Tag Archives: society

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 Freedom To Marry

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Here’s a romantic story for you: in the late 70s, a man in his early thirties went and got himself a passport so that he could travel to Sri Lanka to ask his girlfriend, whom had met in medical college in Madras, to marry him. He was the eldest son and stood to inherit a sizeable inheritance, which he walked out on in order to be with his beloved. They married, and he entered her family and didn’t look back.

That man is my father, and the woman he fell in love with is my mother, and if they were to get married in Tamil Nadu today, nearly forty years later, they wouldn’t legally be able to register their marriage. That’s because the Tamil Nadu government has introduced new prerequisites that now make it technically impossible for consenting adults to marry without the presence and approval of all living parents. Those recently registering marriages in the state have been asked to bring their parents (preferably fathers, for obvious patriarchal reasons) along. This is not entirely new: in November last year, The New Indian Express reported that a registration office asked for a consent letter from a 29-year old groom’s father. There is now an official circular that clearly details the need for verification of parental addresses, the furnishing of parental death certificates and other paternalistic demands. While not explicitly stated, the technicalities correlate with one thing: parental approval.

It’s a decision so regressive that it’s hard to believe it has come in 2018, but it happens in a very clear context: the Supreme Court’s Hadiya case, involving a young Keralite woman who converted to Islam from Hinduism and married of her own free will, and the violence relating to inter-caste marriages that Tamil Nadu itself continues to see unabatedly. Add to this renewed bigotry towards Periyar, who like Ambedkar advocated for inter-caste marriages as a way to abolish the caste system. In this context, also, are numerous under-reported incidents, such as how – just weeks ago – a panchayat in Punakaiyal village, Thoothukudi district, chased out all women who had married outside their castes in the last fifteen years.

We who speak of “love marriage” must necessarily also speak and think of caste and religious exogamy as its natural extension, instead of being content to accept that romance is radical even if it happens only within tightly-knit, and thus closely-guarded, circles. To marry within one’s own demographic background, even with some disapproval (due to economic disparity, prior matrimony, different subcaste, etc) is not radical at all. It changes nothing about society’s greater hegemonic structure, which includes misogyny and various forms of discrimination. Neither is it helpful to jump ahead to whether or not marriage as an institution is worth preserving without recognising that for many people, it still has meaning both practical and sentimental. To be unable to register a marriage therefore is a terrible blow. Marriage registration eases a number of bureaucratic processes, from obtaining loans and visas to divorce and child custody.

It speaks so poorly of current society that I still think of my parents’ marriage as radical, and not just for their time…

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

The Venus Flytrap: Enthusiastically In Favour Of Consent

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Once again, the men are talking about consent. From a High Court acquittal in the Farooqui case to the attendant buzz of “well, actually…” on social media, they’re pontificating mainly on how consent exists even where it is not intended. Sexual consent, of course – the distinction between rape and sex.

This is not, even in disagreement, a useful discussion. For a useful one, we need to move beyond instances where consent has been withheld. We can’t discuss consent only retroactively. This leads to confusion among those who actively want to practice it. In order to establish and normalise consent as a part of general sexual behaviour, we need to speak not only about desire or its absence, but bring three elements into familiarity: respect, communication and emotion.

Respect for another human being is common civic sense, and if that is inculcated in all contexts, it will naturally trickle into the sexual context too. For instance, if a heterosexual man doesn’t really believe that women should be given respect unless they conform to certain roles, he isn’t going to be respectful to his sexual partners who don’t. His lack of respect for people outside the bedroom will, at some point, translate into a lack of regard for them inside it. Or even in a boardroom, where he perpetrates sexual harassment. And it doesn’t matter then how nice he seemed, or how many female friends he has, or how he hasn’t had those problems with his exes. If he cannot respect where one person has drawn the line – that is more than a mistake. That is a crime.

Communication is not just a question of how loudly you say No, but what you mean even if you say “Maybe”. We need to stop and ask each other, reassure each other, and sometimes stop entirely even mid-way through an encounter because of what one partner has conveyed. Communication, as always, is only part articulation – the other part is listening and understanding.

Which brings us to: emotion. India has a deeply dysfunctional relationship with sex and sexuality. We’ve been taking our recent sexual cues from the West, which in itself is not a problem, except that we don’t think and talk through the emotive aspect, which is impacted and subjectivised through cultural and societal contexts. For instance: can you really have casual sex like you see on TV shows living under your parents’ roof? Unlikely. So how do we actually make these negotiations, and how do we deal with deep conditioning like shame, fear or secrecy? The shame around rape is deeply connected to the shame around sex and desire. We must destigmatise pleasure itself. Only then can we become clear on why the absence of desire in an encounter is so very egregious.

Learning healthy, well-adjusted ways to be sexual beings is a comprehensive – and in many ways even lifelong – process. Maybe it will be easier for us to honour each other’s right to extend or withhold consent when we see all of it in a holistic fashion. Not just Yes or No. But If and When and How, too. And Why (and especially – enthusiastically – Why Not?!).

