TheRED ELEPHANT FOUNDATION A Civilian Peacebuilding Initiative

Tasneem Sara
Domestic Violence is among the most common instances of violence that challenge women and their lives, across different demographic groups. Challenging its occurrence needs sustained and committed effort. Tasneem Sara, the Fundraising & Communications of AWAG, India, talks about her work as part of an initiative that works to support women through action.

What is AWAG India all about?
 Ahmedabad Women’s Action Group- AWAG (acronym means noise) has been consistently working to protest all kinds of violence against women. AWAG is all about “Women”- Women rights, women equality and women empowerment. As a not-for- profit organisation, AWAG aims to support women who are victims of domestic violence by helping them assert their individuality. We at AWAG, strategize towards women survival and assist them to get social justice and equality.

Your key areas are to empower women against Domestic Violence. What does “empowerment” mean and imply?
At AWAG, we provide holistic service of a full cycle from counselling to empowerment. When a woman seeks help at AWAG, we ensure that she walks out dignified, healthy and economically independent. AWAG believes to raise awareness as the first step towards empowerment. A woman in need is assisted and made aware of her rights, psychological and legal counselling is provided to her that boasts her self-confidence. In the midst of all her personal struggles, police complaints and law suits, AWAG trains the woman to stitch and sew and become self-employed. However, for us, empowerment implies to self-awareness among women; income generation can only come later.

A lot of times, education is built towards literacy. There is seldom attention towards the sensitisation of individuals against violence since a young age. What are your thoughts on this?
Unfortunately, the term “education” has been narrowed down to degree and knowledge, wisdom and curriculum. The real essence of education i.e. deeper understanding, values and beliefs, respecting individuals and sensitising individuals against violence is most of the times ignored and put away. Partly, the patriarchal system that has been running down since generations is to be blamed for this mindset. A woman also is so affected by the patriarchal hierarchy that she thinks it is her fate to tolerate violence. Had education shed light to this, there would be awareness and people’s mindset would have changed since a very young age. Both men and women need to understand gender equality. Sadly no education curriculum involves it right from the beginning.

Could you share any positive anecdotes/ milestones in your work so far?
Helping and reaching out even a single woman is an achievement for AWAG. Over the years the organisation has touches lives of thousands of women and helped them survive. We have shared below one of our success stories:
Shabnam (name changed) is now forty years old. Her mother had died when she was just three. Her father was a coolie at the Ahmedabad railway station who worked hard day and night. Shabnam was raised by her brother and his wife. At the age of fourteen, she was married to man who was 10 years elder to her. Shabnam’s husband used to sell onions in the day time and was reasonably well-to-do. However, he had another business which he ran at night which was – gathering people and showing blue films at nominal cost. Each day, he would close down the business by 4 am in the morning and get home. Being affected by the blue films, his sexual desire would surge up and he would do all sorts of sexual violence on Shabnam. When Shabnam could not tolerate any further, she got back to her maternal home to seek help form her father and brother. But her brother’s wife thought that Shabnam was having an affair with some other young boy and thus she runs away from her husband’s home. Scared and victimised Shabnam had not told about her husband’s activities to anyone at her home. For six months, Shabnam did to and fro from her husband’s house to her own and each time she was sent back forcibly. When she could not take anymore, Shabnam jumped into the Kankaria lake- Ahmedabad and attempted a suicide. Luckily, a local vendor jumped after her and Shabnam was saved.
Eventually, Shabnam’s father brought her to AWAG and asked us to explain her to stop acting in this way and get back to her husband. At AWAG, Shabnam underwent psychological and legal counselling. At that time, through the counselling process, it was found that she underwent sexual and domestic violence. The legal counsellor at AWAG, fought for a divorce and amidst all this the organisation provided her economic empowerment through local sewing.
When Shabnam was totally out of depression and fears and her legal case was a victory, she decided to stick to AWAG for economic empowerment. Together with other violence victims and Shabnam, AWAG founded AWAG-EKTA INDUSTRIAL CO-OPERATIVE in the year 1992. Over the years, AWAG EKTA has turned into one of the biggest social enterprises. It now produces its own garment range under the name – EK AWAG and has a store to showcase the valued products.
Shabnam is still active with AWAG EKTA. She lives in her father’s house and comes to work everyday. Presently, 270 people are members of this co-operative, all of them domestic violence survivals.

What do you see as being the most common reasons for Domestic Violence?
A couple of things add up to domestic violence. Also several reasons are interlinked with it. One of the most common reasons is again the mindset of patriarchal hierarchy. As a result of this, both men and women think that a male is the ultimate decision maker and has a right to dominate the other gender. A female too considers this mentality as normal and thinks that it is her duty to obey or compel to the wishes of the opposite gender. Another most common and obvious reason for domestic violence is alcoholism. Sadly, this reason of domestic violence is prevailing in all socio-economic sectors of the society. Alcoholism in lower economic class is intertwined with the issues of poverty and financial crunches that lead to domestic violence in most of the cases. Other reasons for Domestic Violence are obvious ones such as lack of employment opportunities, improper education, lack of awareness and sensitivity towards gender equality.

What are AWAG’s plans/ activities like, in the coming days?
As the social, political and economic scenario is changing in India, so should the work pattern and approach for organisations like AWAG that deal with women’s issues. Sticking to its vision and mission, the organisation wishes to go to a next level by digging interconnected issues and challenges for the next generation of young women. Currently AWAG is actively exploring areas of health and sanitation for women, and in near future we would target short-term and long term goals to deal with issues such as Women and Cancer, Environment and Women’s issues, Women’s Empowerment, Mental health awareness in Adolescents etc. so to make a woman totally independent in the true sense.

Links to our work:  (This video will give highlights of our work) (This is one of our current project)

Gabriela Andreevska / Al Jazeera
Gabriela Andreevska was one of the most talked about people in the latter part of 2015 – what with her untiring efforts for refugees who arrived at the Republic of Macedonia. Every day, thousands of people arrived from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other places to Gevgelija, on the border of Greece, at the Republic of Macedonia. Their lack of knowledge of what they needed to do, and the dangers they were escaping tugged at heartstrings world over. Gabriela was one of the people who responded to their immediate needs as they landed up seeking peaceful futures. Gabriela shares her story with us as a social activist.

