Tag Archives: violence against women

The Venus Flytrap: The Vocabulary of Violence

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Somewhere near the end of a marriage, a well-regarded author had an initially consensual sexual encounter which turned violent. She looked this truth in the eye in an essay published a few years ago, when she perceived the encounter in a way that was complicated, but cathartic. Time passed, and she seems to have found herself still triggered by news about the other person, who continues to thrive in the world. She looked more of the truth in the eye, saw more of the ugliness that remained despite her will to narrativise her experience in a nuanced way. Last week, she tweeted and deleted and tweeted and deleted, finally saying that she chose “a peaceful life” over this struggle.

As Harvey Weinstein, notorious sexual predator from the cinema field, finally goes to jail, there are all kinds of thoughts swirling about what we’ve learned in the last couple of years, how we’ve reckoned with our experiences, and about the limits of language. Most of us will never know the vindication of having those who destroyed us, or tried to, have justice meted out to them. Some may have pursued due process, and found that the system is designed to fail them. Many more won’t or can’t. I am speaking not only of abuses of a sexual nature, but of all violations that become unspeakable because the consequences of revelation are too high.

But let us return to the topic of only those grim events that some say fall under a “grey area”, where consent, pleasure and violation (and even love) were all present to different degrees. Concepts of justice that come from rigid or punitive frameworks, which require cleaner experiential demarcations, may not give us release. The “peaceful life” of not being forever known by someone else’s wrongdoing is preferable.

The Me Too era has helped many privately reframe and understand certain experiences differently. I know that I have. This kind of excavation takes courage. The feelings and the words for them get jumbled like alphabet soup. Some of those words cannot be walked back. I do not want to freeze myself into them. The point of the grey area is that it is not either/or. Where events were complex, and where we resist simplifying them, it can be powerful to keep the knowledge that one’s feelings are tidal.

There’s no statute of limitations on trauma. The whisper network is not only about warnings, as is commonly understood. It’s about being able to see one’s truth whole, and process it meaningfully with those one is close to. Some silences are not suppressions, but ways of retaining power or peace. They aren’t necessarily silences at all, but allow for holding experiences and healing from them.

“The vocabulary of sexual assault is not always enough to communicate our experiences of violence,” decolonial feminist scholar Dr. Anjana Raghavan said to me in a personal conversation. “Often, our stories are cut short by responses of outrage or defensiveness. It will not suffice as a long-term strategy.” I quote her with permission; in the messiness of forming and unlearning strategies, among the silences and incompleteness, her words are succinct.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 27th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When Misogynists Fantasise About Feminist Revenge

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Is it alright to comment on something one has not seen? It’s a risky choice in this era of fake news, when we are all in danger of forming opinions not only borne of ignorance but from actively being manipulated. When I read that a sequence from a TV serial – described as being horrifying and which had since received a slap on the wrist from a regulatory body – was still available for viewing online, I toyed momentarily with whether I should watch it in the interest of journalistic duty. Then I chose not to. Surely, when it comes to depictions of gratuitous violence or injustice, the answer to that question can sometimes be Yes.

Instead, I read news about that scene, from the TV serial Kalyana Veedu. The violence described was both physical and verbal: a gangrape, ratified by dialogue that’s clearly an anti-woman fantasy. In it, a woman plots against another woman, hires a group of men to enact her instructions, and is then punished by them in exactly the same way. A further revenge sequence, involving fire and male genitalia, is something Freud (or better yet, Camille Paglia) would probably have analysed as the projection of male envy. A TV serial has more than one mind behind it. Just the thought of the kind of discussions that happened behind-the-scenes is hair-raising. I’ve been in enough work meetings with men who hallucinate that they are creative and cutting-edge to know that there was almost definitely someone there who imagined that castration by fire is what feminists want.

The Broadcasting Content Complaint Council, responding to viewers’ dismay about these sequences, fined the TV channel what seems to be a token sum, but more meaningfully has ordered a week-long apology to be played before every episode of the same serial.

