Tag Archives: feminism

The Venus Flytrap: Lipstick On The Ladder

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A personal essay I wrote a few years ago, called “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, took me everywhere from literary events in Brisbane to Lakmé Fashion Week in Bombay, went viral when it was republished online, and still brings me messages from women who see something of themselves reflected therein. It was about self-expression and self-concealment: specifically, how women camouflage ourselves so as to not be perceived as desirable and thereby attract undesired attention, much like the bhakti poet Karaikal Ammaiyar who prayed to be transformed into an unsexy wraith so she’d be able to wander undisturbed. But it’s time for me to come clean. At some point, that camouflage ceased to be armour. It became avatar. I began to overidentify, and my self-esteem sank partly from this. In my ongoing journey to reclaiming my voice, I faced an uncomfortable truth: gradually, being dowdy stopped being a choice and became the default. The weapon I uncap to fight back? A pen, of course – but alongside, lipstick.

Megan Falley’s poem “Ode To Red Lipstick” has many quotable lines, referencing history: from concentration camp survivors “thin as smoke, naked / everywhere / except for their mouth”, to Cleopatra. But one unusual detail stands out: “In post-war New York, butches could get locked up / if they weren’t wearing three pieces of traditional / women’s clothes.” A slash of lipstick was often the remedy, for queer women in pantsuits, to avoid arrest. The poem doesn’t say how many of them loved, or how many of them loathed, this. But what’s certain is that it was the preferred circumvention. No simple ribbon, brooch or barrette was chosen over a blazing mouth.

The dynamic young American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who caused a particular shade to sell out when she wore it to a debate, said: “I derive power from my femininity. Any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick. Other people’s attempt to say, ‘Oh, talking about lipstick is unimportant,’ [they are] talking about feminine expression being unimportant. That expressing yourself as a woman is unimportant. Don’t ever believe that…. [Wear] whatever makes you feel authentically yourself and like a badass. The only way that we’re going to move forward is by running as our authentic selves.”

For me, why it begins with lipstick is because colour on my lips behaves like a woman who refuses to climb up a ladder without taking along others like her. The alluring, vivid burgundy or scarlet on my mouth demands that my eyes too be painted, that my hair be opened, that my skin be softened and made rosy – and because of all this, how could I do anything less than drape myself in clothing befitting that effort, that beauty?

I find myself going to my own words from that Karaikal Ammaiyar essay, which come back to me now like a note from a wiser, younger self: “If a red lipstick is wonderful anywhere in the world, it is most wonderful of all on the mouth of a woman who has claimed her own voice.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 20th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Ambitious Women Are Often Unpartnered

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There’s much about Priyanka Chopra’s brand of feminism that’s been dubious in the past, but the victories of feminism are for everyone to enjoy – not only those who practice it. Which is why the standout moment of her Vogue interview on her new spouse, Nick Jonas, brings such cheer. In it, Chopra describes how their courtship moved to a deeper level when Jonas said to her: “I love the way you look at the world. I love the drive you have.” She explains: “As a girl, I’ve never had a guy tell me, ‘I like your ambition’. It’s always been the opposite.”

At 36, Chopra has spent half her life so far in the spotlight, with a thriving career in beauty pageants, Bollywood films and Hollywood television. You don’t get to, and stay at, such a pinnacle without ambition. And like many ambitious women, Chopra declined or deferred marriage – or even any publicly acknowledged partnership – for a long time. Ambitious women often make this choice, but it’s a choice largely made based on a lack of viable options. The alternatives include forfeiting one’s career, downplaying one’s achievements so as to seem interesting but not threatening, or sublimating that drive into channels like tyrannical parenting and undermining other people’s dreams.

