Rise Up – Interview Series | Jenisha Shah


The FemJustice Centre seeks to increase the use of feminist lawyering techniques in the legal sector, with a particular focus on increasing feminist leadership among legal practitioners, law students and other individuals working with survivors of gender-based violence. We believe that the legal field has massive potential to advance the feminist and gender-rights movement. In order for this to be successful, legal approaches with a gender-sensitive lens need to be employed.

Rather than just filling the legal aid gap in India, we work to provide a space where the process of seeking justice can be a transformative tool to combat gender-based crimes, while simultaneously recognising the survivor-client’s agency, lived reality and desires for justice. This project hopes to change the narrative around gender-based violence by distilling theory into practice.

This interview series takes the conversation to professionals who have created tangible feminist justice responses in their field of work. The objective is to open up space to explore various different forms of feminist justice, across personal and professional spheres, looking as interpersonal and systemic challenges.

Maëlle Noir of One Future Collective, spoke to Jenisha Shah, Clinical Psychologist & Creative Arts-based Therapist working with children and adults, often using the person-centred approach to counselling complemented by expressive arts. She has more than 9 years of experience in the area of special learning needs. She has worked as a Consultant, Lecturer, and a Clinical Psychologist in several noted schools and colleges in Mumbai. Shikha Naidu, volunteer at the FemJustice Centre assisted in writing the interview.

OFC: Having taken up many roles in the field of counselling, what is your definition of feminist justice? How does it unfold within the space of therapy?

So, the way I see it is that I am pro-women and promote women’s rights but I would also advocate for a little bit of gender-neutrality sometimes. Feminism for me ranges from gender equality to gender neutrality. I feel like the danger with the word ‘feminism’ is that it is too often seen as advocacy for only women’s rights and using the argument of feminist justice just to prove a point. Sometimes, I feel like it’s used as an end and not as a means. It should be a more generic way of functioning. Something as simple as having the “women’s compartment” and general compartment which are basically for men, I feel like it should just be neutral. There is no “equal compartment”. So everything becomes a struggle. When you’re trying to be a feminist in the whole process of getting justice, I feel there needs to be clarity on what is the meaning behind it. It can be an empty approach to just focus on women. That’s maybe the reason why many people dislike or reject this concept because it is too often misused.

As a therapist, I need to be neutral to the client who comes in. When somebody approaches me, they want to know who I am and what I believe in as a therapist. But they must choose me because I am a therapist and not because of my political opinion. That’s why I can’t say, “Yes I am a proud feminist” on a professional level even if there is a feminist inside me. Even though, I sometimes disagree with certain opinions disclosed during the sessions, I must be able to give them that neutral space of support, in a non-judgmental way. Of course, I would not encourage someone to be a misogynist but I am not there to tell them who to be and what to think. As therapists, we need to work on ourselves all the time because we need to be available to people. We need to be available in our mind to be available for our client.

OFC: Can you tell us more about your work? 

Let’s start with dance movement therapy as I am certified in it. Dance can mean a lot of different things; it can be a passion, a profession and even a way of life. In terms of dance therapy, what we associate with it is mainly just movement whereas if you think about dance outside this concept it would be more of a performance, stylised choreographed movements put in a particular manner that is aesthetically nice and suits the beat of the music. It is about expressing the physicality of movement.

Movement therapy, on the other hand, is not an art but a form of psychotherapy delivered by a qualified therapist who would have done a masters or a course in it: a therapeutic movement facilitator (it is what I would call myself actually). Movement therapy is about using the movement component of dance in order to assist emotional and behavioural concerns and improve mental health. It comes from the individual. I am very clear with my patients while telling them that I am not a dance instructor, it is not like a prescriptive thing so I’m never asking my patients to do movements in a certain way, it has to come from them. It’s an organic expression of themselves.

My role is to support and guide the patient/participant throughout that process and help them to accept their organic self while ensuring that they evolve in a safe space. There might be an element of “validation” of the movement to help this process. Some would say “observing” but it can sound very judgy. There are different approaches to it but I prefer using the term “witnessing”.

Say, for example, I’m asking you to tell me one feeling that you’re having right now and I want you to try to show it to me with a movement. The kind of questions that would follow would be, “What is happening in this kind of curiousness that you’re going through? What else is coming around? Why don’t we try to understand what this curiousness is looking for?” The aim is to keep on directing them using movement in order to find the answers to these questions. I’m not always using these techniques though, it’s mainly a way to understand where you’re coming from. If I can’t do your movement then I might not be able to understand what you’re going through. The key principle is to create an authentic relationship with you, the same way that you are authentic with me. So I have to also understand what the act of this movement did to you.

Sometimes, it would be the other way around. People would tell me, “Okay this is what is happening to me” and then I would answer “Okay, let’s do a movement associated with this, what are the options that you have to do this movement? How do you express this with your body?”. There are some people who are really comfortable using movements and some who are very uncomfortable and hesitant, and this might also change throughout the session. Some can turn out being more comfortable at some point and even express the need to do it themselves. The last component of what a movement-based therapy session would look like is the necessity to talk about how it went by asking, “How did you feel? What kind of feeling did this movement session trigger?” and such.

OFC: What are the benefits of this movement-based therapy?

The advantage of movement-based therapy is that it is very flexible and the movement component can be used at any time, either as a warm-up before a talk, as a way to express oneself through the body, to shake it off a little bit or as a way to relax at the end of a session. It just brings your body into the present. It can also be adapted very conveniently depending on the client or the situation. In any case, you need to have an element of discussion as well, healing is not likely to happen with just movement.

