Tag Archives: feminism

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.

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Women Infantilised By Society And Law

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A young Indian woman named Hadiyah, moved and perhaps given meaning by a faith other than the one she was born into, decided to convert. She eventually signed up on a matrimonial website that would allow her to find a like-minded partner. Despite Hadiyah being 24 years old, and despite the fact that Kerala high courts had rejected two petitions filed by her father claiming she had been forcibly converted, a third such petition resulted in her marriage being annulled – and her being sent into parental custody with this infantilising statement: “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited…”. The Supreme Court has since ordered an investigation into the marriages of formerly Hindu women to Muslim men as a potential terrorist conspiracy.

The concept of “love jihad” is not only Islamophobic, it is also a clear insult to all women. And with violent overtones: recent reportage has revealed some truly terrifying tactics including kidnapping, coercion and even drugging women (at an Ernakulam hospital) so that they comply with their parents’ wishes. In every such scenario, the freedom of an adult woman to make her own choices is either questioned or curtailed. It is also worth iterating that marital rape is not criminalised in India. Marital rape cannot exist in this worldview because women’s autonomy – the right to reject or consent – does not exist. She is her family’s, community’s, state’s – or in a panchayat-style redressal, her rapist’s – property. A woman in India can’t assuredly choose or refuse a partner, but a man can rape his wife under protection of law.

Another recent case involved Irom Sharmila, who ran for election in Manipur after a 16-year hunger strike. After defeat at the polls, she retreated from public life and reportedly found solace in Kodaikanal. But when she announced her engagement to her long-term partner, the welcome proved to have been short-lived. A Tamil Nadu-based Hindu group filed a petition to keep her from marrying there, alleging that the city’s security would be at stake. Oddly, it was marriage – the antiquated notion of “settling” – that had roused the petitioners.

To these two high-profile cases relating to marriage, mobility and the denial of adult women’s agency, here’s a third one that suggests how such a societal milieu comes about and is maintained. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied an abortion to a 10 year old who had been raped by her uncle, ignoring medical experts’ caution that the risks presented by a late-term termination were outweighed by the risks of carrying the foetus to term and undergoing childbirth. (Abortion is legal up to the 20th week, after which special permission must be given). She gave birth via caesarean section last week. According to reports released after the delivery, the survivor was never told that she was pregnant, but that she had a “stone” in her stomach. This can only mean that despite having undergone the horrors of rape, she continues to be denied basic sex education, or the right to information. Neither her body nor her mind have been treated with respect.

She gave birth to another girl. And so the cycle continues.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Diving Into The Distance

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I went in search of secrets, and stories only spoken but never committed to script. There in a fan-less portico in the far eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the unforgiving Chithirai month, the elderly gentleman I had gone to see told me candidly: “I have amnesia”. And then: “I also lost all my documents in the flood.”

But the flood he spoke of seemed suspiciously far away; he told me of writing to his grandmother with an exaggeration about kitchen appliances made of stone floating in the calamity. But no one at 90 years old has a grandmother who writes back and exposes the lie. “Was this the flood of 1956?” I asked. He shushed me. In the labyrinth of his memory, the true distances of decades had long ceased to exist.

Distances. My ancestors were mostly fisherpeople who migrated from present-day Kerala, and when I look at Batticaloa on maps I wonder what it was that drew them further and further. I have drawn that map by hand myself, and wondered: which route did they take to the island’s central east: upon sighting shore, did they voyage southwards, where the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa and Galle didn’t seduce them, or north-bound, where the palms of the Jaffna peninsula too failed to beckon? It’s inconceivable that they followed the path that I did, cutting clear across the country on ground, for they navigated by water. Unless they started elsewhere and moved deeper and deeper east to where lagoon-and-field and field-and-lagoon alternate in a geography of perfect balance.

More than a thousand years later, I take a short flight and a long drive: into the country via the capital city on the west coast, followed by nine hours of highways until I arrive on the farther shore. For the longest time, under alibi of war, it was an emotional distance – an expanse, not a detachment – that was hardest of all for me to cross. One’s roots can only be watered by tears.

I discover that the distance between a matrilineal, matrilocal culture and its swallowing into the patriarchal world order is sometimes a mere generation, or one stroke of a clerk’s pen that accidentally transfers the land to the holder of the masculine name because of an ordinance that never considered how it was possible for a society like this to exist at all.

I try to bridge the distance between that pen and mine when I talk to a group of teenagers from surrounding villages and ask them to name ten writers, anticipating correctly that not one would be a woman. “Complicate the narrative,” was what the outreach worker had told me beforehand, and later over dinner with her I felt saddened that the most I could do was to offer my presence as a kind of shock value. Dialogue cannot happen at a distance.

Always, two literal bridges: the old one and the new one over the Kallady part of the Batticaloa lagoon. I crossed it several times each day, carrying more each time by way of knowledge. I never felt the distance. Even now, days later, I still don’t feel the distance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sexlessness And The Single Woman

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In the 5th century BC, the Athenian empire waged the Peloponnesian War against a league of city-states headed by Sparta. This inspired the playwright Aristophanes’ 413 BC classic, Lysistrata, in which the women of Greece decree a sex strike as a means to end the war. Actor Janelle Monae recently referenced this concept when she told a magazine: “until every man is fighting for [women’s] rights, we should consider stopping having sex.”