To take umbrage against such content is straightforward. This is a good thing, to have internalised healthy protest so deeply, but the hope is that by now our sociocultural politics have evolved so that calling out such objectionable material isn’t enough. The Me Too movement worldwide, and the revelations it has provided into the way workplaces have functioned for so long, has made it crucial for us to no longer stop at disgust and anger but to delve into how such contraventions of integrity happen, and how they can be prevented.

The TV channel that aired this vicious sequence claims that the TV serial has family-oriented values. Perhaps our next line of enquiry should begin there. Among the public who made the complaints, was it only the visual violence that was the problem or the logic behind it as well? In other words – were they upset because rape is perceived to be a violation of chastity (a completely oppressive concept) and a taboo topic, or because rape is wrong, full stop? There are some interesting dinner table conversations ahead, if we choose to take this incident as not just a teachable, but an eminently learnable-from, moment. Those who wrote those scenes, produced them and were perplexed by the reaction to them didn’t conjure those ideas out of nowhere. Like I said – they’re not really that creative…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 19th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Pollachi Crisis

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The media shorthand for the situation is “the Pollachi case”, but with possibly hundreds of people directly affected by it, it might be better to call it the Pollachi crisis. A violent scheme in the town, in which women were lured, filmed while being assaulted, then blackmailed, was exposed recently when the brother of a survivor pursued her assailants. The police were alerted upon discovering the videos on their phones. The number of women who have been assaulted is estimated to be as high as 200, partly based on one of the five accused claiming that “99 women” consented to sexual encounters (Did they consent to being recorded? Did they consent without coercion? If not, it’s still assault).

The organised nature of the racket has induced widespread horror, but the reality is that the violation-and-extortion method is not uncommon in the digital era. It happens in less organised ways too, mostly by abusers exploiting the fact that women (and all queer people) have a precarious standing in our society, especially when found to have exerted agency or challenged patriarchal morality. Blackmail cannot happen otherwise. The societal rot goes so deep that photos of a sister of one of the accused were circulated with calls to rape her. Those seemingly outraged by the crimes of this racket actively encouraged further crimes, revealing how little they understand or care for the personhood, autonomy and right to safety (which is completely different from right to protection) of women.

I drew a distinction between victim and survivor, just as I drew a distinction between safety and protection, because the quantum of damage inflicted is almost certainly larger than what we know. Reports say police are reopening investigations into women’s suicides in the region over the past year because there may be a link. Given the entrenched societal misogyny, it’s likely that certain cases within this larger crisis reached such a harrowing conclusion.

It’s equally likely that the families of victims, having internalised that misogyny and thus only able to reach for its lexicon, will use terms like “love failure” or “spoiled her/her life” to explain events. It’s similar to how the original media shorthand for the crisis was not even “Pollachi case” but “Pollachi sex scandal”, as though an affair coming to light and criminal assault can both be described using the same tabloid terminology. The inability to distinguish between violation and sex – an inability that can trickle all the way down to survivors themselves, who may or may not have unlearned misogynistic conditioning – is what allowed this crisis, and others like it, to occur in the first place.

Because ultimately, “the Pollachi crisis” is also a misnomer, for it’s not restricted to Pollachi alone. The crisis in its broadest scope envelopes us all, and makes vividly clear how boasts about South India, or Tamil Nadu, being safe (or comparatively safer) for women are purposefully illusory. If hundreds of women were silenced by just five men, imagine the bigger picture. The façade of safety is maintained through denial and complicity at every level. And define “safety”. Once again, let me remind you that it isn’t the same as “protection”.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 21st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  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.

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.

