The workshop (radical in nature and advertised openly via the internet/flyers/personal asks) got some attention. We received requests to reproduce it in other cities, and were interviewed by The Sunday Guardian, a weekly newspaper published simultaneously in Delhi and London. It was a brief article but terribly exciting for our duo. Below is the email I wrote in response to the reporter’s surprisingly dense questions, which produced answers the little article could never accommodate. Thought I would post it here so it could see the light. [Note: Occasionally delicate writing considering the audience, was more careful than I would have been in an American context.]
1. Could you tell me about your role in the conceptualization and organisation of the workshop?
Charnita had invited me to be a content developer (from a distance, of course) in the areas of gender and sexuality. It was her suggestion that we formalize our ideas into a workshop. I was an equal partner in the conceptualization and organization of the workshop; after initial brainstorming, we divided the sections between us for a deeper focus, and then returned to compare and revise. I was concerned about the ethics of engaging such a project as a foreigner. How could I criticize another culture that is not my own? But working in dialogue with Charnita has assuaged my fears, since she was able to ground and direct my approach through an Indian perspective.
2. What is the purpose and goal and what are the means of achieving this (both in context of this workshop and of your work in general?)
The purpose of such a workshop is to create a safe learning environment that empowers young women to interrogate the system of oppression that affects their lives, and in doing so promoting well-being, awareness, and knowledge. The goal is that each woman leaves the workshop with a greater sense of self, the affirmation of her social criticisms, and the knowledge and inspiration to further develop her own ideas and perspective. To do this, we narrowed down our extensive list to the most essential pieces of information necessary to begin understanding how women’s voices and experiences are oppressed. The workshop was structured in an interactive and experiential fashion so as to provide the highest level of engagement and education. For example, examining the depiction of women in media can reveal extreme manifestations of gender roles, and therefore open up a discussion on the unhealthy effects of a divided society. By including the participants in the generation of ideas and analyses, more effective and enduring change can be produced; the process itself works to counteract the suppression that young women so frequently experience. This kind of project, although not entirely similar, is very much in line with the material and focus of my work in general.
3. Charnita also told me you took the Banana Talk session – could you tell what your experience was like? What was it that you talked of and how was the response? What was your impression of the young Indian participants – how aware (or not) were they?
The Banana Talk was a sensitive subject, since sex and sexuality are taboo topics. The discussion was approached from three different directions: (1) providing accurate information in the interest of health, (2) discussing healthy relationships, (3) continuing the analysis of gender roles and cultural/societal influences. To create a judgment-free space and preserve the comfort of the girls as much as possible, we distributed slips of paper and pens so that any questions could be anonymously written down. Their questions revealed distorted information and the painful effects of oppressive thought. Fears and insecurities were prevalent, and to respond to them effectively I had to cover basic anatomy and function. Proper education is essential for health in this area. As for my impression of their awareness, I would say that, in comparison to American students in a sexual education class, they are far behind. But, naturally, there was a range within the young women based on maturity level. We ought to be more concerned about the patterns of thinking that were revealed in the questions: deep guilt and shame, repression, distortions in the understanding of gender differences, and the negative effects of all this on perceptions of relationships, marriage being the most significant. Discussing sex and sexuality in such a context cannot be separated from the ramifications of society. The entire “Banana Talk” discussion was grounded in the same approach laced throughout the seminar: recognizing how oppressive systems of thought shape women’s behavior, choices, ideas, and thinking. The major discussion of the section revolves around the discrepancies between society’s rules and biology’s truth. Like any other section in the workshop, we never provided moral answers, but encouraged the women to formulate their own values based on information and critical thinking. You asked about my experience of it, which I would say is largely marked by concern. It was disconcerting to see such unhealthy ways of thinking, to see the oppression of their self-worth and right to be respected manifest in their questions. Despite the heavy work laid before me, the young women responded well, shy at first but soon encouraged and expressive. It was clearly a deeply needed and well received session.
4. How do you see this enterprise going forward? And how relevant do you think this kind of experiential education is for youngsters today?
As for taking the project forward, we had not discussed anything further than offering the workshop twice — this past weekend. Having received attention and invites to reproduce the workshop in other cities has sparked discussions of continuing it. This indicates a need, and that others are interested in doing similar work. But the most important indications to continue was the overwhelmingly powerful positive response from the participants, their intelligence and creativity, and that the process clearly demonstrated the need for such a project. Experiential education such as this is not merely relevant, it is essential. To receive an idea in the mind, either directly or indirectly, can settle heavily on the psyche given enough pressure. But to manifest true life skills, critical thinking, and well-being, students need to work through ideas themselves, in experiential ways that bring them to a deeper and more effective level.
5. Do you see yourself as a feminist? Is your work supplemented by any feminist ideology? Was this workshop in any way a feminist exercise for you?
