November 1st begins without a plan. It is quite a thing to know that you can take any route, crackles of energy in your contemplating feet.
The workshop had gotten some attention. We were asked to reproduce it in Pune and Mumbai, cities to the south, and The Sunday Guardian wrote a little article on our project. It had felt like a new expression of my past work, a galvanization of seemingly disparate elements of my Chicago life. The potential was worth lingering in Delhi.
November plodded by, however, without a concrete plan for future workshops. The people who had eagerly pursued us gave little information or commitment. Charnita petitioned local colleges and schools, but their answers were evasive. Even those who gave seemingly solid plans changed at the last moment.
One day, Charnita was explaining the various frustrating responses as we walked through the residential area of her neighborhood in north Delhi. There are several universities nearby, so there are many college students living in various privately-run dorms. It should be easy to find an audience, but there’s been resistance on the administrative level.
She stops at a gate; and it takes me a moment to realize that we have actually arrived at the current subject, a local private high school. Unknown, young, female, and with an unusual subject, the administrators weren’t responding to Charnita despite her qualifications. The new plan? Send me in, to see if the foreign sparkle would get their attention.
We passed through the gate, found the main hall, and climbed the stairs to the reception. Charnita hung back on the steps and let me go forward to make our case, performing confidence despite the buzzing thought, “I am in a foreign country, selling this workshop to a school as if it is the most normal thing in the world.”
The white factor worked; I had an appointment the next morning to discuss the idea. We knew the cultural patterns, even used them to our advantage, but to see it actually happen was still startling.
In the end, it wouldn’t be enough. That night, I redesigned the workshop for a co-ed audience of high school age, and modified our written proposal to match the new approach. But the meeting in the morning eventually produced nothing.
We were left in limbo, not quite knowing whether anything would manifest, with any of our leads.
The door to my friend’s bedroom swings open unannounced. I’m there alone — she’s away teaching a class — and her younger brother stares at me, silent and frozen in the doorway. I’m modestly dressed but flopped back against the pillows, typing. Scrambling to sit up properly, I explain my presence. He lingers for a second longer, unsure, and then leaves without having said a word, closing the door behind him.
Indian families don’t really knock before entering your room; there isn’t the same understanding of domestic space. Since it is customary to dress in the bathroom, there is little to prevent anyone opening the bedroom door at any time. And when a son gets married, his wife moves into his parent’s house — they will all live together, the in-laws, the sons, the wives, their children, in one apartment.
I broke the “dress in the bathroom” rule on the first day. After wearing the same clothes while at the ashrams, taking the night train from Maharashtra, and crossing dusty Diwali Delhi, I dropped my bags in my new (empty at the time) room in the ground floor apartment and went straight for the shower. I stripped off the over-ashramed clothes and washed away the travel grime. In my clean away the Diwali hubbub, I forgot to bring in something new to wear. Wrapped in a towel, I ducked into the bedroom — and met my new roommate, a neat and quiet young woman suddenly subjected to American immodesty bounding across the room.
For perspective: the last time I lived with my family, I had the third floor of a large one-hundred-year-old building to myself — the unheated redone attic which I painted dark purple, where I escaped from the world and the evils of high school. I’m not able to receive this level of proximity
Doing a gender and sexuality workshop, of course, produces all sorts of discussions which should not be interrupted by decent Indian mothers. A classic example: I’m saying, “women can return to the plateau stage of sexual arousal after orgasm, but men immediately go into the resolution stage and must be aroused again,” and the door seems to barely open at a rate that will accommodate the brusque arrival of Charnita’s mom who needs a response to some sort of question or would like to know if we’re ready for chai.
Her family knows the subject of the workshop, but not quite all the content.
The dog shoulders the door open, too, slobbering into my lap and trying to get onto the bed with us. “Chello! Chello!” is mostly ineffective, and Charnita needs to push him out with her knees. He is rarely dissuaded for long.
The chaos of upstairs sends me downstairs — where I am assumed to always be available, as well. My roommate is on Diwali holiday and always available to talk, sitting on the kitchen counter when I cook and following me between rooms. She’s lovely but I have to explicitly extract myself to write. Charnita’s mom sometimes walks into the downstairs apartment (landlady’s rights), so I sit at one of the classroom desks in such as way as to hide my screen and its potentially disruptive diagrams or delicate article titles.
And there’s no such thing as quiet walk through an excited neighborhood preparing for Diwali; I experience little harassment in this university neighborhood where I seem to be the sole Western population, but the frenetic pace is enough on its own without the stimulating presence of a foreigner.
Inner space is still public space, and after only a week of it, plus breathing workshop, being in constant dialogue and close contact, I need to get out. To clear my head and remember that there’s space beyond the apartment building, beyond the neighborhood. I was not ready for the immediacy, intimacy, honesty, and volume of Indian life. The assumed privacy of my middle class upbringing rebelled against the fluidity of personal space — and I was stressing out the brothers.
The chaotic old market (budget) neighborhood of Paharganj was unthinkable, so I went to the next reasonable area. Majnu Ka Tilla, the Tibetan neighborhood.
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!