There’s been a lot of talk about India’s recent progression. It’s true that we have a lot to celebrate. Yet, a bi-product of major development has also left many areas of our social and cultural development neglected. A country that devotes most of its time to the idolisation of the Goddess in her many manifestations, is also one that was named by the Guardian as one of the top five worst countries for women. So naturally we ask ourselves where the discrepancies lie. Why is it that even today, the record of mistreatment for women sits so highly in India?
Helping to answer this question is Voices of Indian Women, a new project launched by Francesca Zoppi and her working partner Marta Gabrieli. It builds on their recent attempt to bring to light some of the voices of women under current subjugation. To get a better understanding of this project and what it represents, I learnt more about Francesca and Marta themselves.
Francesca, who studied Hindi at SOAS, went on to revisit India with her photographer friend Marta Gabrieli. Once there, Francesca built on the work started in her dissertation, Sex Trafficking in India: Are current strategies working? - This was a case study that profiled the Gulabi Gang. On her return visit, she was able to build on her Hindi and her networks of association to bring to light some of the main points of concern. The main emphasis of the project was to draw out voices that hadn’t previously been heard, but also highlight the flaws in the current systems put in place to help vulnerable women. Voices of Indian Women, in their definition, set out the women affected as:
“Dalit women, (untouchable) or women like them” who are “trafficked, abused, exploited everyday in an illicit chain.”
Part of Marta and Francesca’s efforts involved days spent with “Hijras (trans-gender), lesbians, women in prostitution, and women and girls rescued from trafficking”. Together, they were able to break into these inner circles and build on the trust of these women. Bringing life to the project was the vivid photography, documented by Marta. Having previously worked primarily on portraits, she took her expertise further to look at the “sexual exploitation of women” and the every day lives of brothels. Her main aim being to add gravitas to the stories the pair of them were documenting.
I wanted to get beneath the surface of Marta and Francesca’s project. So after a recent conversation, this is what I unearthed:
Is there a feminist agenda that underlies this work? Francesca mentioned that more than a feminist agenda, this project is about bringing to light the human rights that these women are un-aware of, either through lack of education, or through subjugation. Of course it would be wrong to acknowledge no feminist themes in their work. Fundamentally though, this is about equal treatment amongst all.
Is there a danger of male misrepresentation? When I originally read the manifesto set out by the group. I was instantly curious about the use of the word ‘chauvinism’. Naturally, this did exist – as it would go forwards in explaining some of the attitudes encountered. But we acknowledged that it didn’t paint a picture of all Indian men everywhere. Just in the way that Voices of Indian Women doesn’t aim to paint a picture of all Indian women. The pair did attempt to speak to male individuals, but this was harder to achieve.
What are the current challenges that charities, NGOs and VIW are facing? The main obstacle discussed was penetrating circles of illicit activity. NGOs are able to do very little as they know very little on the subject. Francesca also touched upon an important point, which was the lack of education reaching these women. Some girls, for example, don’t even know what they’re part of. They don’t understand the illegality or the contravention of the situation. Yet, despite this, all they really want to do is to live normal lives in India. Francesca stressed that sometimes it is misunderstood that these women are seeking international refuge, which is hardly the case.
What are VIW plans going forward? Currently the pair have exhibited their project in Rome and are planning to bring this forward to London. They are, as yet, a small group and are on the look out for any one interested in expanding the project further.
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