As Chopra said, men tend to dislike ambition in the women they date or marry. In a traditional context, men on the arranged marriage market quite frankly seek women with lower educational qualifications or salaries. In dating, the cues are subtler. As an ambitious woman only a little younger than Chopra, I don’t have to rely on anyone’s experience but my own for these nuggets. Envy: the poet who password-protected his documents before letting me use his computer (then forgot his password and lost his manuscript). Condescension: the older predator type who visited websites that had published my work to tell me the websites were interesting (silence about my work). Carefree dismissal: “I don’t read”. Or worse, pedestalization: when you’re their favourite so you’re out of their league. And that incredibly slimy – so far thankfully unsuccessful – undercutting method I’ve seen attempted many times: when they tell you your work is lousy, but gosh you’re cute and (here’s that word again) interesting and perhaps you can redeem yourself in some non-literary way?

Women with a strong sense of purpose who wish to partner with men have very slim pickings.

Which brings us to the purely circumstantial, a stark fact beyond personal choice: you don’t get chosen. They prefer someone who won’t distress their fragile egos. This has a funny effect on ambitious women, though. We just work harder. We put all of it – time, effort, love, attention, the need for validation and even libido – into becoming damn good at what we do. Then becoming even better. A woman rejected, openly or underhandedly, for wanting her career as much as or more than she wants you has no choice but to make the most of it.

So congratulations to Priyanka Chopra – not on getting married, but on finding someone who admires that she dreams big and is driven. And isn’t afraid she’ll out-dazzle him (and she surely will).

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 6th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Smash Brahminical Patriarchy

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What a beautiful coup it was to watch unfolding online: the head of a platform on which women and minorities face daily abuse, unwittingly holding a poster with a radical slogan. If only Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, had held the words “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy” above his head, and truly understood and endorsed them. But at least he held the poster visibly enough, in a photo that was shared the day after a closed-doors meeting he had with feminists in India. When you consider the angry backlash that came afterwards, you appreciate just what a coup it was for Sanghapalli Aruna to give Dorsey this poster, and then for him to not just pose with, but post it! Yes, the slogan is radical. But why? It should not be. It should be natural and logical. It may not be intuitive, given the extent of conditioning that many people must consciously undo, but it can at least be learned. It should be as vital as the green recycling symbol, as ubiquitous as the new rupee sign, as catchy as “Horn Ok Please”. Unfortunately, we’re still at a stage where its very meaning needs to be explained.

As Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the artist behind the 2016 poster that Dorsey held, explained succinctly, during the ensuing controversy: “Brahminical patriarchy refers to the interlocking system of caste, gender norms and rituals under Brahminic tradition that enforce caste through women and their reproductive function.” The phrase is not some shiny new hashtag event, and has been in use for decades in the works of a number of intersectional activists and thinkers. The concept itself, with or without the exact phrase, is in the foundational ethics of many more. In even more simplified terms, and in terms that directly call for action, it’s this: the only meaningful kind of feminism in India is a feminism that jointly tackles the caste system.

Feminist discourse has evolved to a place of intersectionality, requiring that other inequalities are also a part of conversation, from acknowledgment through to action. Class, race, sexuality, the environment, post-coloniality, anti-capitalism – these are some of the intersections. We cannot deny that the Indian variant of patriarchy (and to be fair, just as there are different strains of feminism, there are different strains of patriarchy, but here we speak of the most powerful form) is deeply interlinked with caste. Caste cannot be maintained without the policing of reproduction. And therein is the fundamental reason for all the controls on women and female sexuality that we experience in myriad forms in Indian society.

I can take it in good faith that Dorsey and his staff, even his Indian-origin ones, were ignorant of all the above when they needlessly backtracked and apologised for the poster. But that, above all, reveals how important this work is. Indians everywhere have managed to keep India’s most shameful, and shamefully thriving, system under wraps for a long time – obfuscating it, philosophising it, claiming other victimhoods when convenient. But no longer. That’s the beauty of this coup. It turned that conspiracy of denial on itself, making the most of corporate desire to look progressive. With just three sweet words.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 29th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not In Your Nightie

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After several months of keeping this fashion policing under wraps, news leaked that the village of Thokalapalle in West Godavari district, Andhra Pradesh, had proudly and privately instated a dress code. According to this village sanghama-ordained decision, women are banned from wearing nighties during the daytime. Only the ill are exempt, and those who violate the ban face a Rs2000 penalty. Tattlers benefit, with a reward of Rs1000. Since the ban came into effect, village elders claim that women have indeed stopped wearing nighties outdoors between 6am and 7pm, as no ban violations have been reported. Sarees and dupattas have made a comeback on their streets.