I am a social activist and have been involved in social activism in one way or the other in the place that I was born and raised – which is the Republic of Macedonia. The response to refugees and their needs, was, of course, a humanitarian action, but I see it as a part of my social and political activism. The deliberate need to effect change in the social and political landscape that has resulted in the creation of so many refugees is what motivated me to get involved. I have a degree in conference interpreting, and I do a lot of NGO-related work. My current job entails doing a lot of outreach work and social activism, and I am currently involved in doing a sustainability project to empower youth workers, i.e., people who work with the youth. I help empower these youth workers to further empower the youth they work with, to lead sustainable lifestyles as regards the economy, the ecology and social lives.

When the refugees started coming in, I started to get familiar with what was happening. Refugees crossed over to the city I live in, in huge numbers. Transportation of refugees who were on our territory, at first, was illegal. They used to stay in my area for days, and walk about 170 kilometres on foot. Having them camp in the railway stations and sleep on the concrete streets and roads was not something I could be indifferent to. One cannot turn a blind eye to them.

It started out as a response to a humanitarian need. There was an immediate need for food, water and clothing. These people were walking on foot and were literally sleeping on the streets every night. It was impossible for me to be indifferent. The international community was ignoring them, and our capital city at the Republic of Macedonia was not directly affected in any way, so it didn’t elicit a national response. When the government did not respond, it was but natural to have a civilian response. I see it as an incredible social movement. From a country subjected to innumerable visa regimes, and a country that is not part of the industrially developed world, I saw the refugee issue as being a joint struggle for freedom of movement, for justice, and for the greater cause of humanity.
My immediate challenge was that there was no law for refugees to cover these people. 

They were not there as asylum seekers because they were not seeking to settle down in the Republic of Macedonia – they were here only out of a need to transit. They did not want to stay in the republic, and so, they were seen as illegal migrants. Dealing with them was challenging as the police did not tolerate their presence and our aim of helping them. There was a point where we hid behind railway tracks in order to give them water. There were plenty of police restraints. If you are not part of an NGO, you cannot provide for these people or help or interact with them. So, we took help from an organisation and wore their badges although we were not their members or working on their behalf. A lot of bureaucracy unfolded. The government claimed that it was all necessary to protect the refugees themselves, but really, it is a way to control their entry. People-to-people solidarity was restricted right from the beginning. Now, of course, the law allows them to use public transport, but it has always been a struggle for them to cross the border. Those that had wheelchairs sometimes got stuck in the mud.

What started off as a civic initiative slowly grew. Now, there are no refugees in my city. So, I travel to the border camp and help people – we help different organisations that are at work. We provide the refugees with food, water, hygiene products and clothes. There is a lot of information sharing as well. We tell them where they are, where they should be, what places they should avoid, what places have a possible tryst with smugglers, and what dangers they should avoid. We also make it a point to monitor human rights abuses and share information with activists and refugees. Seeing the nature of what they’ve faced in the course of their journey, we also give them hugs.

There are a lot of beautiful and powerful memories from my journey so far. Recently, I wrote a piece on the plight of female refugees. The media focuses very little on them. They focus on the narratives of young able-bodied men who come into Europe, but the truth is, about 40% of the total number of refugees who come comprise women and children. There are so many women who have either lost their husbands, or whose husbands are already in the EU, who make the journey by themselves with their children. It was sad, but also inspiring to see such strong women with their kids in tow, walking on the highway. Nobody quits. They just keep going! I’ve never seen such determination around.

Going forward, I think it is important, no matter where you are in the world, to really make the effort to get involved in political activism. 

The international solidarity movement is gaining strength. I am part of a connected group of activists across Europe. It is called Solidarity Beyond Borders, and demands and seeks the correct treatment of refugees. It is definitely necessary to do as much humanitarian work as you can, but you shouldn’t stop with it, because stopping with that means that things won’t change. I am grateful for the support, but it is important that we all indulge in political activism and demand structural changes, and that we ourselves make sure to change our habits and systems that we live in, that created the refugees in the first place. That alone will make a lasting change. 
Gulwali Passarlay
When we get on Skype, Gulwali’s cheery voice greets me. He is exceptionally cheerful, and it’s contagious. “You know, I had a photo shoot a while ago, and my roommate asked me if I was going to be the next Shah Rukh Khan!” he chuckles. I marvel at the reference – well, of course, it isn’t news that the actor is famous and has a fan-following that transcends borders, but it’s still heartwarming to hear. “I just got saw Dilwale yesterday. There is actually no Indian movie I haven’t seen yet. It is so much fun! I am very fond of Indian movies, especially South Indian movies. My roommate and I watch a lot of South Indian movies because we think that the original Indian movies are the Tamil movies and that everything else copies from them! I know a few Tamil movie actors, I don’t know their names, but I think it’s so much fun. Sometimes I fast forward the movie – I watch half an hour of the film, and if I find it familiar, I skip right to the end!” I chuckle, and offer to give him movie titles from my limited repertoire of already-watched Tamil films, and he says, “Oh please do! Chances are that we may have already watched it, but of course, please do!” And then we sit down to talk about his life, and his inspiring story.

You have quite an inspiring story of survival to your credit. Could you take us through it in a nutshell?
My name is Gulwali Passarlay, and I am Afghan. My name is a mix of three words – Gul, which means flower; wali, which means friend of God and Passarlay which means spring. So I am a mix of three beautiful things! It is a typical Afghan name. I was born in Afghanistan and grew up when the Taliban government was in power, in 1994. My father was a doctor and a freedom fighter and was involved with the Mujahideen. When I was three or four, I moved in with my grandparents in the hillside in eastern Afghanistan. When the US invasion took place in Afghanistan, my life completely changed. Life as I knew it was no longer the same as it was. When the war was at its heights, I was 12. In 2006, after my father was killed, I was caught between the Taliban who wanted to recruit me, and the Americans who wanted to use me. My mother decided to pay for me to be smuggled out of the country to reach safety. My mother paid money for me and my brother to be smuggled out of Afghanistan for safety – and the journey was full of a lot of things. I moved across eight countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Calais in France and the UK. My journey was filled with everything – I endured imprisonment, hunger, cruelty, brutality, loneliness, terror and even nearly drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. I sometimes wonder if it was all worth it because I am so far away from my family. I recently lost my little sister, and my grandmother. I wasn’t there by their side, and I miss them very much. At the same time, I see that there is so much work that is left to be done. I have been safe, definitely, but this safety has had an opportunity cost of its own.