Vachathi

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There are places in the world known only because of the events that catapult them to recognition; their names become a metonym for the atrocities or tragedies that occurred there. This is what happened to Vachathi. Deep in Tamil Nadu’s Dharmapuri district, fringing the expanse of semi-evergreen forests in the Kalrayan Hills of the Eastern Ghats, the hamlet of Vachathi was as unremarkable as any other until the summer of 1992. The dacoit Veerappan, scourge of South India’s woodlands, was nearing the apex of his powers; the following year, the state government would deploy its Border Security Force to carry out his arrest. It would be over a decade before he would finally be killed. But in the thirty years during which he evaded capture, the pursuit of the dreaded brigand fuelled tensions in the relationship between the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka governments, involved at least two high profile kidnappings and numerous murders – and resulted also in much collateral damage of less immediately conspicuous proportions. Among these was Vachathi.

Vachathi borders the Sathyamangalam forest and was, and remains, fertile with various kinds of produce – mango, pearl millet and turmeric for example, but also a certain highly coveted tree: sandalwood. Except in Kerala, the fragrant and lucrative timber is largely controlled through state licensing in the South; it is an offence to possess more than 20kg of the commodity. Veerappan was its most successful, and more reviled, poacher. It was while investigating a sandalwood smuggling racket possibly associated with Veerappan that a team of forest officials and police officers raided the village on the evening of June 20, 1992.

Daylight still brightened the vicinity at that hour. Its inhabitants were still out in the orchards, gathering fruit, or working in the pastures. Vachathi’s population, mostly consisting of tribals, numbered around 2,000 at this time. Most of the men had yet to return from their work, which took them further afield – or, as some accounts put it, they had escaped as they heard the vehicles approaching. When the jeeps arrived, carrying a battalion of 269 police officers, forest authorities and revenue officials, whoever remained – women, children, the elderly and the unwell – were rounded up.

Accosted, dragged by the hair or coerced by brute force if they put up any resistance, they were made to congregate under the immense banyan tree, the traditional locus of the village’s activities. The allegations against its residents were that they had participated in a racket, hiding chopped bundles of sandalwood in their agricultural fields: 60 tonnes of the same were seized and handed over to the government after the operation. Thirty women and ten men were made to lead the way to the buried sandalwood. Female constables, though present on duty, did not accompany them.

Meanwhile, those assembled in the shade of the banyan were routinely thrashed. A small shrine to the goddess Mariamman, also situated under the tree, was vandalized. These were the least of the brutalities that would take place in the course of the events known now as “the Vachathi case”. As night fell, over a hundred people were held under police custody and taken away. The rest fled into the Sitheri hills, where they stayed for months, traumatised.

Some of the women taken under custody were first taken to a nearby lake and raped, made to urinate in view of their attackers and subjected to abusive language. The ordeal was repeated at the Forest Rangers Office in Harur, the taluk headquarters. Through the long night that followed, the eighteen women who later came forward as victims were each exposed to the cruelty of multiple assailants. The youngest of the women was 13 years old at the time.

Among the four men taken under custody that night was Vachathi’s village chieftain, Perumal. Police personnel had a singular punishment in mind for him at the Forest Rangers Office. The ninety women also apprehended there were made to assemble into three rows. They watched as the officers stripped him to the waist and tortured him. When he collapsed, the first two rows of women were given broom sticks. They were told to beat the chieftain – if they did not, they in turn were hit with lathis. They refused to strip him of his trousers, as instructed to, but they could not refuse to beat him or watch him being beaten.

It was nearly two months before the detained were released. Many had been held at the Salem Central Prison; a total of 133 villagers were incarcerated, including twenty-eight children. What they came upon on their return to Vachathi was a scene of utter desecration.

The village had been looted of everything of value within the first two days of the operation, but it had also been rendered inhabitable. Most of the houses were razed. The livestock had been killed, mostly to be used as meat, and the village well had been used as a dump for the remains. Chicken heads, goat skin, bones and other inedible parts of the carcasses filled and contaminated its water.

Other wells were filled with equipment and daily instruments: grinding stones, bicycles, utensils and engines were found discarded. Grains that had been kept in storage had been mixed with glass.

An old woman and two dogs were all that remained. Every other living being was still in hiding in the hills, in fear of a second attack. Behind the shelter of shrubbery and rocks, they had managed to survive in the most primitive of ways. Some women, pregnant at the time of the raid on the village, had even given birth under these conditions.

