Is the pen mightier than the sword?

The creatives crushing gender-based violence

aurat raaj
Aurat Raaj (1979) is Pakistan’s first feminist film

Three genre-bending creatives reimagine ways to tackle gender-based violence, whether it’s supporting survivors or stopping abusers from being created in the first place

Gender-based violence is a heavy topic, and one that destroys lives. That’s why TOPIA set out to find people tackling the problem through unusual approaches of creativity and language. From the darkest of places, these three women are creating something beautiful.

Evie Muir, Saba Khalid and Leslee Udwin
Evie Muir, Saba Khalid and Leslee Udwin

We met Leslee Udwin, a BAFTA-winning director who’s helping children develop neural pathways which will make them more caring adults.

How can it be optional to learn how to value another human being?

Leslee Udwin

Then there’s Saba Khalid, who’s smashing gender roles in Pakistan to give women the information they need through innovative technology and storytelling. And Evie Muir, who’s turned her burn out into a spark of creativity, reclaiming outdoor spaces for People of Colour who are victims of gendered violence, and finding a way for nature to assist in healing.

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The film that sparked a global movement

Leslee Udwin has had a life as an actress, an award-winning filmmaker (ever heard of a little film called East is East?), and was even voted by the New York Times as the second most impactful woman of 2015 – after Hilary Clinton. Now, she’s on a mission to put social and emotional learning front and centre in the lives of young children.

Think Equal, the organisation that she founded, is creating tools to give children the skills they need to grow up as well-rounded, caring people. It’s a project that came from a place of trauma, spurred into being by her experience making the award-winning documentary India’s Daughter

India’s Daughter is centred on the brutal gang rape of a medical student on a moving bus in Delhi

“I went to India thinking I was making a campaigning film,” Leslee tells TOPIA. “I get to India and I think – really? I’m going to make another film that creates awareness about GBV (gender-based violence)? Do we really not have enough awareness for God’s sake? This film has to do something else.”

She became obsessed with getting into the prisons and interviewing the men who had violently and brutally raped a woman on a bus, the subject of the film. She wanted to try and understand these people.

“Because I’d been raped at 18 in South Africa, as so many of us have, I was terrified that all those ghosts would rise up and seize me,” Leslee says. “And I was scared that I would actually physically assault one of these rapists because of the anger I had.”

She spent days interviewing men who’d committed appalling crimes, trying to understand how they could hurt someone so badly, and why they felt no remorse. But, to her surprise, she didn’t feel angry.

“And the reason I felt no anger is, how can you be angry with a robot?” Leslee says. What she learnt from these men was, they simply did not value the lives they’d destroyed, because this is how they’d been taught to think.

Leslee had a lightbulb moment. She vowed to leave her director’s chair behind, and turn her creative brain towards something that could create immediate change: education. Think Equal was born.

The main element of Think Equal is the classroom programme. Over 30 weeks, social emotional learning is given the same priority as numeracy and literacy to young children. They learn skills like empathy, gender equality, racial equality and emotion regulation. Each week, the teachers are given narrative picture books or a mindfulness programme, written by neuroscientist Richie Davidson and the Dalai Lama. After reading the books, the children unpack the lessons by debating.

“I cry every time I go near a Think Equal classroom. There are these three year olds in the nursery, seriously discussing why it’s so important to be kind to one another, or how they know that they’re feeling angry,” Leslee says.

The picture books have now been transformed into a television series for national broadcasters, meaning they can connect with people in even the most rural parts of the world, who do not have internet, but do have televisions. Live action merges with animation, as the characters come off the page and interact with a presenter and children – each specially curated for different countries.

The resources, either in print, on screen, or online, bring together brilliant minds across the globe – Madrid-based Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass, British actors Dame Harriet Walter and Colin Salmon, and the Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

In her ongoing project ‘Humanae’, Angélica Dass has set out to catalogue every conceivable human skin tone | Credit: Bret Hartman/TED

The Think Equal audience is between three and six. It’s a charity that builds brains from the outset, creating social neural pathways in the developing brains of children.

Why, she wonders, would governments want to spend billions of pounds dealing with mental health conditions, when such a huge number of cases could be prevented by giving every child in the country access to Think Equal? While plenty of countries have embraced the programme, she’s hit a wall with the UK government.

Think Equal, India

“How on earth can you say that it is compulsory for them to learn numeracy and literacy in a century in which we have AI, spellcheck, and calculators, but it’s optional for them to learn how to value another human being?”