Read our review of The Lightless Sky here
Buy Gulwali's book here
There is so much attention today, for the cause of refugees. But in reality, really, we’ve had the crisis for many years. Why do you think it took the world the death of Aylan Kurdi, to open its eyes?
What you see in today’s context of refugees and migrants coming out is not new. It has been happening for the past decade and more. The story of Aylan Kurdi really exploded the issue because it had now come to our doorstep – we were able to see that the situation was worsening, and there appeared to be no end in sight. Imagine seeing a little boy washed ashore while he was escaping a fate that would have killed him at home! What people know, actually, as I discovered, about these things, is very little. There is not much attention in the global scene about issues like this. I want to be able to effect positive change. 

There is an upswing in countries taking refugees in, but there are all these restricted numbers and quotas of people they can and are willing to take in. What do you think of it?
One in ten refugees are in Europe. The ten top countries that take refugees are developing countries like Pakistan, Jordan and Lebanese. Lebanon is a small country with one in four people being a Syrian Refugee. Germany has taken more asylum applications than Britain has done in the last couple of years. It is really hard for refugees. I was disappointed by the response before, but now, with the Welcome March in London – where ordinary people welcomed the refugees – that has changed. It is beautiful to see the compassion. Syrians, before the war, never left home in droves – Syria in fact was home for refugees in the region. If there are over a million and counting refugees coming in from Syria, that should really tell you something about how bad the situation is, there.

If you had an idea in mind to address the situation of refugees, given the amount of political
rhetoric and conversation around the issue, what would it be?
It shouldn’t be a political issue. It is a humanitarian issue. It is important to deal with this compassionately. We shouldn’t wash our hands off the crisis, and we should really do it out of compassion and care. We’ve stood by a lot of issues in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Syria, and so many more things. We should do a lot for people all over the world – no one likes to leave their countries, homes and families. We should take as many refugees as we can and we should.

Do you yearn to go home? What are your thoughts about your future?
I am yet to meet a refugee who doesn’t want to go home. Your home is always your home, no matter what, and that is what Afghanistan is for me. I want to be the President of Afghanistan someday – I don’t care about the designation – I just want to be in a position of leadership to appropriately influence policy and legislation, in a way that can help people suitably and better. I miss Afghanistan. Britain is my second home, and I love Britain, but my heart definitely is with Afghanistan. My hardships and struggles have made me a better person. If I had to make the journey I once did again, I wouldn’t be able to. But having experienced all that I did, I learned what refugees suffer. Being born Afghan makes me proud – it’s not my fault that I was born Afghan, and I am proud of it. I have learned a lot, and I saw the world from outside. I feel like I am a global citizen. I hope to go back – when I do all my political activism, I know that I want to be positive, and be in a position to bring peace and expertise. All that I am learning is certainly helping me. I hope, in 2030, to contend elections.

You’ve written your story in the form of a book, The Lightless Journey. What do you hope to achieve with the book?
What I precisely want to do is to lend a human voice to the situation that refugees face. I want to give the refugee crisis a human face and a human voice. It is appalling how many instances of violations are happening, and how many refugees are being forced out of their houses. There is a lack of information. I wrote the Lightless Journey to talk about suffering and give it a human face. “To risk my life had to mean something. Otherwise what was it all for?”

Dr. Lina Abirafeh, the Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), in Lebanon, has nearly twenty years of experience, addressing gender issues in both development and humanitarian settings. Her focus is on gender-based violence in emergency settings - conflict, post-conflict, and natural disaster. She has worked with many UN agencies and international NGOs in countries such as Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Lebanon, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Haiti, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, amongst others. Dr. Abirafeh has also conducted research trips to Bangladesh, Fiji, Kenya, Singapore, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda on various gender issues and has published much of this work in books and journals.
Here’s an excerpt of an interview we had with Dr. Abirafeh.

The beginnings
I was born into GBV activism, really! I think I was destined to do this before I was born! I am Lebanese on my father’s side, and Palestinian on my mother’s side. There were so many aspects to my identity and nothing was taken for granted. I came from different conflicts. Being female in this context is a conflict in itself. After being born in Beirut, we moved to Saudi Arabia, and I remember having questioned gender issues all the time. My parents were liberal and had strong feminist principles – although maybe they didn’t realize it at the time. I remember wanting a doll and my mother telling me no, and that I was going to do more in life. I wound up with a gender neutral childhood that affected me profoundly. We lived in a compound and did not quite integrate with the mainstream Saudi population, but I did see the state of women. My mother would have to wear an abaya in order to move about outside the house, even if she was wearing shorts underneath. I moved to the US when I was 10. For high school, I went to a liberal all-girls school, called the Madeira School.  They had a class called Comparative Women’s History. It was an earth shattering experience. We spoke about foot biding and FGM, they showed us videos and talked about it. That class set my career in motion. They even talked about violence in a western context, to clearly demonstrate that no one is immune to it. It cuts across every boundary one can think of. GBV was the most unbelievable and most egregious form of violence against humanity! 

What was ironic was that I picked up on the subject and obsessed over it, and marinated in it – and I’ve pretty much done nothing else. It’s like I’m this one-trick pony that can do this one thing. My first paper was on FGM. My mother asked me, “Where do you get these grim things from? You’re such a depressing child!” I could not let it go. You could put me in any class – European History or whatever, I would always write my paper around something from about gender issues, such as the oppression of women in World War II or something on these lines, or a World Religion Class – would have a paper on Women and Alternative Religions. I could not get over it. I was constantly customizing every class I took towards my interest. I did it for the rest of my high school life, I did it throughout college, and then graduate school, and then while doing my PhD, as well. I went through a Development Studies framework, but it was still all about gender issues. That was the lens through which I knew the world. Once I put the glasses on, there was no other way. It was cemented into my head. 

It’s funny because people ask me things like – You have so many conflicting issues, you’re Palestinian, shouldn’t you be addressing that cause? As much as I am an advocate for all those things, gender inequality trumps everything. That is the most salient aspect of my identity. We come in with all these hyphenated identities - which issues are you going to fight for? and what are you going to do? and who do you feel like being this morning? That was it for me!