Wrecked in mind and body, punished as a collective for the criminal endeavours of a few in their midst, the former residents of the village of Vachathi, now the survivors of the Vachathi incident, took a long time to trust the help extended to them by NGOs and different government bodies. They continued to live as foragers for a time, finally choosing to accept the assistance of former MLA, M. Annamalai, who promised their protection. It would be three years before an FIR, spearheaded by the district’s CPI (M) representatives, was filed. A CBI probe into the incident was begun in 1995.

It was not until September 29 2011 – almost two decades after Vachathi and its inhabitants were pillaged and violated – that justice, at least in its legal form, was served. The case had moved from courts in Coimbatore and Krishnagiri to the Dharmapuri sessions court, which finally lay down its verdict.

That 34 of the victims, among hundreds, had died over the course of the investigation and trial is not in itself strange: the villagers had been left impoverished, and among the sufferers were the elderly and the ailing. More surreally, perhaps, no less than 53 of the 269 of the accused – all of them government employees able-bodied enough to perform the brutalities committed on the night of June 20 1992 – had died in the interim years. Only 216 remain to serve the punishments decided by the Dharmapuri sessions court: 10 years of rigorous imprisonment under the SC/ST act for atrocities against tribals (specifically, torture, unlawful restraint, abuse of office and looting). Seventeen officials found guilty of rape were sentenced to seven years of rigorous imprisonment.

For the people of Vachathi, however, who have begun to properly rebuild their lives only in the last few years, it is unclear whether the verdict, in effect, is more than a symbolic victory. The time they have spent waiting for justice is longer than the sentences that have been served to their persecutors. The financial compensation awarded is meagre: only 15,000 rupees each have been given to the rape victims, while the loss of livelihood, destruction of property and mental trauma among the populace at large has gone unconsidered. The SC/ST Commission, which in 1997 offered 1.25 crores in compensation to 500 villagers, had provided more by way of monetary assistance than the court.

At present, the case may be appealed in the High Court of Madras. Meanwhile, the village of Vachathi continues to slowly pick up the pieces: its people rebuild their lives in the shadow of the horrific incident which its name has come to stand for. They have reconstructed its 250 houses and gained access to a secondary school. The great banyan beneath which they were tortured still stands, its Mariamman shrine restored.

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

Walking The Talk

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The first association that came to mind when I heard that New Delhi (in the footsteps of a successful public demonstration of the same name in Canada) would be holding a Slutwalk was: bra colour.

I wasn’t planning an outfit, right down to matching underthings, in order to participate in the said Slutwalk; the association came from having recalled a strange Facebook exercise in which women were encouraged to post the colours of their bras as their status messages. Doing so was expected to raise awareness about breast cancer, ironic considering that no explanation was to be given for the status – in fact, the whole thing was supposed to be kept secret from the male populace. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very successful effort.

The term “Slutwalk” seemed similarly counterproductive in an Indian setting: by the time we had all had our arguments about the word “slut”, who uses it here and when and why and if it accurately conveys what must be conveyed, the core message of the protest would have become secondary. The core message in this case being making public spaces safer for women, who risk violence and shaming on a daily basis just by virtue of being out of the home (violence and shaming within the home are invariably connected, but more difficult to tackle by way of event-based strategies). Indeed, this is what happened – privileged to the point of being exclusionary, the term was contextually meaningless, and altogether detracting and distracting.

The desi Slutwalk was renamed “Besharmi Morcha”, Hindi for “shameless protest”. Although the demonstration has yet to take place, tangled as it has become in a great deal of discussion and comparably little action, this is surely an improvement. Also, it sounds a lot like “besame mucho” (Spanish for “kiss me very much”), which is really rather nice.

Oops, did I just trivialize what some historically-clueless people have called the beginning of the women’s rights movement in India?

Lost in all this clatter about the semantically correct and the stylishly cool is the most pertinent question of all: can public demonstration actually galvanize change in today’s world?

