June 13th & 18th @ Roxie Theatre
Your art is centered around portraits of women and girls and many of them have text on them. Can you share why and what message are you hoping to convey to your audience?
My art is very female centered because I experience the world from this perspective.
When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had to stop painting because of the toxicity of my painting materials so I took up scrapbooking. I loved the way I could use text to tell a story in a very visceral way. I loved the combination of words and images to tell deeper and multiple stories and so, when I did start painting again, it carried over into my art.
As for what message I am trying to convey to my audience…I think that when a person views a piece of art, they brings their own stories, their own selves to the experience. Therefore…each person may interpret my art in entirely different ways. I strive to honor my own truth by bringing everything to the canvas and then it’s up to each individual as to how they want to experience it. Are they more interested in the words, the colors and rhythm, the history and stories they can’t see or the whole?
Did you face any discrimination growing up? How did you handle it?
I grew up under apartheid so discrimination was not only a way of life, it was the law. As a child growing up in this situation, you pretty much accept it as “normal” because it’s all you’ve ever known. There really was no way to “handle it”…it was a matter of survival and living in a perpetual state of fear and disempowerment.
You are a survivor of childhood abuse and violence? But that did not stop you from taking charge of your life and becoming an empowered woman. How did you get to where you are today?
It’s a never ending journey. In retrospect I can see how I grew up under an abusive and dysfunctional family system that mirrored the larger political system of apartheid is many ways. So…my early years were ones of utter disempowerment on many different levels. When we moved to Canada I still experienced abuse and violence within my family structure but my entire world opened up now that I was living in a democratic country. I had access to books, an education that wasn’t distorted and I came into contact with people of different races and cultures. I think having experienced such extremes gave me a sense of gratitude and privilege that I certainly didn’t take for granted.
Basically I made a series of conscious choices, even as a child, that I wanted my life to be different than the one I had been forced to live. There were many things within the South African Indian community I strongly disagreed with (the status of women, the inherent racism, the hypocrisy) and throughout my teens and well into my twenties, I struggled with my identity. When I looked around to my family and community, I didn’t see anyone I could emulate or mirror myself upon; I was seriously lacking any role models or mentors. This turned out to be a gift in disguise for me because I started reading books and adopting mentors in the wider world that gave me a stronger sense of self and empowered me. So my mentors were the very best! Nelson Mandela, Toni Morrison, Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Alice Walker…on and on. These books, writings and life philosophies became my lifeline to a different world and sense of self. I left home in my late teens, put myself through University, travelled and built up a sense of self; of who I wanted to be..not who I was supposed to be. Not that there haven’t been major setbacks and failures and periods in my life when things came crashing down or I took a very bad turn. Not that mistakes haven’t been made or that I haven’t fallen back into bad patterns and engaged in very dysfunctional behaviors. I have come to the conclusion that empowerment/healing is a process…a journey. There are no easy answers or quick fixes…it all began with the decision that I wanted to live differently and then the commitment that, no matter what, I was going to move toward that. Empowerment starts with us making our own decisions (even though they may not be the “right” ones) rather than allowing someone else to make those decisions for us.
Some years ago you organized an exhibition titled ‘SHAKTI’ in Edmonton, Canada where the theme was violence against Indian women. Can you share why you chose this name for the exhibition and why you chose to focus on domestic violence?
I chose to focus on all sorts of violence that women face in Indian communities worldwide (sex selective abortions, Dowry death, female infanticide, domestic violence etc) because it’s an issue close to my heart. It’s an issue that really needs to be acknowledged and talked about in Indian communities. There is such a watertight shroud of denial, shame, blame and outright lies about the level of violence that girls and women are subjected to in our very own families and communities. I know from experience that our silence does not protect us.
I chose the name Shakti because it literally means feminine empowerment. My art exhibition focused on violence against women as well as avenues for empowerment and change. I feel that the arts (music, art, literature) are a way we can transform our selves, our lives and our access to power.