“Feminism” is a loaded word, which can refer to any of the evolutions of the women’s movement, it as a whole, or take on different meanings in different minds. Too often, at least in America, feminism is pushed aside as the hatred of men and an overreaction in a seemingly equal society. This is a simplification that distracts from a necessary task. Feminism is Humanism. I believe in humanity, in the holistic uplifting of all people regardless of their gender identity. One of the concepts we discussed in the workshop was “patriarchy,” oppression based on a “power-over” system in a culture. A patriarchal society oppresses all members, but the manifestation of that “power-over” mentality affects women the most. Breaking down patriarchy means shifting the power structure from a “power-over” to a “power-from-within” — and in the doing, improve the lives of everyone. For example, the young women in the workshop constantly experience the “power-over.” They are inundated with unhealthy restrictions and pressures that force them to suppress their ideas, desires, dreams, and voices. Instead, a “power-from-within” approach validates them, encourages them to express themselves, and builds their self-confidence because there need not be discrepancies between what they know to be true and what they are told. This work is not merely an exercise, it is the manifestation of humanism: empowering the individual on a local level to effect change on a societal level. As for “ideology,” that is another dangerous word, as I associate it with the inflexible systemic thought of patriarchy. But if we are talking about women-positive and gender theory, then absolutely! Many, many writers and activists have contributed to these ideas and our approach. To name them all would be impossible. Major contributors are Dr. Dustin Goltz, Karen Finley, bell hooks, Starhawk, Judith Butler, Marge Piercy, and Audre Lourde.
6. Could you also give me details of what it is that you do otherwise, so that I can put this workshop in context?
I am a writer, director, performer, and facilitator. I believe in the cathartic and communicative effects of performance and focus on how the spoken word can promote healing and social change — especially for women. I am currently traveling in India for several reasons: there are some things that you must come here to learn and experience, and the country provides incredible opportunities to study religion and women’s situations in an experiential way.
Huge response, I know. But your questions could be answered in books!
Last night, young people from all over the world squeezed into a room, sitting knee to knee on the floor, to hear a former political prisoner tell his story. The room doubled as a classroom during the day, hosting free English classes for Tibetans to which foreign volunteers are welcome. Monks padded quietly amongst the seated youth, passing out plates of noodles – a fundraising meal. The ex-prisoner and his translator sat in small plastic chairs at the front of the simple room; over the next hour and a half, we heard his story in disjointed pieces.
In 1989, he was one of a group of six Tibetan Buddhist monks arrested in China for resisting the regime. The exact charges were not clear due to the translator’s modest ability to speak English. The speaker was held for three years in a Chinese prison, forced into hard labor for long hours, interrogated and tortured.
“We were not human to them, not human,” he said, over and over.
China invaded Tibet in 1959, claiming that it had previously been territory some hundreds of years before; Tibetans argue otherwise, that it was always an independent country. The invasion forced His Holiness the Dalai Lama, the political and religious leader of Tibet, to flee with his government. Being a peaceful, inward-focused country with little development or weaponry, there was no reasonable defense. H. H. the Dalai Lama currently resides in Upper Dharamsala, a.k.a. McLeodganj, in the Indian Himalayas, and maintains the Tibetan government in exile. Many Tibetans followed him over the years, attempting to maintain their culture and language as refugees in a foreign country. Their children struggle with identity and connection.
The ex-prisoner’s face held no expression, his eyes staring into the wall as he listened blankly to the translation. When the translator paused to listen again, he leaned over and spoke quietly in Tibetan, stone-faced. I sat at his feet, near the door, having arrived just before his talk began. His eyes fell into mine and I instinctively smiled – a small smile broke his face in response, and I felt relieved to find some piece of him still alive beneath the experience.
When he was released from prison in 1992, he was not allowed to return to his monastery; the Chinese police constantly monitored his movements. After remaining in Tibet for six years under those conditions, he made the arduous months-long journey over the mountains, through Nepal, to Dharamsala. He told us, “Maybe physical freedom, but without mental liberation, there is no peace.”
Finally in India, the physical and mental damage of the torture prevented him from succeeding in his studies of Tibetan Buddhism, although he tried for several years.
Fifty years after the invasion, the situation continues to worsen. Those remaining in Tibet face oppression, violence, and a constant influx of Chinese settlers sent to destabilize the Tibetan community. Tibetan Buddhism is actively suppressed by the Chinese government, and it is illegal to have a picture of H. H. the Dalai Lama – he is considered a threat to China due to his activism around Tibetan issues and strong popularity amongst the Tibetan population, and the world.
Some believe that China will hold out on a peaceful solution until H. H. the Dalai Lama dies, thinking that the Tibetan cause will die with him.