I also want to stress that sometimes, asking or encouraging the patient to do a movement is necessary. Just analysing the body language can be extremely informative about what the person thinks. Again, this is about witnessing something, not judging, not putting labels on people according to the movements they propose. Looking from the outside, we might be able to discover some nuances that are not possible to express with words, just looking at how the person is sitting, which part of the sofa they decide to sit on etc. Sometimes, I would analyse that along with what they are saying. For example, I may ask them ”Oh today you decided to sit on the chair, is the sofa not the happy place today?”.

OFC: Have you ever used these movement-based techniques with people who suffered from violence? Is it relevant in that case?

Yes, it is extremely relevant. My fellow movement therapists do tend to use it with support groups, especially in women shelters, and it is helpful. I have used it with clients who would not come with violence as their first reason to go through therapy but who would disclose experiences of abuse through the course of the sessions. I have also used it a lot with children and adolescents. The feedback I get from most of my clients is that it’s been helpful. Another thing is that it should not be solution-focused, and psychotherapy dynamics at large are like that.

Have you heard about cognitive therapy? This is more solution-based. It gives you a timeline towards healing and I feel like that does not always work. It tends to help people who intend to work superficially on issues and it’s okay if the client’s objective is “I want to feel better right now”. The therapist has to resonate with what the client wants as well, to adjust the methods according to the objective and the situation. It is not the therapist’s job to say “No, you need to dig deeper”, that would be counter-productive.

OFC: What you are saying about the “ideology” of movement therapy really resonates with the journey of a survivor of GBV. Giving the choice to your clients to express themselves through their body, words, or both is a good alternative justice practice. Because both the body and the mind have been violated, do you think sometimes triggering obstacles prevent the survivor from speaking?

That’s right because they’ve been through this traumatic experience which is something that also happened to their body, it might be extremely difficult and challenging for victims to use their body as a way to make peace with themselves and expose that part of them. But it can be a very powerful way to do that in some cases. Again, this really depends on the individual and the group. Let’s say there’s a group of women who’ve gone through GBV, either of two situations can happen. The group can open up more easily after seeing that it’s not only happening to them but it can also shut the group down because it’s too hard to go to that space because their body has already been abused.

OFC: You talked a lot about movement therapy being shaped according to the individual. How are you able to make this focus if you’re working with a group?

If there is a group, then each client becomes the group. It’s about what the group needs; it comes up as a whole. What I mean by that is that the women in the group also support each other in many ways. At the same time, it is a movement to be in a safe space and to be focusing on themselves. There is also this sense of belonging which is very powerful in this kind of setting.

And in a group, we are also sensitive to individual situations, like taking note of where the different people are coming from. What’s important is to find ways to address everyone’s needs and also the group’s needs. In a group, everybody shares their bit, everyone has their own space to share and get supported by others. It’s always good to hear someone saying “Oh I feel the same way”, it can bring so much sense to people’s experience. And even though the relating part does not happen completely, the sharing itself can be very therapeutic. Getting this kind of external validation and acknowledgement can be very important for some people, especially if we are talking about victims of GBV. It is also very powerful to feel that people are actually listening to you which is an important part of support. It brings this sort of “I believe you” component in a safe space without judgement.

OFC: Moving from the movement part of therapy to art, can you elaborate on how you use art as a way of healing?

Firstly, it’s possible to mix the two together. I could ask someone to make a movement in order to express an emotion, then draw what the movement meant to them or how they felt doing it. Just put it out there without thinking about it. Then the response that comes up can be really interesting and enriching. It gives me additional materials to work with.

Art, such as drawing, is also helpful because there is this kind of tangible support that you can take with you, maybe hang it out on the wall as a reminder of what it is that you’re trying to focus on about yourself. Let’s take the example of art-therapy. If I ask you to draw something pretty, for example, you will use the right techniques and colours thinking about how it will look like at the end. But you will not pay attention to the painting process itself, how you feel while creating it. The aim of therapy is not to focus on the product but rather to focus on the process. If you’re focusing on the product, you’re not actually letting yourself “be”.

OFC: It appears that you use several methods that reflect feminist values. Therapy was very male centred until the seventies where authors and practitioners started to point out that gender matters in therapy. What are your thoughts on that? 

Yes, I do use this feminist approach in organising my workshops.

When you say that therapy was male-centred, it’s actually interesting because there are very few male therapists in India and even less male movement therapists. Especially in the context of a traditional Indian family, only a few of them would let their male child become a therapist. Even when I studied psychology, there was a majority of women.

If we are talking about gender in terms of who the client is, it is true that in counseling sessions with women, we discuss questions such as what their role within society makes them feel like,  and assisting them to express themselves and talk about how it feels to just be a woman. And then, starting from them we can propose to bring this into a workplace scenario, in a family situation, or in the country at large. There are various ways to deal with it.

OFC: In that case, do you think there is a need for feminism?

The need for feminism is there because there is still a lack of awareness and sensitivity regarding gender equality in society. We need to engage in this discussion about feminism and feminist justice to continue the dialogue to challenge the male bias existing everywhere around us. Advocacy for gender equality must be in every sector, politically, economically, culturally, socially, etc. People should feel free to speak about it but there are some spaces that are more appropriate than others.  Let’s be mindful of how we use this platform and what definition we put behind the word feminism. At the core of feminist principles, we are just trying to say that we need equality between all genders without necessarily talking about sameness. We are not all the same, differences will always be there: equal does not mean the same. But we must have access to the same opportunities.

Maelle Noir was the former Program Officer at the FemJustice Center, One Future Collective. Shikha Naidu is a volunteer at the FemJustice Centre.

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