Public assembly is believed to be so powerful a tool of political activism that governments are known to either enshrine or fear it. In the United States, freedom of assembly is protected within their Constitution as the very first amendment; in Malaysia, police have been arresting people for wearing yellow ahead of a protest on July 9 for which that colour has taken on totemic meaning. Since the beginning of the 20th century alone, numerous examples have attested to this power. Everything from the physically taxing Salt March to the bloody Tiananmen Square protests to the relatively rather relaxing Lennon-Ono bed-ins of the ‘60s show this to be true. Even the fun Pride Parades of today have their roots in the spontaneous, violent uprising known as Stonewall that took place 40 years ago in New York City.

Public assembly is immediate and visceral: emotions run high, there is excitement and electric tension, and in some cases things can become frighteningly unmanageable. They attract attention, they demand spontaneity, and they always contain some elements of risk. But they are only the most visible representation of a struggle, neither its cause nor its culmination. What happens at a protest itself is far less important than what happens the next day, and in all the days to come.

The Slutwalk also reminded me about a (possibly apocryphal) story about the Aurovillean Mother: that nearly a hundred years ago, she had organized for schoolgirls in Pondicherry to march around the town wearing comfortable shorts, an act of an unimaginable lack of decorum in that time. They were spat at and disparaged, but over time, the town became accepting of different modes of dress. It’s a difference that remains palpable even today, as any Chennaiite woman who heads south for the weekend knows.

At the time of this writing, Besharmi Morcha is indefinitely pending. There is no doubt that if it is to happen, it will garner enormous media attention, inspire a thousand more blog posts, and be the focal point of many discussions relating to gender issues for some time. Perhaps there will be provocative attire (the dress code of the original Slutwalk) on display, perhaps there won’t be. Perhaps the demonstration will be sedate, or perhaps it will be flamboyant.

None of that really matters. Count not the number of people who come to march, count not the number of people who turn up to gawk – count only, over time, the number of assaults and insults that are meted out on those same streets. Perhaps there won’t even be a correlation to the protest itself, but only to a larger framework of engagement and daily, reiterated revolution. But all that really matters is that that number dwindles, as far as it can possibly fall.

An edited version appeared in Times of India’s iDiva supplement today.

“Not Silence, But Verse” – Poetry Reading, Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign

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Prajnya’s 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence this year features a reading of poetry in Tamil and English by Salma, Kuttirevathi, K. Srilata and myself. Full details of the reading, on Saturday November 27th at Full Circle/Chamiers, are in the flyer below.


Op-Ed: Chennai’s Moral Police

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In Chennai, the term “moral police” is too often a literal one.

Two relatively high-profile incidents in the past week cast the city’s police force in a frightening light, as enforcers of a deeply misogynistic worldview who go as far as to violate the law in order to uphold their principles.

In the first case, a married woman who was with a male friend at the Kotturpuram railway station was apprehended by a police officer, who then physically assaulted the friend in question and cast aspersions as to why the duo were together. When told that her husband was fully aware of this friendship, the officer threatened to make bystanders testify against her.

In the second instance, a 21-year old lesbian who had left home and subsequently been reported as a missing person by her parents voluntarily went to the Thiru-Vi-Ka police station to declare herself an adult operating under her own autonomy. She was detained for a day, and released only into the custody of a relative. Activists from the gay rights group Sangama, who were supporting her, were harassed.

The moral universe occupied by too many members of Chennai’s police force is a murky one, bolstered by a flawed understanding of “Tamil culture”, unchecked sexism, and an abiding disrespect for the law itself.

But these are hardly isolated incidents. If anything, they have only served to reinforce what every woman in this city already knows: the police are more likely to harm than help. As journalist Chithira V put it to me, the security-heavy Gopalapuram neighbourhood – where the state’s CM resides – is a dangerous area, not in spite of but because of the presence of the police. Even the 20 all-women police stations in the greater Chennai area cannot effectively address the daily threats and aggravation that take place in public spaces, by members of the force itself.

