Veils, Halos & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women (An IWD2017 Special)

Veils, Halos & Shackles
The December 2012 rape and murder of Jyoti Singh Pandey in Delhi moved thousands of people to pour into the streets in protest. Veils, Halos, & Shackles: International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women (Kasva Press 2016) was conceived in response to that vicious gang-rape and to the unprecedented public activism for women’s safety that followed it. The anthology features more than 250 poems by writers from over two dozen countries, as well as testimony that is wise, direct, and very often haunting.
Smita Sahay, who co-conceptualised and served as Associate Editor of of Veils, Halos & Shackles was in conversation with Mumbai Mom’s Editor Sonia Rao on the occasion of International Women’s Day.
‘…It (Poetry) does not make simplistic conclusions. It unfolds experience and draws the reader in deeply into a closed space.’
Over to the conversation, then:

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

International Women’s Day is an annual to pause and thank every feminist for the work they have done for future generation. It is a reminder of how much of the work still remains – rapes, violence, despicable practices such as female genital mutilation, female infanticide, foeticide, dowry, reproductive rights, a culture of slut shaming and many more. We must think of all women, nameless, faceless and respect their struggles, for as Audrey Lorde has said, ‘I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own’.

‘Veils, Halos & Shackles’ co-edited by you and Charles Adès Fishman came into existence as a response to the horrendous gang-rape of  Jyoti Singh Pandey. How did you decide that it would be a collection of poetry rather than take any other form of narrative?

Dibyajyoti Sharma says in the Sakaal Times, “In the end you wish that Jyoti did not have to die to inspire this book (Veils, Halos & Shackles), or the poets did not have to go through the trauma of abuse that inspired their work”. Jyoti’s gang-rape and murder united us in compassion, fury and our demand for justice.

I grew up in Dhanbad and two incidents, referred to as the Bokaro rape case and the Shilpi Gautam case, that took place in 1999, left indelible marks on my identity as a woman; the girls were close to my age, location and socio-economic class.

Jyoti’s death sparked many protests; it made us question the structure of patriarchy. And it did not affect only those who identified with her; it shocked everyone. That she was ‘chaperoned’ and in public transport shattered the general belief of ‘she wasn’t careful enough’. The world was shocked numb because violence against women is a universal issue that developed, developing and underdeveloped parts of the world, irrespective of language, religion or culture, face.

Charles Adès Fishman and I decided to record in poetry the localized forms of this epidemic. What started as an Indo-American project became an international one with 180 poetic voices from over two dozen countries – all united in their demand for freedom from discrimination and sexual violence.

Laura Madeline Wiseman quotes artist Sally Deskin’s mother in her Introduction to Veils, Halos & Shackles that when nothing can be done, it is time to make a book.

These poems are a part of a larger global narrative – to heal, to resist, to stand in solidarity with survivors. We chose poetry because, as Maitreyi Karnoor says in The Hindu, ‘it does not make simplistic conclusions. It unfolds experience and draws the reader in deeply into a closed space.’

Poetry is one of the most transparent and powerful artistic mediums. Poets have offered their testimonies to bring the poems closer to readers new to poetry.

How did all that change the way women are perceived today. Have we progressed any further towards gender parity?

A big shift has been toward the word feminist – increasingly more and more people refer to themselves as one. Men are coming forth to join this discussion.

My friend Anjali Purohit introduced me to Audrey Lorde’s poetic feminist philosophy – that the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house – that we must fight discrimination based on class, caste, race, gender identity and sexuality in order to attack patriarchy.

Feminism has become part of our conversations and popular cultural expression such as advertisements, films, TV shows, music, books. Superhero films now have female leads, toy brands are attempting to do away with gender stereotypes. Sexism in industries and educational institutes is being openly challenged.

Now the flip side – feminism has become an agenda because women’s empowerment is suddenly sexy. But agendas can be superficial and thus can prove damning to the cause of women instead of improving it. For instance, TV channels are not working to improve their stereotyping content, but putting out a ‘feminist’ ad. In one particular ad, the women are dressed and portrayed as ‘ideal women or daughters’ clad conservatively and smiling benignly, their identities never revealed.

The theme for International Women’s Day 2017 is #BeBoldForChange. What sort of boldness do you think India’s women need today. How can they go about getting it?

Women need to define their own ideals and they must stay true to them. If they are not allowed space, they should demand it. Community, friendships and solidarity will pave way for empowerment and we must foster these without the fear of being judged. Most important, women must know and exercise their rights and must not stay silent in the face of any form of sexism.

Male poets too have contributed to Veils, Halos & Shackles. Any incident and discussion about women’s rights brings up counter-arguments such as #NotAllMen. What, according to you, can men do to become equal partners in this journey towards gender parity?

Men have joined this discussion; Veils, Halos & Shackles has 30 male voices, who identify as male; the editor of the anthology, Charles Adès Fishman is a man. It is important here to tease out male identity from the concept of patriarchy. These counter arguments are symptoms of man v/s woman arguments, which feminism is not. Feminism is to question and subsequently dismantle a hegemony where a Dalit woman is inferior to a Caucasian male or where an African-American homosexual is inferior to a brown woman.

Men are affected by sexual violence too. Many of our contributors have faced child sexual abuse or witnessed a sexual crime against their female family members. They protest. With the rest of us.

(Pic Source) 


International Womens DaySmita Sahay is a social entrepreneur, writer, poet and editor. She co-conceptualised and served as Associate Editor of of Veils, Halos & Shackles – International Poetry on the Oppression and Empowerment of Women (Kasva Press 2016). Her writings have appeared in various national and international journals and anthologies. She holds an MBA from the Indian School of Business and is the founder of Acciohealth, a social venture that works to shatter stigma associated with mental illnesses and make information accessible. She’s currently working on her first novel.

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