The Annual Academic Congress of Lady Shri Ram College concluded today after three days of discussions, workshops and film screenings. The Congress, which was held in partnership with WISCOMP and supported by the Ford Foundation and the US Embassy, sought to serve as a platform where students could interact with those actively involved in debates on feminism, sexuality and rights and bring to the floor their concerns as well. After an impactful opening on Saturday with the Rangakarmee Group’s enactment of Hum Mukhtara, the compelling story of a woman in search of justice, the ball was set rolling for students and teachers to together explore the scope of women, leadership and change.
The Academic Congress, presented by the Aung San Suu Kyi Centre for Peace, LSR, was declared open by the Principal, Dr. Suman Sharma, to much applause and enthusiasm amongst the students and teachers. Dr. Sharma spoke about women breaking barriers and claiming spaces citing the example of the all-women contingents during the Republic Day parade, she also juxtaposed this show of courage with the condition of women in South Asia owing to their systematic discrimination. She talked about the Khap Panchayats and how eradicating such a mentality is the collective task of society at large, its many public and private institutions and the mind and heart of every person. She also thanked all the staff and students who organised the Congress and said that the Congress was not a male versus female war but a fight for equality; she added that it was also to acknowledge gender-sensitive male voices.
The inauguration was followed by the staging of a play titled “Hum Mukhtara” which enacted the story of Mukhtara Bibi, a poor, illiterate woman from Punjab in Pakistan. The story follows Mukhtara Bibi’s trials and tribulations to which she is subjected after her brother is found in another community’s fields by a woman who had forcefully taken him there. In retaliation, the community in question demands apology from Mukhtara who goes to seek forgiveness but is subsequently raped and abused. After much grit and grief, she fails to get justice but decides to continue to fight instead of giving up. The play is a comment on society and its institutions like the police and the courts and also on the prejudices that we hold in our minds. A provocative play, Hum Mukhtara hit the right notes and set the cadence for the Congress which seeks to explore women’s leadership and change.
Day 2 began with the release of the Safety Audit Report which aimed at reaffirming that women do not need to be protected; this was followed by the inauguration of the Gender Mela, a fete which supports various NGOs and women’s self-help groups. The major events of the day included the screening of the documentaries Mardistan and Journey of Two Women, panel discussions on “Changing Equations” and “Breaking Barriers Musically: Vedas and Women”, a Youthspeak session, a self-defense workshop. The day also saw a performance by Delhi-based band Menwhopause, known for their association with various causes.
Mardistan, a film by Harjant Gill that explored how the construction of masculinity impacts men in an adverse manner and disturbs existing social equations, set the pitch for the discussion on Changing Equations. Excerpts from the film were woven into the discussion, with repeated references to Dr. Nivedita Menon’s argument of what learning to become a man means vis-à-vis learning to become a woman. The takeaway from the session, which came from panelist Gautam Bhan, was that in a situation of deep inequality, day-to-day confrontation is the way towards change. Mr. Bhan was of the opinion that one doesn’t need to be part of rallies and parades, but that it all begins with a process of unlearning what has been learnt in the process of becoming a man, which includes giving up privileges that men claim vis-à-vis women. The panelists also discussed the anxiety around women’s sexuality, their use of technology, temporality in masculinity and queer identities. Post-lunch, the screening of Journey of Two Women, a film by two young Pakistani women which explored day-to-day sexism and biased attitudes, threw up plenty of questions which were then debated by the students in the Youthspeak session on Changing Equations.
Day 3 was mostly dedicated to opening dialogues on law and gender in the Indian context; it began with a screening of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, drawing from which the panel on “Demystifying Law and Gender”. The panel, unanimous in its opinion that the law had not kept up with the times, made a strong argument for the demystification of sex in order to understand violence against women. Lawyer and activist Naina Kapoor, who worked with the Bhanwari Devi case, said that the criminal justice system was a broken one and urged the floor to exercise their rights as individuals and women and never be silent. Transgender activist Lakshmi Narayan Tripathi too urged women to not think about whether or not things will change but to pledge to bring that change by claiming one’s rights. With generous doses of humour, she then narrated incidents when her rights had been violated and how she had never let that make her feel uncomfortable about herself. She was also critical of the feminist movement in India because of its exclusion of sex-workers and trans-women and expressed discomfort with the construction of feminists as the “good girls”. It was a session which deconstructed a number of problems including that of hate speech versus everyday mentality in the context of M.L.Sharma’s BBC interview, the Union Budget which has done little for women beyond the Nirbhaya Fund and the AAP Cabinet which has no women members. Another important point that Naina Kapoor raised was that language disables us and illustrated the same by asking the audience how comfortable it was with using the term “sexual”.
Post-lunch, a screening of the documentary “I Am Nirbhaya” was organised; the film, made by Areeb Hashmi and Stalin K., sent out the message of fearlessness as a weapon loud and clear. It was followed by an engaging Youthspeak session on Demystifying Law and Gender where students discussed their opinions on the limitations of the legal system. The day concluded with a music performance by Majma and a dance performance by Stance Dance Studio which had held workshops as part of the Congress.
As the second edition of the LSR Academic Congress came to a close, the important lessons to take home were that asserting one’s rights were important and that as individuals, we have not arrived yet, and so, the process of “exercising” equality and spreading sensitisation must continue and universities should become the sites of progressive thought and action. To borrow from Hillary Clinton, “the rights of women and girls is the unfinished business of the 21st century.” To conclude, Ms. Tripathi’s advice to women to begin with loving themselves even as society does not teach them to do so resonated with the ethos of the Congress- that of breaking barriers and claiming spaces.
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