Event Review: Exploring Feminist Bodies

The idea behind this full-day event was more by chance than it was by design. A discussion surrounding ways to introduce the feminist discourse into subcultures and cultures that are mostly dominated by men culminated in an idea to talk about a gendered approach to theories and experiences of the body.

The idea grew to incorporate 5 separate sessions that will talk about bodily expressions and embodiment from different perspectives. This included yoga, dance, martial arts, disability, body image, sexual bodies, body histories and traumas, gender dysphoria, and body dysmorphia.

We also envisioned our event to be a responsible one, and ordered our catering from Meraki Kitchen. Meraki Kitchen only uses paper boxes and glass bottles to pack their food and drinks. We also encouraged participants to take back any extra food for their lunch and dinner the next day, and separate their waste into different bins.

The event began with a gentle but awakening introduction to the self with yogi Aairenee Zarina Yazli. She guided the participants in a brief session of ‘waking up’ their bodies through some limb movements, and then asked the participants to sit around her on the floor. She started her session with some illustrations of the etymology and philosophy behind yoga on a white board, and then dispelled some misconceptions about yoga as a stretching exercise, or as an exercise only for women.

Interestingly enough, Aairenee also talked about how each individual had both masculine and feminine energies in their bodies, and that masculine did not mean male, and feminine did not mean female. She also talked about how men also experience ‘menstrual symptoms’ and should also listen to their bodies when their energies are low. She ended her session by teaching everyone some simple poses to relieve menstrual symptoms, and led us all through directed breathing exercises called Pranayamas that aid individuals in self-reflection and spiritual detox.

Throughout her session, she placed emphasis on the idea of allowing your body to gently ease into poses, rather than forcing the body into poses. It is very important to be mindful of your body’s capabilities and always ensure that your body is moving into new limits as comfortably as possible. There are no KPIs with yoga. This provided an alternate rhetoric to the usual hypermasculine gym culture anecdote of ‘no pain, no gain’. This also allows individuals to listen to their bodies more and be mindful of their bodies’ limits and strengths, rather than blindly hitting targets for the sole purpose of challenging themselves. Challenge is good, but it shouldn’t be in detriment to the body.

Kamini was up next as the speaker on how dance can be a medium of expression for the body. Dance, as the language of the heart in Kamini’s words, provided honest emoting which Kamini found useful in telling stories of women’s empowerment, and even stories on domestic violence. She told the audience of her inspiration in writing, directing, and choreographing a production called ‘Lipstick’ on celebrating womanhood.

She also demonstrated some traditional forms of gestures and expressions that are present in Bharatanatyam, which is the classical Indian dance that Kamini was trained in since she was a child. She also opined on the gender ambiguity that is present in classical Indian dance, and how this could translate to a state of bodylessness. She helped us visualize this by performing some scenes in both male and female roles, smoothly transitioning between each character.

Kamini then invited the audience to join her in a fun exercise on playing out everyday scenarios using facial expressions and hand gestures. This exercise, coupled with the earlier yoga exercise on breathing and stretches, provided the much-needed relaxation and ice-breaking for the attendees. At the end of this session, the attendees were very friendly and social with each other, and any remaining tensions in the room have all but fizzled off.

The third session centered upon martial arts, and this brought together Cassandra, a multiple gold medallist in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and Syerleena Rashid, a politician and Muay Thai coach. Unfortunately, Syerleena was unable to speak on the panel due to some unforeseen circumstances, so one of the moderators – Victoria, took over as one of the panellists due to her experience in martial arts and fitness.

This session was an interesting one because it probed into situations and feelings of awkwardness in physical intimacy, and this brought up questions on erotophobia, homoerotic depictions, the discomfort women feel when in close tactile contact with men, pain through forceful contact, respect and trust between training partners, and consent in the context of physical touch. This led to a personal sharing by Cassandra on her history of abuse by a former partner, and she overcame that with newfound respect for her body, and confidence with her body.

We also discussed gender stereotypes where, women are seen to be aggressive and violent when engaging in martial arts, whereas men in martial arts are just getting fit. There is also the very important component on the reclaiming of self-assurance and confidence in contact sports, because it meant a deeper understanding of one’s own anatomy, and the anatomy of another. This builds confidence in women who tend to have fear and anxiety in situations that are perceived as dangerous or threatening.

Cassandra ended the session with some demonstrations on self-defense in everyday situations – she did the demonstration in her t-shirt and jeans, and included scenarios like someone pulling her hair, or choking her on the ground. All of her demonstrations included techniques from Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

Sha Roose was the speaker for the session on disability and impairment, and the factors that distinguished between the two. She connected with the audience by sharing personal stories of how she, as someone who is wheelchair-bound, is confronted with everyday struggles such as a lack of access to spaces, paternalistic tones or comments and voyeuristic gazes, micro-aggressions and discriminations.

Sha deftly navigated through these awkward case scenarios to enlighten everyone about how it is society that is disabling people who are physically impaired, rather than physically impaired people disabling themselves. We no longer can cling to excuses like, “making a building to be accessible and disabled-friendly is too expensive.” If we build more disabled-friendly buildings, the cost will go down. We just do not care enough to put that at the top of our priorities.