Challenges while focusing on GBV Activism
There are so many challenges. This applies to so many countries - across the board. The first thing definitely is insecurity. It is hard to work in places where bad things keep happening. Women are more vulnerable even without added insecurity, but in these contexts, they’re even more vulnerable. There’s no chance of building anything sustainable, there’s no chance of stability, conflicts recur, and violence is cyclical at every level – in the home, in society or in the country. There’s really no way to ever strike a balance. Especially now, with all those figures we’re hearing about how human displacement has been at its worst since World War II, we have a global picture that is pretty bleak. I want to find some optimistic strands to hang onto, but I’m really not finding them. That’s the hardest part. 

I work in these countries – whether it is in the Central African Republic, or here in Lebanon, or in Afghanistan or wherever else, for five minutes you think it’s good, but the next two years it’s terrible. And then you may have this window where things are working and the situation again deteriorates for one reason or the other. I think contexts like that are exhausting, because people no longer have the energy to pick up and rebuild. I find that to be particularly taxing. There are a lot of socio-cultural obstacles, also. There are a lot of excuses that cultures and societies find to oppress women and they might be based on culture, custom, religion, traditions, or might be a reaction or backlash to perceived, imported or imposed “western elements”. Women become the poster children of this sacred cultural ground. That becomes the cornerstone on which all social movements or lack thereof (backward-moving social movements) rest. In gender issues, those are the last rights to be granted and the first to be taken away, at every level. There’s also a level of policy and legislation. I believe that it helps, but transcending it into lower levels is also challenging. It’s education, the role of men, the ideas about this being a secondary issue especially in the context of an ongoing conflict. That continuously trumps the issues that are fundamental to more than half the population. 

I find it so frustrating that people fail to see how critical this is. Even when rights are granted – I don’t quite like the word granted – rights are ours, to be seized, enforced and owned. To say “granted” is to make it tokenistic. To give you an example, in Lebanon, there was a protracted fight for legislation against Domestic Violence. That finally came through, but provisions against Marital Rape were removed. All religious leaders, legislators, government, parliamentarians and also men behaved as though to say, “Look here ladies! We got you your little law, this is awesome! Don’t go nitpicking on the small stuff like the marital rape thing!” That fell short, dramatically short, in fact! For me, that went to the core of the issue. Religious leaders said that including provisions against marital rape in domestic violence legislation would destroy the social fabric of the family. Why would they say this? Let’s unpack it. Are you saying that the social fabric of society and the community as a whole, is built on the fact that women are property of men at large? Starting out with her father, at first, and then her husband – she’s property, throughout. That includes – most dramatically -  sexually. They missed the whole point. 

We, as feminists must  find the delicate balance between politicking and a cultural way of discussion or diplomacy to get what we want. It is a constant source of tension to see what form the activism will take.  It is not a sellout to choose one over the other. Are we going to settle for the lowest common denominator, or is it all or nothing? These are tough things we have to negotiate. We have to have these critical discussions with the big picture in mind. We’re all fighting for agency, choice and voice – and then to interpret these in the many different ways in which we are entitled to.

Dealing with the challenges
I changed my activist strategy recently. I took up this position as the Director of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World (IWSAW), at the Lebanese American University. I recently changed my strategy because I was doing emergency and humanitarian work for many years. There’s a lot of importance and great value in donning that superhero cape and getting out there in the first 72 hours, with gender issues on the agenda, and a lot of integrated responses that are critical. But, this time, I decided that it might be interesting to do something with a foundation for longer-term change in a system that already existed. I hadn’t considered working with an academic institution in the past. I had worked with the UN, with local and international NGOs and even women’s organizations, but not academia. I felt that it would be an interesting opportunity to see things from that side. Young people congregate in this setting, so minds are waiting to be shaped. IWSAW offers full range of activities – education, research, development projects, outreach. And it has solid staying power. This Institute has been around for over forty years, and it’s going to be around for a lot longer. It has the power to influence. An academic institution comes with a certain amount of credibility, we can do the research needed to understand the situation, and to work on the field as well. This is an interesting position – and I realised it was a different way of doing the same type of work, while also having the opportunity to make a lasting impact. 

Milestones in the journey, Anecdotes on the way
I have to say that people ask me a lot for what my greatest success has been. I think they want to hear these things – to know psychologically that there is some traction and hope of positive gains. I have a few anecdotes of small things - although these things were big for me – they’re my aha moments, for I feel that change has happened – even if I won’t see it fully flourish. I have stopped looking for these moments because I feel that looking for success would leave me discouraged. Secondly, it’s not possible to see the immediate result of this work – it’s about social change. What I truly believe is that I don’t know if I would see changes in my lifetime – but it is still worth it. I can romanticize and talk about the next generation. I have a niece, and I don’t want her - or any person - to feel like their choices, freedom and mobility is restricted in any way. There are so many things that fundamentally bother me about how we are expected to operate as females, from the female foetus all the way to aged women. We curb our behaviour, restrict our lives, and manage everything we do because we have that extra burden, and live a life that is perceived to be fundamentally unequal. Everything from harassment on the streets to mass discrimination against women leading to what amounts to a genocide - Where does it all end? How do we build a society on human rights and equality? That’s the hardest part of it. The anecdotes are few and far between but it doesn’t mean that I should stop what I am doing. I am extremely excited by the small things. For instance - the Institute works with the Feminist Club at the University. In September, they told me that they wanted to launch a campaign for university processes to change their name from the Women’s Club to the Intersectional Feminist Club. They wrote this great piece about all the intersectionality of inequalities, and how they wanted to address these things, and become advocates and champions of the cause. I loved it! 

The university administration asked me what I thought, and I endorsed it. I loved watching them unpack their reasons for doing what they did – and cultivating their own feminist consciousness
In Afghanistan, I remember seeing women who were offered literacy classes turn them down because they didn’t see value. They sought safety and survival first – of course! They had starving kids and needed to put food on the table – and it wasn’t the right time. They went through programs that helped them receive vocational training, learn skills, and rebuild their lives. It was only later that a woman told me that she had been there for six months, and she was getting a little money, and had regained some power and control over her own life, and she just realized that she had never once written her own name. Afghanistan has one of the highest illiteracy rates in the world for women – so making that demand was empowering for her. I watched this woman be guided in writing her own name for the first time ever – and I cried my eyes out because it was just so amazing to see that she came to that place on her own. She regained her sense of choice and voice and felt empowered about the other basic things in her life. Her fundamentals were taken care of.  Once that happens, other things had materialized and became important to her. 