Chennai is a city of fear and loathing, and the deep distrust in its sanctioned protectors is not a phantasm of urban legend. The city’s profound conservatism is in conflict with the needs of a modernizing population, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the manner in which its police relegate law and ethics in favour of their private concepts of morality.

The misogyny of the police force finds an accomplice in the unresponsiveness of Chennai’s ordinary citizenry. These instances are too omnipresent to enumerate, but one in particular, also shared by Chithira V, illustrates this pervasive attitude to chilling accuracy: some weeks ago, three women were attacked by a man with a knife on Besant Nagar beach. When they scattered, screaming, the man calmly walked away unperturbed. None of the families or couples sitting near these women paid any attention to the skirmish. The women called the police; an officer arrived, rounded up two random men, and insisted that they were the attackers. The real attacker not only went unpunished, but surely orchestrated the attack expecting this. Even in a group of three, the women were – in the city’s understanding of this word – “alone”.

So deeply embedded is the belief that one must be vigilant of the vigilantes that many women go to lengths to avoid interactions with the police, even at their own peril. A friend who was being followed by an ex-boyfriend felt she could not approach the police if the stalking became more invasive, because her former relationship with him would surely be held against her, and render her a target for humiliation and harassment. I personally leave home well before dark whenever I have planned a night out; having been questioned twice by a policeman on a bike right in front of my apartment, I changed my schedule. This is only an inconvenience, but the sinister underpinnings behind why I had to do it are hard to ignore. When my parents enquired about what the policeman was doing, they were told that a brothel was allegedly operating near the premises. There is no brothel here, as far as I know, but there is a women’s hostel.

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

Pink Panties, In Protest!

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Ignore my most recent column in its entirety. This is exactly what you should be celebrating on February 14 this year. Girly guerrilla activism! I love it!


Join A Consortium of Pug-Going, Loose and Forward Women on Facebook. I haven’t been this gleeful to get a group invite in forever.

Check out the blog.

The campaign is in response to the attacks two weeks ago by a group of Sri Ram Sena moralists on women patrons in a pub in Mangalore.

A Show of Stupidity

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When I heard that The Vagina Monologues — most famously banned in 2004 when Eve Ensler herself was touring the country — was going to be performed in Chennai last week, I thought (like anyone with vaguely literary or liberal ideas) that it was a good step in the right direction. The much-celebrated play was being brought to the city as part of The Times of India‘s Chennai Festival, and a very excited friend grouped together a bunch of her galpals and planned a night out.

The trouble began with the difficulty in getting passes. The person trying to get hold of them was made to run from pillar to post — and it took two days to finally secure the 8 passes we wanted (among other obstacles was the fact that she was told that only one pass could be given per person; we later heard that they were distributing them indiscriminately because so few had been snapped up).

On the night of the play itself, we got to the auditorium early, and were made to queue up in what was thankfully an orderly fashion for about half an hour.

Then we were ushered into the auditorium, had our passes thoroughly checked, led to our seats, and kept from sitting in the front rows, ostensibly for VIPs.

And then we waited. For about forty minutes.

We had heard rumours while standing in line that the play had been cancelled, but were optimistic. All this tamasha and security checks — what excitement! It was bound to be worth it.

Then, two people (one of whom was, I think, the director) came onstage gagged, did something forgetful, and left. Still, we thought there might be hope yet.

And then a young man came on stage and tried to be funny.

He failed. “What play are you here to watch? Say it louder! Well, ladies and gentleman, that is not the show you are going to see tonight. Do you want to know why? Yes? Because the cow jumped over the moon and miscellaneousbullshitIdidn’tcatch.”

Then, almost as an antithesis to the poor dude who thought he was funny, came the man who thought he was leading a revolution.

Among the various things he said about “your great city” and “this great play” and “certain citizens of Chennai do not want a play about violence against women to be performed”, one phrase stands out. “In the spirit of Gandhian love”.

Seriously.

And then, a man took up the mic and… sang.

We left the auditorium as the second song began, and needless to say, we were furious.

