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The joke is always on women, but why are we laughing?

Last week, I (among others) took offence to a recent outdoor hoarding. I was shocked by its casual sexism and peeved about the use of cheap publicity to get eyeballs. A half-baked apology only added insult to injury. But it is hard to hold on to outrage—especially when we all seem to be outrage-ing so much about so many things nowadays—and by Monday I was much calmer.

But I couldn’t get the episode out of my mind. I found myself wondering about the diversity of reactions to the ad itself, which used abbreviations for common Hindi abuses that depict incest. I also kept thinking about how some folks on social media who found the ad funny, not offensive—and I’ll be the first to say that they are entitled to their opinion—also expressed their distress about the rape of a 4-year old girl, which was reported in the media around the same time. It is hard for me to wrap my head around this dichotomy and yet, it aptly demonstrates the extent to which sexual violence against women has got normalised in our society. It takes the rape of a child to upset us, but mothers and sisters being raped is now par for the course!

I find it fascinating that, for the majority, there is no relevant link between sexist advertising (and jokes) and the dismal record of Indian cities on women’s safety. Recently released data from NCRB shows that reported rape cases increased by 12.4% between 2015 and 2016. While crime data on domestic violence, sexual assault, abduction and rape is collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), many others forms of violence that women experience on a daily basis remain poorly documented. We know from media reports as well as many micro studies these too are widespread and on the rise. The statistics on child abuse, unfortunately, are worse. Across the country young children, mostly girls, are being sexually assaulted, often times by teachers, family members, neighbours and caregivers, people whom they implicitly trust. The NCRB reports a dramatic 13.6% increase in crime against children over the last three years, with about 35% of the cases registered under POCSO, or the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act 2012.

These numbers, shocking as they are, no longer make an impression on us because we seem to have accepted that this is how Indian society is. Our reactions to the news items about raped children comprise expressing anguish, tightening security around our families and securing good marriages for our daughters, thus passing on the responsibility of their safety to someone else. Or, for the elite, sending our children abroad.

Unlike in other issues like terrorism or national security, we find it hard to pin point the enemy in the case of gender-based violence and so we blame the ‘other’, usually folks from another class and/or religion. Helpless and frustrated, we take solace in our WhatsApp groups, our laughter clubs, our kitty circles, our YouTube stand-up comedies, our Friday beers and we enjoy a few ‘husband-wife’ or ‘blonde’ jokes. The next morning, we read about another rape story and hurriedly turn to the sports page, where BCCI slamming pollution-troubled Sri Lankan cricketers makes for an entertaining read.

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Women in India are having to fight for opportunity, dignity and life; and it’s heartbreaking…

No matter where I travel, my heart remains at home in India. Especially in these turbulent times when basic humanity is eclipsed and everything is a public spectacle, a jumble of accusations and vitriolic hatred. It seems to be that dignity and respect is the prerogative of a narrow sliver of India’s population right now- Hindu, male, upper caste. The rest of us do not matter. We are to give ourselves up in the service of the nation- get an education, get a job, toil away, embed ourselves in acceptable social structures and raise children who conform. If we do so, never complaining, we are good citizens. If we speak up, we face vilification and worse, abuse. And ever worse, violence, even death.

Far away from home, I watch the news emanating from BHU, a university campus that is located in the ancient and endearing city of Varanasi, the pulsating heart of Hinduism and the constituency of PM Modi. Here, a girl is assaulted on a dark street in the evening and deigns to complain. The poor response of the university provokes widespread protests, which are met with police force and brutality. The authorities claim the protests are politicized, the students claim their demands are simple- better lighting, more security, accountability and action against those who did not respond and a functional system to address harassment complaints in the future. Instead of asking why a prominent university has been found so lacking, the nation is busy victim blaming and cooking political plots. In the meanwhile, thousands of girls across the country  have lost the chance to study ahead and become independent as their parents stare at TV screens in fear!

For a nation that dreams of being a global power – delusional factions of it believe it already is – this is sheer idiocy! How in the world are we to progress if women, half the nation, is consigned to live in fear and subjugation. I do not have to reel out the stats here. Domestic violence, sexual assault, rape, marital rape, son preference leading to malnutrition and female infanticide, insufficient public toilets and school latrines, poor public transport, disproportionate familial responsibilities in a patriarchal society, dowry related torture and death, body shaming, trafficking – the list of what women in India face everyday is endless.