Consider the average nightie – ankle-length, sleeved, with a modest collar. Often in less than attractive patterns, sometimes with frilled panels on the bustline that have an additional concealing effect. In fact, the nightie is the definition of dowdiness. It signals a woman who would prefer to be at rest, but is also simply too busy to get changed. To many, the nightie is also the definition of comfort. Wearing one is a subtle declaration of disinterest in dressing up, and of putting one’s ease first. It’s interesting how piqued Thokalapalle citizens reportedly said that the sight of women in nighties in public “inconvenienced” others or made them “uncomfortable”. The women’s convenience is the inconvenience, and their comfort causes discomfort.

It’s not difficult to imagine women going about their daily business wearing nighties. The clothing brand Pommy’s even developed an entire advertisement series around this motif. In it, the actor Devayani defused a variety of conflicts by appearing on the scene donning the utterly domestic nightie. But seeded within the hilarity of these commercials was a powerful statement. In each clip, Devayani asserted with a sweet smile that she was the “kudumba thalaivi” (the head of the household). The nighties conferred that confidence in her. The clincher? The final tagline: “engum engengum” (everywhere, anywhere).

No women from Thokalapalle have spoken up yet to say that the ban is oppressive. Honestly, they probably have better things to do and more pressing battles to fight. But those from the village who have talked to the press paint a uniformly eerie picture. They say that it was younger women from self-help groups who made a decision to “honour their traditions”. They say that everyone is happy. They also say that wearing nighties to go about public quotidian activities, like shopping for groceries, visiting temples, doing laundry or picking kids up from school, is “not good”. Why? They do not say.

All patriarchal societies have restrictions, overt or subtle, on what women can wear. In Thokalapalle, it’s nighties. In Chennai, it’s shorts. Thinking over how this plays out in different places is interesting. To my mind, a nightie is probably the furthest thing from lingerie. But to someone else, who remembers a time when anything other than a saree was shocking, a nightie may be loaded with other signifiers. It’s absolutely wrong to tell women they can’t choose their wardrobes. But there’s something worth observing here, about how desire and style have complementary semiotics, and how sometimes these break taboos, and sometimes reinforce them.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: How A #MeToo Story Is Told, Or Isn’t

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Every woman has a #MeToo story. It just depends on how she tells it. On who asks her, on why they enquired, on what triggered the memory, on what she knows now that she didn’t at the time – on a hundred different variables, in short. No, scratch that – every woman has #MeToo stories. Two or twenty. The count varies, for the reasons already mentioned and more. It’s just that she may choose not to frame them all that way. Or that she would rather put some or all of them behind her. Or that this new vocabulary may later liberate her, but for right now it overpowers her in so volcanic a way that she would rather not feel the things it brings up. She’d rather put them away again – hopefully not in their old hiding-place of shame, but in some new site where light slants on them in a different way, and perhaps over time she’ll know what to do.

Harassment that’s cut short through a slap, as recounted by several women in viral-friendly videos and tweets, also constitutes a #MeToo story – not the avoidance of one. Because the weight of the story lies not in the response, but in the intended outcome that the perpetrator had (and always, always – an unwelcome advance is about power, and a non-consensual action is about power; desire is never the main factor). So, in some of our #MeToo stories we’ve slapped our way out of a situation. In others, we’ve sweet-talked our escapes – the screenshots will not reveal how we gritted our teeth as we said mollifying things because we’d been raised to be diplomatic, or because we were afraid. In still others, we kept sleeping with our oppressors because we’d been gaslit into thinking we were loved. And in so many more, we’d diminished our presences so we’d seem to be unthreatening (read: unattractive) wallflowers, nodded or smiled and said as little as possible, or cut our losses and quietly left. A slap and a clean getaway are only possible if you don’t have a salary on the line, are assured that you can leave both the location and the context easily, do not have other kinds of politics and dynamics in the environment that convolute it further, and most importantly, aren’t at risk of retaliatory physical or other violence.