But not at the police, not at the “concerned citizens”, and not because the play was banned. These serious questions of censorship, oppression and the silencing of voices against violence against women were not the ones that were asked.

No, the only people we were really pissed off with that night were the sanctimonious production company and the organizers who purported to have all the crusading courage in the world, but absolutely no respect for their audience. We were told somewhere during the speech that the organizers had known for 24 hours that the play had been cancelled.

Despite this, we had all been made to wait (and wait). Not one apology at the door. Not one poster, not one phone call. Not a single thing that showed even the slightest amount of respect for the audience. I live in the city and don’t have children. But what about the people who left work early, who found babysitters, or who commuted from the suburbs, that night?

Why did the organizers/production company take such pleasure in being rude to the audience?

We live in the times we live in. We are all bound by rules. It is how — and for what purpose — we bend or break them that matters.

I’ve directed and performed in a mini-production of The Vagina Monologues, and even at 17 I had enough common sense to do the obvious — substitute the word “vagina” with valenki (Russian for felt boots), thereby not just making a statement about the ridiculousness of censorship, but also letting the larger message of the play come across in spite of it. The Vagina Monologues evolves every year — from a one-woman show with the intention of reclaiming a taboo word, the play has come to be an ongoing international campaign against violence against women. I am aware that Chennai society may not be ready for the word “vagina”, even if it is essentially a medical term, and am not holier-than-thou enough in my feminism to force this issue. We may not be ready for the word, but this does not mean that we are not ready to listen to issues of violence and sexuality.

Or, the organizers could have had an invitee-only event, without publicity. Or a charity gala, with selected monologues performed. Let’s face it — there are only so many types of people in Chennai who would go to this play. Democratic space and free passes are all very nice in theory — but when holding an English play, that too about violence and sexuality, what difference is that honestly going to make?

I don’t know if the production company tried to do these things or anything else, but if they did, I would much rather have been told exactly how they tried to circumvent the censorship than been subjected to a speech about Gandhian love (call me unpatriotic, but did anyone else think of the Mahatma’s famous experiments at celibacy — i.e. naked women sharing his very chaste bed?)

And even if there was just no way around it, why handle the cancellation so selfishly and foolishly?

Ultimately, was the point actually to hold the play and spread its message, or to enjoy the notoriety?

For once, I found myself on the side that didn’t belong to the “artists and feminists”. The production company had a wonderful shot at really raising some issues here in Chennai, whether through their performance or because of the banning of it. They wasted it entirely with their unprofessionalism and myopic sense of the circumstances. I write this as a journalist — if I had been told at the door or through a courteous phone call earlier in the day that the play had been cancelled, I would have turned on my laptop as soon as I could and dedicated column space in support of them. Instead, they turned even their sympathizers away with what was quite frankly a completely stupid and insincere way of dealing with the cancellation. Boo — and please, let someone else do the encore!

Updated: Apparently, Mahabanoo Mody Kotwal, the director in question, has some kind of axe to grind against Chennai. See the comments.

The Shaming of Scarlett Keeling

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(Cross-posted at Ultraviolet)

That violence against women rarely grabs any attention except for in the presence of gruesomeness, sensationalism, drama and tragedy is already known. But more disturbing by far than the fact that the murder of a teenage tourist in Goa last month has been making headlines precisely due its cocktail of all the above elements is the level of moral sanctimony that accompanies the media coverage, the ensuing debates, and even what are ostensibly the responses of those who knew Scarlett Keeling and her family.

On February 18, the body of 15-year old Scarlett Keeling, a British national, was found on a Goan beach. Police initially chalked up her death to drowning after consuming too much alcohol, despite evidence of severe bruising and rape. But investigations and post-mortem investigations revealed contradictory facts, as did eyewitness accounts by people who had seen the girl during her final hours. Scarlett had been in India with her mother Fiona MacKeown, MacKeown’s boyfriend, and her siblings. They were frequent visitors, and on this instance were on a six-month-long trip.