Even so, women aspire and dream. They top school leaving examinations. Their performances trump that of boys year after year. They enter college with big dreams, which for most of them are trampled by early marriages decided by their families. Some of them manage to work, but drop out when family responsibilities become too hard to bear. The majority endeavor to make the best of their lives, balancing a heavy load of social expectations. A thin sliver get the right opportunities, live lives somewhat equal to their male peers. An infinitesimally small number breach the glass ceiling. They are celebrated, even as the dreams of millions are crushed.

It is irrefutable logic that India’s dreams of economic success and global power will be more easily met if women are allowed the same opportunities as men, but I will not make a purely economic argument here. India’s female workforce participation is a dismal story, we all know that. Instead of inching up, it has fallen. Yet, women work harder than ever, doing non-remunerative work at home, in family enterprises, and in large number, on the fields. All those hardworking women are counted as out of the workforce, ironically, while those who are in it walk the tight rope every day, torn between home and work, chided for the choices they make and facing increased expectations all the time.

What is the point of it all, if basic dignity is not on offer and if, instead of rectifying the flaws in the system, women are blamed each time for asking for their due? I would think that we would all have given up. Instead, we fight, we scream, we bear the brunt of the lathi charge….because we know that thousands are cowering under the wrath of a husband or the father (or the mother-in law!), thousands still are completely confined and thousand others will not even be born. We know we are the lucky ones and so we fight. Hats off to the girls in BHU who won’t back down and shame on those who attack and vilify them; they must question their own humanity. Hats off to the crusaders who have fought in the courts and campaigned and worked in communities countrywide to help women access their rights, and shame on everyone who thinks this is not their problem; they need to open their eyes. Hats off to the men who have stood by women and seen their cause as human not female, and shame on those who continue to deride feminism and the demand for equality; they need to wake up and smell the coffee!!

Fascinating chats with kids and a confrontation with misogyny 

I’ve always been fascinated about the trajectories of everyday conversations. This morning, Aadyaa complained about the days getting shorter and we started talking about the forces and mechanisms of nature. That you can’t pick what you want, it’s a package deal!

That reminded me of Ingapirca (watch out for that post, coming soon!), an Inka ruin I visited in Ecuador where the intimate knowledge developed about solar and lunar cycles was evident. I commented on how amazing it was that man had learnt so much through observation and analysis even very far back in time. Udai, whose grade 7 history syllabus includes the European Middle Ages, reminded me that medieval Europe, to the contrary, went through a ‘dark’ period in which science was ignored and reviled. He went on to educate me about how he saw rationalism and empiricism as the two main approaches to scientific thinking.

The jump to present day politics in our conversation was inevitable. Is the rejection of rational thought as seen in majoritarian political behaviour the world over (especially in the use of unsubstantiated information as part of a communication strategy) part of a cyclical process? Could poor basic education that does not grant people the ability to engage with content, leavealone have an independent opinion, be part of the problem? Has credibility in post colonial India been (wrongly) built on status, class and the ability to speak English instead of facts? And is a backlash against liberal intellectuals about a re-evaluation of whether these attributes constitute credibility or is it built on something entirely different like effective communication that feeds into people’s fears?

By this time, the kids were in a contemplative mode, realising just how privileged they were to be in a good school, where standards of education are high and teachers competent. The bus arrived and they left.

When I got back home and checked my social media feed, an abusive comment from an acquaintance on a post that critiques India’s recent demonetisation policy brought home to me that we are fighting a very real war, one which is fuelled by resentment against those who are capable of providing the empirical evidence. Combined with an odious level of misogyny and low self-confidence, rendering those with an opinion legitimate targets of abuse. Especially if they are women.

The women of Cuenca

The more you travel, the more you admire the industry and hard work of women. In Cuenca, we saw women carry things and sell eats, flowers and knick knacks on pavements and in street markets. Women manned the entries to churches and museums, sold us tickets and showed us around. Women served us in hole in the wall eateries, scurrying between kitchen and table even as their menfolk cooked inside. Here are some clicks of the beautiful women we met today, many of them clearly from native tribes of the region (like the Otovalos and Canari), distinct in their facial features and ethnic attire.