She also touched on the subject of vulnerability, and how she is often used to accepting her place of vulnerability in order to receive help from strangers. She does not have the privilege of choosing who can help her in her situation. She just has to hope that people will not take advantage of her condition and violate her. But she pondered a little on how vulnerability is not necessarily a bad thing, and can be freeing in the sense that it enables a person to ask for and to receive help. She also advised that if we want to avoid being paternalistic to the disabled, we need to ask them if they need our help in the first place, before helping them.

The event concluded with the last session on body image, body traumas, body dysmorphia, sexual bodies, and gender dysphoria. This session was helmed by clinical psychologist Vizla Kumaresan and transwoman-activist Mischa Selamat. The session was very frank and open, and both the panel and the audience were very ready to engage on challenging topics about the natural discomfort of the body and a nurtured dislike of the body. This was explained with definitions from the speakers about the difference between gender dysphoria and body dysmorphia.

They moved on to talk about how and why the body remembers, and how survivors are able to move past their traumas, and why histories remain in our bodies. The idea that women are not allowed to be sexual, and the anxieties that surround the bodies of women were also addressed and openly challenged by both the panel and the audience. There was a lot of camaraderie and solidarity as the event progressed.

This event was meaningful and impactful because it was the first time that Projek Dialog had organised a full-day dialogue on feminism and the body, and this time we had new faces that we’ve never seen before. Attendees were a mix of fitness enthusiasts, yogis, dancers, psychology students, LGBT allies, and healthy-living advocates. The level of engagement was very high and very interactive, so this brings us hope that we are beginning to reach beyond our usual audience of regular faces.

Aairenee starting her session with some body awakening exercises.

 

Aairenee demonstrating some poses for menstrual relief while an audience member helps draw out the pelvic region due to her medical expertise.

 

Aairenee explaining the meaning behind the word ‘prana’.

 

More poses for menstrual relief; a man is seen participating in this session together with the women.

 

Kamini showing a video of her dance production teaser to illustrate to the audience how the body can be used to express.

 

Kamini showing another video of a teaser that highlights pedophilia and child predators.

 

Kamini showing everyone how to do the basic stance in Bharatanatyam.

 

A man joins the women in doing some basic gestures in Bharatanatyam.

 

Everyone enjoying a good laugh from making mistakes in the poses.

 

Victoria talking about erotophobia and homophobia that is present in our society when encountering martial arts that involve a lot of physical contact and grappling.

 

Cassandra sharing her personal experience of abuse and how she overcame it with greater confidence and respect for her body through martial arts.

 

An audience member being recorded while asking a question about the notion of consent in physically-intimate situations.

 

 Cassandra debunking the myth of internalized misogyny by showing an audience member pictures of women bonding and hugging after competitions and trainings.

 

Cassandra demonstrating a simple move to neutralize your enemy when being attacked on the ground.

 

Sha sharing her story of experiencing micro-aggression and paternalistic behavior due to being wheelchair-bound.

 

An audience member (blue jacket) asking about the possibility of being violated if one is disabled and unable to defend oneself.

 

Audience members continuing to engage with Sha after her session had finished.

 

Mischa sharing a humorous take on her story of transitioning and what gender dysphoria means.

 

Vizla discusses the anxiety surrounding women’s bodies and how bodies remember trauma.

 

The audience listening intently during the discussion on body image and body dysmorphia.

 

Projek Dialog’s decision to end the year by organizing a fun and meaningful event on feminist bodies proved to be a good one. The event was successful due to the numbers that turned up, and also due to the feedback we received from very happy attendees. Most of them echoed the same thoughts, that the event made them all feel more empowered and confident as men and women, helped them get closer to loving and understanding their bodies, and emboldened them to challenge existing narratives on the body and on women.

This was also our first time putting in place policies and charters on responsible and sustainable practices. We enforced a strict RSVP policy, reminded all attendees to discard their waste in the correct bins, and urged everyone to bring extra food back home. We also ordered from a caterer that only makes clean, healthy food, and had a commitment to preserving the environment. Our attendees were very cooperative in complying with all of our above requests. Some also emailed us to cancel their food orders when they could not attend, because they did not want to waste food.

Everyone had so much fun during the physical activity segments on yoga, dance and martial arts. The crowd in the room were freely expressing themselves and did not seem afraid or shy in asking questions or trying out new moves. We were glad to see everybody connect with their bodies. The discussions on disability, body dysmorphia, sexual bodies, body traumas, and gender dysphoria were just as invigorating and relaxed. Speakers were freely making jokes and the audience felt like they were having a talk with their friends on very important and sometimes sensitive topics. The speakers were effective at humanizing themselves, and endearing themselves to the audience.

Projek Dialog is considering doing a second series on feminism and the body, provided that we have the time and fund allocation for it. We would like to thank all our speakers and the attendees for making this event a meaningful one.