An idea to end violence against women

Giving a TED talk was a fascinating process. I thought I could give a speech – and I can do that in “auto-pilot” mode. And so I wrote an initial  speech that sounded more like a training. But that’s not what these talks are about – they need to be simple, relatable, not technical. Something interesting and relevant to all audiences - to motivate the masses to take action, and to share that one big idea. My one big idea was to end it, end violence against women, because I couldn’t stand it. But I had to leave the audience on a positive note - with a take home message. I put it all out of my head when I was sent to Nepal as part of the humanitarian response for the April earthquake.

But then the epiphany happened exactly as I told it in the talk. On the day of the second earthquake, three weeks after the first one, I was walking to the office and I saw the message I wanted to convey spray-painted on the wall: Start Where You Stand. It was amazing . I wanted to tell people that it is everybody’s responsibility, ending this violence. We have to look around and see how pervasive it is, and the impact of such things. I wanted to convey the idea that it was personal – that we are all affected, all responsible. I was hung up on it. I saw this little graffiti, and it hit me. I wrote the speech on the plane returning from Nepal. When I went to London, I pieced it together.
The day of that second earthquake, all of us held onto that column, and there was so much fear in everyone’s eyes. It clears your head in a creepy way, and your priorities align. It is about survival. When it comes to GBV, it is REALLY about survival. It cuts right to who you are as a person. There’s no one who is immune to it. One of the things that still bothers me is that while making the case about the importance of GBV, there isn’t much of an understanding that it is a fundamental element of our existence, life-and-death, life-saving. People would rather go hungry than to lose safety and bodily integrity. Hunger seems small in comparison with the safety and integrity of my body. I wanted to leave people with that feeling in the pit of my stomach. That feeling has rendered me unable to watch movies with excessive violence – particularly GBV. For instance, I had to pause watching The Whistleblower so many times because I wanted to vomit. It makes me so sick! Without wanting to make people vomit in the audience, I wanted people to feel that feeling that is inside you – like a rot inside you. It bothers me so much. You don’t need first-hand experience to know that this is wrong.
GBV occurs because of inequality, fear, and a belief that power is a zero sum game. It is about the belief that giving women their rightful due will somehow affect men adversely. Of course it affects men and boys too – but we know women are the majority. It is the longest running violence that we’ve known to exist. It is the most ugly and unfortunate and unacceptable by-product of humanity. I don’t think this exists in the animal kingdom! And yet we feel it all the time, and at so many different levels and in so many different forms. We just need to recognize how pervasive it is – and scream This is enough!  

The coming days
The Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World is doing a lot of exciting things. It is a critical time to address Arab Women’s issues - by and for Arab women. As we say: Nothing about us without us! All these global policies and dialogues and opinions without engaging Arab women thinkers, activists, academics - that’s not the way things should work. We should raise the profile of those voices and critically be the bridge, helping to ensure that what is said and done FOR Arab women is done BY Arab women. That is critical for us in the next year. We just launched a new Minor in Gender Studies and we have a Master’s in Gender Studies, and we’re also going to launch a program in continuing education for training on gender issues in development and humanitarian assistance. We have a bi-annual journal called Al-Raida, an Arabic word that means The Pioneer. I love that word – I like that idea and that identity - we need to embrace it strongly. There’s also other kinds of research, for instance focusing on economic empowerment, and to update a nearly twenty year old study on female labour force participation in Lebanon. We are also looking to continue our work on the human rights of female migrant domestic workers. Next year, we’re also launching a training program for police officers on GBV. I’d also like to create books for children that include GBV prevention and protection messages – we should start young! 

Follow Lina on Twitter as  @LinaAbirafeh. Follow the IWAW website for regular posts and updates from Lina.
Priya’s Shakti, India’s first sensitized issue-centric comic followed closely at the heels of the 2012 gang-rape incident in New Delhi. A culture of insensitivity and character assassination was exposed like a can of worms, as the callous attitude of people in asserting that the “woman asks for it” if “she dresses a certain way” or “stays out late” seemed to distract from the underlying patriarchy that augments the occurrence of gender-based violence. Priya’s Shakti, was brought forth to use the medium of comics to help change attitudes. Here’s an interview with the team behind Priya’s Shakti.

What inspired Priya's Shakti? What was the genesis of it?
Ram Devineni: I was in Delhi when the horrible gang rape happened on the bus in 2012, and was involved the protests that soon followed. Like many people, I was horrified by what had happened and angered by the indifference exhibited by government authorities at every level. There was an enormous outcry in particular from young adults and teenagers — both women and men. At one of the protests, my colleague and I spoke to a Delhi police officer and asked him for his opinion on what had happened on the bus. Basically the officer’s response was that “no good girl walks home at night.” Implying that she probably deserved it, or at least provoked the attack. I knew then that the problem of sexual violence in India was not a legal issue; rather it was a cultural problem. A cultural shift had to happen especially views towards the role of women in modern society. Deep-rooted patriarchal views needed to be challenged.
For about a year, I traveled around India and Southeast Asia learning from poets, philosophers, activists, and sociologists working for NGOs focused on gender-based violence. Talking with several rape survivors, I realized how difficult it was for them to seek justice and how much their lives were constantly under threat after they reported the crime. Their family, local community, and even the police discouraged them from pursuing criminal action against their attackers. The burden of shame was placed on the victim and not the perpetrators. This created a level of impunity among men to commit more rapes.
On a parallel journey of understanding, I began researching Hindu mythology and discovered the many rich stories involving regular people and the gods. Often a favorite disciple would call on the gods for help during dire situations. So, I began formulating a new mythological tale where a mortal woman and rape survivor would seek help from the Goddess Parvati — only after she had nowhere else to turn. Although Lord Shiva and other gods get involved, eventually it is up to her to challenge people’s perceptions. I wanted to create a new Indian “superhero” – Priya, who is a rape survivor and through the power of persuasion she is able to motivate people to change.
Ram Devineni 
How did the conceptualization go? Was there an automatic consensus on Priya, and the way the storyline would go?
Ram Devineni: I originally wanted to do a documentary about what happened on the bus and the public reaction. After interviewing many people, I felt I could not tell a “narrative” story. I am not a journalist, so my interesting is telling narrative nonfiction stories. Also, the issue was too emotional at that time, and felt if a documentary were to be made, it would have to happen much later. Originally, the focus was the Goddesses Parvati, but through the process of writing it with Vikas, it become clear the shift should be on Priya. We needed to ground the problem and solution in a human being and rape survivor.
How did your team come about? Did you guys have a prior inclination towards cause-driven art?
We are all active in various cause driven art projects, and all of us are writer, poets or filmmakers.  But, this is the first time we all worked together. I met Dan Goldman for the first time at a StoryCode Meetup in New York City. For both of us it was our first Meetup we attended and he was walking out and I was walking in, and we bumped into each other – literally it was fate.

