University News

No Country for Women breaks rape culture barriers

Organization founded by alums focuses on ending gender-based violence, discrimination in India

By
Senior Staff Wrier
Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Shreena Thakore ’17.5 (left) and Ria Vaidya ’16 (right) conduct one of their workshops on gender equality, aiming to engage students across India.

Sixteen months ago, Shreena Thakore ’17.5  was about to embark on what she thought would be a semester-long project conducting gender discrimination workshops in India. Since then, she has traveled to over 70 schools and colleges across the country, creating dialogue with students about gender policing, sex and sexuality.

Co-founded by Thakore and Ria Vaidya ’16, No Country for Women was born out of a desire to help people understand how they subconsciously contribute to rape culture, Thakore said. She identified the misinformed and patriarchal public debate that surrounded the 2012 Delhi gang rape as a catalyst for their campaign.

The muted academic discourse conducted in leading Indian universities still did not address the problems adequately, Thakore said.

“Students (in India) understood the world around them through Anglo-centric theory,” Thakore said, describing the practice as a “disservice.” For example, some aspects of Western critical theory — such as intersectionality — did not translate well into a societally rigid and often stratified Indian context, Thakore said.

“We wanted to produce gender and sexuality theory in India, for India,” she said.

Strong beginnings

In 2014, the pair received a Projects for Peace fellowship administered by the Davis Foundation to help further develop their ideas. Thakore and Vaidya founded No Country for Women in the summer of 2014 and began working with schools in Vaidya’s hometown of Bangalore, India. Within a few months, a video of one of the sessions they conducted went viral, Thakore said, and they received offers to work with more schools and colleges in Bangalore with both students and teachers.

In the winter of 2014, Vaidya received the Social Innovation Fellowship from Brown and the J.W. Saxe Memorial Fund. Vaidya also raised money through Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website. No Country for Women raised $30,000 in total, and most colleges offered to pay for transportation costs as well.

“$30,000 goes a long way in India,” Thakore said, who made the decision to take time off from Brown to further develop No Country for Women. No Country for Women is staffed mostly by college volunteers who are offered paid stipends amounting to 20,000 rupees, or just under $300, per month.

“Hiring full-time professionals on this type of salary isn’t going to give you very good professionals,” Thakore said. “But hiring college students on this kind of salary gets you very good college students.” Thakore estimated that No Country for Women works with three volunteers per college and around five colleges per month.

Making connections

Thakore and Vaidya began developing their workshop material based on their own childhood conditioning and teenage feminist awakenings, Thakore said. They drew heavily on their own experiences growing up in Indian households and on Indian popular culture, she added. For example, Indian audiences were able to relate well to the examination of the the male gaze and sexual liberation as presented in certain Bollywood videos.

Thakore consciously tried to avoid presenting herself as a U.S.-educated, self-styled savior who was out of touch with the realities of living as a woman in India, she said. In an effort to break down potential barriers, she lost all traces of the American accent she had acquired while studying at Brown.

Despite making that compromise, Thakore did not shy away from making a “political statement” with her appearance and behavior, she said. She described dressing in short skirts, crop tops, swearing and being physically affectionate with her co-presenters.

“If we did nothing else, we left them with that image,” she said.

‘Undoing Gender’

A particular challenge with conducting workshops that raised the issue of gender-discrimination was trying to develop solutions for difficult situations with audience members, Thakore said.

One way Thakore attempted to get past this pressure to come up with solutions was by partnering with the Poetry Club in Mumbai in a day-long, workshop-based poetry event called “Undoing Gender.”

“Poetry allows you to talk about issues without being accusatory or prescriptive because it’s so personal,” said Thrupthi Shetty,  a coordinator of the event.

While the workshop had been interesting, the nature of the event meant that it self-selected an audience already sensitive and receptive to their ideas of gender non-conformity, Thakore said.

Thakore said she believes there is a greater need to have this conversation with high school students in India. “Many never talk about sex beyond a seventh (grade) biology chapter or a talk of menstruation,” she added.

Educational institutions command a great deal of respect in Indian culture, she added, saying that she felt work done in schools would percolate through to the rest of society.

‘More than getting degrees’

Sai Prakash Venkata Pilla, an engineering student from the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Jabalpur, agreed with the perceived stigma surrounding sex.

“Initiatives like this are necessary in colleges,” he said. “Education should be more than getting degrees. (It) should help you develop your identity.”

Venkata Pilla invited No Country for Women to conduct what would be Thakore’s final workshop before she began her spring semester, Thakore said.

A statistic that resonates strongly with students is that most reported rape data in India is inaccurate and mostly deals with statutory rape or “promise to marry” cases, Thakore said. Rape within a marriage, male sexual assault, “corrective rape” of LGBTQ+ individuals and rape in “disturbed areas,” or conflict zones,  are often not recognized as rape by law, she added.

Having brought such issues to the spotlight, Thakore never considered turning her focus to pressing for legislative change.

“Nothing is going to change if suddenly tomorrow marital rape in India becomes illegal,” Thakore said. Her objective was to change attitudes toward gender equality at a grassroots level in the hope that legislative change would be a natural, if indirect, progression of her work, she added.

Thakore’s work has already started making waves. Venkata Pilla said that since the No Country for Women campaign, there has been a greater student push to abolish a 10:30 p.m. curfew in the women’s hostels on the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management-Jabalpur campus.

A matter of class

No Country for Women is unique in its refusal to make rape and gender discrimination into a class issue, Thakore said.

“A lot of groups working with any kind of social injustice in India start with the lower class — these autorickshaw drivers or those villagers are the problem,” Thakore said.

She pointed to a video made by the actress Alia Bhatt as part of a recent Vogue Empower campaign in India as further evidence of this class bias. In the video, an upper class girl’s car breaks down in the middle of the street just outside Delhi as a truck pulls up with a large group of men speaking a dialect associated with the impoverished state of Haryana.

“Would you have thought of rape immediately if a Delhi boy with an Audi had pulled up next to her instead?” Thakore asked.

Thakore was invited by the creators of the Vogue Empower campaign to watch a special screening of their videos in the National Center for Performing Arts in Mumbai. The event featured numerous policemen as guests, all of whom were seated separately from the crew of wealthy Mumbai socialites who were discussing the perpetuators of gender inequality in terms of “they” and “them,” she said.

“We need to see that we all contribute to the problem,” Thakore said.

No Country for Women plans to conduct similar workshops with volunteers at Teach for India, Thakore said. The workshops will be managed by her co-presenter and Managing Director Anushka Jadhav.

Thakore’s role this semester will be more hands-off. While she retains her post as executive director of No Country for Women, she plans to focus on completing her courses at Brown and beginning an internship in the summer at Google. Thakore will also be giving a TED talk at Harvard later this semester on No Country for Women.