Tag Archives: women’s issues

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.

Book Review: Beautiful Thing: Inside The Secret World Of Bombay’s Dance Bars by Sonia Faleiro

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In August of 2005, the state of Maharashtra introduced a bill of law which put an estimated 75,000 women out of work.

Among these women was a 19 year-old named Leela – sharp-tongued, strong-willed and very “bootyful” – the star of suburban Mumbai’s Night Lovers dance bar, and the eponymous beautiful thing of this thought-provoking exposé. When we first meet Leela, she is trying to coax a sleeping customer out of her bed so she and Sonia Faleiro, at this time a reporter for a national news magazine, can chat. It’s January 2005 – just months later, the bill (which banned dance performances in all establishments rated three stars or below, thus forcing an entire service industry into unemployment or sex work) would be implemented.

Initially researching an article that would be axed, Faleiro was welcomed by Leela and her colleagues with an unusual trust, which later allowed her to document their world as it came to an unceremonious end. She is introduced as a friend to their clients, their families, and to members of all aspects of Mumbai’s underbelly. If there are any doubts about the author’s motives, they are quelled – few women in India today would choose to spend that much time in brothels and bars, fraternizing with both patrons and purveyors, sharing their rooms and their food, travelling with them and accompanying them to hospitals and hotels alike were it not for an emotional investment in those whose lives these are.

But to praise Faleiro for being intrepid enough to venture into this domain is to be all the more awed by the bar dancers themselves. Above all, Beautiful Thing is feminist commentary – by giving us an intimate view into their lives, this book has the capacity to change, or at least challenge, public perception about much-maligned sex workers and bargirls. Perhaps the most important stereotype that it dismantles is that they are people who operate from a position of disempowerment. On the contrary, many bar dancers rose out of sordid circumstances – Leela, for example, was pimped out by her father from a young age, offered for frequent rapes by policemen, abused to the point of being forced to eat her own vomit. Bar dancing bought freedom. Not only lucrative, it gave the women the option of not having to trade sexual favours for money. The nakhra, or artifice, of performance was enough to keep them desired, comfortable and fawned upon – but without necessarily having to service a customer. Unless one wanted to, or didn’t mind, or fell in love.

In other words, bar dancing allowed them to break the cycles of exploitation that trapped them within their societies and families, and gave them careers which made up in independence what was lacking in public respect – a level of independence often denied even to educated Indian women.

Out of the 75, 000 women who lost their careers when bar dancing was banned, Leela’s is only one story, and Faleiro paints her with such humour, chutzpah and empathy that it’s easy to see why the author herself was so mesmerized by her. Just as a bar dancer teases and tempts before getting down to business, we are first entertained by dramatic fisticuffs between Leela’s best friend Priya and the man-stealing, self-mutilating Barbie, and the demands of Leela’s difficult mother Apsara, before the book settles into its ultimately sobering effect. Faleiro charms us with Leela’s grit and glamour before taking us into the red light district of Kamatipura, then to the HIV wing of a hospital, and finally into the inhumanity of the ban itself. When we accompany the ladies to the beauty parlour before a birthday party, we have no idea how disturbed we will be by its end, the gathered weeping to a song from Umrao Jaan as in the near distance, a recently-castrated hijra moans in her bed.

Yet somehow, this glimpse into a subaltern reality seems insufficient by the book’s end. As compelling as Leela’s story is, there is the sense that Beautiful Thing could have had just a few more layers – the author says she conducted research and interviews for years, and one wishes more of this had been distilled into the work. But perhaps this is just the complaint of a reader who, captivated, wishes the book hadn’t ended so quickly. And that, then, would be Faleiro’s triumph: to have seared into our consciousnesses – and more importantly, our consciences – a Leela so forcefully alluring that we are dismayed to have to let her go. Is this the author’s nakhra, persuading us that what we have seen is just not enough, that there is even more beyond the screen?. And if it at all obliges us to not turn away from the corollaries of societal misogyny and look deeper into the misogyny itself, it would be proof supreme of Beautiful Thing’s importance.

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

International Women’s Day Speech at Hyundai

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I was invited to be the Chief Guest at the International Women’s Day celebrations at the Hyundai plant in Sriperumbudur today, and was asked to deliver a talk to their women employees. The text of the speech is below.

Good afternoon. It’s an honour and a pleasure to be invited to speak to you today.

