Tag Archives: morality

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: Breastfeeding – In Public, In India

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We had just ordered lunch at the 5-star hotel when Shamala Hinrichsen’s 8-month old got hungry too, so his lovely mom reached right into her dress and started to feed him. Our conversation continued as she rocked him gently. That was the first time I’d seen a woman breastfeed publicly in Chennai, without hiding her body. A foreigner of Tamil origin who’s been travelling extensively around India on work, she says, “I’ve seen women in rural areas do it with unapologetic authority. It’s a perfectly natural act.”

The Indian railways announced recently that 100 of their stations will have segregated nursing areas. In a letter to the Ministry of Women and Child Development, these areas were specified as “[a corner] provided with a small table and a chair with appropriate partition/screen around it.” But is that enough? Dentist Dr. Deepa V., whose child was recently weaned, never nursed openly owing to shyness. She says, “In public facilities, people still turn to the wall to hide themselves. I remember the looks my relatives gave me whenever I lifted my salwar to feed while travelling with them. I think this discomfort is the main reason why we train babies to accept formula milk earlier.”

Another mother, now nursing her 7.5 month old, related how she sat at an eatery in a Chennai mall and started to nurse, unable to do so in the stuffy public toilets. Immediately, the staff directed all the male customers to sit away from her. She was appreciative of the concern for privacy and comfort. “I think the horror stories we read about breastfeeding moms being fined, shamed or trolled are really a US problem,” she says. “There’s a solid sisterhood solidarity everywhere for the nursing mom. No judgement if I’m in a salwar kameez or saree or tank top or shorts and I want to feed the baby – that’s it, the sisterhood comes into force.”

Theatre director Samyuktha PC returned to work 3 months after childbirth, bringing her daughter to rehearsals, and openly nursed when required. “At first, I did cover myself, but the cloth over me just made Yazhini and I sweat so badly. And it felt cruel to do that.” From then on, she simply asked if others were comfortable, and carried on – anywhere. “But outside of home and work, bad experiences happened quite often – men staring, women thinking it was their right to drape me. But I was also supported and told I was courageous. I would rather it be normalised.”

While it comes down to personal preference, there’s no doubt that these preferences can be inhibited by societal norms. Which is why Shamala’s unapologetic public nursing seemed especially triumphant to me. In Mumbai recently, when she began to breastfeed on the ground floor of a café, men on the balcony level took their phones out and started to photograph her. She kept feeding. “Would I be gawked at or judged if I were feeding someone with a spoon? I think not. Possibly because it is from an appendage. My breasts. I would like to think people would be as judgemental if I were feeding from, say, my nose.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 13th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Gaze Of The Pervert

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No one wants to be woken by a trembling loved one in the wee hours of the morning. My mother was shaking, confused, apologetic.  Turning on her phone at dawn, she had been confronted with a web-link and an aggressive message: “shocking to see her exposed like this.”

A young friend of hers, a man of my age, a doctor, a bachelor (that’s right, when women are reduced to their marital statuses, why not charge the discussion this way too?), had attacked her through that most quintessentially patriarchal of manoeuvres: by slutshaming me.

The photo in question has me seated on the floor, a foot stretched out to reveal beautiful anklets. My hair is loose, my expression is soft. I am in fading black jeans and a long sleeved blouse, cut low, my cleavage visible. I look like I am dreaming of important things.

The photo in question had appeared only on a single indie magazine, accompanying an interview, not a television channel or mainstream media. There was no chance he had come across it unless he had actively stalked me, or belongs to any of those hideous groups that sources images of women for public shaming and private pleasure. And in any event, that he had not contacted me directly dispels any lingering doubts. Neither the infantilising of an adult in her 30s nor the harassment of a senior citizen are acceptable.

I had that photo taken. I had control over its publication. I look like myself in that photo. My best self, even. A soft, strong woman at ease in her own skin.

The only obscenity in all this was that man’s gaze, and his sinister confidence that my mother would privilege his perverted morality over my autonomy. He used me to hurt her, and used her to further an ancient agenda of oppressing and punishing women. Unforgivable.

