Tag Archives: misogyny

The Venus Flytrap: Feminist Pishachinis

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Before I sat down to write this, I was sure that almost every woman columnist in the country has written, will write about, or is currently submitting a file on the same topic at this time. We were going to repeat ourselves and each other, I thought, overlapping in our grief and our jargon. And we had to: we had to reinforce what’s important, spread the message in different circles, be a chorus of resistance. Then I sat down, and found my heart in my mouth and no words at my fingertips. There have been years and years of words: words in whispers, words in affidavits, words in screenshotted conversations, words in editorials, words out loud (even scream-loud), words swallowed but turned to choices, words that echo. And yet.

A few months ago, a misogynistic NGO in Karnataka organised what they called a “Feminist Pishachini Mukti Puja”, a year after their Kanpur chapter organised symbolic funerary rites for women who had left their marriages. One organiser called the experience “cathartic” for the ex-husbands who performed these rituals. They consider themselves activists for men’s rights. Such events gave some of us well-deserved memes and humour breaks, but it was sadness that reminded me of them. Both to laugh at and to perform the spell-casting are to lose the point: no magic is needed to make women suffer in India. For that, we have: patriarchy, politicians, police, people in our homes, people in our workplaces, people who are complete strangers, people in public, people online. They may be, and are, of any gender. They may be, and are, of any affiliation. What they have in common is that they hate us so deeply: women, other women, some women, women unlike themselves, any woman, all women. That hatred manifests as everything from protective measures to punitive measures.

I looked at the faces of the men in photos of that puja to eradicate women, and at the faces of the men in the photos of a celebration of the extrajudicial encounter in Hyderabad in which 4 suspects in a murder-rape were killed. Both sets motivated by the same violent impulses and beliefs. Any woman they had in mind was theoretically theirs to destroy, or avenge. The divorcees had been abusive, as their participation ascertained. Those cheering the fatal encounter – having left their wives, daughters, mothers, women co-workers and friends somewhere “safe” – were, statistically speaking, also more likely to be than not. Besides, violence is not only physical.

In the last few days, many women have managed to say – through the mire of renewed heartsickness and anger – exactly how this makes us feel. This is how we feel all the time. Each time something horrific happens, we aren’t reacting with shock. There’s a fear we live with constantly, a fear of something that’s like a pollutant in the air. We breathe it in every day. Some days, someone dies because of it. If there is a day at all in India in which that doesn’t happen (just because it doesn’t become a headline doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen), it’s still a day on which someone – no, many – survived an attempt.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 12th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  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: 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: Imaginary Women, Imaginary Villains

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Neha Gnanavel, who is married to film producer Gnanavel Raja, obviously wants us to forget the objectionable things she posted about women in the cinema industry last week. Which is why she deleted the Tweets in which she threatened to name those who she believes have had consensual affairs with married men, referring to them as being “worse” than sex workers (she used less polite language). As yet undeleted, however, is her long defense of her views. Fair enough. There’s no need to scapegoat Ms. Gnanavel. She was only expressing the same sentiments that many in our deeply misogynistic society hold. Let’s talk about those sentiments, two in particular: that women – rather than the men who chose to be with them – are to be blamed for destroying families, and that sex workers are contemptible.

Infidelity is complicated, just as human desires, emotions and decisions are. Of course we want to simplify it, if only so that it becomes less painful. That doesn’t have to be done by painting women as villains by default. A recent meme I saw went so far as to hold culpable the woman who raised the woman who became involved with a married man – that’s two generations of woman-blaming! Anything to protect a man from taking responsibility for his choices. Whether blaming a married man’s lover, her mother, or his own wife – any culprit will do. As long as the only one who behaved dishonourably, the one who did the cheating, is absolved.

In heterosexual contexts, when the gender roles are reversed, the partnered woman who has an extramarital affair is still the one who is condemned. I cannot think of even one instance, anecdotal or celebrity-related, where the other man in the picture had his name forever tarnished by his involvement in what is called “home-wrecking”.

