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!!
I had a lot of fun updating my #100sareepact gallery yesterday! My heartfelt gratitude to everyone who, in their own way, has encouraged me and egged me on. I’m nearing the end slowly and steadily and people are beginning to ask if I would continue to wear sarees after Day 100 is done and dusted. A friend who wears sarees quite a bit but is not doing the pact asked me if the frequency of wearing sarees would change drastically and why that would be so….
These are very interesting questions, because they go to the core of what motivates a person like me to do the #100sareepact. Hopelessly addicted to over-analysis, I’ve been questioning myself about whether it is the adulation over social media that drives me rather than my love for sarees. What if I wore sarees and didn’t post? Wouldn’t that be enough as well?
On the other hand, I’ve made many friends, re-connected with many I knew from before, found common interests and gained a lot of knowledge because we are all sharing our saree posts. It’s the stories that go with the pictures that fascinate not just me, but everyone I know who has been avidly following the pact, whether they are pacters themselves or not.
What we wear, what we choose to wear is so intrinsic a part of who we are. It is an expression, but it also shapes our journey. By choosing to wear sarees, I make a statement to myself first and only then to everyone around. About being comfortable in my own skin. About being unapologetic about the extra 10 minutes I spend everyday choosing a saree, ironing it, draping it and accessorizing my look for the day. These acts give me that edge of confidence, bring out that inherent sexuality and power within me; they center me.
The #100sareepact has also coincided with a particularly industrious phase in my life. A career-focused phase, an ambitious forward-looking time, a time of re-invention and action that followed a rather long period of introspection, dithering and decision-making. The extra boost of confidence that wearing sarees has given me plays no small part in whatever I have managed to achieve. And for that, I shall remain eternally grateful to the pact.
Whether I will wear a saree as frequently post the pact remains to be seen, but I do know that the saree is now firmly entrenched among the regular choices I make about my attire. I think of the myriad motivations that have driven women across the world to take up the saree with such enthusiasm. I think of conversations last night with friends about how hard women are working to make a mark in the world around them, often against severe odds. I think about how desperately we sometimes need validation and encouragement and yet are too inhibited to seek it. And I know why the pact is so successful.
Anju, Ally, you struck gold with this. For all of us.
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!
It’s not always necessary to be morose, upset and angry to make a point. And we most certainly were not! Far from it, we danced and sang, chanted and laughed as we walked down Gurgaon’s mall stretch as part of the One Billion Rising campaign for gender equality and recognition of women’s rights.
Gurgaon’s citizens groups have, over the last couple pf years, matured into a curious amalgamation of interest groups, those who work for a cause and RWAs, ably aided by Facebook. Last evening’s event was called by Let’s Walk Gurgaon and joined by other groups, notably Gurgaon Moms. Unlike OBR in New Delhi, we did not see huge crowds and college students were conspicuous by their absence. Yes, the innovative format of the protest made a mark for those who attended.
Fashioned somewhat like a Mardi Gras parade, we carried a coffin with the intent to bury Misogyny, all dressed up in a celebratory mood replete with bandwalas, slogan shouting, drums and all the rest of it. We walked from Sahara Mall to DT City Centre on MG Road, crossed over to MGF Metropolitan and walked back to Sahara Mall. At DT City Centre, some volunteers staged a street play and back at Sahara, others did a really fun flash mob thing. Then we proceeded to bury Misogygy and give birth to a world of equal rights and respect.
We had tagging along with us the police constables, men and women, who were assigned to be with us on duty. They hadn’t a clue why we were doing this! Many onlookers watched curiously and seemed to be having fun as well. Nupur and me kept wondering what was passing through their minds. We almost decided to do an impromptu survey, but stopped short!
What I really loved about the entire event is the way it gathered momentum as it was planned. People, both men and women, volunteered their time and creativity and worked together to make it happen. It takes a lot to move out of the comfort of your routine and be out there, doing things, saying things, starting a chain of change. And having fun while doing it! To sum up, the message of the street play underlined the need to start the change with ourselves. That’s a great thought to take forward as we continue to advocate for a real change in social attitudes towards gender. Join us, the more the merrier!
Here are some pics that capture the event, all photo credits to Swatantra Chhabra Kalra who is a friend and fellow blogger. She blogs at http://swatantra-independence.blogspot.com/
For the videos of the event, please go to- http://www.youtube.com/user/f20films
This was a strong strain at THiNK2012. Shoma Chaudhry at one point actually said the audience had been complaining about it! We aren’t really comfortable with feminism are we? Well, I am, and increasingly so. That does not mean I think women must become like men, nor does it mean that men must defer to women, though most sensible ones do for obvious reasons!
For starters, I think we misunderstand feminism considerably and have a fuzzy idea of what it entails. The fact is that like any other movement, feminism has evolved over the decades. In its current form, the movement rejects absolute definitions of what being a feminist is, and includes the experiences of women from diverse racial, ethnic and class backgrounds.