Breaking taboos with tech

Saba Khalid dials into our Zoom call from San Francisco, where she’s spending six months at Draper University, developing her projects in Pakistan. She’s the founder and CEO of Aurat Raaj, which translates to ‘Women Rulers’. The social enterprise and digital content platform breaks all the rules to educate girls and women on health, hygiene and safety.

The empowering initiative is based on the country’s first feminist film which came out in 1979 – the highly subversive ‘Lollywood’ satire about women’s rights imagined a slapstick world in which Pakistani women wear the pants. It inspired Saba to use animated characters within powerful storytelling. But there was another event that also left a mark and made her want to embolden Pakistani women to build warrior mentalities.

Saba created Aurat Raaj in December 2016, a few months after social media star and loud, proud feminist Qandeel Baloch was honour killed by her brother: “I couldn’t believe how many women in my own country were happy about her death and thought she deserved it for exposing her body on social media,” she tells us. “I wanted women in Pakistan to change their minds, be empathetic and see what their lives had potential for besides marriage and kids.”

Girl bikers, transgender activists, divorcee entrepreneurs and female cricket journalists; Aurat Raaj shows you a different side of Pakistan.

Digital inclusion, Saba explains, is linked to gender violence, and it’s one of the key areas she’s addressing. There are fears around women using technology to find boyfriends, employment, or to leave their villages. Stigma, taboos and myths around health also lead to violence. Women aren’t getting the right information about periods, infertility and menopause.

“For instance, during menstruation when they’re told that they’re so dirty and impure, that they have to stay away from their families for seven days. And they are often restricted to a hut,” Saba says, describing how these places often have limited electricity, are cold, and snake attacks are known to happen. Women are sometimes raped here.

“Women are the ones who have to deal with this trauma, and often men are the ones pushing these concepts forward. And often women themselves are so brainwashed into believing these ideas about health, that they will also push their daughters to follow these customs.”

Another huge issue is child marriages and honour killings – Saba’s own friend was murdered in 2013.

Meet Raaji: The Ultimate Survivor

Introducing girls to powerful and inspiring ideas, the series can be dubbed in any language and shown in schools and universities through portable projectors. The first episode got 130,000+ video views.

This led to Aurat Raaj eventually working with UNESCO to take it to rural areas of Pakistan using a mobile cinema.

“Every time we showed it, girls had this safe space to ask questions,” she says. “And I thought, how do I answer those questions in the future? And that is where a chatbot came to mind.”

They built an interactive AI-based system. After a few false starts, then partnering with NGOs, the project has taken off and is now being used in a huge region of Pakistan called Sindh.

“And what we have come up with is this concept called a listening or a chatbot party,” Saba says.

Community leaders in some of the most remote villages get together with the chatbot, push buttons and listen to the content together. These are places where women don’t have access to phones and where there is no internet connection. They interact with videos, audio, GIFs and pictures, all training them in topics of child marriage, gender violence, menstruation, infertility, and so on, before discussing the ideas together. Then, they take their new learnings to their communities.

Chatbot and listening party | Photo by Shaiwana Pathan

Some of the women answered questions for TOPIA about how these chatbot parties are impacting their lives. We’ve changed all their names, to keep them safe.

Alina says she comes from a supportive family, but many other girls are encouraged to marry rather than get an education.

“I do believe I can bring change,” Alina says. “In my areas, child marriages are common but in my village, we have tried to save some of these girls from such marriages and this is because of the listening parties because the community started to understand the dangers and risks of child marriages.”

Another, Kashmala, says that before the parties, she didn’t know her own rights. Above all, she wants young girls to be able to pursue an education. 

“We usually arrange these listening parties in someone’s house,” Inaya explains. “It is a tradition that when women gather, men leave and I find that women are much more comfortable and the conversation is fruitful when that happens. We don’t have older women or married women in the gatherings.”

She goes on to describe the impact the chatbot has had: “From stopping a child marriage to helping a widow with getting her rights from her home, I have tried to bring a positive change to my community.”

As the women sit around on rugs in front of a phone or laptop, there’s a poster on the wall in front of them with a cartoon who could be one of them. The character Raji, who features in an Aurat Raaj animated series too, is the face of the chatbot and a way for the women to communicate. This fictional character has run away from the threat of honour killing.

