What happens when two young feminist groups, divided by geographies and united by their passion, come together? We tried to find that by getting in touch with Sondos Shabayek, Project Director at The BuSSy Project and Nishma Jethwa, the Director of Strategy & Legal Counsel at Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights (SAHR). They are both FRIDA’s grantee partners from the Asia Pacific and MENA region respectively, who got together earlier to co-facilitate a legal justice workshop in Mumbai. The workshop was a great example of collaboration and co-learning between two young feminist groups using different approaches and creating a stronger activist strategy together.
In conversation with Sondos & Nishma:
Could you both explain what this workshop was all about and who was it aimed at?
The 5-day workshop that was held in Mumbai introduced participants to the storytelling and story documentation model used by The BuSSy Project, a method to provide survivors with a voice, a safe space to express and discuss their personal testimonies, the injustices they have been subjected to. This type of storytelling aims to remove the shame and stigma attached to the stories and the storytellers, and allow the storytellers to go through an empowering healing experience by sharing their stories with others. The workshop also looked at how these stories can be used sensitively and impactfully within legal justice activism. SAHR drew on its experience in the field to navigate the discussion on how storytelling can be an avenue for change and tool for legal justice activists.
Why do you think it is important to have a workshop on a topic like this?
Sondos: Storytelling and story documentation are very powerful tools not just on the individual level for empowerment, solidarity, healing and growth, but also to help create better understanding of gender based issues that are often silenced or just measured in numbers and percentages that people have often grown indifferent too. The personal narratives and human stories behind issues like domestic violence, create not just awareness but understanding and empathy and build an environment that encourages facing issues rather than shaming the talk about them. For this collaboration storytelling was also important because both SAHR and all workshop participants were already activists, researchers and lawyers working in the field of women’s rights and are always dealing with cases and stories and have used or trying to develop using one form of storytelling or the other. So when we started our conversation with SAHR it just felt like the perfect match!
Nishma: As activists, and especially as lawyers, we can tend to get very caught up in locating the ‘objective facts’ of a scenario, with the particular aim of winning an argument in court or achieving a specific output. Workshops like this release us to take a step away from this narrow focus in order to better understand the power of sharing and listening to a story without an agenda. At SAHR, we believe that the unique lived realities of individuals need to be at the centre of women’s rights work. No one woman’s context and intersectionalities will be the same as another’s. Storytelling is one way of facilitating a conversation that brings this to light and, hopefully, allows us to adjust our actions accordingly. Importantly, storytelling can also allow us to grapple with our own personal narratives as we navigate issues like sexual violence, rape, domestic violence, assault etc. on a daily basis.
Tell us about the participants. Where were they from, what did they learn and what did you learn from them? #YoungFemBonding! 🙂
Sondos: We had an amazing group of participants joining us from all over India as well as from Afghanistan, the UK and Singapore. There was a very rich exchange of ideas, and experience. The discussions were endless and the ideas for projects and workshops and collaborations were very inspiring. We learnt many things but I think, for me, the most touching lesson was how two projects from two different countries with different languages … were able to find the common grounds for the struggle for women’s rights.
Nishma: There were lawyers, journalists, social workers, therapists, researchers and facilitators, all of whom work with women in some capacity. We managed to bring together such a mix of cultures, languages, ages and experience. It was a beautiful amalgamation. For me, it was really amazing to connect with the way in which BuSSy carries out its mission, to learn from it and to work on ways to apply that in some of my own work. To have that kind of support and solidarity across all sorts of borders was amazing.
Both your experience and expertise is very different from each other. Could you briefly tell us a bit more about your organization and what it does?
Sondos: BuSSy is a performing arts project that documents and gives voice to censored untold stories about gender in different communities in Egypt. The project organizes storytelling workshops and performances where women and men step on stage to share stories about harassment, rape, gender discrimination, honor killing, forced marriage, Female genital mutilation, motherhood, domestic violence, child abuse, mass sexual assaults and many others, from different communities and cities in Egypt.
Nishma: SAHR is a registered non-profit and women-led organisation with the mission to improve access to justice for women at the margins. We bring together expertise in human rights, law, academia and various forms of activism. We work in Afghanistan and India with a focus on (i) casework and advocacy, (ii) legal workshops, (iii) research and fact-finding, (iv) impact workshops, and (v) self-advocacy.
This workshop was co-organized by both the groups. How can we, as feminist activists and human rights defenders, bring diverse movements and strategies together? Why do you think it is important (or not?) to do so?
Sondos: We need to network more and learn about each other’s work. Collaborations are very powerful because it unites our knowledge, efforts and expertise so the impact doubles. Not just that, but operating as islands is not just very lonely, and leaves us feeling we are alone in the struggle, but it also makes us more vulnerable to challenges and difficulties.
Nishma: I think the support that FRIDA provided in making this happen was key. Without this kind of assistance, small organisations like our own just don’t have the capacity and resources to collaborate with others in this way, no matter how much we would like to. It was also wonderful to be able to host BuSSy in India and really place our work in its grassroots context, rather than just communicating online.
What was your key takeaway from this entire experience?
Sondos: Before this collaboration I wouldn’t have thought it’s possible for a project that uses art to find a way to collaborate with a project that focuses on legal advocacy, but the experience has left me with an urge to further explore and network and find ways to connect the work that might have at some point seemed not possible to connect.
Nishma: One of the key takeaways for me was what a huge role creativity and vulnerability can have in activism and how engaging with these often neglected areas can absolutely transform the way in which we operate in our, sometimes very difficult, spaces.