You did the art with such an authentic Indian touch. What went into it? What were your challenges, if any?
Dan Goldman (who did the art): "I spent a lot of time looking at Indian motifs in comics, films, ancient and modern art while the rest of the team was discussing the storyline for Priya’s Shakti. In a way, I was preparing the stew before adding the vegetables: by the time the script was ready to draw, I knew what the look and feel of the comic would be and it was just a matter of telling the story in that style. The look I was working towards was not a radical reinvention, but a slick spin on the classic Amar Chitra Katha designs, done with a colorful palette appeals to young people whose minds are blown by tablets and 3D films. It was important for me to transport the reader up to the gods in a manner simultaneously grounded and fantastical."

Dan Goldman at work
 There's a huge chance to lapse into "stereotyping" or "mansplaining" or even "feminism that depicts hatred for men". And then there's this whole issue of caricaturizing characters. Priya's Shakti did none of it - it hit home hard and created a role model in print. How did you achieve that? What were your thoughts while doing this?
Vikas (who co-wrote): They key issue from the beginning was keeping the focus on Priya as a human being, not a superhero.  We consulted with Shikha Bhatnagar and social impact strategist Lina Srivastava and other scholars who have experience in working against gender-based violence in India; Ram also conducted interviews with survivors.  What became clear was that ultimately what was needed was for an authentic, human woman transforming the world.  While she is divinely inspired, Priya, like all of us, has no supernormal powers.  By speaking up and breaking the cycle of silence and shame, change begins.  She inspires others.  We bandied about numerous endings, and early scenarios where she had a “superpower” but ultimately, what won out was valorizing all the brave women who have spoken truth to power.

What were some of your challenges as a team? How did you overcome it?
Overall, the creation of Priya’s Shakti was a team effort. Everyone played an important part in the story, characters, images, and social impact. I guess the biggest challenge for the men working on the project is to make sure Priya was genuine and honest. So, having Lina, Shikha and Shubhra Prakash involved was very important. Also, interviewing gang rape survivors and working with our NGO partner Apne Aap helped make what we were doing authentic and real. All of us were deeply moved by their accounts and knew we had to create an honest story.

What are your future plans for Priya's Shakti? How has the response been so far?
We had over 500,000 downloads of the comic book worldwide and in India. The comic book is free to everyone. We also have printed comics, who we distribute through our NGO partners and reaches rural and communities who do not have access to technology.  Apne Aap has been distributing the comic from Delhi to Bihar and many other places in India. Also, this is the first of a series and we are working on the next chapter about acid attacks. The story is being written by Paromita Vohra, an Indian writer and feminist scholar living in Mumbai.

Molly Boeder Harris
Over the last decade, Molly Boeder Harris has worked in community-based rape crisis centers as a medical and legal advocate, provided crisis support and prevention education for students on college campuses and has directed a campus Women’s Center. During that time, she also became a certified yoga instructor and has since been teaching yoga at rape crisis centers, yoga studios and social service agencies. In 2012, Molly founded The Breathe Network, a non-profit organization that connects survivors of sexual violence with sliding-scale, trauma-informed, holistic healing arts practitioners in the United States and Canada. Molly holds a Master’s Degree in International Studies and a Master’s Certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies. Most recently, Molly began training in Somatic Experiencing, the trauma-resolution method developed by Dr. Peter Levine, with the intention of synthesizing her work as a yoga instructor teaching trauma survivors with this revolutionary and transformative healing technique.

Here’s her story.

Could you start by sharing your story, to the extent you are comfortable and deem relevant to the work you do?

I began exploring holistic healing modalities and trauma resilience theory in 2003 after being raped and sexual assaulted. It wasn’t the first time I had survived sexual violence, but for various personal reasons and the specific nature of the event, it was exponentially more traumatizing to me than past experiences. The rape created a total split and a sense of irreparable chaos within my physical body, my brain and my soul. It completely dismantled the view I had on the world and my sense of who I was in it, and it disrupted nearly every relationship in my life. At the same time, I started working with the trauma in a variety of ways, through yoga, holistic psychotherapy, acupuncture, massage and art therapy and within those sessions, I was uncovering not only my rage, my shame, my fear, and my grief, but also, tapping into resilience, power, beauty and a sense of inherent self-worth. I had not known those aspects of myself prior to the event of my rape, which made me incredibly curious about the process of addressing healing – and mental disturbance, physical pain, and psychic unrest in this holistic way, through all the various channels of the human system. How could it be that during the darkest time of my life I was beginning to tap into and cultivate a sense of compassion, purpose, love and faith?

I stayed with the healing process, treating it like a full-time job where all of my energy, effort and resources went into the work of healing. I trained as a volunteer advocate for survivors in 2006, and within a year, I started working professionally as an Advocate, which I would continue to do for the next 8 years. During this time, I also earned my 200-hour yoga certification and began teaching yoga to colleagues and volunteers at rape crisis centers to promote sustainability and self-care. Eventually, I was teaching trauma-informed yoga classes specifically for survivors of sexual violence. I am now training in Somatic Experiencing, which for me is one of the most powerful method and theories of how we can call upon the internal resources we have within to pave the way towards embodied healing, balance and wholeness. I am synthesizing my yoga teaching with all that I am learning through my Somatic Experiencing training and I have already seen this have a profound impact on the survivors I work with individually. The two approaches are such natural complements!

