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The ARJC, or the Abortion and Reproductive Justice Conference took place in Bangkok in February 2024. It was a gathering of safe abortion providers, activists and feminists from around the world, and was hosted by FBV's patron, the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership.

 

Read about our experience at the Conference below;

The Witching Hour at ARJC 2024


At the reception dinner of the Abortion & Reproductive Justice Conference 2024 there was a surprise awaiting the participants!


A witch with a pointy hat and a broomstick tucked under her arm stood ready to test the attendees as they filed in, judging to see which of them were ‘bad’ enough to join her coven! 



Where did she come from and why was she there?


Abortions have been self-managed by women for thousands of years. Every community, across the world, for centuries, has had midwives or ‘old women’ who knew which herbs and potions would help to cause an abortion. 


Have you ever come across women like these? 


When rain refused to fall, or crops went bad, these were also the women who were blamed for all unexplained things. They were burned alive, beaten and raped, chased away. And yet, inevitably, another such woman would rise to help those who no one else would, to perform healing and care outside the bounds of what society allowed. 


Through folktales and fairy tales, these women healers have been villainized and relegated to the outskirts of normal. They turned up in stories only to cast spells and eat children and destroy people’s peace and happiness. They were painted as ugly, barren, old and scary, the worst kind of woman, the kind who broke all the rules for her sex. 


Through fear, the writers of these stories hoped that they could steal from her gnarled, worn, experienced hands, the power and healing she held. 


They were the ‘wicked witches!’



“So great was the witches’ knowledge that in 1527, Paracelsus, considered the “father of modern medicine,” burned his text on pharmaceuticals, confessing that he “had learned from the Sorceress all he knew.” Barbara Ehrenreich. Witches, Midwives, & Nurses: A History of Women Healers

And so, we designed a little quiz. 


A quiz for women large and small, young and old, cis and trans. 


Here is a link to the quiz. 


Have you followed all the rules that society made for you?


Or are you really a disobedient, defiant, feminist woman- a woman who many might call… a witch? 


For all the outcasts in society, all the amazing modern-day witches at the conference, we designed a special ‘Witch ID’. 


On one side, it proclaimed that the person who carried it was, in fact, a witch. Through this we try to reclaim the word and the role. On the other side, the card carried a photograph and a story of a woman labeled a witch from times past… and sometimes, even as recently as a few years ago.  


Even today, women in different parts of the world are beaten, killed and raped after being accused of witchcraft. Most often the reason is to be able to steal her property or in some way remove her from a position of power.


But what brought the witches to ARJC? 


That story began a long, long time ago, when a young medical student in India read her forensic medicine textbook. 


Below is an extract from that infamous book, explaining strange things about women’s bodies that did not match her experience and the experience of her friends. 


Where did the textbook get this false information from?

And why were medical students being taught this? 

How did this affect how patients received care? 


Many years later, having seen even worse things as she continued to train, this young medical student eventually became a Doctor, and a safe abortion rights activist as well. One day, she wrote about how the textbooks still hadn’t changed, how her children were studying the same things she had, and her article was read by people far and wide. 


Her words had a power even she could not predict…..



An artist and teacher of drama read her words, and they surprised and shocked her enough that she hunted far and wide, until she found this woman, this Doctor, this angry feminist writer, whose words had sparked an idea for a performance she couldn't quite shake.


That performance, a digital theater show that used comedy, satire and real-life interviews with medical students from across India, made fun of the textbooks still used to teach Forensic medicine, like the ones below:

 

The show was called ‘The Amazing Flabby-breasted Virgin: & other sordid tales’, and you can now watch it from anywhere in the world at www.flabbybreastedvirgin.org


The Doctor who wrote the infamous article about her experiences as a medical student was Dr. Suchitra Dalvie, the coordinator of ASAP. 


And the artist who turned that into a play was Ayesha Susan Thomas, the witch who came to find others like her, at ARJC IV: The Unfinished Revolution.



Together, we wanted to create a space at the Abortion & Reproductive Justice Conference, the world’s only safe abortion theme forum, where this old narrative around women healers as evil witches could be aired and challenged. So we put together a quiz to play with this idea, and stood it next to a ‘witch booth’ where people could collect Witch ID cards as well. 


By attempting to reclaim the word ‘witch’ from a feminist point of view, we are taking our rightful place in the long line of historical women who have fought for our rights for centuries, in complex, furious, and imperfect ways. 


“Women have always been healers. They were the unlicensed doctors and anatomists. They were abortionists, nurses and counselors. They were the pharmacists, cultivating healing herbs, and exchanging the secrets of their uses. They were midwives, traveling from home to home and village to village. For centuries women were doctors without degrees, barred from books and lectures, learning from each other, and passing on experience from neighbor to neighbor and mother to daughter. They were called “wise women” by the people, witches or charlatans by the authorities. Medicine is part of our heritage as women, our history, our birthright.” Barbara Ehrenreich Deirdre English, Witches, Midwives and Nurses: A History of Women Healers

It has been such a privilege for us (and a first for me! Ayesha Susan) to be in a room surrounded by feminists and rights defenders from all over the world, working ceaselessly to advocate for the right to own our own bodies through art, activism, academia and medicine itself. 


So often, we are the lone voice in the room, the stone in the shoe of a mainstream that relegates women’s bodies to the duty of reproduction over and above their own wellbeing. At the ARJC, to highlight this role reversal, we wondered if we could use Invisible Theatre (a technique first developed by the theorist Augusto Boal). 


We wanted it to be a surprise so we took into confidence only 3 other people, who were all excited by the idea!


Therefore, we planted a ‘disruptor’, a member of the conference audience who would heckle and angrily respond to a moment in the panel that spoke about misogyny in the medical system, as a mouthpiece for the mainstream we fight against every day. We were not sure how it was going to unfold but we couldn’t have asked for a better flow! The response from the audience was beautiful to witness- so many rose to quiet the disruptor, and take back the space we have worked so hard to carve out for ourselves. 


So many stood up and in so doing, demonstrated how for once, feminists were the majority in the room! Special thanks to Dr Souvik for his impassioned performance as the sexist doctor who rose to disrupt the conference, and stand in opposition to everyone else!


With the combination of invisible theater and witch quizzes, we set the tone for the next three days with our values of disrupting the mainstream narrative, doing things differently and creating a conference that was certainly not business-as-usual!


On the second day of the conference, as part of a Breakout room on Art & Activism, Ayesha Susan presented about the journey of the play; The Amazing Flabby-Breasted Virgin, and talked a little about how we can use art and specifically the theater, to advocate for rights in a unique way. Art alone can never change the world. But sometimes, Art can be the push that someone needs to think differently, ask a question they never thought to ask before, or use their own place and power in the world to fight for what's right. 


Ayesha Susan also facilitated a workshop on how to do this, called ‘Disobedient Bodies’, and many amazing academics, teachers and medical students joined in to discover that you don’t have to be a trained artist to use the medium in interesting and exciting ways. You just have to know what tools to use, and have a clear vision and intention for why you’re using it. 




We are so grateful for the opportunity to have opened up these conversations and shared these perspectives at such a feminist and inclusive space as ARJC. Yes, the revolution is still unfinished, but it is also powerful, and larger, wilder and more diverse, than we ever thought before. 


Surely that is the magic of a conference like this. 


That we can come together, across all our intersections, and learn, heal, agitate and rest together, like at an oasis in the desert, in powerful, embodied, rights-affirming ways. 




THE END


 (Or is it just the beginning?) 







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