal rape and murder of a young law student in Kerala on April 28 has brought the conversation back to the front pages, although the public outrage has reached nowhere near that post-Nirbhaya. http://www.newindianexpress.com/states/kerala/Brutal-Rape-and-Murder-of-Jisha-in-Kerala-Galvanises-Politics/2016/05/03/article3413335.ece
On May 5, four men were given life imprisonment for the deaths of two young men who were beaten and stabbed to death in October 2011 who had defended their female friends from sexual harassment outside of a restaurant in the suburbs of Mumbai. http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/four-convicted-in-keenanreuben-murder-case/article8560388.ece