What inspired the birth of the Breathe Network? How did it come about?

I worked for many years in the movement to end sexual violence as an advocate, a first responder to Emergency Rooms, police stations and eventually, on college campuses with survivors, and I found the work to be tremendously toxic for me. My system was crashing due to the nature of being constantly on-call – essentially waiting for the next trauma to happen – and it took a major toll on my physical, emotional and spiritual health. It became clear that it was also having a negative impact on my ability to continue moving further along with my own healing process since due to the depletion I was experiencing, and the countless stories of rape and horror I was exposed to daily, many of the symptoms I had worked so hard to heal were returning. I began to see the ways in which my clients’ stories were mixing with and catalyzing the intensity of my own.

I was told by every supervisor I had that I was too sensitive to do this work, and that hurt me deeply – like they were implying something was wrong with me or that I wasn’t strong enough. I truly believe that it is my sensitivity that enables me to be compassionate, honest and present in the way I show up for people whether they are in crisis or they are in my yoga classes. I realized after a series of difficult work environments that perhaps I was trying to fit into a system that wasn’t meant for me, and that it might be worthy to investigate how I would want to do the work. That is when I knew I would create The Breathe Network.

I laugh sometimes because I think I have created a network where people’s innate “sensitivity” – the thing that I was told was impeding on my capacity to be effective in “the movement” – is basically the essential ingredient in providing quality, safe, trauma-informed care. I also wanted to tell a wider truth about the non-linear journey of healing after sexual violence, that I wasn’t reading or hearing about anywhere else. There was a sort of blueprint that was implied – victim, to survivor to thriver – and it didn’t really speak to the ebb and flow of healing, the scope of that process that emerges and recedes, causing disruption and breakthroughs at different points in the trajectory of a person’s life. I wanted to find a way to make space for all of that. I wanted to support people in being liberated from abstract notions of a timeline for healing. I wanted to keep liberating myself from that belief that had been placed upon me. Ultimately, the combination of my personal experiences utilizing the healing arts to recover and what I saw through my professional experiences providing medical or legal advocacy services, inspired me to create The Breathe Network. It is a place where my passions for anti-violence advocacy, holistic healing and trauma resilience have all naturally aligned and can grow.

Can you tell us a little about the work that TBN does?

The Breathe Network’s primary purpose is to connect survivors of sexual violence with sliding-scale, trauma-informed, holistic healing arts practitioners. To support that mission, we offer training for healing arts practitioners and health and wellness providers in understanding the nuances of sexual violence – what it is, the prevalence of sexual violence, the many barriers to healing, how it impacts people physically, mentally and spiritually, etc. We teach techniques and share recommendations from members of our team about how to make one’s healing arts practice more trauma-informed, how, when and why to provide referrals, and how to collaborate with a variety of systems of care as well as how to collaborate with the strengths and resources of the unique system of the person in front of you!

We have a very dynamic and thorough website where survivors can identify healers that are either near them geographically, or that provide distance healing. We have 75 practitioners spread across the United States and Canada, and we would like to have a couple thousand! We have an active blog where we explore some of the more common themes related to sexual violence – navigating relationships, forgiveness, trauma and the body, rape myths and stereotypes, facing anniversaries, vicarious trauma, self-care and more. We also host monthly and bimonthly educational teleseminars where one of our practitioners will shine a light on how their modality is uniquely situated to help survivors heal, how it works, ways they have adapted it to be more trauma-informed. We’ve hosted 14 so far, including topics such as meditation, color therapy, EMDR, art therapy, trauma-informed yoga, as well as issue and identity specific topics like trauma’s impact on the brain and nervous system and how to create culturally sensitive and culturally affirmative healing spaces. As I mentioned we host a number of trainings for healing arts practitioners, and also for members of the advocacy community – legal, medical, social services – exploring and describing how our work complements and enhances their wok. We really see our work as vital to the movement, that in fact, if the movement calls itself trauma-informed, it would be a best practice, a most ethical practice, to intentionally link survivors with alternative healing to support them physically, emotionally, energetically and spiritually while navigating these various systems and healing in general. We know enough about trauma as a culture, let alone as a movement to recognize that it impacts all aspects of the human person and that it doesn’t heal in a linear way nor in a matter of weeks or months, or even years.

You use holistic healing modalities in helping survivors - could you talk a little bit about holistic healing and what it entails?

Holistic healing addresses the whole person – their physical health, their emotional health and at times, their energetic or spiritual wellness. It can be part of traditional medical intervention, and it can also be complementary to such interventions. A holistic healing arts practitioner, whether a naturopathic doctor, a yoga instructor or a chiropractor, will acknowledge and be able to support the connection between the body and the mind, and for some, the spirit. This is really important because we can experience an emotionally traumatic event that manifests in physical pain and discomfort. When we work with a holistic healer, they are inclined to identify that connection, to validate the person’s unique response and to find ways to address both the emotional injury and the physical manifestation of pain. It can also be that a physical accident can lead to mental distress and so it is important to see that there are all these entry points in to how we heal. For survivors, it is incredible important to have choice and a range of options. Some will be comfortable addressing the trauma by talking about what happened, whereas others may want to focus on the way it shows up in their body with a movement based practice. Sometimes seemingly unrelated events or experiences in our life can trigger or stir up past trauma – and holistic healers understand that well and can validate and normalize a survivor’s response.

What is really wonderful about the healing arts is they recognize that working in any one realm can positively influence and support the others. This way of viewing people resources a survivor with more tools for how they choose to direct and engage in their healing. It also doesn’t privilege one channel, say the body, over another channel of healing, which could be through the mind. Holistic healing is about returning to balance from the inside out, and it recognizes that the various imbalances that manifest in the wake of trauma, loss, and toxic stress are natural and normal reactions to difficult experiences or life circumstances. This enables us to maintain a sense of compassionate curiosity about ourselves, to remain fluid and present with our dynamic journey and to cultivate gratitude for the insights we will discover when the next layer of our wound emerges.

What have your challenges been, so far? How have you overcome them?