 

Women, marriage and (in)security: Multiple scenarios, similar fears

Sharing two pieces that highlight the stressful relationship that women seem to have with the institution of marriage. This Quartz piece from China that tells the story of married women who condone and finance criminal acts to eliminate their husbands’ mistresses puts the spotlight on an uncomfortable fact: that marriage is about social sanction and financial security. What about love, companionship, trust?

The other piece from The Guardian highlights this same stressful relationship that women have with marriage, but in the light of Muslim women in India who live in perpetual fear of “talaq, talaq, talaq” from husbands whose motivations to remain married to them are often purely exploitative in nature.

That women should be so dependent on marriage for their security in an age where more women are financially independent (not nearly enough though!) is a travesty. That women should constantly live in fear of the consequences of a failed marriage is also a sad reality, and it’s not just poor women we’re talking about here.

I’m sure men too are stressed about marriage and the responsibilities that come with it and that could be fodder for another conversation, but surely the idea is to move towards a social structure in which marriage is a matter of choice for both men and women and not a social tick mark burdened with so much expectation and anxiety?

Thick skin and a load of arguments: A two-pronged feminist strategy

I started thinking about whether I am a feminist, or whether I am so inclined, only a few years ago. I was brought up to be independent and outspoken by rather liberal parents. Growing up, I had many strong women to look up to- my grandmothers, my mother, all with strong opinions and minds of their own. But to see feminism in the light of global awareness on violence against women, to see it as a response to misogyny, that has been a recent change.

I met Mona Eltahawy in November 2012 and she transported me into a different world: a world where feminism was not an unwanted movement propelled by shrill, stubborn women but an inclusive movement that the world really needed to set the balance right. I wrote about this soon after I met her. And today, as I read this interview of Mona’s I am struck anew by the importance of speaking out about how we perceive the world, about discussing and debating ideas that might bring about change.

I’m also thinking that we cannot challenge the status quo without some discomfort, but just how much discomfort are we willing to bear? We need to talk about things that bother society, parts of our lives we accept too easily, the stuff that ruffles feathers, but where, when, how and how much? Do we go “shopping for a thicker skin” as an obscure and unlikable female character says in Mad Men, or do we respond to every discomfort with a conversation, a response, a challenge?

These are questions every feminist, or any kind of social reformer- male or female, asks everyday. We’re human, we’re scared and yet we want to change things. I’ll say this much for myself, though. It’s going to be a long wait for an equal world, I know, but I’m ready with both the thicker skin and the battery of arguments!

Housing segregation: Not just a problem, but the symptom of a dangerous disease

This morning, a single woman friend put up a very witty post on her Facebook page that described her failed attempts to rent out a workspace. She used humour as her weapon to deal with the blatant patriarchy that she faced from landlords and even landladies, including constant requests to meet the husband, complete refusal to deal with her single status and even allegations on her character! Years ago, I remember fighting with a bunch of old men on behalf of a friend who was being asked to leave our housing society because her boyfriend misbehaved with her! Again, being single was conveniently associated with bad character and none of those chivalrous gentlemen (even within the limits of their self-conceived patriarchal roles) thought to come to the rescue of this damsel in distress who was being harassed by a man. Oh, the injustice of it!

This is one of many types of housing segregation that is commonly experienced in Indian cities. Caste and religion are routinely used to turn away renters. Many scholars have put a spotlight on the increase in housing segregation. Gazala Jamil’s work on the spatial segregation of Muslims in Delhi  and Vithayathil and Singh’s research on caste-based segregation in India’s seven largest metros are part of a growing body of literature that show us that even as we look at the city as the panacea for the old social evils, these identities are viciously reconstructed the urban context.

In their piece in The Wire, Kumar and Sen argue that housing segregation is a direct result of poor housing policy combined with ingrained prejudices. “The reason why legislative intervention, as opposed to judicial, is necessary to resolve the matter of housing discrimination is because the problem should not be exclusively framed in the narrow context of individual acts of discrimination. Ghettos in cities do not rise spontaneously or accidentally. Ghettos are created by bad housing policy coupled with prejudice,” they write. They suggest legislation that makes it illegal for landlords or housing societies to be able to discriminate in such a way.

