Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Kamla Bhasin and a rape joke on FB: An update

After posting here about my discomfort, I wrote to my classmate and told him what my objections were. I do not want to reveal the details of our discussion, as I have not sought his permission to write about it in a public forum like blogger. But he appears to agree with me on the points I raised about rape as a violation, though he disagreed with my statement that people put up stuff that they agree with on FB.

But I am glad, very glad that I raised it with him:-)

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Kamla Bhasin and a rape joke on FB

Feminists and human rights activists in India know Kamla Bhasin from her work with rural women, the Delhi based NGO Jagori, peace and harmony in South Asia, her work with FAO and also her feministic songs. I heard her at a meeting of Adivasi women who had been displaced by "development" projects and was electrified by how she would rouse a crowd. Here is Kamala di at Indra Prastha college, New Delhi.

I recently came across a quote by her in Shauna Singh Baldwin's Book Review of "Making a Difference"

“It (feminism) has challenged me at every step and in every aspect of my life, because it is the only-ism that enters into our families, our bedrooms and our most intimate relationships; and the questions of equations, practices and traditions. It has turned the PERSONAL into the POLITICAL.”

Why I am writing this now? I recently reconnected with a classmate from college on FB. He posted this on his profile:

"Sahakarichaal....... nenakkum sokham .....enikkum sokham..............ALLENKIL......enikku maaathram sokham................))))) T G RAVI while raping SREEVIDYA in Film UDAMBADI" .

For my non-Malayali readers, let me translate this: this is a dialogue from the Malayalam movie "udambadi" where one character (presumably the villain), played by actor TG Ravi is saying to the character played by actress Sreevidya while raping her: "If you cooperate both of us can get pleasure, if you don't only I get pleasure". Rape is not a joke and to joke about it, is not a joke either. I have not seen the movie (in any case my friend has only approvingly (and with the smiley symbok attached) quoted this statement on his wall without giving the context) , but going just by this statement, it celebrates rape as an assertion of patriarchal power over a victim, who is expected to comply with the perpetrator's sexual demand. It also makes clear that sexual pleasure of the woman is irrelevant, she is there just to be enjoyed, like a commodity. What more do you need to show the utter violation that rape is?

My good friend human rights activist and film maker Aishah Shahidah Simmons (incidentally, Aishah has directed a path breaking documentary NO! on the rape of African American women) once said in a panel discussion that we should call out people and challenge them when they come up with racist, sexist remarks and not let it pass. Because, who knows, maybe when people are challenged that they may think about their unexamined prejudices. So, we can change the world, one person at at time. At least that is the belief:-))

I am torn - I do not want to have a discussion with this guy who I don't that well (we did not hang out together) but I also feel so angry that he can joke about rape in a public forum and other men have made statements affirming it. This guy has a little daughter who he clearly adores, but the argument I do not want to make is "what if your sister/wife/mother/daughter was raped?", because the feministic argument should not be about women whose roles are a man's sister/wife/mother/daughter, but about women's equal worth and dignity as human beings. The sister/wife/mother/daughter argument is directed at the protective instincts of the man, to protect "his" women. From the Supreme Court (anyone read some of Justice Krishna Iyer's verdicts on women's rights?) down, we feminists have our hands full dealing with protectionism. Treat us as human beings - nothing more, nothing less.

I do not know this guy well, so I am not sure how to react. This is what feminism does to you, as Kamla di says, it has "challenged me at every step and in every aspect of my life". Should I write to him privately? I do not know.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Malayali women in the public sphere: More power to Ranjini Haridas

Many Malayalis love to hate Ranjini Haridas, the anchor of the popular reality show Idea Star Singer which airs on Asianet . Ranjini is a smart, articulate woman with a good sense of humour. She actively participates in the music reality show she anchors, interceding with comments.

I want to say that a lot of the opposition to Ranjini's dress and her accent is not because of her dress and accent, but because she behaves in a way a nice Malayalee girl is NOT supposed to behave. A good Malayalee girl is supposed to be quiet and demure in public. Adakkavum othukkavum is drilled into little girls from the time they can talk. Kerala's physical public spaces are so very M*A*L*E. Even in Kochi, the supposedly most cosmopolitan city of Kerala, you will find very few women without a male escort outside at night in our streets or in public transport. Maybe, the IT/BPO culture will change that, but women have to pay a price until that happens, as Thasni Banu can testify. I think it was in a report published in the Kochi city edition of the New Indian Express that several female sales personnel were quoted talking of sexual harassment they frequently encounter in streets and in public transport when they rush back home at night.

The tragic rape and death of Sowmya highlighted how a nice Malayalee girl is created. It was repeatedly highlighted that she was going home for her "pennukaanal". She was constructed as a perfect victim, the good daughter who was working to support her family, who was looking forward to being married and leading a "settled" life. Only an adangia othungia Malayalee girl would get this treatment. Makes me wonder if a prostitute or a divorced woman would get a similar reception in our papers. Many thanks to J Devika's Kafila article for spurring my thoughts.

So, that brings me back to Ranjini Haridas. Some bloggers have accused her of being patronising towards contestants from subaltern backgrounds and of buying into the classical music is pure music and everything else is impure dogma (do note the words "pure" and "impure" also resonates of caste). Ranjini has caste and class working in her favour, no doubt. It is doubtful if someone (man/woman) from a subaltern background would have been able to "get away" with challenging supposed social niceties so long. Prof. Crenshaw will not be happy at this teasing out caste, class and gender separately but for simplifying the analysis let me indulge in that for a bit, focusing only on Ranjini as a Malayalee W*O*M*A*N

As a woman, she has faced more scrutiny than say, Sreekantan Nair or other male anchors precisely because she refused to fit into the pre-cast mould of dovish female anchors on Malayalam TV. In dual (male-female) anchor shows, there has been more than one instance of the male anchor hogging all the attention while the female anchor is made to stand there as a dumb barbie doll.