Did you face any flak from the Indian community in Canada for highlighting domestic violence?
I didn’t experience any direct confrontations…it was more muted. A strong sense of denial, lack of support and ignorance was what I faced.
How can survivors of domestic violence break their silence and seek help?
I think this depends on the individual and their circumstances as well as their access to resources. I am very unfamiliar with laws and societal structures in India; for example…I have no idea if there are even domestic violence shelters there. In a country like the U.S. or Canada I feel that these are safe places to be if a woman is in a violent situation. In can be as simple (though not easy) as planning ahead of time, packing a bag and picking up the phone.
Also, it’s imperative to break the silence by speaking to safe people; this places the shame squarely on the abuser and not on the victim. So often, our shame keeps us silent and this not only depletes us of our power but it empowers the abuser. I think it all has begins with us believing that we are worthy. And we have to be prepared for being shamed and ostracized by our communities because so often, that is what happens.
What is your perception of the Indian community Canada – is there a strong preference for sons as there is in India? Is there any difference in the mindset of Indians in this country?
I think the first thing to acknowledge is that within the Indo-Canadian community, there are various sub-sets of Indians that have very different experiences. For example there are Indian immigrants from India, British Guyana, Fiji, South Africa etc as well as first generation Indians from these respective groups. And while there are commonalities amongst these groups, there are also strong differences; they are not a homogenous group. I think there is a preference for sons but some communities tend to be more misogynistic than others. In very general terms I find the Indo-Sikh community in Canada to have the strongest instances of violence against women as well as male gender preference.
As for the United States I am unable to make any sort of generalizations because I haven’t had any exposure to these communities.
What do we need to do to change the mindset of Indians, both in North America and India, to value their daughters, respect women?
I’m not sure how one would go about changing the Indian mindset…I think it all has to begin with how we treat ourselves, what we are willing to tolerate in the name of religion, culture, status etc. That being said…I think a multidisciplinary approach has to include access to resources (education, health care, women shelters) as well as laws that have to be in place and enforced.
What message do you have for your own daughter? What are your hope and dreams for her?
I hope to instill in my daughter a sense of unconditional love and acceptance, a sense of her individuality and identity. My deepest hopes and dreams for her is that she is the architect of her very own dreams!
What are three things you like about India?
I love the art and classical music. I love the temples and architecture of India…it veritably sings to the deepest parts of who I am. I love Indian food! And, for sure, I appreciate the diversity of India in terms of religion, ethnicity and culture.
What is your favorite quote?
There are so many…it would be difficult to pick just one. This quote by artist Aaron Douglas is what I hope I can bring to my work:“ Let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth materials crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it.”
And I adore this quote by Marianne Williamson :
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Both are really important. Women need to be empowered and have equality; they need to feel valued. Women have a lot to give society and the world but are often held back. Held back due to tradition and abuse, their own understanding of what they are capable of is lacking. We need to break down barriers so women’s talent, power and dreams can be unleashed.
It is important to put women in the center of my book so their thoughts, dreams and challenges are show cased, and readers are drawn into their characters. I want readers to be forced to think of women. So often in art and life, women are pushed to the sidelines. What men and larger society think of them becomes the only acceptable representation. We are conditioned by society to think of women in a certain way. It is important for my characters to question their roles and restraints, and draw on their inner strength if they are in trouble.
In thinking of your work with women’s organizations in the United States, do you think gender discrimination and violence have increased since you first began work in this sector?