Obviously, we know that not only men desire sex. So the premise of the Lysistrata strike bears pondering. When you withhold sex, you withhold it from yourself too. The truth is that long periods without sexual contact are common among highly independent women. Being outspoken or open-minded comes with its own set of barbs.

If you refuse to play by the rules of heteronormative engagement, you are denied respect, just as women who do play by those rules are. But there, the lack of respect occurs within certain comfortable scaffolds, such as the assurance of monogamy, convenience or protection. Here, because you are more adept at identifying small-scale manipulations and refusing to react accordingly, the disrespect is even more insidious, designed to ultimately convince you of your undesirability. What most people accept as a courtship dance feels like a fencing match to you. Over time, poorly-thought politics, rudeness and other such personality markers become real turn-offs, cuteness be damned. And if you practise ethical principles, you don’t see people uni-dimensionally, making casual disengagement difficult. You can’t sleep with people who treat you badly; but you can’t do the objectifying, either. The result: less sex than everyone thinks you’re having.

A friend shared a page from Heather Havrilesky’s book of advice, How To Be A Person In The World, that resonated for me. “We have to be self-protective but vulnerable… You don’t put yourself in situations where you’re going to cycle through bluster and neediness. That means you really can’t hook up with random men. Even if you never let your guard down in those situations, they still hurt you. They [expletive] your sense of self. They lead you to believe you’re only good for sex, and you can’t EVER settle for feeling that way.”

Reading these sentences made me realise how rarely we discuss this outside personal conversations. There aren’t enough sentences in the world about this aspect of the sexuality of singlehood because they are confidential sharings, never set down. With our confidantes, we move beyond limiting, self-deprecating complaints like “haven’t been laid since Obama’s first term” to deeper revelations about need, validation, boundaries, instincts, ennui, inadequacy and sublimation.

All this applies especially if you have “trouble” compartmentalising. But why idealise compartmentalising in the first place, instead of a more holistic approach to self and other? Not compartmentalising, not assigning people functional roles and not demarcating yourself all sound pretty healthy to me. Similarly with “not being able to tell the difference between sex and love”. Why is the person who decides this difference never the one whose emotions are involved? To fully embrace ourselves as sexual beings, we cannot stop at simply shifting the shame from our bodies to our hearts.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 20th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Tamil Cinema & The Romanticisation Of Abuse

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For the first time, I’m not looking forward to a Mani Ratnam film. Not in that non-committal “well, maybe if someone insists that we go watch it” way or the lazy “I’ll just see if it’s on Netflix eventually” way but in very clear-minded and cautious way. The question is: can I watch this film without being triggered? The theatrical trailer I saw for Kaatru Veliyidai clearly tells me: No.

Here’s what I saw: a man (played by Karthi) yelling at a woman in front of his colleagues, her confusion slowly registering on her face. I saw that woman (played by Aditi Rao Hydari) say helplessly, in the manner of anyone unable to break out of a toxic scenario, “I don’t know why I keep coming back to you’. I saw him being extremely possessive, gripping her tightly as he yells at other people, telling them that regardless of all conflict between them she is “[his] girl”. In the clincher, I saw the woman whisper from behind a door, telling him: “I cannot gauge when you will come to me and when you will hit me instead”. Although “hit” doesn’t suffice; how do I translate the sheer physicality of the Tamil words vongi adi? In every frame, she is fragile or frightened. In short, all I see of Kaatru Veliyidai is an emotionally and physically abusive relationship.

Trailers are often misleading, of course. Some will say heightened dramatic elements were purposely kept in focus so as to tug at the audience’s emotions. But mine were not so much tugged as they were triggered. Because abuse is never love. Whatever the contents of the film may ultimately reveal, I’m deeply disturbed by how a trailer edited in such a way is touted everywhere as a love story.

Tamil cinema has a long history of popular films with problematic takes on romance. Guna was about kidnapping and Stockholm Syndrome. Mannan was about disempowering women, taking them out of the workplace and into the kitchen. Nattamai, among others, featured the trope of forced marriage to rapists. The examples – both older and current – are endless, really, for what passes for love. It is not only explicit violence, including stalking, that we need to cast a critical eye on, but the romanticisation of abuse itself. Call it a drama, a psychological thriller, even an action movie with an emotional twist. Just don’t call it a love story.

So no, I won’t be catching Kaatru Veliyidai at the cinema. There’ll be too much standing up involved, you see. First, I’ll have to stand up because I may get beaten up if I don’t during the mandatory national anthem. Then, I’ll have to stand up again to walk out of the theatre because some scene in which a woman is brutalised, either emotionally or physically, is probably going to push me over the edge. I’m sure someone will write to me now to say I’ve misunderstood, that the film is about a fighter’s PTSD from being on battle frontlines. Let me pre-empt you by saying: my response to the trailer is also PTSD, another fighter’s, from the frontlines of a lifelong war.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.