The Malayalam actor Jagathi Sreekumar made some comments about her anchoring style and questioned why she was "judging" the participants when there are judges on the show in the grand final of Munch Star Singer (also aired on Asianet) which was held before a live audience in a stadium. I think this was a sexist attack that was against Ranjini's in-your-face, not-adangi and not-othungi style of anchoring. Jagathi is a fine actor, but he had no business commenting on her anchoring style in public. If he was so bothered about it, he could have talked privately about it, but why make it public? Because Jagathi like most (all?) Malayali men are alpha-male. Would he have said that to Sreekantan Nair or Jagadeesh in a public forum? I doubt it. A woman, especially some one like Ranjini who is outspoken is fair game.

Ranjini handled it well and while researching for this post, I came across a piece by her explaining why she did not give it back to Jagathy in the same coin. She has a better sense of propriety than our thespian. So more power to Ranjini.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

New York is my city

I was in New York recently. The trip helped me to reconnect with myself, with who I am.

My best moment in New York was when I walked into the cafeteria of Barnes and Nobles in Union Square on a Saturday evening and found it full. Everyone there had books or e-readers and many were reading. This is a city that reads. This is my city, in the vaguest sense possible of course!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Men, women and relationships in India today

Yesterday I was on the phone with a friend who sought my advice regarding her marital dispute. The conversation led me to do some hard thinking on women, men and relationships in contemporary India.

A highly educated couple, the woman comes from a liberal background. A clear pointer to this is that she studied in Delhi for her MA and M.Phil, managing her life all by herself during those four years. The husband comes from a less liberal (I am not sure his parents would have agreed to their daughter studying in distant Delhi) background, has a ph.d and a good position in a prominent public sector company. Both share religion, caste and class.

Post marriage, after the literal and figurative honeymoon period was over, the husband made it clear that he expected his wife to take up a more "womanly" career, one which ensures she is back at home by 5pm in the evening. She refused and slowly hell broke lose. She suggested several times that they approach a counselor, but so far he has refused stating that counseling is only for the mentally ill and for good measure added that she can approach one to cure herself of her mental sickness of wanting a career.

Her parents wanted her to settle down after she found a job in Delhi after the M.Phil. Out of extreme lonliness (she is not the most extrovert of persons and had few friends at the time in Delhi), her mother's tears and endless haranguing she agreed to this proposal. She insists that outsiders like me not see the situation in black and white terms. Her parents are genuinely worried that she being an only child will be lonely and unhappy in old age and by getting her married, wanted to settle things for her. She loves her parents dearly and does not want to let them down, especially when they have invested so much in her happiness (she wanted to study in Delhi and without batting an eyelid, they agreed). Hence she agreed to this guy. They met a few times in Delhi for dinner (as someone I know once said, sometimes we fail to really know a person even after a lifetime, so how can you assess someone after a few dinners?) and he seemed ok enough. So she took the plunge.

My first reaction was why she did not discuss issues like career with him before they got married. But it looks like promises were made by him about her continuing with her position which he has retracted later on. To be fair to the guy, he may not have fully comprehended what he was getting into. Sometimes statements can mean different things to different people.

All in all, this is a very unfortunate situation, for both man and woman.

I am a feminist and I am not ashamed of saying it. There was a time I used to strongly believe that the world is created by men, of men and for men! But the older and wiser me think that in this new India, it is not easy for young men also. Women expect so much more from a marriage than their mothers did. But age old expectations of a man's role as the bread winner has not changed.

Also relevant is my friend's assertion that her parents have given her plenty of opportunities to explore her potential. A great education, for starters. Only to secure her happiness(and not to shirk their responsibility of her, this I must add is a very loaded concept, why is a woman a responsibility?), she asserts, were they insistent that she get married. SHe was clearly not seen as a burden to be traded of to a husband for dowry (the classical arranged marriage situation).

My friend agreed to the marriage primarily because she did not want to let her parents down as she loves them deeply. Now she is so conflicted about the choices she made. Thankfully, her parents have now rallied to her support.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A graphic example of history repeating itself?

I don't have much time, so will just write this in the style of a math equation

Privy Council decision in Abdul Fata Mahommed Ishak + revocation of the partition of Bengal = The Mussulman Wakf Validating Act, 1913

and this history repeats itself 73 years later

Supreme Court decision in Shahbano +opening of the locks of the Babri Mosque =Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act, 1986

For those interested, I would recommend reading Gregory C Kozlowski's Muslim Endowments and Society in British India (Cambridge University Press, 1985) and Zoya Hasan (ed) Forging Identities: Gender, Communities and the State (Kali for Women, 1994).

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

PC and Maggie: the pitfalls of certainty

I have been reading Karen Armstrong's memoir Spiral Staircase. What got me thinking is what she writes about the early eighties, which were the days of Margaret Thatcher in Britain. Armstrong notes that Maggie Thatcher was very set and certain about her world view being right. P Chidambaram, our Home Minister also strikes me as very certain in his views. I am uncomfortable with his vision of India with "85% living in cities". I am curious whether he has factored in the cost to the environment of majority people living in cities. What would happen to our forest cover if cities were to expand exponentially, I wonder. Especially for low-skilled labour who live in abject conditions in our cities, is it not better to create opportunities for them to stay in their villages and towns (NREGA seems to be a good move in this direction)?

It is perfectly ok to be unsure and to know that you may not have it right all the time. If everyone was certain about what they thought and sought to execute their certainties ( like the Al Qaida, for instance), the world would be a difficult place to live in.

And then, is anything certain in life other than death?

(this is an edited version of an earlier post on this topic)