Over the past few weeks, as the #MeToo movement experiences its second wave in India, I made space to reflect on why I’ve yet to publicly out anyone, even though I’m fully supportive of the courageous people who’ve done so. My reasons are partly circumstantial, partly circumspect, and entirely complicated. I know this to be true for many people, because beneath the public wave are countless, powerful small ripples – private conversations and reckonings. I wish those who claim they’ve never been harassed or abused would reflect too. Open declaration is only one way of parsing trauma. If it doesn’t suit, pure denial or abject shame are not the only options. Slowly, we must teach ourselves new ways of healing and standing in our truths. Slowly. Because we aren’t just recalibrating our stories, we’re remaking the world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 25th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Jealousy Of The Genius

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The enigmatic Annapurna Devi died in Mumbai at 91 last week. Her gift with the subahar and as a singer were legendary; but almost no one ever heard either, except if very selectively allowed into her home as a disciple. In her youth, she was also the first wife of Pandit Ravi Shankar. In an attempt to quell his jealousy and salvage their marriage, she took a vow that she would cease to publicly perform, and continued to keep it even after their divorce.

The Malayalam author KR Meera has spoken often of women she met when she was a young journalist who were introduced to her as the wives of eminent men, but whose true talents had been suppressed. As she once told me in an interview, a particular incident illustrated this state of affairs. An elderly woman who was married to the great man she had come to meet seemed especially intrigued by Meera’s work. Out of politeness, Meera asked her if she had ever been a writer herself. As the author recounted to me, “The graceful woman who was the incarnation of love, care and compassion turned angry and ferocious, and said: Used to write? Who? Me? This man sitting here saw me for the first time on a stage while I was reciting poetry. The great poet Vallathol had blessed me, saying, ‘You are Saraswati, the goddess of learning’. And this fellow fell in love with me and married me and then what? My literary career ended then and there.And he was climbing up the ladder while I was toiling in the kitchen and giving birth to his kids.

Annapurna Devi, too, had been called the embodiment of Saraswati. By her father, the celebrated composer and musician Allauddin Khan. One could say he was possibly biased, except that he had first refused to teach her music. He had educated Annapurna’s older sister, and because this had caused problems in her marriage, he’d refused to teach the younger girl. She’d learned from simply listening to others’ lessons, and when her father eventually discovered her talent, he felt compelled to begin her formal studies in music. Eventually, it was an unfortunate marriage that thwarted her career too.

Some obituaries of Annapurna Devi romanticise her reclusiveness and praise what is perceived as her non-attachment to the material world. Doubtlessly, she found a way to sublimate her creativity into a spiritual life, of which teaching was an extension. But it’s dangerous to call that her choice. It’s, firstly, an erasure of her truth, which she shared in rare interviews in which she did not mince words about Ravi Shankar’s abusive and deceitful nature. But it’s also dangerous for all those out there whose passions are simply called hobbies, who rub the ink on their fingertips onto their aprons and watch as the words they wanted to inscribe evaporate like steam from a boiling pan, whose thoughts unfold in ragas they must wait for a secret hour to hum, who hide their illustrations inside plain notebooks that lie like obsolete currency in locked drawers. To call such sacrifice a choice is to abet their suppression.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Adultery Law

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What could we have told the woman who took her own life this week in Chennai – after her cheating husband allegedly told her that adultery was no longer a crime – about how that law had never been meant to protect her? The now defunct Section 497 of the Indian Penal Code, which had read: “Adultery: Whoever has sexual intercourse with a person who is and whom he knows or has reason to believe to be the wife of another man, without the consent or connivance of that man, such sexual intercourse not amounting to the offense of rape, is guilty of the offense of adultery, and shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years, or with fine, or with both. In such case the wife shall not be punishable as an abettor.”

Note that precise phrasing: “consent or connivance”. Conveniently, the law as well as those who upheld it understood consent, and applied it so alliteratively – to connivance! Unless a man participated willingly in his cuckolding, his wife’s lover could be charged with a crime.

