Smita Sahay: How did the idea of The Mira Project come about?
Scherezade Siobhan: Chicana theorist, feminist and queer writer par excellence, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, wrote the following in her book “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza” –“ I will have my serpent’s tongue - my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice. I will overcome the tradition of silence.”
That is the radical seed at the heart of The Mira Project and what else is radical but something that emergences from the radix, the “root”.
In the truest sense, it came about of a rather enervating conversation with a teenaged survivor of assault who also happens to be an exceptional poet. They said they no longer felt a bodily desire to create as they did before the violation. It was initially heartbreaking and then it made me resolute because I kept seeing women and queer folks around me recede in the face of cishet misogyny and violences. We live in a state of strategizing our safety from the time we step out to the time we get back in. There are incoherent and sexist hierarchies for what is counts as truly “violent” and incidents of street harassment, for example, are willfully ignored. A lot of times, folks don’t quite know where to go while processing the sudden threat, the unnamable dissonance, looped eruptions of compounded grief. Some of us don’t have the requisite vocabulary to even express the pain of being subjected to daily incidents of gendered violence. During my conversation with this young poet, I asked them what could possibly help bring a sliver of light into their dark room and they said – Poems! Always poems!
It struck me golden even while assessing my own survival through horrific periods of intimate partner violence – claiming my space in my writing or my ability to create. Therefore, I decided I would afford space for women and woman-identified folks where they could dismantle, challenge, interrogate or even transform their emotions through expressive arts. We welcome stories, poems, photographs, artwork, rants, listicles, pretty much any form of self-expression that allows someone to uncage themselves and take space. Without apologies. As
Smita: The Mira Project, very specifically, provides an international platform to address the issue of street harassment. How do you see this collective of contributors’ creative expressions reclaiming public spaces?
Scherezade: It is a shapeshifting creature, a code that changes the moment it is deciphered. There is a concept for social engagement and coordination called Stigmergy – it is a consensus social network mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions. The principle is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. I see the project function along similar lines. We have received photographs from Afghanistan, poems from Cairo, stories from Delhi. Our participants are also our audience. It is a form of amplification that attests to June Jordan’s epochal statement – “We are the ones we have been waiting for”. At a reading in Mumbai, a young student said she felt a sudden rush of energy guiding her own movement through the city when she read a deeply moving and simply written experience shared by someone in another city quite far away from her. In her own words, I felt as if there was an invisible torchlight carried in the seams of my jacket pockets. Our collective is not hindered by convention, we accept and bring to the fold every emotion that needs to seek its “outwardness”. We are also mindful to not turn the dialogue into vague and issue-based theatrics. We retain the individuality of each person who shares their story. Yet, when people read each other through this project, there is a deeper resonance of solidarity, of not being the only one who felt that specific way in that specific place. We are collecting responses as part of a 6x6 questions asked series where we intend to turn the stories into visual art including graffiti for public spaces. This is radical, feminist storytelling that will serve as a bridge between digital and irl awareness campaign for how prevalent and unexamined street harassment as well as the common tropes associated with it, are.
Smita: The word, and the ideology, feminism, means different things to different people. What is feminism to you?
Scherezade: Feminism is my compass. As a woman of colour living, creating and working in this world that more and more pivots on a heterosexist bias, the only way we can build a sustainable and equalizing community is through ethical feminism. I don’t think it is infallible but at the same time, I do believe that we need to embrace as more intersectional (ref. Kimberley Crenshaw) approach to how we perceive a feminist narrative. People need to recognize that feminism not only serves to protect and uphold the dignity and rights of women, woman-identified and queer folks but it also enables cis men breaking away from stifling patriarchal frameworks that have for centuries stunted their emotional and spiritual landscapes.
Smita: You are an award-winning poet yourself. What, according to you, is the role of poetry do to address violence, oppression and inequality?
