Tag Archives: gender

The Venus Flytrap: Patriarchy Is Taught, Not Intrinsic

Standard

On Valentine’s Day, students at the women-only Mahila Arts and Commerce College, Maharashtra, were asked to take a mass oath declaring that they would never fall in love, have a romantic relationship, or marry someone of their own choosing. They would have arranged marriages, but without providing a dowry. The few among them who spoke to the press appear to have taken the oath by choice. It was not clear, however, whether they had been presented with a choice not to.

At another college, Shri Sahjanand Girls’ Institute in Gujarat, 68 women hostelites were forcibly made to remove their undergarments for a sudden inspection. The college’s bylaws forbid menstruating women from sitting with non-menstruating women during mealtimes. Their periods are noted in a register, and they must stay in the hostel’s basement during the same. Obviously, the college is not a co-ed one. Its name itself is patronising – to use “Girls” to describe women is to reduce their agency as adults.

The college’s egregious privacy violation, and the discriminatory mealtime segregation that led to it, comes because it is run by a religious sect that counts among its edicts that those who consume food prepared by a menstruating woman will be reborn as oxen, and women who cook while menstruating will be reborn as dogs. Specifically, as female dogs.

I can’t bring myself to use the correct English term in this context, even though I’m not averse in the least to its carefully-deployed or subversive expressions (including as reclamations of feminine power). One headline I saw used the Hindi word, as per a discourse by the sect leader’s, followed in brackets by the English translation. I’m not Hindi-proficient. I don’t know if it packs a punch in that language, but the effect of the English word in the mouth of a man, directed at a woman, is often stomach-turning. I felt the word inside those brackets. I felt its etymology of hatred towards all that is female, fertile and free.

These incidents have occurred around the same time as a senior politician’s statement that education is one of the factors that enables divorce, which he blamed for familial and societal breakdowns. Neither the nature of these incidents, nor of the mindset revealed in that statement, are new. In fact, they are oppressions we’ve collectively been challenging, and even changing, for a long time. Their resurgence is something to be vigilant about.

A hilarious and horrifying matrimonial ad – in which a man of many bigotries and no employment demands that potential wives who meet his thorough checklist get in touch via SMS but do not call him – has been making the rounds. Each time I saw it, it occurred to me how every mocking reshare also broadcast the ad further. There are women out there who fit the bill, who see themselves proudly in roles that scaffold a patriotic-patriarchal agenda. There are also women out there who may not think of themselves as rebels, who only lie that they’re not having their periods so they can spend time with their friends. Then there are women watching, counting down, making the connections. They’re coming for us all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 20th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Catharsis of Tears

Standard

Even those who barely followed the Chandrayaan-2 lunar exploration mission knew how ISRO’s Dr. K. Sivan broke down and wept when they lost contact with the Vikram Lander last week. This week also saw two male sportspersons weep openly on camera. Yao Ming cried, taking responsibility for China’s defeat at the Basketball World Cup. Rafael Nadal sobbed elatedly after triumphing at the US Open Tennis Championships. Public attention during such personal moments is not always tasteful, yet these events spur discussion on a strangely divisive topic: crying openly. Many still find displays of emotion weak and unprofessional. Especially in men.

Of course, some will say that as a feminist I am predisposed to enjoying men’s tears (delicious, especially with a citric twist of bitterness – haha). Funnily, this is almost true. It’s not enjoyment, per se, but an appreciation for when someone has been willing to break through their own conditioning and be vulnerable and honest in a given moment. When we understand patriarchy to be a structural problem that oppresses people of all genders, we see what toxic masculinity does. The simplest manifestation of it is that boys and men are rarely permitted the catharsis of tears.

While women are undermined as being hypersensitive by nature, crying in professional situations is viewed on similar terms. When I was growing up, I watched and internalised a clip of Oprah Winfrey (or if my memory fails me, another influential woman) saying that she would never, ever cry in front of anyone in a workplace. I started working in my mid-teens, and learned quickly how to display anger professionally but to always cloak pain until I was in a more private space. I believe this to be true for many women who work outside the home. We steel ourselves.

