9 Degrees of Justice – Kala Ghoda Launch

9 Degrees of Justice – Kala Ghoda LaunchEdited by Bishakha Datta and  supported by the Ford Foundation, 9 Degrees of Justice- New Perspectives on Violence Against Women in India was launched as a part of the Kala Ghoda Festival  on 12 Feburary 2011. Over 80 people attended the event at the Prince of Wales Museum Gardens. The event was entitled ‘Trespassing in the Nude,’ and was comprised of a series of conversations with four of the book’s authors. The interviews were interspersed with a series of visual images or videos, which provided an engaging perspective on each topic.

Bishakha’s opening welcome for the event addressed the general theme of the book and the need to expand our definitions and approaches towards violence against women.

Following the introduction, a short video clip created by feminist organisation Jagori entitled Staring Hurts was played as an introduction to Shilpa Phadke’s chapter on women and risk in public spaces. The video clip drew attention to the idea of women having to consistently watch themselves in public, and provided a starting point for the discussion to follow.

Shilpa’s Phadke’s chapter, ‘If Women Could Risk Pleasure – Reinterpreting Violence Against Women in Public Space’ argues that a continued emphasis on the danger of violence against women creates a new kind of violence- that of self policing. Interviewed by Puja Roy, Shilpa spoke about how women’s rights very rarely list the right to have fun. She encourages women to take back public spaces for enjoyment – whether it’s coming home late after a party or just sitting on a park bench. Violence, according to her, is something to be negotiated in that search for pleasure, rather than a barrier preventing women from enjoying public spaces.

Following Shilpa’s conversation with Puja, a series of images from Point of View’s Street Smart Campaign were shown. Street Smart is a creative poster campaign against sexual harassment designed by a group of students from St.Xavier’s college, and currently being taken by POV to colleges across Mumbai. It asks for the best one-liner in response to instances of sexual harassment, and encourages women to speak out. The three competition winners from St.Andrew’s College were shown before the next section.

The next conversation was between Manjima Bhahattacharjya and Puja Roy on Puja’s chapter entitled ‘Invisible Yet Entrapping – Confronting Sexual Harassment at the Workplace.’ Puja spoke about the ways in which a work environment can quickly turn hostile for a woman who speaks out about sexual harassment, because most office environments still function through an ‘old boy’s club’ mentality.  Furthermore she spoke about the perception that Indian women are culturally inequipped to deal with their sexuality, whereas men may flirt in a way that is perceived as harassment because it is crude. This use of the ‘culture cloak’ becomes something to hide behind, and trivialises sexual harassment as miscommunication.

Manjima’s chapter was opened with an old feminist image containing the words ‘Your Body Is A Battleground.’ Bishakha contextualised the visual in terms of the entire book, which has at its heart questions and considerations of the body – as a site of agency, of speech, of violence. The image is particularly relevant to a reading of Manjima’s chapter, which is entitled ‘Performing Sexuality – Cultural Transgressions and the Violence of Stigma in the Glamour Economy.’

Interviewed by Shilpa, Manjima spoke about the two identities women in the glamour industry in India are often forced to create for themselves – the ‘play-acting bad girl’ that is their performing desirable self, and the ‘good girl, ‘real’’ self. These two selves are divided by the lens of the camera, but often overlap in their everyday negotiations of the stigma these women must live with. There is also a presumption amongst people that there is a precondition of ‘casting couch’ scenarios within the industry. In reality, women within the glamour industry negotiate sexual harassment like women across all labour sectors; however, the popular misconception is that it is part and parcel of the job. Manjima highlighted the importance of not allowing women in the glamour industry to simply become subjects of feminist discourse, but rather listening to the individual voices and experiences of the women.

The final image shown to the audience was from The Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers – it reads ‘Don’t talk to me about sewing machines; talk to me about worker’s rights.’ Aptly  viewed alongside an exploration of Bishakha’s chapter entitled ‘Her Body, Your Gaze – Prostitution, Violence, and Ways of Seeing,’ the image clearly positions prostitution within the labour sector, rather than in an ambiguous space laden with moral baggage.

Interviewed by the three other authors, Bishakha spoke about dismantling the binary that is often deployed when speaking of prostitution – force versus choice. Rather, it is important to see ‘choice’ as never existing within a vacuum, but always through the prism of various constraints. Furthermore, poverty is often seen as something that ‘forces’ women into prostitution. However, the same logic is not ascribed to women in equally low-paying jobs where they are subject to harassment and violence – for the domestic worker her profession is a choice, for the prostitute it is forced upon her. Choice is a loaded term, and cannot exist simply as an antonym to force (an equally loaded term). Bishakha spoke about the importance of not reducing the multiple voices, experiences and perceptions of women in prostitution to a single theory or perspective.

The conversations were then opened up to questions from the floor, and allowed for a productive discussion between members of the audience and the authors. From questions surrounding sexual harassment in the glamour industry to queries on the relationship between modeling and the commodification of women’s bodies, the authors responded individually as well as collectively to thoughts and questions from the audience.

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