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 5th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Women Infantilised By Society And Law

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A young Indian woman named Hadiyah, moved and perhaps given meaning by a faith other than the one she was born into, decided to convert. She eventually signed up on a matrimonial website that would allow her to find a like-minded partner. Despite Hadiyah being 24 years old, and despite the fact that Kerala high courts had rejected two petitions filed by her father claiming she had been forcibly converted, a third such petition resulted in her marriage being annulled – and her being sent into parental custody with this infantilising statement: “A girl aged 24 years is weak and vulnerable, capable of being exploited…”. The Supreme Court has since ordered an investigation into the marriages of formerly Hindu women to Muslim men as a potential terrorist conspiracy.

The concept of “love jihad” is not only Islamophobic, it is also a clear insult to all women. And with violent overtones: recent reportage has revealed some truly terrifying tactics including kidnapping, coercion and even drugging women (at an Ernakulam hospital) so that they comply with their parents’ wishes. In every such scenario, the freedom of an adult woman to make her own choices is either questioned or curtailed. It is also worth iterating that marital rape is not criminalised in India. Marital rape cannot exist in this worldview because women’s autonomy – the right to reject or consent – does not exist. She is her family’s, community’s, state’s – or in a panchayat-style redressal, her rapist’s – property. A woman in India can’t assuredly choose or refuse a partner, but a man can rape his wife under protection of law.

Another recent case involved Irom Sharmila, who ran for election in Manipur after a 16-year hunger strike. After defeat at the polls, she retreated from public life and reportedly found solace in Kodaikanal. But when she announced her engagement to her long-term partner, the welcome proved to have been short-lived. A Tamil Nadu-based Hindu group filed a petition to keep her from marrying there, alleging that the city’s security would be at stake. Oddly, it was marriage – the antiquated notion of “settling” – that had roused the petitioners.

To these two high-profile cases relating to marriage, mobility and the denial of adult women’s agency, here’s a third one that suggests how such a societal milieu comes about and is maintained. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court denied an abortion to a 10 year old who had been raped by her uncle, ignoring medical experts’ caution that the risks presented by a late-term termination were outweighed by the risks of carrying the foetus to term and undergoing childbirth. (Abortion is legal up to the 20th week, after which special permission must be given). She gave birth via caesarean section last week. According to reports released after the delivery, the survivor was never told that she was pregnant, but that she had a “stone” in her stomach. This can only mean that despite having undergone the horrors of rape, she continues to be denied basic sex education, or the right to information. Neither her body nor her mind have been treated with respect.

She gave birth to another girl. And so the cycle continues.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 24th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: 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: For The Women Who Weren’t Born Men

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Maybe they don’t know everything, the women with the divining sticks, but they sure know how to reel a girl in. Maybe they don’t see everything, but they do see you there on the beach, alone or in some laidback configuration, and somehow – they see enough.

And so they come up to you as you’re rolling your jeans up or dusting your bum off, scrunching the newspaper your sundal came in and absentmindedly considering whether to litter, trash or recycle. And they look you in the eyes with a smile of recognition and say: “Nee ambulaiya poranthirikanum, ma!” You should have been born a man.

Even later, when you find out that there’s nothing unique about this line, you will consider it a compliment, because it is meant as one.

And the shore-side soothsayer will offer you this opening gambit as she takes your palm, because whatever else she knows or doesn’t, she can intuit you aren’t going to take it as an insult.

Though later, you learn: some women who do terrible things to other women have been told it too. Other women who do worse things to themselves have been told it too. Are those also ways to be men, then? “Internalised misogyny,” you think. Women who should have been born men because maybe then they would hate themselves, and each other, less.

Even later, when you bristle and say, “Well, if I lived somewhere else, was steeped in better societal conditioning, desexing me wouldn’t feel like a compliment.”

But you don’t live anywhere but here. You live here in this city by the sea. With a long beach where you could be detained for holding hands at night. And by the brightness of day, you give yourself away because only someone who doesn’t mind sun-kissed skin would be loitering. Someone like you, a woman like a man.

Count them and see how few they are, the women. How far between the canoodling (straight) couples and the water-shy families. While half-naked men splash around like they own this city, or indeed, this sea.

“Should have been born a man”, you ponder – and you look at the transwomen who also mill about between stalls selling blackened corn and displaying balloons to shoot for prizes. And you wonder what the fortune-tellers say to them, though you don’t quite know how to ask.

And not yet, not today, but soon – you may wander along that beach and arrive at the memorial of another woman who “should have been born a man”. And you’ll think of the crowds of men in white who surrounded her, and all the women still in their kitchens, whose lives she made a little easier.

At first, when you were younger, you thought that all that the fortune-tellers meant with that provocative, alluring opening gambit was this: that you have courage in excess, a province you demurred was not exclusively male. Later you understood: if you were a man, in this place and in this time, what you could do with that courage would have multiplied. Or to put it another way, perhaps you wouldn’t have needed that much courage at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Interview With R. Vatsala

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“When I am asked, do you only write about women and families? I say: what is there is the outside world that is not there in the family? The deifying of families must end; they are made up only of individuals. We have not yet found a better system, but if we are to continue with this one, we must accept that the nucleus of equality or inequality begins within it.”

Read my piece on iconoclastic Tamil writer R. Vatsala on Scroll.