1) Please tell us a bit about yourself and what you do – whatever practicalities you’re willing to share with readers. Could you share with us what inspires you to work tirelessly for social justice.
My name is Poornima Sukumar, I am an artist and muralist from India and I love traveling and meeting people from various walks of life. Life as a constant work in progress, as I graduated from my Bachelors in Fine arts back in 2008, my options were very limited, and I refused to be the kind of artist who would put up “art in galleries” (although I did that for a while) I felt the need to bring art to people, even if they belonged to lower economic conditions. In India trying out something new as a woman had some challenges, especially if I needed to work on the streets on a regular basis. In the numerous travels that I undertook, I had the privilege of working with social causes, human welfare- mainly with children, women and the transgender community.
Being on the streets with real people and being a part of the challenges they face on a day to day basis, somewhat made me feel like it was my purpose. I don’t know how much I can help everyone or pull them out of the problems they face, first at-least..let me get to know them, be with them, be their friend, sometimes that is all that is required. I started working with various communities using art as my tool of engagement and that further moved into sharing life stories, voicing challenges and working in depth with the community.
My love towards the Transgender community grew stronger after a stint of working on a documentary project along with a London based film-maker for about 3 and a half years.
It made me re-think about my own struggles after I heard about the kind of discrimination and constant struggle they face. The people from the community have learned to deal with problems in a very different way – in a way that they have sort of given up. It is heartbreaking to see people give up! Every-time I finished a shoot for the documentary the people from the community would ask me “so you will forget us after the shoot right”?, I wanted to do something about it and not let my association with them just fizzle away.
Curiosity drives me. I’m so curious all the time to understand Gender, the difference between gender and sex, who decided that it was unnatural? Why do we have rules and laws and policy for our the decisions we make with our own body, mind, and soul? Who has the right to tell them that they are not to be included and why? It’s an endless spiral that I am sucked into.
The constant courage and bravery the people from the community face just to follow their heart, I want to be with them! In every way that I can!
2) What is an accomplishment that you are proud of? Why are you proud of this particular accomplishment?
The fact that I could get so many friends and young people to have a very non-pretentious, non-intrusive and non-interviewish way of mingling with the community and creating safe spaces in public places, reclaiming their rights to live, walk freely through art – hell yeah my trans friends can paint a wall! We don’t jeopardize on the design and we all come together as artists first! Our art speaks for itself and we are called to paint at various spaces because of our art form and style. I love that!
In a country like India, I cannot even begin to describe the living conditions of the community members and despite all the suffering, discrimination, I’ve received such intense love and care from my trans friends it makes me feel so blessed.
The second most important fact would be would be how much trust I have gained with the community (over 6 years) of just being good friends with them first. Of course, friends help each other and it was such a sweet surprise to have two people from the community who joined our core team. Makes me feel so happy an proud!
3) Do you feel that your gender (however you self-identify) has contributed positively, negatively, or neutrally to your current life situation?
Being a woman is one of the best things that has happened. I always wonder what kind of life experiences I would have had if I was anyone else. Let me be brutal and tell you, it has not been that easy being me (woman). I have had the love and support of my family but, as a rebellious soul, I have done a lot of things so many other “girl” friends of mine wouldn’t imagine doing!
I did fight for my right to choice, freedom, and occupation (yes!) But even after this being a tough level, there was more to it…challenges as a woman artist, as a woman traveller, then later being a feminist comes with its own problems here in India, being independent, open-minded and sensitive is not a good thing. You end up spending a lot of time in solitude, often managing my emotional journeys alone can get a little difficult. I’ve had my share of clinical depression, anxiety. This has only made me more and more sensitive, open-hearted and then nothing seemed to matter, I could have company no matter who leaves me because of the way I am. Through all of this, I became very curious about people who wanted to fight the society and follow their heart and be a woman. It really melted my heart, made me believe in them.
I am the kind who will see things in a positive way, I am still a work in progress, but I am loving the process a lot now!