The rate of violence is the same, but now more women are willing to talk about their situation. Women are reaching out with stories and asking for help. When I started working in this sector 20 years ago, there were taboos that if you were a woman in an abusive relationship something was wrong with you. You wanted to keep it quiet so it would be better for your children and not bring shame to your family. Women are now willing to take a risk to get help and are questioning whether they have another option to their situation. Instead of wanting to save face they want to save their lives. This raises awareness. Many organizations are offering support through seminars, with topics such as immigration or making financial decisions. These seminars give women real skills, but also create a safe space for women to dialogue about being independent and breaking away from an unsafe situation. Organizations have been smart about the ways they increase consciousness and increase women’s independence so it is done discreetly. Since women are often in a situation where it’s okay for them to say they are going to seminar about finances, but not okay to go to seminar about domestic violence, a call for empowerment is woven through the seminars.
What is your perception of the Indian community in the US – is there a strong preference for sons as there is in India? Is there any difference in the mindset of Indians in this country?
There is a difference, but there are still traditional families who place greater value on sons and view sons as more integral to the family. It is not as extreme in the US where education is denied to girls, but there is still a perception that girls leave their family after marriage. I believe in the US daughters are treated differently, but just as well, as sons – especially in regard to education. This goes for about 70% of Indian families in the US. The longer people live here, the more change occurs in their views. There is a huge leap in the second generation and when they have kids they make different choices. The biggest factor is whether you’ve had an education here and what values you grew up with. This makes a big difference.
Beyond the plain deaths, what is the most damaging effect of the genocide of girls in India?
The greatest negative consequence is that the gender balance is skewed. There are more men and less women which leads to more problems, especially sexual crimes including rape. Many rape cases involve men who aren’t married; this will only increase.
What do we need to do to change the mindset of Indians, both in the US and India, to respect women?
We should do what we can to get women economically independent, get jobs and have micro businesses, so they contribute to society and are valued more. These skills would put women in a place of confidence to leave an abusive situation. We also need to empower women and girls more by educating them. We need to help women gain literacy so they are savvy and are not as easily taken advantage of. These are basic, but hard, things to do. We have seen that educated and financially independent women come out of abusive situations quickly. We need women to gain self-confidence. Education and economic empowerment and independence are the most important things. The media can and should start portraying women in a more positive light. Too many movies portray women as unequal and as sex objects. We see this in the clothes women wear; women dressing in a sexy manner are portrayed as integral to them being special. These portrayals subconsciously have made us think about women in these devalued terms. We need more movies and books that break these mainstream portrayals. We need to show women as powerful and not portray that as exceptional. Women can be attractive and elegant without being a sex object or wear skimpy clothes.
What can people do to help the cause? How can we make a difference?
We can use social media to raise consciousness. People need to start writing about this issue and discuss it in a social media forum. We need to ask for, and demand, books and art that are socially conscious and attentive to ending the devalued perception of women. People can help by volunteering for organizations that are working for the cause; people can help raise money or give time. Also, people can help by speaking up if they see something wrong. If you see a women who is being treated badly, befriend her and let her know there are options so she feels valued. So we can help at the volunteer, work, personal and social media level. You can do this on your school campus or at work. There are organizations in India that are fighting against the problem women and girls face. We can get the word out about these organizations. Post on your Facebook page about important issues like women’s empowerment. Support filmmakers who are making films about this issue like Petals in the Dust.
For more information about Chitra Banerjee Divakurni, go to her website at www.chitradivakaruni.com
Petals in the Dust: The Endangered Indian Girls examines the condition of an endangered class of people living in one of the most populous, culturally and economic vibrant countries: modern India. They come from all walks of life and share only one common trait: they are female.
A patriarchal mindset, a preference for sons and a deep-seated intolerance has led to the murder of 50 million girls and women in India in the last century. They continue to lose their lives in this century to infanticide, sex-selective abortions, starvation and medical neglect, dowry deaths and brutal gang rapes. The declining female population is also leading to increased crimes against women including trafficking and bride buying. By 2020 there will be 20 percent more men than women.
The film explores the cultural origins of this vast genocidal crime and includes the voices of activists and gender experts. By profiling the unimaginable stories of brave survivors, viewers enter the chilling realities girls and women are currently enduring, NOW, providing a sense of urgency in helping to change status quo.
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