Allegations were quickly leveled against MacKeown for her negligence of Scarlett. The moral higher ground was quickly swamped by those chastising her for her irresponsible behaviour. One whiff of scandal led to another, and details about MacKeown’s private life were dug up. Scarlett’s diary entries were exposed in the media. The bottomline message was that somehow, by choosing to lead lifestyles that included partying, sex and substances, they had asked for the tragedy that befell them. Terms like “alleged murder” were popular, as though it could have been anything else, until today’s gruesome revelation: Scarlett was murdered by having her head held underwater for between five and ten minutes. She asphyxiated to death.

It is alarming to watch the cruelty of the media – from possibly every newspaper in the country to even NDTV’s usually fairly progressive We The People to the blogosphere – and what can be gauged of common opinion by it. Despite the horrifying brutality inflicted on a person who by Indian standards was still a child, and the overwhelming confusion and despair her loved ones are no doubt experiencing, the attacks made against the victim and the family censure them with only superficial demonstrations of sympathy. Political officials in Goa are calling for the revoking of MacKeown’s visa and a ban on her entering the country again, blaming her for maligning the image of the state. She has since gone into hiding, fearing for her life from both the drug mafia and state officials whom she has linked to them.

Scarlett’s boyfriend, an Indian citizen named Julio Lobo, has been taken for medical tests to see if he is “sexually active”. A DNA test of substances found on or in the victim’s body would not be unreasonable, but pray tell, what does his being or not being sexually active reveal about the horrific tragedy? Is it necessary, given that in her diary, Scarlett had written not only that she had sex with him, but that she felt he used her for it? Is there a test that proves sexual activity in males? Or is this like one of those repressed, backward ideas about broken hymens and being able to pee in a straight line? That this person’s private life is being pried into in a manner that is unlikely to shed any light on the senselessness of the incident is nothing more than one of the many ways in which the blame is being pinned on “the wanton Western way”. The boyfriend, we are to assume, has sinned by his affinity to this lifestyle of debauchery, which – we are also to assume – is imported to India by the likes of the Keeling family. But even that doesn’t quite crack it: Lobo is being tested not because of his character – but because of what the conclusiveness of science is meant to tell us about hers.

Lobo, in turn, has retaliated by attacking MacKeown because she had been aware of Scarlett’s lifestyle (but she says Scarlett was neither a binge drinker not drug abuser, to her knowledge). This, too, is reprehensible. At 25 years old, a decade older than Scarlett, his relationship with her could amount to statutory rape. Clearly, prior to the murder, MacKeown’s liberal parenting style benefited him. His attempt to deflect attention from his actual law-breaking by ganging up against the bereaved mother with the rest of the patriarchy squad is sickening.

In other words, the condemning of the murdered girl, her family, her friends, their lifestyles and their choices is a typical misogynist response – the wicked woman gets her dues. And this time, there are not one but two “wicked women”: Fiona MacKeown, mother of not just the victim, but of several more children of “varying paternity”, and Scarlett herself. That the women in question happen to be from the West (that corrupter of our chaste and virtuous ways of life!) is icing on the cake.

Rape, murder, the works – apparently, under the right (or wrong) circumstances, they can all be justified.

Make no mistake. What we see in the media today is not an enquiry into a crime. It is slut-shaming, plain and simple. The nation is not in shock because a 15 year old has been so brutally treated. Those are not the sounds of protest and outrage; they are the sounds of many hands rubbing in glee, so thrilled to be vindicated of their position that women who break the rules deserve what’s coming to them, and what’s coming to them is exactly what happened to Scarlett Keeling.

But what happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with if she had sex, if she did drugs, if she drank. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has nothing to do with why her mother so frequently chose to travel to India or lived a bohemian, unconventional lifestyle. What happened to Scarlett Keeling has only one reason: some places in the world are not safe for women, not because of culture or tradition, but because of an absence of respect for them as individuals. India is one of them. India killed Scarlett Keeling – and every day, kills many less sensationalized individuals. That Fiona MacKeown has seen this is not delusion on her part.