Could we have explained to that deceased woman how she had never had any recourse to justice through this law? That it had been devised for one man to punish another, and that for any woman (as per the moral codes of our society), shame itself would have been the first among various insidious punishments. If wives, being chattel, were allowed to emote, anyway.

If we’d been ignorant of this archaic decree, that was also likely to have been because as a law that men could invoke against one another, it hadn’t received much exercise in public memory. Men don’t so often go after one another in quite that way. Not as often as women get the blame. Not as often as women are turned on each other, conditioned for example to hate the one who got caught in a deceitful husband’s web and not the husband himself who so dexterously spun it. Or even if she hates that husband, to possibly not love or know her selfhood without even him.

This law had no provision for women to lodge a case. Not for women whose husbands were having affairs, nor for women who had been fooled by married men. In fact, lawyers speaking to the press suggest that one of the rare usages of Section 497 was as an act of retaliation by men facing dowry harassment proceedings. It’s vaguely disquieting how when a law that was hardly ever used was repealed, the fact of its rare usage only reinforces many things about misogyny in our social fabric.

I wish the deceased Chennai woman whom that law was used against, at least in speech, this week will be the last one ever to suffer because of it. And I wish also that after the striking down of the sexist Section 497 and the homophobic Section 377, the next to go will be Section 375, which considers rape within marriage to be criminal only if the survivor is below 15 years old. Where is consent here? All that’s evident is connivance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 4th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Charismatic Abusers

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The mistake we make when thinking about charismatic and powerful abusers is to assume that their charisma and power come from their talent. That the sheer force of their brilliance makes them irresistible. This is why we ask questions about what to do with their art, whether it is necessary to boycott their work, whether it is fair to teach it to facilitate discussion or if that time is better spent on the under-rated (a category that overlaps with the abused). And we fixate on the one or three (or sixty-something) cases we get the identifying details of, as though they are the whole story. They are not. Because the secret to why charismatic and powerful abusers get away with what they do for decades, rising in the ranks, is that they are devious. Their abuses extend beyond the professional into the realm of the intimate. They weaponize the most beautiful thing of all: love, or more accurately, its possibility.

Beneath every list of allegations is something else, something far more nebulous – a collection, large or little, of broken hearts. There’s no chance that a perpetrator in the workplace (be that a studio or a boardroom) has not also behaved reprehensibly in his private life. That the ongoing, worldwide revelations about sexual harassment have begun to include abuse (particularly but not exclusively emotional abuse) in relationships delineates this.

This is only partially about author Alisa Valdes writing about how, 22 years ago when neither of them had established their careers, she dated Junot Diaz – and he treated her very badly. I’m thinking of the women who contacted Valdes to say he’d done the same to them. I’m thinking about how we aren’t entitled to any of their stories – but also of how many of them would certainly have been storytellers, and we’ll never hear of them, because they had to swallow their truths and stay in the shadows. I’m thinking, actually, about my own JDs. That archetype: the charismatic person (usually male) you fall in love with, whose overtures you consent to, whose maltreatment you don’t know what to name, the ghost of which lingers for a long time.

Many years before someone I knew, had liked and respected, and now know to be a perpetrator was outed, I read a book of stories by someone who’d loved him and saw her hurt spilled all across its pages. I knew of their history as we all know things, in our small-minded, wide-mouthed spaces. But not everyone gets to alchemise what happened, into art or into anything. If we manage to, we’re still harrowed by a lack of acknowledgement of abuse of that nature, which operates under the false promise of love. But it’s so gauche in these circles to speak of love.

We’re all fooled – as their audiences, as their friends, and even as spectators to their exploits. By charm, not by talent. It’s important to recognise this, because it helps those they fooled with greater repercussions. The ones who encountered their ugliness in the workplace, of course, but equally the ones who were overpowered in seemingly romantic configurations – and then dismantled, invisibly, from within.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 10th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Queer Eye For Reality

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Why is there a ceramic kitten under a grown man’s bed?” By the time I laughed out loud at this line, I’d already cried at least twice watching Queer Eye. I’d started watching it, a reboot of a makeover show I’d never seen called Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, because I’d wanted something as low-investment as possible, something that would let me mentally check out from everything that stress and distressed me in the world and within. What I found was that QE isn’t really about grooming, style and décor, but about the source of most of the turmoil itself: toxic masculinity. Even better, in its own sweet way, it addresses that source.