From wherever she is in the world, be it Pakistan or San Francisco, Saba can feel the impact her work is having when she sees messages, pictures and videos of chatbot parties pinging into Whatsapp groups.

“As an activist, I was always angry, I was coming from a space of not knowing how to transform anger into productivity and creativity. And that took me a lot of time – I feel like I’ve honed that,” Saba says. She wonders what would happen if everyone could channel their angry energy into productivity.

“If you had told me that I would be working in cutting edge technology, I would’ve laughed. If somebody had told me that I would be solving the problems of thousands of girls and talking about taboo issues through cartoons, I would’ve laughed more. Everything that has happened has been a surprise for me.”

Saba believes that our world will only change when we realise the importance of creativity. “The bad guys are out there, but the good will prevail through it all if we come up with creative solutions.”

Walking for healing

“Essentially, we’re a group of survivors in the outdoors,” begins Evie Muir, as she gets down to the nuts and bolts of her walking for healing group, Peaks of Colour. Evie is leading a programme that goes a long way towards creating safe spaces where people can work through their trauma.

Evie has worked in the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector for the last decade, specifically around Black and queer experiences.

“In the most reductive terms, people think of gendered violence as domestic abuse and sexual violence,” Evie begins, going on to explain how the broad term encapsulates all forms of abuse, including how communities and states perpetrate harm. “The services designed to support often harm us. And in order to eradicate gendered violence, we have to recognise that and we have to move beyond that.”

She became disenfranchised with the support for survivors of gendered violence, and she felt complicit in her role. She got burnt out. After just a couple of months away from the VAWG sector, Evie felt like she had the space to harness hope and imagination.

In 2021, Evie founded Peaks of Colour, a walking for healing group by and for People of Colour within the Peak District, tackling racialised and gendered trauma in an outdoor space. Their “walk shops” are about to relaunch under two new banners: the walking club, which is for People of Colour of all genders and the Healing Justice Club, which is for survivors of colour of marginalised genders.

Peaks of Colour is designed to help people heal, and to be part of a community of others with similar experiences. Those in the group direct the sessions in ways that work for them.

“And that will be, quite literally, whatever anyone needs in those spaces. So it could be that people are on a waiting list for a therapy, or they are going through child custody courts and life feels really bleak,” Evie explains.

Each walk shop takes place in the Peak District. Evie directs the ramble, before other facilitators of colour lead the way with workshops, be it nature writing, sound bathing or yoga healing.

In June 2022, Peaks of Colour collaborated with Migration Matters Festival to host a nature writing workshop facilitated by Dal Kular. The focus was manifesto building. The group rambled along the Monsal Trail, a huge disused railway line, and headed down to a weir, where they dipped their toes in the water. People split off to do various writing exercises, then came back together to contribute to a group manifesto.

At one point, as they sat under a huge viaduct, Dal asked them to shout some of the lines from the manifesto out into the landscape. One shouted their line and punctuated it with a howl. From somewhere in the valley, a howl came back.

Peaks of Colour doesn’t rely on state systems, and a lot of the group’s funding comes from reparations from white allies, and the community. They are decolonising outdoor spaces.

“It means also challenging barriers to the outdoors for People of Colour… and almost reclaiming that space as our own,” Evie says. For her, this is where creativity really comes in. The group is always evolving, and she calls it messy and imperfect. Peaks of Colour is an open-ended project without specific goals, leaving plenty of room for creativity.

“[Healing] doesn’t have to be this biblical experience. It can just be sitting around, or paddling in a lake with a group of people who will just say, ‘Well, that was shit.’”

 Her hope is that one day, their group won’t need to exist.

What’s so good about this?

These creatives are harnessing their activist souls to tackle violence against marginalised genders. Not only are they finding ways to make real change and impact people’s lives, but they’re setting incredible examples. Who might they inspire next? They’re the trailblazers we need to stamp out a problem we’re better off without.

Katie Dancey-Downs writer profile

Meet the writer

When she’s not pretending to be a beaver holding back the rivers, Katie Dancey-Downs is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for human stories, nature and culture. She is also assistant editor at Index on Censorship, an award-winning quarterly magazine. She’s travelled the world to report on issues such as vegan activism in Toronto, regenerative farming in India, and the destruction of Sacred Natural Sites in Kenya. She can usually be found with her head in a book, stomping through the forest, or wishing she looked cool on a surfboard. @Katie_Dancey.

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