More than a dozen women and a few brave men in red and black stood in two neat rows across the width of Lenin Sarani, laughing their guts out on instruction. Some were forcing themselves a little to laugh, some were natural, some were hysterical; some were laughing because they found laughing itself uncontrollably funny and some others were laughing because they thought the whole thing was funny.
So there were a lot of people laughing near Temple Bar and Saqui Restaurant on Lenin Sarani on Thursday, around 4.30pm, spreading not a little bewilderment. Someone should have explained they were a flash mob.
The laughter was not the only noise: the women were also singing, shouting, hooting, dancing. Women’s clothes that allegedly attract harassers were hung from two poles. A white taant sari had messages against violence on women scrawled all across its length. Faces were painted, like cats or tigers.
Hundreds were marching to observe the other V-Day that unfurled globally with Valentine’s Day on Thursday, including in Calcutta, to celebrate One Billion Rising (OBR), a campaign to end violence against women. The attractive members of an American Yoga organisation, Off the Mat, Into the World, were present: they have contributed $800,000 to Indian NGOs, many of them in Calcutta.
If women are half of the world’s population, and as suggested by UN figures, one third of them suffer violence in some form, one billion women suffer violence on this planet. Eve Ensler, the US-based writer of Vagina Monologues, is the founder of the OBR campaign. She asked women to “Strike! Dance! Rise!”
It was a global day of action. Dozens of NGOs joined the Calcutta march. The stress was on the woman’s body, also with the Delhi incident in mind, as the marchers started from Shahid Minar after 4pm and reached College Square at 6pm. With the laughter there was dance, into which the participants were often breaking into energetically.
Anuradha Kapoor of Swayam, a rights organisation that was one of the organisers of the Calcutta edition of OBR, said that laughter was an assertion of the woman’s being. She had RISE painted on her face. Around her were women — and the few men — in red and black. Many of the women were domestic workers or in prostitution. Many of them had their faces painted. Many carried posters and banners, calling an end to violence against women.
“The laughter is a weapon,” said Urmi Basu, who heads New Light, an organisation that looks after the children of women in prostitution in the Kalighat area.
The flash mob was the idea of Jasmeen of Blank Noise, a community project to confront street harassment, Can the weapon strike the enemy? Shelley Das, a Wipro employee who had taken a few hours off to participate in the march, agreed that some onlookers looked clueless, but the march was empowering. “It is crazy to see women screaming and dancing and singing like this, but this is the way to send a message,” she said.
There were those who only walked. A 43-year-old woman who had been in prostitution for almost 30 years — she had been sold in Sonagachhi at 11, then lived in the red-light areas of Harkata Gali and Kidderpore, and finally in Kalighat, where her four sons were taken into New Light’s care — walked quietly. She did not know how this march would help to reduce violence against women, but was too glad that she was working as a New Light employee.