I first started watching around the time that author Junot Diaz published a powerful essay on being raped as a child, which he had kept secret. The flip side to this essay is that it was mostly about women he’d dated and subjected to emotional abuse because of his inability to come to terms with his trauma. Diaz was brave, but by no means heroic. The more I thought about the women he had hurt, the less the first seemed to matter. Was he only protecting himself, again, from being accused?

As I continued to watch QE – beautiful moments like one man talking to another about being comfortable with his own femininity; men vulnerably sharing how they built barriers so others couldn’t affect them and found themselves damaged anyway; men opening up to the possibility of self-love and self-scrutiny both; men crying from overwhelm, from grief, from joy – far worse events hit the headlines.

Still watching, my thoughts traced again one tender spot in the ways that cis-women, particularly cis-women who love men but do not love patriarchy, interact with cis-het men. On the one hand, we avoid giving them much rope unless they’ve jumped through burning hoops first. On the other, even as we strive to raise the standard for acceptable behaviour, it also takes very little for us to soften open to the possibility of goodness. This is not naïveté; it is belief in what one is working towards. It is belief that goodness is not idealistic, but something to nourish when found.

It is belief in a world unlike this one. This world in which a little girl took her horses to graze and never went home again, and so many believe that the brutality she underwent is fine. And then, if the situation could be more malicious, we learnt that web-users around India entered her name into search bars on pornographic websites, seeking pleasure in a child’s violation. This world in which each of them, in turn, is capable of the same crime. This world in which we weigh that against what Diaz must have done to the women who loved him, and we lick our own wounds and say “it’s not so bad” as though that can heal and not salt them.

I don’t owe it to them – the men of this world – to let a reality TV show be a balm for reality itself. But I owe to myself. We must breathe as we labour.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Stripping For A Cause

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There’s a reason why you may not have heard of actor Sri Reddy before she stripped in front of Hyderabad’s Movie Artist Association (MAA) to protest the sexual exploitation of women in the cinema industry. That reason is why she chose to protest: Reddy alleged that despite coerced sexual favours obtained by gatekeepers in the field, she and other women were still denied career opportunities. The protest came shortly after MAA rejected Reddy’s application for membership. Later, Reddy also told the media that she had been raped by a producer’s son.

One does not have to agree with everything Reddy said or did in order to support the larger cause of her protest. In one interview following the protest, the actor seemed to both vilify sex work (“Big directors, producers and heroes use studios as brothels. It’s like a red-light area.”) as well as make a derogatory statement about caste (“Naresh [veteran actor and senior member of MAA] said we have to clean that place [where she stripped] with water. That is a big crime. How can you talk like that? I’m not an untouchable girl.”). Her articulations are undoubtedly problematic.

But to claim that her protest was just a performance or an attempt to steal the limelight is wrong. The use of the naked body as a last resort to reclaim power or demand attention to a cause has a powerful history. Without seeking to draw facile parallels with Reddy’s protest, other examples span the range from preventing doxxing to political insurgency. In 2004, 12 Manipuri mothers stripped in an iconic anti-military protest after the custodial rape and death of a young woman. Australian musician Sia released a nude picture of herself last year to foil an attempt to auction it off. Just weeks ago, farmers from Tamil Nadu stripped outside Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhavan demanding drought relief funds. The body in protest is not sexual – in fact, it subverts the gaze by drawing attention elsewhere, to the cause for protest.

Reddy has been blacklisted by the MAA. She will not be able to work in Tollywood, and given that the exploitation she speaks of is widespread in most fields in India, may find it difficult to find employment anywhere. Disappointingly, other actors have not validated her allegations, despite the widespread awareness of sexual harassment and assault in cinema. But she joins the ranks of Sruthi Hariharan, Parvathy, Radhika Apte and a brave handful who have challenged the normalisation of misogyny behind the scenes (and onscreen) in their respective industries by speaking up.