This is where the second of Ms. Gnanavel’s expressed sentiments comes into play. Why is calling someone a sex worker (using less respectful words, or not) a slur? This prejudice is premised on the idea that sex workers have agency and own their bodies entirely – something which it’s worth noting that most other women in patriarchal societies are not allowed to. Just as the imagined sex worker has control over her sexuality, so does the imagined mistress and the imagined adultress. Their imagined autonomy challenges the status quo. They choose (while married men do not – ha!). So consumed is the average, often incognisant, patriarchal agent with these hypotheticals that they don’t stop to ask themselves what they find so frightening.

Aside from a fundamental lack of understanding about capitalism, the idea doesn’t even hold water against that other favourite bugaboo – that girls and women will be kidnapped and trafficked (thanks, Mahanadhi). So which is it – that sex workers have volition, or are forced? How does the muddled misogynist mind hold these contradictions at once?

I wouldn’t know, but it’s a contradiction that the feminist mind also manages to hold, and engages with through the concepts of consent and desire. And there’s space in this discourse for even the heartbreak of betrayal, without resorting to either the assumption of villainy or the presumption of victimhood.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 29th 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: 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.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady-Oriented

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I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?

Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.

But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.

To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect?  Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.

Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.

That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Female = Flight Risk?

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I should be in Australia when you read this, basking on a beach (caveat: it’s winter). While applying for a visa, I encountered again that bizarre requirement often made of Indian women travellers: an NOC/permission letter from my father, along with his documents. If I had a husband, I would have been asked to furnish these from him instead.

I am a working professional in my 30s. But I am – as one travel agent made clear – “also an unmarried woman going abroad alone.”

If this surprises you, you might be a man. My Tweet asking about similar experiences unleashed an avalanche of responses from working women across India, across age strata, travelling everywhere from Greece to Chile on work and leisure. Men were incredulous unless they’d provided such letters on someone’s behalf. To clarify: it’s travel agents, not most embassies or consulates, who make this request.

For the sake of brevity and anonymity, I’ll share highlights. Leading experts having to submit consent letters promising they’d return from conferences (i.e. not run away with a foreigner). Honeymoons on which only the bride had to obtain parental permission to go. A “certificate of character” from an employer, ostensibly testifying to – what, exactly? One traveller even realised later that the passport number on her NOC, forcibly submitted after a long fight, had been wrong – so what was its purpose?

“I really felt like I was being blackmailed at the time, and there was no transparency,” one woman echoed a common sentiment.

Travel can be stressful, and many give in – after all, it’s just one more piece of paper. But what if it’s not possible? I heard some harrowing tales: demanding an NOC from an ex-husband without visiting rights over a child; not being allowed to attend a celebration of one’s work due to having neither father nor husband; agents refusing to process paperwork even after their claims that it’s the law were proved false. Demanding NOCs is not just infantilising, insulting and arbitrary; it’s actually prohibitive.

I’ve furnished such letters in the past too, owing to pressure and misinformation, but not this time. As I collected my passport, I enquired about this procedure. My agent admitted he hadn’t questioned it, but shared guidelines for French Schengen and UK visa applications, which list documents from “spouse” or “relatives”. These gender non-specific terms are applied exclusively, in practice, on women.

Kausalya Padmanabhan, who owns Destinations Unlimited and declined anonymity, has been in the travel industry since 1979. Not only does she never require such letters from clients, she has even put it in writing in certain cases that a submission has been made without an NOC at her own risk as an agent. She insists the bias is homegrown. “There is no rule. If embassies required it, the same would exist worldwide, and it doesn’t.”

Certain Middle Eastern countries still place restrictions on women’s travel, and Ms. Padmanabhan speculates that travel agents simply extended these across all destinations. “It’s we in the trade who must take it up, train our staff accordingly, and refuse to ask for such documents.”