I had a chat with Mona Eltahawy, a prominent figure in the activism related to restoring democracy in Egypt, a feminist and a grassroots leader. The experiences she shared silenced the audience into a hush. She was herself a subject of brutal sexual assault and threatened gang rape by the Egyptian police in the wake of the Tahrir Square liberation. She told us that women activists were picked up en masse and assaulted, raped, beaten into silence. And this continues. Horrifying? Well, just as horrifying as the rapes in Haryana, which aren’t political, but born out a deep sense of male superiority. Apparently it is fine to believe that women can be beaten and raped into silence.
I agree with Mona’s appeal that women must speak out and I admire her bravery for being able to do so again and again. I was rivetted when she declared “The shame was that of my assaulters, not mine!” It is terribly hard for women to believe that, but we must if we are to lead dignified lives.
I was also struck by the parallels between what is happening in Egypt and in the part of India where I live. The constituent assembly in Egypt, which is rewriting the country’s constitution, has suggested bringing down the marriageable age for women to, hold your breath, nine! Thos violates all child rights norms, conventions, treaties and is downright inhuman. Like many khap panchayat leaders in Haryana, these guys seem to not have heard of marital rape. To think that a woman can only exist under the protection of a man is regressive and reprehensible. Women must speak, write and stand up against it. For starters, those of us who consider ourselves liberated must stop thinking and living within this disgusting framework (yes we do, we all still do in some ways). Perhaps if we can negotiate our own balance, we could dream of a world in which women are respected and treated as equals.
It’s been hard to explain to friends and relations in Goa (and elsewhere) what exactly the Thinkfest is all about and why I would come all the way to sit for three days through this conference that is not directly related to my work! See, that’s the thing. It’s hard to say what is and what isn’t related to my work. In a sense, everything is inter-related and that is exactly why, at the Thinkfest, you can strike up conversations with people from very different backgrounds and make sense of those! Everyone here is in a mode of looking at the world as a continuum, as a complex arrangement of connected ideas and cultures, as a world in which any two people can find something in common with each other.
Today, after the deluge of lectures and panel discussions that have flooded my mind with information, ideas and controversial conversations has sunk in, I really wonder what is it that I am going back with. Here’s an attempt to synthesize some of the takeaways, for me.
The silos in our heads: They need to be broken every now and then, but they exist for a reason. I find that no matter how broad minded I may be or how radical the thoughts I am exposed to, I continue to look at everything through the social and political lens that is fitted inside my head. That lens was forming when I was a child and was fairly hardened even in my early twenties. It’s darned hard to change it now. For instance, my parents were rather staunch Congress supporters and we have always had a slightly off the centre thinking in our family. Today, I am being forced to deconstruct this in my head. The left off centre is promoting reforms that traditionally seem extremely right, the right is opposing the idea of free markets. In India, being neutral about religion actually just puts you out of the framework, everything is so linked to the religious divides. And to add to matters, living on one side of the class divide and empathizing with the other really leave you nowhere. Yes, that’s me. The one who feels like I belong nowhere and yet want a say, albeit a tiny one, in deciding the future for my country. And so, being in a silo can give you the sort of leverage that no man’s land never will!
The heart and the head: Many talks at Think2012 moved the audience to tears. The adivasi girl Kamla Kaka spoke about police atrocities from a very personal perspective. The police fired at a village meeting that was being held to plan a harvest festival because they misunderstood it as a meeting of Naxals. That wasn’t all. She told us how they treated them, did not return dead bodies for an entire day, threatened them, came back and then killed another man, did not let a women go back to her newborn baby while she was returning from the fields, threatened rape and assault on the women….we had tears rolling down all of us, men included, industrialists and bureaucrats included, but what can we do, how do you make sense of a State that has different rules for difference classes of citizens? Then when I see Baba Ramdev say on TV that the Congress is bought over by big industrialists, I am forced to wonder….
Yes, we do use our head to make sense of things, but our hearts must drive our judgement as well. When tears stream down, you must recognize that injustice has been done. Then make sense of the different voices in the fray.
Indian morality: Think2012 consciously tried to break the mold of middle class Indian morality that is rather on the prudish side. Erica Jong said fuck a million times during her interview, and that somehow diminished the value of what she said for many among the audience. Of course, she says this for effect, but where she comes from and with the life she has led. But somehow, it was ok when Sir Bob Geldof, legendary rockstar and philanthropist, did the same. To be fair, he said fuck only half a million times, but even so, I see a really chauvinistic pattern here.
Sex in itself did not offend the rather elite crowd at Think2012, but a feminist talking about sex did! Being immoral and feminist and female, that was too much for the guys to take. The women mostly loved Erica AND Bob!
I have a lot more to share and everyone will have to bear with my post-THiNK rants for some more days.