Tag Archives: sexual harassment

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: Take Them At Their Word

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Last week, a young male spoken word poet based in Mumbai was alleged to have sexually harassed teenage girls. Two things happened in the immediate aftermath: in an act of concerted schadenfreude, another poet, a young woman formerly associated with him, became the target of a smear campaign that completely detracted from the accused himself. Less visibly, a detailed, anonymously sourced list of predators in the poetry scene was created.

When the first such List was created in India last year by Raya Sarkar, exposing academics, it brought a backlash from several established feminist thinkers, most of whom hypocritically showed how they enable their associates’ exploitations by obstructing disclosure. The jargon used was “due process”, without acknowledgment of how due process has historically failed those who do not have structural privileges. But there were also many people who felt a deep discomfort about such exposure, but who did not resort to victim-blaming to articulate it. I personally wasn’t made uncomfortable, but I did note something significant in my own response: I would not expand such a list, even though I could. Each of us could probably come up with a whole List ourselves (and some have).

It’s worth making a distinction between those who think these Lists are unethical and those whose feelings about them are more imprecise. There’s a reason why the methodology seems so shocking, even if one doesn’t disagree with it. Older or more experienced women (me included) have a mixture of higher thresholds, thanks to being forced to grit our teeth, and complex trauma that keep us from divulging what we know. It hurts terribly to have come so far but be unable to move beyond certain incidents, or to realise that one had been in love with a perpetrator, or to jeopardise one’s career by outing power players.

It’s very telling that this short list of sexually predatory Indian poets is full of young men, presumably being reported by young women. A comprehensive list, especially if it includes all artistic genres, will topple so many giants off their pedestals. That list doesn’t exist because we haven’t made it. We’ve stuck to our whispers. Let’s not even get as far as physical assault or artistic erasure, itself a form of violence. I haven’t even named the misogynist who came to an open mic with a theme of violence against women, told the host to introduce him as my friend, and took the stage as though he didn’t harass women. I haven’t named the many sleazebags who’ve asked me to have a drink in their hotel rooms instead of meeting me at the restaurant downstairs. I haven’t named those who’ve met me in the restaurant but took no interest in my writing, yet thought it acceptable to ask prurient questions about my private life.

I haven’t named anyone, not even the young spoken word poets mentioned above. That’s my own conditioning. And look again: I’ve chosen to mention only the most negligible of stories. That doesn’t give me the higher ground; it only means I’m maintaining my own territory. More power to the young, who are risking theirs in service of justice.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 15th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Taking My Anger Into Another Year

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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: Salma Hayek & So Many Working Women

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There is a peripheral debate that’s raging now in the fields of arts and entertainment, the question of whether one should separate the art and the person (usually, the man) who made it. Whether, for instance, Woody Allen’s movies, Derek Walcott’s poems or Pablo Picasso’s paintings can be loved decontextualized, without having to take into account the moral failings of their creators. I have mixed feelings about this, and enjoy reading the opinions of those who are able to take principled positions either which way. For me, it’s usually on a case by case rather than wholesale basis. This is a problematic position, obviously. The first time I really had it challenged was last week, when I read Salma Hayek’s powerful op-ed in The New York Times in which she detailed the abuse she faced at the hands of the Hollywood tyrant Harvey Weinstein. Hayek’s revelation came after many others, at a time when I did not think anything further about Weinstein could shock me.

What shattered me was that the abuse had taken place during the making of a film that is very special to me, Frida, on the life of the painter of the same name. I’d followed its making and release in 2002 with the kind of devotion only a teenager is capable of (Kahlo is the foremother of so many of us), and to this day I believe it’s a magnificent, heartfelt work of art. I could watch it over and over – except I may not be able to again without having to close my eyes, like a child is asked to if a sex scene suddenly comes on while she’s watching TV with her parents.

In her piece, Hayek wrote that the film’s nude scene between Frida Kahlo and the Parisian dancer Josephine Baker had been coerced by Weinstein. I knew Hayek had struggled to make this film, and that it was a true labour of love, but this was the first time she had talked about this particular kind of sexual abuse during its production.

Hayek’s sexual rejection of Weinstein brought consequences. First, he attempted to replace her entirely as producer and lead actor, which she countered by meeting a list of nearly impossible tasks he set. At one point, as detailed in her essay, he even threatened to murder her. After all this resistance, Weinstein finally found a way to deadlock her: a full frontal lesbian sex scene, or the film would not be finished.

She fought that monster in secret for the project that made her career, something women do in workplaces all the time, giving in to his blackmail but biding her time.

To me, Frida is not – never has been and never will be – Weinstein’s film. It belongs to and is unequivocally the creation of the producer and protagonist, Salma Hayek; the director, Julie Taymor; and the composer Elliot Goldenthal. But in this film is a scene which bears the stain of a monster, extracted from the humiliation of a woman forced into a compromise. Frida has always been a feminist film. If only its making hadn’t also had to be – so painfully, so familiarly.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 21st 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: #MeToo, Obviously

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Last week, a young attorney collated a privately-verified, anonymity-assured list of male sexual predators in Indian academia. The list revealed Indian feminism’s splinters: a dozen senior feminists rushed to condemn it, a move seen as being protective of their own interests based on kinship, institution and caste. One defensive response heard often was: “Women have always had a whisper network, so why go public?”

I was recently interviewed for a documentary on workplace sexual harassment by Lime Soda Films. It so happened that the Harvey Weinstein allegations had just broken, and a cascade of #MeToo posts filled social media that day. My hands shook after the first segment we shot, in which I detailed one particular incident in a corporate scenario. But my anger was neither at the perpetrator nor because of the incident itself, but because of the environment in which it had happened. The hostility in that workplace was fed by numerous characters – among them women, too. It made my hands shake with emotion even years afterwards. But I could only circle around it.

The story of a particular predator in that environment was only the easy one to tell, the starting point. I named him off-camera, but didn’t bother to onscreen. He was irrelevant to my trauma, ultimately, despite being illustrative to the conversation on why people don’t report sexual harassment. At the core of that story is something else, another story based on my consent and how it was abused, a story too painful to tell about a man deemed by those around him as too desirable to be a predator. No, story is the wrong word. Experience. And other experiences too terrible to transform into tell-able tales. Friends who attacked their partners. Abusive partners who turned out to also be predators in their fields. Manipulators so dazing that we’re inside their lies before we realise they are labyrinths. Above all: the way I use the plural because to use the singular already feels too specific, too much like a story and not a secret.

The whisper network doesn’t suffice because the worst experiences are ones we don’t share. I looked at that list and thought: What’s 70 names in a rape culture of 1.3 billion people? A few women were brave enough to whisper loudly enough. That’s all. And we know of, but are still circling, the worst of it. How can I protect someone from going through what I did when I cannot even speak of it? I can’t. Most of the worst people walk free in the world. Perhaps that’s why we who see the private struggle behind a public list fight so hard for the hypothetical. We’re tired of women being cautionary tales. We want the villain to be the protagonist for once.

Justice is a long shot. We get used to the idea that we’ll never get it. So we count and recount our stories. The ones we yell out loud. The ones we whisper. But mostly, honestly, the ones we don’t divulge at all. And the ways we tell and retell them to ourselves anyway, whether we keep track that we’re doing it or not.

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

The Venus Flytrap: Every Woman’s Instagram Messages

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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

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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.