A big challenge is that we are a new and small organization that is attempting to really innovate and transform the way our movement, and our society as whole, responds to the trauma of sexual violence. There are a lot of very large organizations that have such a long tradition of doing the work and a big presence in the movement – which can make it a bit harder to be seen and heard. Additionally, people tend to create a hierarchy of which resources or which needs matter and they try to universally apply their belief to all survivors, which isn’t ideal. They may look to our work – holistic healing arts resources – as less important, less urgent, less necessary. We know that this is contrary to survivors’ experiences and that our work is vital to giving survivors the tools, options and resources that they can carry with them throughout the lifelong journey of healing.

No other non-profit organization is doing this work on this scale which to me is exciting and an opportunity. We are trying to build the organizational capacity to make holistic healing accessible for survivors across the United States. So, what is in some ways our biggest challenge – being innovative, being new, being different, is also our greatest resource. It is obvious that people are ready for a different way of addressing and responding to sexual violence. We are actively naming and treating the way trauma lands in the body and gets stored in tissues, memories, sensation, behaviors and imagery. We speak openly about the terror of having an out of body experience during sexual assault and wondering if and how you could ever fully bring your spirit back inside your shape. We explicitly discuss the nervous system response to trauma, the physiology of trauma and how it creates a set of responses that up until now, society has somewhat demonized and marginalized – when in fact, these responses are brilliant lifesavers and they are cause for celebration.

We are partnering with holistic healers and trying to join the trauma resilience movement intentionally with the advocacy movement. We offer trainings that introduce and train advocates and service providers in understanding how the healing arts work, how they enhance all the other conventional systems we offer in the movement, and how they are vital to comprehensive, trauma-informed care. We are really honest about the fact that healing after rape can be really difficult, and that for some, it could be a life endeavor, while at the same time emphasizing that it is worth every ounce of energy we dedicate to it. The resilience that is borne out of this intense work to fully face the darkest moments of the soul, can be the nectar that gives you your life back and this aspect of the movement – survivors healing – is as essential as any other work we could possibly do. We are also clear that our work and our role is not just complementary to existing systems and services, but rather, it is a vital, and formerly missing, component of a sustainable, effective and transformative movement to end violence.

What is the Physiology of Resilience?

The physiology of resilience is my way of framing our innate capacity to survive and to overcome trauma and great loss. We talk about trauma and its disturbance on us, yet we could focus more on the wisdom that is born in the healing of trauma. This phrase, the physiology of resilience, encapsulates what I have discovered through my own journey to navigate post-traumatic stress symptoms, alongside my study of yoga and Somatic Experiencing. Many trauma survivors have a very intense experience of how their nervous system functions, adapts and responds to trauma and its aftermath. It is an experience that we don’t often get to share about, and then we are alone with this enormous and unsettling embodied memory. Many of us experience freeze or fright paralysis during trauma and while it is a brilliant design from nature to protect us, and an attempt to ensure our survival, there is also a way in which the confusion surrounding these various primal responses can lead to a sense of shame. We may berate ourselves, and society will often blame us for not preventing what was done to us, not doing more to stop it – completely ignorant of the fact that we cannot override our nervous system’s power once it begins moving in the direction of trauma response.

For me, instead of judging those survival responses in a negative way, I think we should highlight and celebrate the capacity to survive and to overcome tremendous terror and loss that these very responses enable. I think of freeze as a reservoir that we can tap into when we get to a place of safety – physical, emotional and or psychic, for future resilience. That may be within a few weeks, or it might be months or years. There is intensity stored within us for sure, and it can get lodged in our tissues, our nervous system, our subconscious – yet, when we work with healers who understand the nervous system and trauma, we can use the same physiology that prepared us for death – which is what freeze can feel like – to actually restore us to full functioning in our life. When I think about resilience, I think about all the symptoms and challenges we face physically, mentally, energetically and spiritually as an integral part – not separate from – the process of our healing, rebuilding and repair. For me, the symptoms and signals our body sends us – however uncomfortable they may be, are like messages that together can create a map for us to follow in our work of recovery. If we embark on identifying all the ways in which the trauma has impacted us, if we can pay close attention to those symptoms or imbalances we experience, we can then discover the right “medicine” if you will, that is required to facilitate our healing.

In your work so far, has there been a particular milestone / achievement / success story that you'd like to share?

I feel like there are milestones on a daily basis. When I hear from a survivor that something on our website helped them feel less alone, when a nurse practitioner across the country asks me how to bring trauma-informed principles into their practice, when people show up to study with our members at a sexual assault training – it all adds up, one by one, each person approaching trauma healing in their own way, and I think that this is how we change the world.

I will say though, that for years I wanted to design a national sexual assault study that would specifically explore the impact and use of alternative healing methods on survivors’ lives, and this year, that dream became a reality. This is really key to the growth of our organization, and also influential on what will be possible in our movement. Up until now, society and also, traditional funding resources, haven’t fully embraced the importance or value of holistic healing arts. Some people are still a bit wary and maybe even skeptical that yoga could offer justice, maybe a kind of embodied justice, to a survivor, comparable if not more meaningful, than what they’d find by engaging with the criminal justice system. We are still shy or uncomfortable with things that we cannot touch, see or feel, so when we talk about spirit and energy, well, that is still somewhat edgy terrain. However, for those of us who have grappled with the intensity of this experience – we really have to start naming it and demystifying it. We have left a lot of the nuance of trauma out of the conversation around sexual violence.
The results of this research study, that I co-wrote and implemented with a colleague, will help us to learn which of the healing arts are most impacting for survivors and why they are helpful, what symptoms they treat, what barriers might have gotten in the way to accessing them, what their practitioner did that made them feel safe, what has been most challenging in healing and so much more. I think it will surprise people when they see the results of the survey and it will also really inspire people when they see the responses we have gathered in our in-person interviews. These conversations with survivors have been the most incredible ones I have had in a long time, and a reminder that we need to start asking the more difficult and more nuanced questions of survivors of trauma if we really seek to uncover how to help people heal. Survivors have such incredible insight to share with us. Their responses have been powerful, unfiltered and raw. They have voices and perspectives that haven’t been centered in the movement, and we are privileged to gather this data and these stories together for the future publication of our findings. The data doesn’t lie. It points the way clearly towards greater social, financial, institutional and political investment in treating the wounds of the body, mind and spirit through the healing arts. I am looking forward to all that will unfold with this unprecedented project, including an expansion of trauma-informed, holistic healing resources for survivors.

You may follow Molly’s work online here:

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