We are standing in a totally deserted Liberty Plaza, and we are about to accost a woman.
She pauses at the bottom of the escalator, uncertain. After all, it’s not everyday you are suddenly faced with a group of assorted misfits staring at you with avid interest (armed with a video camera, no less).
Participating in Man Up! has led to many such unusual situations. Our aim was somewhat ambitious- to prevent street harassment of women. But first, we had to figure out what men and women thought about it. Did they think it was a problem? How could it be stopped?
This led to us wandering the streets of Kollupitiya, armed with a video camera, interviewing people. Though some fled in terror, others were more willing to talk. We were surprised at what we found, but there was one common trend of thought.
Everyone said it was a problem, and everyone said it needed to stop.
But were people willing to intervene to help someone?
Only one way to find out. We spent some weeks getting on buses, acting out scripted scenes. A selected boy would have to approach a girl, and pretend to harass her. A few rows behind more volunteers lurked, armed with cameras. Some served as backup, in case things turned ugly.
Our fellow passengers didn’t take long to cotton on. But while some shifted to allow the hapless ‘victim’ some space from the ‘harasser’ and other simply glared menacingly, no one really intervened. No one called the conductor, or told the ‘harasser’ to move, except the ‘bystanders’- more volunteers who intervened to help the victim. At times though, the harasser would feel compelled to jump off the bus, judging from the ferocity of the glares.
So, people thought it was a problem but didn’t want to get involved. How could we change that?
The idea was to go to schools, and engage the youth. We eventually decided to do this via Forum Theatre. I couldn’t make it to many presentations, because of work. However, when we were planning to go to Muslim Ladies College, we discovered that they had a strictly female visitors only policy.
So I found myself at the Royal Skills Centre the evening before, reading lines for the part of a male pervert. Although I (apparently) looked the part, I thankfully could not harass with sufficient conviction. I was therefore meant to be one of the sidekicks.
Fast forward to early the next day. We shuffled in, dressed appropriately in shirts, baggy jeans and caps, eyed curiously by the schoolgirls. After the customary hustle and bustle as kids were ushered in, the play began. The three ‘boys’ chased the ‘victim’ up the centre aisle amidst gales of laughter, as the schoolgirls understood the situation only too well. The scene continued, with us harassing the girl and forcing her to take a telephone number, until she got off the bus, distraught.
Then was the fun part- we got to interact with the kids and figure out what they wanted to do to change it. This meant they had to come up on stage and literally replace the actors. They needed little coaxing to come up onstage. One little girl who said she would take the victim’s place surprised us all when she turned on the ‘pervert’ giving her such a shove that she literally flew across the stage. But though that girl’s performance brought uproarious applause, many of the girls said they wouldn’t really fight back, because they were afraid of making a scene. However, they listened attentively as the presenters told them the child abuse hotline to call. We ‘interviewed’ each character in the skit to ask them why they behaved the way they did. After it was over, several girls came up to us to thank us for the presentation. One or two said that next time harassment occurred, they’d speak out.Overall, I have to say working with Reach Out has been not just fun but enlightening. Through disruptive and forum theatre, we understood the issue a little better. Hopefully, we have also done our bit to try and change the situation.