Finally, there’s this. On MAA’s website, the very first category on a list of Galleries is literally called “Hot & Spicy”. This line of text precedes gratuitous images of women: “Maastars.com is an Official website of Movie Artist Association, you can find here Actress Hot and Spicy Photo Gallery. (sic)”

Proof, and how flagrant. A frustrated artist and rape survivor choosing an incendiary form of protest is not nearly as obscene as a mighty institution like MAA so openly celebrating the objectification of women on its online presence. Reddy is right – the industry is rotten, and thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to be.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Freedom To Marry

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Here’s a romantic story for you: in the late 70s, a man in his early thirties went and got himself a passport so that he could travel to Sri Lanka to ask his girlfriend, whom had met in medical college in Madras, to marry him. He was the eldest son and stood to inherit a sizeable inheritance, which he walked out on in order to be with his beloved. They married, and he entered her family and didn’t look back.

That man is my father, and the woman he fell in love with is my mother, and if they were to get married in Tamil Nadu today, nearly forty years later, they wouldn’t legally be able to register their marriage. That’s because the Tamil Nadu government has introduced new prerequisites that now make it technically impossible for consenting adults to marry without the presence and approval of all living parents. Those recently registering marriages in the state have been asked to bring their parents (preferably fathers, for obvious patriarchal reasons) along. This is not entirely new: in November last year, The New Indian Express reported that a registration office asked for a consent letter from a 29-year old groom’s father. There is now an official circular that clearly details the need for verification of parental addresses, the furnishing of parental death certificates and other paternalistic demands. While not explicitly stated, the technicalities correlate with one thing: parental approval.

It’s a decision so regressive that it’s hard to believe it has come in 2018, but it happens in a very clear context: the Supreme Court’s Hadiya case, involving a young Keralite woman who converted to Islam from Hinduism and married of her own free will, and the violence relating to inter-caste marriages that Tamil Nadu itself continues to see unabatedly. Add to this renewed bigotry towards Periyar, who like Ambedkar advocated for inter-caste marriages as a way to abolish the caste system. In this context, also, are numerous under-reported incidents, such as how – just weeks ago – a panchayat in Punakaiyal village, Thoothukudi district, chased out all women who had married outside their castes in the last fifteen years.

We who speak of “love marriage” must necessarily also speak and think of caste and religious exogamy as its natural extension, instead of being content to accept that romance is radical even if it happens only within tightly-knit, and thus closely-guarded, circles. To marry within one’s own demographic background, even with some disapproval (due to economic disparity, prior matrimony, different subcaste, etc) is not radical at all. It changes nothing about society’s greater hegemonic structure, which includes misogyny and various forms of discrimination. Neither is it helpful to jump ahead to whether or not marriage as an institution is worth preserving without recognising that for many people, it still has meaning both practical and sentimental. To be unable to register a marriage therefore is a terrible blow. Marriage registration eases a number of bureaucratic processes, from obtaining loans and visas to divorce and child custody.

It speaks so poorly of current society that I still think of my parents’ marriage as radical, and not just for their time…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Opposite Of Rape

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What is the opposite of “rape”? Most will say it’s “sex”, with the understanding that rape is an abuse of power and sex is something that happens with consent. But what if the opposite of “rape” was not just “sex”, but “pleasure”? Sex does not automatically mean pleasure, after all. But does that make “bad sex” tantamount to rape?

These contemplations emerge in the wake of the published account of “Grace”, the pseudonym of a woman who briefly dated comedian Aziz Ansari some months ago. I opened the link hoping its headline was merely clickbait, wanting to believe that Ansari was the feminist he publicly seemed to want to be. But as I read, I saw that his guilt or innocence were not what was at stake. The larger stakes are about what people, women especially, experience while dating within a rape culture.