And we, who travel, must stop letting ourselves be bullied.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Quiet Outrage And Battle Fatigue

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On Saturday afternoon, I climbed into an auto I had hailed on the street just as a small group of teenagers were walking by on the other side. They were a mixed group of boys and girls, smiling and chatty with one another, and at least one of the girls was in a sleeveless outfit that ended at the knee. I registered fairly little of them, and would not have thought about them for a split second longer, had the driver not spoken just then.

I paraphrase from Tamil: “Like this, of course they’ll get their necks slashed.”

“Why would you say that?”

“Didn’t that happen at that train station? If they walk around the city undressed, what else is going to happen but getting their necks slashed?”

“Stop the auto.”

He did. I disembarked silently and took a few steps away. He drove off. I didn’t note his license plate. I didn’t take a photo. What would the point of Internet-shaming him be? Would it stop women from being attacked? Would it change people’s attitudes? Or would it just be one more app-friendly act of resistance, the kind that saturates our feeds yet does not spill over into our lived practices of equal partnering, better parenting or structural overhaul? Petty wins don’t give me power trips. They give me fatigue. The battle is so much bigger, and so continuous.

That evening, I read about Qandeel Baloch’s murder at the hands of her brother. The auto driver had thought a teenage girl deserved a brutal death for wearing something she must have liked. He found it only natural to relay this as a passing comment. Baloch’s brother had had that same thought. He carried it out. Somewhere in Pakistan is a college lecturer, or a taxi driver, or a research analyst – anyone at all, of any gender – pointing to a woman they don’t know as they tell someone else that she’s asking for it. For her boldness. For her vibrance. For her desire to simply be.

“So, he didn’t aruthufy your throat, no?” Many I know would have taken the ride anyway. They told me so. An auto driver is as irrelevant and impersonal to them as the teenager was to him. Neither of those dehumanisations are right.

The act of disengaging, for me, was more loaded than outrage. This is not categorically true; it must be used with acumen. But we cannot be so rash with the latter that we forget that a lived practice manifests in myriad ways.

I quietly unfriended one sleazebag and one mansplainer recently. I quietly wait for friends with problematic politics to arrive at certain insights that click only when they’re experienced, not tutored. I quietly listen when elderly conservatives bluster, and then I quietly go home and write. And that afternoon, I quietly remained standing on that street with my arm held out, alone. I hadn’t raised my voice. But I had stood my ground.

Several minutes later, the same driver came back around. “Naanthan,” he said, a little sheepishly.

Vendam,” I said. He moved on, a stupid grin still on his face. I didn’t have that luxury.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 21st. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Looking For The Woman (In Service Of The Man)

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The French have a terribly sexy sounding (but actually kind of sexist) saying – “Cherchez la femme”. “Look for the woman.” If there’s a lacuna in the alibi – look for the woman. If it doesn’t add up – look for the woman. If there’s a missing motive – look for the woman. Wherever there is a problem, in short, there is usually a subplot that involves a woman, a tussle for her affections or a drama of her machinations.

I’ve never had reason to drop that phrase into a conversation (never mind that I don’t actually speak French – touché!). Yet I observe its variants around me. There’s a particularly intriguing power dynamic that has nothing to do with an individual’s influence, and everything to do with tacit hierarchy: the curious phenomena of reflex loyalty between and towards men.

Like all deeply-entrenched problems, it’s most evident of all in one-on-one conversation. I’ll share something with a man – an observation of or experience with another man. And my companion will shrug, flash a micro-reaction (a millisecond of a nod or a Cheshire grin) and deftly deflect the topic. It’s not that he doesn’t agree with me. He’s glad I said it, so he didn’t have to. But he just can’t give his bro away. Even if he knows me better than he does him. Even, in fact, if he’s never met him. It’s a response that makes me deeply uncomfortable. The eerie sense that he thinks that he’s looking at the woman, i.e. doesn’t have to look for the culprit. When loyalty is drawn along any demographic line, be it gender, caste or any such category, injustice abounds.

