Abused Women Showcase Their Life Stories Through Photography in India

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By Smita Deodhar, Womens Feature Service

The photo exhibit, “Zist Tarashi”, which premiered at the recent Kala Ghoda festival in Mumbai, offers glimpses of spaces and relationships one would never have seen. Sixteen young Muslim women chose to share their stories and talents to the world through photography.

Images at “Zist Tarashi” or Sculpting Lives, were shot during a photography workshop in July-October 2009. It was organized by Mumbai-based women’s groups called the Awaaz-e-Niswaan and Point of View. The participants were Muslim women between 15-28 years of age from localities such as Kurla, Nagpada, Sewri, Mazgaon and Bandra. Many are survivors of domestic violence, poorly educated and lacking employment skills. They were taken under the wing by Awaaz-e-Niswaan, an organization that works for empowering Muslim women in Mumbai.

Awaaz-e-Niswaan helped abused women to settle their marital disputes, restoring confidence and making them self reliant was the next step. They learned a new skill and builds confidence especially in photography where pictures convey varied messages.

“Turning them into professional photographers, was never the objective of the workshop. Giving them a sense of empowerment is our main goal,”clarifies Hasina Khan, a senior member of Awaaz-e-Niswaan.

The workshop was conducted by Sudharak Olwe, ace documentary photographer and head of the Photography Promotion Trust. He had done this kind of exercise before at a workshop for women at Chitrakoot. He had taught participants to make photographic records of violence against women in such a way that they would stand as legal evidence. Olwe had seen a startling transformation in the attitude and confidence levels of the women in Chitrakoot at the end of the exercise.

According to Olwe the Mumbai workshop presented a different challenge. These girls came from a conservative community with rigid beliefs regarding what women may or may not do. Photography fell in the forbidden category. There was fierce opposition from the families of many participants. Strenuous efforts were made to dissuade them from attending the workshop. Some had large amounts of domestic work piled on them so that they could not go.

Olwe taught them the basics of framing, zooming and using the flash. Technical details like aperture, depth of field and composition were mentioned in passing. The students followed this instruction to a ‘T’ and every picture depicts a story. Some photos are cheerful records of everyday life. Some take a critical look at injustice. Some are discomfiting.

While working in public spaces they took pictures of their homes and everyday surroundings. The antagonism was not unexpected and dealing with obstacles was part of the learning.

Reshma Pawaskar, 29, who is divorced and with an eight-year-old son, drew wary looks when she went to the docks at 6 A.M. to record the bustle of the fish market.

“My burqa, and the fact that I was clicking photos, made the fishermen very suspicious,” she confesses. She was shooed off from there.

The women may visit to the Jehangir Art Gallery and a field trip to Marine Drive.For them, life has changed in many significant ways. They can now deal with strangers without fear. At the exhibit, they were comfortable in public even without the burqa.

They have personally grown a lot as well. They are happy, confident, outgoing and positive looking group now. Reshma and three others, bitten by the photography bug, want to learn more advanced photography. Olwe has promised to help them.

“Zist Tarashi” was a thumping success. Except for a few Muslim viewers who objected to the inappropriateness of the venture. But all the Muslims and non-Muslims lauded the effort. Invitations were extended to hold similar exhibitions at places like Delhi and Kanpur. Donations were offered and there was a proposal to make a documentary on the women. A calendar showcasing their photographs sold 500 copies.

None of the women had anticipated this praise and publicity, which was also instrumental in making their families more appreciative.

“I am proud of my daughter now,” admits Sabiha Ansari, Paigambari’s mother.

There was a final surprise in store for the “burqa-clad photographers”. At a felicitation organized by Awaaz-e-Niswaan and Point Of View, chief guest Miss India 2008 Parvathy Omanakuttan gave a gaily wrapped package to each of them. The package contained a brand new digital camera, a gift from the organizers to their courageous wards. The delight with which it was received made a poignant scene. For the women, it was not just a camera. It was a pat of encouragement, a promise of support, and a chance to change their world through photographs and personal example.