Yet how utterly common it is, the policing of women’s bodies. The great patriarchal paradox is that the female body is annexed as the repository of culture and honour, but is also continuously desecrated by word, deed and gaze. So those who entrust a woman to safeguard those civilisational concepts within the site of her body are the same ones who routinely violate them. And her.

Lately, the historical Nangeli, because of whom 19th century Kerala’s casteist, sexist breast tax was lifted, has come back into discussion owing to the erasure of her story from school textbooks. Infuriated at a system that required lower caste women to first uncover – expose – for appraisal, then pay to cover their breasts publicly (itself a colonial influence; traditionally, we were more comfortable with the fact of breasts), she cut hers off and presented them to the tax collector.

Nangeli’s breasts bloodying a plantain leaf. My breasts in a plunging neckline. Kannagi’s grenade-breast, cindering the city of Madurai, dominion of Meenakshi who was born with three breasts. I – the “slut” – dare to link myself to these emblems of “chastity”. Because both words are constructs, designed to eliminate personal agency and misattribute power. Effectively, there’s no difference between severing and showing. If you see a difference, it’s your gaze that needs checking.

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

“Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”

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I’m so very delighted that my essay on femininity, fashion and exile, “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, from the anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories (HarperCollins India/Hardie Grant Australia), has been republished in The Ladies Finger. I hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

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.

TOI iDiva: A Toast To The Ladies

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Everybody knows that the second greatest euphemism in the food and beverages industry after “Rocky Mountain oysters” are the words “ladies’ night”. The suggestion: the clinking of glamorous, girly and most importantly gratis cocktails against a backdrop of softcore feminism. The actual serving: vodka deposited with an eyedropper into a sea of diluted juice against a backdrop of hardcore desperation.

Cheapskate tactics? Maybe. Maybe folks only want women to drink if they pay money to do so, which would be perfectly fair.

But then I recall two scenes, not far apart, at the same restaurant in Chennai: in the first, a female friend and I ordered a bottle of white wine. The waiter, asking no further questions, walked off to get us one. In the second, dining with a male friend, I asked for a single glass. “White or red?” I told him my preference. “Chenin blanc or sauvignon blanc?” In the presence of male company, regardless of how minimal the expenditure, female drinking was deemed respectable enough to warrant choices. In its absence, regardless of how extravagant the resulting bill, it was not.

Let’s not even contemplate the topic of the TASMAC adventure, wherein the undercurrent of judgment sensed in prime establishments is more like a riptide.

No wonder then that the news of what the world’s largest alcohol company, Diageo, did earlier this week for its Indian operations has been met with some thinly-disguised consternation. Out of 30 managerial positions at Diageo, 12 have been filled by women – and a further four women have been appointed directors. Additionally, the press reports that the Indian operations of major high-end manufacturers William Grant & Sons, Moet Hennessy and Pernod Ricard are either headed by women, or employ a large percentage of female executives.

“Will a woman really get that?” sulked one very sexist article. That being booze. That being the booze experience.

You know, just like how women don’t get mathematics, or philosophy, or any of those tough, tough things.

What’s ironic is that women here probably know far more about liquor than their male counterparts, because all pleasure that occurs surreptitiously intensifies. Our society is permissive when it comes to men imbibing alcohol. With women, however, it happens differently. Either she is inducted into the enjoyment of liquor by liberal relatives, or she learns how to keep it a secret. This means that she figures out her capacity, how to keep a clear head, what to do if she’s gone overboard, how to conceal the traces. She figures out what she likes and doesn’t, and why. The act of imbibing is not simple for her. I don’t intend to glorify alcohol or gloss over its ill effects, but when it comes to India and alcohol, women have everything it takes to run the show: sharply-honed senses of planning, self-preservation and maverick nonconformism.

Some years ago, I was told about a pink autorickshaw that sold bootlegged liquor. I’ve never been able to verify this, and of course it sounds about as mythical as a women-friendly TASMAC. Still, there’s something about the news that the Indian operations of these beverage enterprises are going to be led largely by women which is almost as delightful a thought as such a vehicle. It may be “just business”, as some might say, but the news is no less than a toast – to all the women out there who by virtue of having to hide, seek, rebel and relish as only the forbidden can be relished learnt not just how to hold their liquor, but how to hold their own.

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