4) Can you tell us a little bit about your understanding of gender-based violence? What does that term (and what it describes) mean to you? Has it affected you and your life in any way?
Firstly, my understanding of Gender-based violence is that it is any sort of violence that is subjected to an individual. But when the word “gender” is involved, the first thing that comes in mind is the amount of injustice that women have been subjected to, in terms of trafficking/ flesh trade/ rape / some parts in India still have dowry harassment, even portrayals of women in advertisements or commercials.
Gender-based violence is inequitable, a patriarchal way of deciding who is more supreme and powerful, while the one who belongs to a “lesser” gender is subjected to severe threat, violence, dictatorship and no freedom to make simple choices. What’s worse is that it has been a struggle for such a long time. Women / Trans-women have to constantly be cautious about the choices we make, the decisions we take, as much as we’d like to be unaffected by these situations, we are faced with violence on streets, being molested, raped and we don’t seem to have changed in the mindset of the male community.
It has affected my life and my thought process in several ways. I am always told about how careful I must be, how being vulnerable makes you promiscuous, speaking your mind makes you unapproachable. It is painful that every action of ours is judged and ridiculed.
5) Can you also tell us a bit about your understanding of gender equality? What does this term mean to you?
Gender equality is an absolute situation where a man and a woman are trusted with equal capabilities, abilities and most importantly equal responsibilities. A situation where we (women) need not have to prove our worth constantly to gain the required respect, attention, permission…the list never ends. At every age, we are battling such different issues on a constant basis. It becomes a part of the psychology to keep striving and fighting.
5a) Do you think gender equality exists? If not, what are a few ways that you think your life might change by the existence of gender equality?
The existence of gender equality is a very transactional. We as women have never had the opportunity to know how exactly equality feels. The practice of equality from where I come, women have been conditioned to think that they are not independent decision makers. It is more about not being able to decide for oneself, and by the end of it so many women don’t know what to do when they are suddenly let to make decisions by themselves, they feel abandoned. Growing up as a little girl always involves us asking permissions, but if the permissions were asked to a mother, the mother had to ask permissions from the father. This chain of thought that only a man can give us the authority to live life needs to be abolished. Why do we need to fight to make a decision for ourselves? To live our own lives?
In most parts, Gender equality is practiced so that it can be spoken about in discussions or forums. The thing is Gender equality is not a topic or a practice. It needs to exist as one of the most fundamental ways of living.
6) If you answered ‘No’ to question 5a, what is something you could do to contribute to a society that is more equal for all genders?
I truly believe that education is one of the most crucial and important channels to navigate this problem. I would love to collaborate with an educationist to come up with creative/ art based/ hands-on workshops for children from the age of 5 till grade 12 to have a subject/ extracurricular about gender and equality.
It would also be necessary to set – up open and approachable centers for sharing/ mental health centers for teenagers. That is the age young adults get into a role of being irresponsible and uninitiated.
7) Ending on a lighter note, do you have a role model who has been an on-going inspiration? If so, why do you look up to this person?
On a constant basis, I am inspired by various people. My inspirations are very real and are usually unsung heroes who are working towards what they truly believe because I personally feel that people have become social media addicts (of course the fact that it does help spread visibility) but I do believe there is a very clear difference with the ones who genuinely believe. I love many artists who are working on beautiful causes and making magical art to deal with existing problems.
I am truly inspired by Savita Uday who lives life like a farmer and is working with the disappearing tribes and turning them women there into scholars. Kruti who lives as a farmer in a village and has started a weaving unit with the women in her village and reads literature to them about feminism. Revathi a trans-woman who has fought for her community against violations within the community itself (the politics that exist within the community are very dense).
My best friend Sharanya who also raises questions about gender equality through theatre, I feel we both could rule the world!
I somehow am very drawn to the way Obama thinks. My most important inspiration of all is Shanthi. (A transgender woman who is out of sex-work very recently and has joined the Aravani art project as a core team member.)