One of the experiences that made me begin to unlearn this conditioning was being at a presentation several years ago in which a young woman broke down midway, due to criticism. I was powerless in that situation, but neither did I feel outraged on her behalf, because she was doing something that I could not relate to. I was aware that of the two senior men there, one enjoyed demoralising her, while the other saw it as a rite of passage that would instigate better performances. In the time I continued to work there, I saw many women crying in the same seat. I knew it was why they kept leaving, while I stayed, eroding a little more each year with all the humiliation I swallowed and expressed only as anger. I often found a way to tell them that they deserved better; but it was almost too long before I gave myself the same permission.

Tears have a natural place in every aspect of life – love, work, and even leisure (a great book, a thrilling game). They not only provide release, but also help us see the truth of our own emotions. An uncontrolled spate of crying tells us what we need to know, what matters to us, and what we should do next. Without that heartfelt expression, we sometimes cannot gain the momentum for the following step.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 12th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Stripping For A Cause

Standard

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: Lady Snacks

Standard

A writer in her 20s, to borrow from Virginia Woolf’s iconic treatise, needs a room of her own and disposable income. A writer in her 30s needs a room of her own, disposable income and no concern whatsoever for her slowing metabolic rate, because book-making and binging go hand in hand. Just ask the pretty inlaid tray that sits at the back of my laptop, currently filled with almond biscotti, dried fruit trail mix, coconut-coated peanuts and assorted chocolates (I already ate all the potato chips). It is literally behind every word I write. In the acknowledgements page of my next book, I will have to thank Netflix for a good work-life balance, Swiggy for recognising that a woman’s place is not by default in the kitchen, and God for inventing all the ingredients that go into peanut sticky chikki with rose petals.

Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s CEO, has been thinking a lot about snacking women lately. But there’s a sticker over my webcam, so her friends in surveillance couldn’t have included me in her recent field studies, based on which she concluded that there exists a need for a snack innovation: gender-specific Doritos. This might be why there’s only one line in this interview she gave about this breakthrough that applies to me (I think you can guess which one it is): “[Women] don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth… For women: low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavor stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

The lazy way to make a product gender-specific is usually through colour and design. Children’s toy manufacturers are notorious for this kind of thing, making everything from pink globes to pink go-karts, but equally so are several men’s grooming products, an entire category which can be described as “putting the same moisturiser in a dark blue bottle”. Doritos could have gone this way, and we’d have been appalled for about two seconds before gluttony and a Pavlovian attraction to vivid fuchsia packaging might’ve had us whipping out our ladies’ debit cards – the one with a stereotypical graphic of a shopper on them (this is a real thing). The amount of consideration that went into Nooyi’s announcement makes laziness preferable.

A chip without crunch is a soggy, less tasty one. But Nooyi is not wrong in her observations. From hiding the messiness of dining to hiding its very fact, should it invite commentary on the body, many women are conditioned to downplay their eating habits. Which means they probably will eat the inferior chip rather than the loud one. What PepsiCo plans would, in a classic capitalist move, irresponsibly perpetuate such conditioning under the guise of sensitivity.

The best way to point fingers at a corporation like this, which only mirrors society, is to relish licking the flavours off those same fingers, knuckle deep in a bag of carelessly self-loving, mojo-feeding, tummy-cheering yumminess. Shamelessly. Slurpily.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 8th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Opposite Of Rape

Standard

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: Taking My Anger Into Another Year

Standard

A fresh calendar year can bring with it so much promise, as dangerous as it is to be superstitious about it. Most people like to start new things, and even more people use it as a chance to leave certain things behind. This year, I’m very consciously bringing a “negative” emotion forward. I refuse to put my anger about misogyny and sexism in the past. Yes, it takes a toll on me. It makes me grit my teeth, stay awake raging, bear grudges. But no, I won’t give it up.