Scherezade: I think for me Poetry is more compass, less country. It remains amorphous, quite like camphor marking space through its own disappearance. A poem once assimilated into your senses, houses itself into the dim-lit crevices. It doesn’t exist outside of life, it is companion and parallel to life. When Lucille Clifton asks – “won't you celebrate with me / what i have shaped into / a kind of life?” I feel the strings twined into my being plucked ever so gently. I myself become some kind of wild music. Poetry refuses orderliness. A sprezzatura, if you will. Poetry affirms disobedience. What a lot of us have in common is that we are either subject or we witness for violence, oppression and inequality. Poetry becomes a universal language for unveiling this shared vulnerability. We speak and seek to be heard in poems. We connect with strangers and enter their pain. We share a brief moment of sunshine. Poetry has healing capacities that I personally can attest to.
Smita: As you imagine an equitable world, devoid of violence and discrimination, what do the streets of this world look like, for those contributors who have shared their moving accounts and writings with The Mira Project?
Scherezade: I am a psychologist whose work inherently takes her to some dark emotional depths on a regular basis. As my own self-care ritual, I have this photograph of little girls in rural Afghanistan playing football with utter abandon. It is always a reminder that in a truly equal world, the joys of those little girls would be considered central not peripheral, even if it is hard-won. The day our streets are no longer turn into dormant landmines at the drop of a hat leaving women to negotiate each step is when we could truly claim to be free. I am skeptical but I use my skepticism as fuel. We have received 100 of submissions from over 2 dozen countries. Each story wants to assert its own unique space in this world.
Smita: We have seen many movements and projects towards gender equality in the past months. Which ones gave you hope?
Scherezade: Jasmine Patheja has done profoundly moving work via Blank Noise. Her intellectual stamina is inspiring and her dedication to the movement she helped sculpt is quite the lighthouse for a lot of young women activists. Tatyana Fazlalizadeh – an artist, illustrator and activist – started a street art project called “Stop Telling Women To Smile” as a creative callout designed to tackle the issue of gender specific street harassment. The women in Fazlalizadeh’s graffiti art refuse to smile and thereby refuse to yield their body and its myriad expressions and/or movement to any usurping by the male gaze.
I specifically reference these names because they exist in contemporary milieu and are doing on-ground, life-changing work.
Smita: Would you like to share some books, music, cinema, artwork on the theme of gender or sexuality?
Scherezade:This could take several pages on its own! As a woman who happens to be a writer, I always have a cognitive altar to Virginia Woolf. I will fault if I don’t mention the giants who have repeatedly shored my own ruins - Clarice Lispector, Gwendolyn Brooks, bell hooks, Anna Kamienska, Hélène Cixous, Audre Lorde, Zora Neale Hurston, Sandra Cisneros among others whose work are seminal in exploring identity, gender, sexuality, race, class and discrimination. Recently, the Kenyan film “Rafiki” has been lauded for its touching and honest portrayal of queer love between women from an African perspective. I am an ardent fangirl of Iranian auteur Samira Makmalbaf and her movies are relics in the mouth of a sabertooth. Photojournalist Eliza Hatch defines her crowdsourced feminist-centered photojournalism project “Cheer Up Luv” is a piercing look at the heinous nature of normalized harassment faced by women in public spaces.
Smita: Would you like to share some excerpts or pieces from The Mira Project archives?
Scherezade: Instead of choosing any specific excerpts, I will encourage people to go to the website and engage in the full contact rebellion we have brewed. Visit us – www.themiraproject.com
Smita: Any message for potential donors and contributors for The Mira Project?
Scherezade: We are continuously growing through this project. Our circumference expands on the daily and we hope to engage and alter many more lives through this conversation. Our future goals include creating a traveling theatre series with the stories we have received. We want to warm the blood thriving in our veins, we want to break down echo chambers and replace them with compassionate yet vehement revolutions that uproot the daily “traditions” of patriarchal thought and behaviours. We are working towards a public art project that combines murals, graffiti and installations that invite people to participate on a wider scale. We want men to ally themselves with the project as empathic witnesses. We are also holding poetry reading/storytelling series both locally and globally to keep sharing our catharsis. Conversations create this catharsis which in turn builds mindful communities. We need support, materially and creatively, from those who come across The Mira Project. Apart from this, we also want to make our way to your schools, college campuses and offices so we can conduct workshops about gender and women’s rights. We are actively looking for collaborators and comrades-in-arms. In order to know more, please drop us an email – firstname.lastname@example.org