But here’s the reason I’ve never had reason to drop “cherchez la femme” into conversation – I wouldn’t. The only thing scarier than automatic bro-loyalty is internalised misogyny. Which is to say, when the person saying “look for the woman” is herself a woman. There’s no easy way to say this: but in the same way that many men are raised to trust one another first, many women are conditioned to trust one another least.

The woman who rats her colleague out to the resident jerk because she feels ashamed to have confided in her about an abusive partner. The one who would rather believe a distant relative than her molested daughter. The one seeking public office who wants to uphold the two-finger rape test, or criminalise abortion. Each story is equally appalling, and ultimately predictable – in each one, she will pick the man, any man (or “The Man”, as in the one the cool kids stick it to). Over any woman, including herself.

Blind loyalties, stark betrayals. Both in the service of patriarchy. The women unfortunate enough to be tangled up with these turncoats – whether anecdotally or in actuality – get the raw end, every time.

Which is why when I hear an unpleasant story involving an alleged villainess, I do look for the woman. I look for her perspective. I don’t automatically side with her. But I refuse to automatically side against her. Sometimes femme fatale really means femme fatality.

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

TOI iDiva: A Cinderella Story

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Change on the level of society is a generational thing. The dream is that there will come a day when a rape, even a single one, becomes as shocking as a beheading or a skinned scalp – an act of torture from an unevolved era, not a hypothetical, daily risk. But until then, as depressing and perhaps controversial as the notion is, there is only so much we can do: caregivers today have a responsibility to raise their sons differently, while simultaneously protecting themselves and their daughters from the dangerous conditioning that remains rooted in human mentality at large.

Unfortunately, “protection” is interpreted too frequently in ways which are invasive, imbalanced, curb basic freedoms or blame the victim. The city of Gurgaon recently imposed an 8pm curfew on its female population. This curfew carries multiple layers of responsibility: women are discouraged from working or being out of the home past that hour, and their employers are required to arrange for transportation to drop them back home, in addition to a slew of tab-keeping measures that monitor personal details and activities. Accountability is thus shifted completely away from the police and the authorities; should a crime occur past that hour, they can plead as useless as the post-midnight pumpkin in the story of Cinderella.

As many people have pointed out: why is the onus on potential victims, rather than potential perpetrators, to stay off the streets? Why can’t Gurgaon ban its male population from being outside at night?

And why is rape or other gender-based crime (such as eve-teasing or molestation) only expected to happen at night?

The word “curfew” is said to have come from the French words for “cover” and “fire” – “cover the fire”. What Gurgaon has done could happen, as though in a dystopian Margaret Atwood novel, in any other city, and in fact already does happen in informal, unstructured ways.

The visual this term – “cover the fire” – conjures to my mind suggests that the fire is not put out, only kept from view. There is a profound and pervasive stifling of “fire” in women – dissent, expression and passion. But there can be no extinguishing it. As any of us who have experienced the curtailing of ambition, moral policing or other forms of inhibition know, the fiery woman knows when to take the form of water: to become amorphous and slip away, reconstituting in kinder vessels, larger landscapes.

A simple example that you might be deeply familiar with: afternoon sex, after all, is the only kind of sex good girls in Madras have.

The most terrifying thing about a law-enforced curfew is not that it has happened, but that it will continue to. The Gurgaon precedent may “inspire” the administrations of other places. Before we get to that stage, and with the sobering reality that a truly egalitarian society won’t manifest overnight in mind, what can be done to effect little changes that might go a long way?

A culture of fear is a culture of defeat. There have to be better ways to protect ourselves and the other women in our lives than to simply say “stay at home, it’s for your own good”. For example: “morality” is taught in schools, but what about martial arts? We routinely carry shawls to cover our upper bodies, but do we carry pepper spray in our handbags? Do city corporations invest in adequate street lighting?

Instead of questioning women who are alone on the street, can’t the police also question male loiterers? Instead of chasing couples off the beach, why not keep a closer eye on actual crime?

Instead of blaming all women, or suspecting all men, why not take the view that we’re all in this together, and that a society is only as sick as its silences?