While legislation that comes out strongly against discrimination would be a good thing, I am not at all sure if it will end housing segregation in the short term. Something larger than the ability to discriminate without facing consequences is driving segregation in our cities. The expression of identity through the clustering of groups by language, caste, food preferences, religious practices and cultural norms is a way for people to find refuge and solace in the confusing and chaotic city, a context that is complex and disordered, where there is no tangible link between what you do and what you get. In this urban spider web where most citizens see themselves as a fly, the ‘other’ assumes a terrible importance. Hence, the single woman in a society that sees itself as bound by the values of family is a threat to the group’s collective identity. The Muslim family that may or may not attend the Diwali and Janmashtami celebrations or contribute to the Mata ka bhandara is viewed with suspicion. And so on and so forth.

How fragile is our sense of identity that we can see the people who are different from us as such potent threats? Clearly, we can find no easy way to unite and fight poor governance, or find concrete ways to improve our collective lives. It’s much easier to identify the ‘other’ and weed them out of our midst, to lull ourselves into the false complacency of uniformity and sameness. What is under threat is not simply access to housing, it is the very idea of pluralism that is essential to cities that is under question. If Indian cities are merely collections of villages (and do not let the shiny glass, Metro rail networks and CCTV cameras fool you), then the dream of urbanized development (smart cities included) is a false one. At the very least, we must all realize that.

Guest Post by Susrita Roy: Speaking aloud on the Day of Silence

A rare guest post on my blog from my colleague and friend Susrita, who thinks deep and smiles broadly. Will gladly convey your comments and feedback to her as you react to her post on a complex and contentious topic.

This year the Day of Silence is going to be celebrated on the April 17, 2015. In the myriad list of special days in a year which are celebrated in order to generate awareness, sensitize and what-have-you, this day is much the opposite. It is a day to silently protest against the bullying and harassment of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans-genders (LGBT) and their supportersto symbolically represent the silencing of LGBT community. This year I chose to celebrate this day by asking few questions to my heterosexual counterparts with the hope that by answering these questions they may be able to reflect better on their beliefs about homosexuality.

The set of questions I will pose are an adapted and abridged version of “Heterosexual Questionnaire” of Martin Rochlin, who was a pioneer in the field of gay-affirmative psychotherapy. Although almost four decades have passed since this questionnaire was prepared, much of this  remains relevant, especially because the mindset of heterosexual community about their homosexual counterparts has not really undergone much change in these years. It is not very uncommon for a member of the LGBT community to encounter one such question each and every day of their lives. The leading thoughts are primarily my responses which have been echoed by many like-minded individuals.

Question 1: What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

Leading thoughts: If we believe that heterosexuality came to me naturally, why is it hard to believe that it would have been the same way for a homosexual. On the other hand if we believe that there was some incident which triggered our heterosexuality then it means that prior to that incident we too were homosexual. And in that stage also we were the same human being, with same emotions and same thoughts.

Question 2:How can you enjoy an emotionally fulfilling experience with the person of the other sex when there are such vast differences between you?

Leading thoughts: How many of us believe that we connect better, have more fun and are less likely to be judged by our same sex partners? How many times have we thought that if you stayed with a same sex friend life would be much less complicated?

Question 3: A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual men, do you consider it safe to expose your children to heterosexual male teacher, pediatrician and scout master?

Leading thoughts: Rape of young girls and child sexual abuse is very often in news and the perpetrators are mainly male heterosexuals. In such a milieu do we still think that our child is unsafe with a homosexual teacher?

Question 4: Considering the menace of overpopulation how could the human race survive if everyone was heterosexual?

Leading thoughts: Isn’t it ironically, on one side we want everyone to be heterosexual and on the other side we don’t want them to reproduce? Isn’t that the only advantage of a heterosexual relationship over a homosexual one!

Question 5: Could it be that you heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?

Leading thoughts: As a girl when do we feel more unsafe, when you surrounded by only men or where there only female around you? Thus it can be confidently said that even when we oppose homosexuality, we feel safer with same sex people around us.

My unsolicited advice to all heterosexual readers who are indifferent to homosexuality is this: Please spare some time on April 17th to understand that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. It is definitely not a “disease” and homosexuals are not “abnormal”. Those who have chosen to be that way have a right to do so. They do not deserve anyone’s stare or ridicule; instead they need to treated with equal dignity like the others. I, I feel that there should not be any “other”. We all belong to the same species of homosapiens with different choices of food, clothing and in this case sexuality. Various studies trying to prove that there are biological differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals have been groundless. We can choose to change our indifference to one of inclusion rather than one of ‘othering’. As for those who vehemently oppose homosexuality, I have noting to say to you as I know that you are anyway very few in numbers.

