Tag Archives: misogyny

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.