As this year turns, I finally feel this anger has a place to go: it is a hot, molten metal being poured into the mould of a weapon, made from the alloy of many. I finally feel like being an angry woman is not an aberration, but the status quo. I feel like after a lifetime of shouting that the emperor has no clothes, people are finally conceding that they too knew all along – but didn’t know it was okay to know.

Now, my anger doesn’t overpower me. I’m comfortable giving it space, even making more space for it, so it is less reactive, and therefore more capable. Recently, in what was neither the first and probably isn’t going to be the last time, it was brought to my notice that photos of me were being circulated on an online account sexually objectifying women. Once the account was reported and taken down, I went looking for more such accounts, and reported as many as possible. There are hundreds if not more, on various platforms. All of them steal images of women and caption them provocatively. Someone pointed out a potential danger to me: if someone were to see me in public and assume not only that I offered sexual services but that he was entitled to them, I would be at physical risk (this is a risk that sex workers experience constantly).

But another thought troubled me far more deeply. Not everyone will react with indignation alone to having her photos stolen. Some will feel profound, potentially dangerous, shame. Others will face consequences from their families. As someone well-meaning but with obviously undeveloped political sense said, “It could ruin ladies’ lives.” Yes, it can. It’s all well and good for someone like me to keep posting selfies no matter how many creeps there are on the Internet, or someone like the musician Sia to release her own nude images so no one could else profit from them, but there is a huge majority of women for whom such criminal activity has manifold consequences. Women whose pictures were stolen from matrimonial profiles, for instance. Women whose first taste of liberty came with a cellphone or a social media account they thought was private. Women held hostage by love. I didn’t get to my anger without wading through shame, without having my own education truncated, without being ostracised. I came from the same frog-pond too.

So this is why I’m staying angry. Because there’s still a deficit. I’m just helping hold the fort down until all the women have arrived at the same conclusion. And they will.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Compliments For The Crime

Standard

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that not only do you never get the one apology you deserve while it still matters, but in the meanwhile, all manner of crooks and creeps you stopped caring about will keep trying to get a foot beyond the padlocked door. Last week, Hawaiian judge Rhonda Loo delivered a sentence to one such super-persistent villain. Daren Young couldn’t take a hint, which led to his ex-girlfriend having to get a restraining order – which he then violated by sending her 144 nasty text messages and calls in under three hours one day this May. He served a prison sentence of a few months before this trial, where a Maui newspaper reported that Judge Loo minced no words, saying: “It’s so childish to think a grown man can be so thumb-happy.”

She went on, mincing even fewer words, “I don’t know whether I should cut off your fingers or take away your phone to get you to stop texting.” Instead of either the inhumane first option or the insipid second one, she devised an unconventional punishment. In addition to fines, a probation period following his prison sentence and community service, Young was also instructed to write 144 compliments to his ex-girlfriend. One for each text or call that had harassed her. The extra catch (I like this judge!) was that he could not repeat any words while doing so. What fun – like something in a creative writing class! He has 144 days to complete this punishment. Imagine – a haiku a day keeps the handcuffs away.

I can’t speak for the ex-girlfriend, but I’d have absolutely no interest in the wordplay of someone with no respect for boundaries or for why people even set them. The criminal in this case has promised the court that he will stay away from the woman in question in future, and I hope he does. This would be a more sordid story if it wasn’t for Judge Loo, and I hope she gets a good chuckle from his list of compliments. She deserves it, for the levity she’s brought briefly to the very sinister, extremely common crime of stalking.

Most of our stalkers don’t wind up in court. It’s easy to say more of them should – but inherent in that expectation is an increase in the trauma we must first go through. It’s easier to use the block function, easier even to change our numbers than to take something to a justice system. This is all the more challenging when one has had a personal relationship or friendship with the stalker at any point, and private or intimate communications become legal evidence. That’s why I haven’t named the ex-girlfriend in Young’s case, although the news reports have. She doesn’t need to be permanently associated with a protective order she was forced to take out. Only the potential employers and future dates of the man she had to protect herself from need to know about it.