Dum Laga ke Haisha: Caricatures of life in small town India

The streets of Haridwar and Rishikesh, though a tad cleaner than they are in reality, came alive in Dum Laga ke Haisha, a recently released Hindi film I watched a couple of nights ago. I’d heard good things, but it was better than I expected.

dum-laga-ke-haisha

In a nutshell, it is a love story in which the man (Ayushmann Khurana ) slowly falls in love with his overweight wife (Bhumi Pednekar), who he was initially repulsed by. But what brought the film alive was the pulsating reality of small town life. The frustration of ill-educated misdirected young men who are consigned to a life of boredom working in petty family businesses. Of girls, who despite being educated and self-confident, are expected to fit the stereotype of the well brought up, docile girl in order to work the marriage market. Of lower middle class families, struggling to eke out an existence, steeped deep into identities of class and caste that shape their lives and interactions. Of young people in conservative small town India, whose perform their little dramas of life in front of the extended parivaar (family), gali (street) and mohalla (neighbourhood). Others have written about its unique treatment of the theme of sexual love.

Shy Prem, bold Sandhya! Shedding stereotypes

Shy Prem, bold Sandhya! Shedding stereotypes

Watching porn, with family consent? Quite a hilarious situation!

Watching porn, with family consent? Quite a hilarious situation!

The film brought forth two very direct messages. One, respect is an essential starting point in a relationship, even if love is a tough ultimate target. Two, breaking the rules is important; you get things only if you ask for them.

While Prem, the male protagonist, is a pathetic character, full of complexes and self-loathing, Sandhya, the newly married overweight and B.Ed pass bride is a fascinating character. She is shown as willing to mold herself to her new family but unwilling to suffer consistent blows to her pride. She stands up to her husband’s aunt and walks out of her marital home when her husband ill-mouths her. Further, she refuses to let her parents walk all over her, bringing in legal help and starting divorce proceedings immediately. Sandhya is not the caricature of the modern over-aggressive educated women. Instead, she is a woman who is unwilling to allow what she perceives as a mismatched marriage to continue to harm herself (as well as Prem). Of course, her deeply ingrained insecurities about her weight and her belief that once divorced, she would live the life of a spinster while Prem would find a second (beautiful) bride drove in the message the film intended to convey. That it is inner beauty we should be seeking, within ourselves and in others around; baaki sab maya hai (the rest is an illusion)!

The transformations that Indian women experience! Musings…

I took the Delhi Metro today after a longish time. It’s always an entertaining experience. The people watching especially. The ladies’ coach in particular!

Today, I was struck by the multitasking that women manage, or have to manage. In front of me, a newly married young woman was frantically calling home and no one seemed to be answering the phone. Finally, she got through to her domestic help (I think) and instructed her to put her washing out to dry (she had hand washed clothes than ran color and left them to drip dry in her bathroom). After this call, she was visibly relaxed. Another young lady was calling home to check on her guests who had clearly come in from out of town and were being given all sorts of assurances about her getting back home on time, taking care of some taxi arrangements, etc.

I was also struck by the many women who wore symbols of marriage in a very overt manner. Newly married girls wearing the traditional ‘chuda’, the red and white bangles plus gaudy clothing. Also prominent sindoor, toe rings, mangalsutras, etc etc. It’s cultural, sure, and nothing wrong with it. But then I saw these two sisters chatting. One was college going and dressed in skinny jeans, top and sports shoes. The older sister, just a few years older I presume, was in salwar kameez, bindi, sindoor, bangles and all the get up of a married woman. And I wondered about the transformation that she went through. Was she proud of it, embracing the tag of ‘married’ like young women in India are taught to? Was she proud, of being in the married people’s club, perhaps looking down on her friends who hadn’t managed  a membership yet? Or did she just adopt these ways without thinking, because everyone did it? Did she, at times, long to slip into her jeans and t-shirt, did she rue the lack of choice?

I have been in those shoes and I’ve aspired to be the ideal daughter-in-law, the ideal wife, the ideal mother. I don’t know who I needed to, still need to, prove myself to. I don’t know what made me think I wasn’t already good enough. I’ve come a long way in being a little more comfortable in my skin. But I’m still finding the balance, and still processing the transformations that women undergo to just be women in our society.

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