Even taking the position that what happened between Grace and Ansari may not meet the legal criteria for sexual assault, the profound unease of the situation and the distinct coercion and mounting disgust that Grace described cannot be dismissed as a lousy date. “Bad sex” is when you wanted to sleep with someone but you lacked chemistry or one or both of you was unsatisfied (this can still be respectful). Performing sexual acts under pressure due to shock, fear of violence and imbalanced dynamics is not “just bad sex”. So what’s the correct term for it?

Again, I will say that I’m less interested in Ansari’s situation than in the big picture. Are unpleasant sexual encounters, with undercurrents of manipulation, common? Absolutely. But their prevalence does not make them acceptable. Let’s forget the celebrity angle, and the starstruck (and the other thing that rhymes with “starstruck”) angle. Take gender and orientation out of it, too. What’s left is a nebulous space in which a discomfiting number of memories lurk. Affirmative, enthusiastic consent is not a grey area. This is.

It’s from this space that many women’s confusion about how to react to Grace’s narrative comes from (this does not include backlash that is purely rape apologia). It can be very painful to acknowledge that some of one’s past experiences were damaging, or simply wrong. We do not know who Grace is, and cannot attribute personality traits to her, so our responses may be projections. These projections cannot simply be classified as internalised misogyny. I truly believe that if the story was more explicitly violent, for example, most would lose their doubts. But it’s not a violent story like that. It’s a story in which a woman could have called the police from the bathroom, or screamed, or just left.

And it’s a story in which she didn’t, but you’re certain that you would have. Or more accurately, you would now. Why? The truth is that it’s a familiar account, and to hear it told this way complicates, then unravels, certain precious memories or padlocked narratives. And that’s why it’s so very upsetting. Because if this is wrong, then what else is too?

Let’s create the right language, the in-between words, for what is neither rape nor pleasure. It will help us heal.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 18th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Enthusiastically In Favour Of Consent

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Once again, the men are talking about consent. From a High Court acquittal in the Farooqui case to the attendant buzz of “well, actually…” on social media, they’re pontificating mainly on how consent exists even where it is not intended. Sexual consent, of course – the distinction between rape and sex.

This is not, even in disagreement, a useful discussion. For a useful one, we need to move beyond instances where consent has been withheld. We can’t discuss consent only retroactively. This leads to confusion among those who actively want to practice it. In order to establish and normalise consent as a part of general sexual behaviour, we need to speak not only about desire or its absence, but bring three elements into familiarity: respect, communication and emotion.

Respect for another human being is common civic sense, and if that is inculcated in all contexts, it will naturally trickle into the sexual context too. For instance, if a heterosexual man doesn’t really believe that women should be given respect unless they conform to certain roles, he isn’t going to be respectful to his sexual partners who don’t. His lack of respect for people outside the bedroom will, at some point, translate into a lack of regard for them inside it. Or even in a boardroom, where he perpetrates sexual harassment. And it doesn’t matter then how nice he seemed, or how many female friends he has, or how he hasn’t had those problems with his exes. If he cannot respect where one person has drawn the line – that is more than a mistake. That is a crime.

Communication is not just a question of how loudly you say No, but what you mean even if you say “Maybe”. We need to stop and ask each other, reassure each other, and sometimes stop entirely even mid-way through an encounter because of what one partner has conveyed. Communication, as always, is only part articulation – the other part is listening and understanding.

Which brings us to: emotion. India has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with sex and sexuality. We’ve been taking our recent sexual cues from the West, which in itself is not a problem, except that we don’t think and talk through the emotive aspect, which is impacted and subjectivised through cultural and societal contexts. For instance: can you really have casual sex like you see on TV shows living under your parents’ roof? Unlikely. So how do we actually make these negotiations, and how do we deal with deep conditioning like shame, fear or secrecy? The shame around rape is deeply connected to the shame around sex and desire. We must destigmatise pleasure itself. Only then can we become clear on why the absence of desire in an encounter is so very egregious.

Learning healthy, well-adjusted ways to be sexual beings is a comprehensive – and in many ways even lifelong – process. Maybe it will be easier for us to honour each other’s right to extend or withhold consent when we see all of it in a holistic fashion. Not just Yes or No. But If and When and How, too. And Why (and especially – enthusiastically – Why Not?!).

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 5th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.