If Young happens to Google himself and see this, he could definitely use this as one of his 144 court-ordained compliments: “You, woman whom I hurt and harassed, are so very brave.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on November 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Every Woman’s Instagram Messages

Standard

My Instagram direct message requests folder is currently full of men who think they’re on Tinder. Every single day for a few weeks now, I’ve been blocking a steady stream of unwelcome messages. It’s like having a dripping tap: it may not seem like a great inconvenience, but it adds up. You could tune it out if you’re wired that way, but it’s constant nonetheless. Drip, drip, drip. Heart emoji, “hai so hot”, unsolicited dick pic. Probably. Instagram has one security feature – blurring out the sent image – but even if was a floral “Good Morning” a la Whatsapp groups, I’m not about to give anyone the benefit of the doubt so quickly. If there’s a way to turn off DMs from people you don’t follow, I’d love to know it.

What makes me feel bad is that all this unwelcome attention came after I posted a photo against the sexual objectification of women, using a particular hashtag. Body positivity, empowerment, style as a form of identity, freedom of expression: clearly, none of these matter to the hundreds of men who began following and messaging me. They didn’t even read the caption.

Even in the best case scenario, they saw photos of a woman they found attractive, and decided she would appreciate and respond to their interest. They’re foolish enough to think that a woman they don’t know will say thank you, privately – if not more. And I’m only talking about the more polite, non-explicit ones here. I’ll go so far as to say that many of these strangers must think they are complimenting me. But that’s not how this attention has made me feel.

I’m also aware that among these strangers must be a few really contemptible people who are perfectly cognisant of the effect their messages have on the recipient. I’ve encountered plenty of men like that: ones who take pleasure from provoking women, desperate to register their presence to her even in the most annoying of ways, if that’s all they can do. Then there are those who feel that if a woman shows her face or her shoulder or her cleavage or her toes on camera, she is duty-bound to receive their responses to the same. They cannot imagine, even though it is gospel truth, that her photograph has nothing, nothing, nothing to do with them.

When I started to write this piece, I wanted to explore how – hypothetically speaking – a man could express his attraction to a woman he doesn’t know, whom he has seen online in a non-dating app context. He can’t, really. Because her inbox is too full of unsolicited sexual attention. And her hackles have only been getting sharper and sharper.

So let me reverse the gaze and tell you what I’d do. I’d do nothing. I’d engage with his work if I found it interesting. I’d enjoy my crush on my own time. I would never think I was entitled to his attention just because I gave him mine. And the funny thing is: this has worked out for me once or twice. And once or twice, I’ve noticed someone doing just the same, and said hi.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 26th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Buffer Around Predatory Men

Standard

There is a buffer around every man who mistreats women. This buffer protects him so that the wounded party can barely get the indicting words out of her mouth to begin with, and if she manages to, she will be dragged through the dirt for doing so. On a systemic level, it is the toxic masculine that forms this shield. Within this, for a certain kind of man – the kind of man who has a halo around him composed of charisma, privilege and erudition – his most effective layer is not simply made of men, but also, sadly and strangely, by women.

Women who say they know him well. Women who say they love him dearly. Women who didn’t feel abused when they dated him. Women who don’t think someone with such good manners would do such a thing. Women who harbour crushes but not expectations, who are content to be known as his associates and friends. Women deeply enamoured of his work. Women who dismiss the memory that under certain lights, his irresistible aura appears more like a sinister gleam, and they’ve seen it themselves, they’ve held the collar of their shirt a little tightly that day, they’ve almost stumbled as they tried to leave quickly that night without stopping to ask themselves why.