An edited version appeared in iDiva (Chennai), The Times of India.

Book Review: Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World Of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro

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In August of 2005, the state of Maharashtra introduced a bill of law which put an estimated 75,000 women out of work.

Among these women was a 19 year-old named Leela – sharp-tongued, strong-willed and very “bootyful” – the star of suburban Mumbai’s Night Lovers dance bar, and the eponymous beautiful thing of this thought-provoking exposé. When we first meet Leela, she is trying to coax a sleeping customer out of her bed so she and Sonia Faleiro, at this time a reporter for a national news magazine, can chat. It’s January 2005 – just months later, the bill (which banned dance performances in all establishments rated three stars or below, thus forcing an entire service industry into unemployment or sex work) would be implemented.

Initially researching an article that would be axed, Faleiro was welcomed by Leela and her colleagues with an unusual trust, which later allowed her to document their world as it came to an unceremonious end. She is introduced as a friend to their clients, their families, and to members of all aspects of Mumbai’s underbelly. If there are any doubts about the author’s motives, they are quelled – few women in India today would choose to spend that much time in brothels and bars, fraternizing with both patrons and purveyors, sharing their rooms and their food, travelling with them and accompanying them to hospitals and hotels alike were it not for an emotional investment in those whose lives these are.

But to praise Faleiro for being intrepid enough to venture into this domain is to be all the more awed by the bar dancers themselves. Above all, Beautiful Thing is feminist commentary – by giving us an intimate view into their lives, this book has the capacity to change, or at least challenge, public perception about much-maligned sex workers and bargirls. Perhaps the most important stereotype that it dismantles is that they are people who operate from a position of disempowerment. On the contrary, many bar dancers rose out of sordid circumstances – Leela, for example, was pimped out by her father from a young age, offered for frequent rapes by policemen, abused to the point of being forced to eat her own vomit. Bar dancing bought freedom. Not only lucrative, it gave the women the option of not having to trade sexual favours for money. The nakhra, or artifice, of performance was enough to keep them desired, comfortable and fawned upon – but without necessarily having to service a customer. Unless one wanted to, or didn’t mind, or fell in love.

In other words, bar dancing allowed them to break the cycles of exploitation that trapped them within their societies and families, and gave them careers which made up in independence what was lacking in public respect – a level of independence often denied even to educated Indian women.

Out of the 75, 000 women who lost their careers when bar dancing was banned, Leela’s is only one story, and Faleiro paints her with such humour, chutzpah and empathy that it’s easy to see why the author herself was so mesmerized by her. Just as a bar dancer teases and tempts before getting down to business, we are first entertained by dramatic fisticuffs between Leela’s best friend Priya and the man-stealing, self-mutilating Barbie, and the demands of Leela’s difficult mother Apsara, before the book settles into its ultimately sobering effect. Faleiro charms us with Leela’s grit and glamour before taking us into the red light district of Kamatipura, then to the HIV wing of a hospital, and finally into the inhumanity of the ban itself. When we accompany the ladies to the beauty parlour before a birthday party, we have no idea how disturbed we will be by its end, the gathered weeping to a song from Umrao Jaan as in the near distance, a recently-castrated hijra moans in her bed.

Yet somehow, this glimpse into a subaltern reality seems insufficient by the book’s end. As compelling as Leela’s story is, there is the sense that Beautiful Thing could have had just a few more layers – the author says she conducted research and interviews for years, and one wishes more of this had been distilled into the work. But perhaps this is just the complaint of a reader who, captivated, wishes the book hadn’t ended so quickly. And that, then, would be Faleiro’s triumph: to have seared into our consciousnesses – and more importantly, our consciences – a Leela so forcefully alluring that we are dismayed to have to let her go. Is this the author’s nakhra, persuading us that what we have seen is just not enough, that there is even more beyond the screen?. And if it at all obliges us to not turn away from the corollaries of societal misogyny and look deeper into the misogyny itself, it would be proof supreme of Beautiful Thing’s importance.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Sunday Guardian, New Delhi.