A person has a right not to believe what another is saying. The world is full of liars. But when doubt extends to protection of the alleged perpetrator, it’s no longer reasonable. And one doesn’t need to take a public stance to protect perpetrators. In fact, the far more damaging stance is in private. The thing said to the victim desperately trying to articulate her experience. The shrug. The wry smile. The “oh haha, but he’s like that with everyone, and actually he’s got a big heart (or a sad story)”. That’s just a basic example.

So this is in praise of all the women who reject a place within that buffer of cushy, complicit mutual protection. Here’s to all the women who don’t make excuses for reprehensible actions and those who made them. Here’s to the difficult women – difficult because they don’t make it easy for terrible men to keep coasting through life. The loud ones. The cold ones. The acolytes who chose ethics over patronage. The family members who don’t stand by abuse, even by their own kin. The exes who refuse to “stay friends”. The former friends who did the right thing.

As my feed filled with the #MeToo hashtag this week, I thought about some of those terrible men I’ve known. Their social media feeds would also have cascaded with posts by the women who didn’t defriend or block them like I did. Who hadn’t been sure of taking the risks of so clean and clear a cut. And some of those women would have been condescended to with these predators’ pretend empathy or outrage.

So let’s be difficult. Because I guarantee you: there’s another woman lingering somewhere, who doesn’t know she can choose not to pad up that buffer. There’s more than one, most probably. And maybe they need to know there’s more than one too.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 19th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Enthusiastically In Favour Of Consent

Standard

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: Women Infantilised By Society And Law

Standard

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: Fire-Trampoline Marriages

Standard

We need to talk about those fire-trampoline marriages. You know: the kind where after a grand time running around town setting other people’s hearts on fire, someone takes a leap off a ledge, bounces right into the waiting arms of the patriarchy, and looks back up (still bouncing, not a toenail singed) and shouts: “I always told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing!”.

If only real life was as comic panel-perfect as this analogy. Because what happens next largely happens out of sight. While the man or the woman with the trampoline conducts their socially-sanctioned conjugal bliss in full public view, cheesy captions and all, there is also a person trapped in that metaphorical burning building. The ashes of charred dreams and the mess left for them to clean up are not metaphorical at all. (The jumper’s spouse is a contemplation for another time).

It should be no surprise that in an India where only 5% of marriages are inter-caste (i.e. actually based on something other than upholding the system), there are a whole lot of fire-trampolines. This applies especially among those who are more educated, more affluent and for the most part, urbanites. There’s a profound disconnect between the veneer of liberal values and sexual mores that are enjoyed superficially and one’s actual beliefs.

But more so than a question of ideologies, this is really an issue of accountability. To mislead and treat someone badly then write it off as something you needed to do for the sake of family, culture, religion, money or general appearances is not “the right thing to do”. There’s nothing honourable about it. The most devious version of all is when the jumper pleads their cowardice, and claims they wish they were strong like you. Don’t believe it for a second.

I hear many stories from the people left holding the broom, the bucket and the bad end of the stick. Here’s what I told the last woman who cried to me about a man who suddenly got engaged to someone else while almost simultaneously declaring his love for her for the first time. (Yes, men do seem to jump into fire-trampolines more than women because the system is essentially designed to serve them better). This is what I told her: “It’s not that he doesn’t know what he wants, despite what some will tell you, including him. It is that he knows what he can have. He can have the convenience of his marriage, and by leaving this door ajar, he can also have emotional intensity – and more – from you.”

Because anyone who keeps a fire-trampoline handy has got other tricks up their sleeve. It’s no leap (pun intended) from “I told you I’d marry someone of my parents’ choosing” to “You knew I was married.”

At first it’s horrific, the aftermath among the embers. But eventually, you see distinctively what happens to the two survivors. The one who jumped continues to keep jumping, through more and more hoops of their own making. As for the one who was trapped in the inferno, the one who walked through flames? You already know what resurrects from ash.

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

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

Standard

Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.