International Women’s Day is many things – a cause for celebration, a reason to pause and re-evaluate, a remembrance, an inspiration, a time to honour loved and admired ones and in several countries – including China, Armenia, Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, but clearly not India! – a public holiday1. So I’d like to extend, first of all, a note of thanks to all of you for taking time out of your work schedules to come here, as well as to Hyundai, for inviting me to speak.

On this day, all over the world, we consider both the steps forward toward better lives for women that have been taken in recent times, as well as the progress still required. Necessarily, we name our enemies: patriarchal structures, perhaps, or more specifically, legislative and political decisions, corporate entities, criminal menaces, culture-based ignorance and economic disenfranchisement. They are all significant things, and I am not suggesting that they are not. But I have felt for a long time now that something else is at the heart of female disempowerment. Something that isn’t as easy to deconstruct or dismantle. Something that is difficult to even name, and at times feels bewilderingly counter-intuitive.

What, to me, is at the heart of female disempowerment is the profoundly painful fact of how women can be each others’ worst enemies.

One of the most famous things that former American Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has gone on record to say is “I think there is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”2 A special place in hell – can you imagine what torment that would be, and how deeply wounded a person has to feel to condemn someone that way? When you think of what she said, that such a special place is reserved for women who don’t help other women – what associations come to mind? I don’t know about you, but my heart burns to remember the countless times I have been betrayed and even sabotaged by women I loved or looked up to – teachers, relatives, peers, friends and colleagues. Haven’t men done the same? Of course they have – but somehow, it stings worse coming from another woman, because of how deeply counter-intuitive it feels. This is the sort of heartburn that makes me think, yes, Albright was right – there is a place in hell for women who don’t help – who hurt – other women. There has to be. Even if there is no Hell – how could there not be such a place? How could such treachery be left without retribution?

There are big ways and little ways to this treachery. The little ways I hardly need to enumerate, because the best examples of these are empirical ones, and you know them in your own life. The big ways tend to be a matter of collusion: for instance, it may have been men who created archaic and repressive social codes, but is it not women who pass them on, who ensure that their families function within and continue to carry forward the same logic? To choose to not break a chain is to choose to propagate it.

We can begin by taking a look at the very fact of us all being in this room today. How did we get here? Each of us have overcome difficulties in our own lives, each of us has dared to dream, and fortunately, has been born in a time where we were able to pursue some if not all of these dreams. We have had access to resources and options which were denied to women of just a few generations ago – resources and options which are even denied to other women today, in this country and elsewhere. Some of us have endured bad luck, made bad decisions, or failed at things we tried our hands at – but we haven’t been ruined by these misfortunes. We have alternatives. We have second, third and ninety-third chances. We have more autonomy than our foremothers may have been able to imagine.

In short, we are all so lucky. And this is only because of the brave women and men who fought for certain rights and equality, who went against the tide of what was acceptable, who challenged the status quo, who refused to take as an answer that “that’s just how things are”. We are here because they did not think of themselves alone. They did not relegate their abilities to simply securing a better life for themselves, but put the vision of a better world above their own personal journeys, and in doing so secured a better life for millions.

I am asking you today if we too can demand a better explanation than “that’s just how things are”. I believe that as women, we are conditioned on a deeply embedded level to be wary of or threatened by, and consequently cruel toward, one another. Perhaps there are biological or evolutionary reasons for this. But I refuse to accept that we cannot evolve female rivalry out of our systems. Larger systems of power, yes, but more importantly, smaller microcosms of the same.

In our own lives, can we get over our mistrust of other women? Can we leave cliques and factions behind in our school years and embrace a greater loyalty? Can we see that another woman’s success need not necessarily mean our own failure? Can we cease to be judgmental or jealous? Can we cease to be threatened by other women, for reasons of our own insecurities, and can we stop acting out of that sense of fear?

Just as our palette of big life choices continues to expand the more society develops, I would like to think that in our day to day interactions, we should also become more mindful of how we choose to treat one another. Can we make choices that deprogramme the way we have learnt to feel about other women – learnt from all the ways we ourselves have been hurt – and choose to say, “This stops with me. What has been done to me by girls I went to school with, women in my extended family, superiors I worked under or any other situation, incident or environment that fostered in me a sense of female rivalry or mistrust will no longer control the way in which I respond to individuals now.” Will we choose to undermine other women, in ways big and small, or will we choose to embrace a less cynical view? Can we work together to create new environments in which all of us can feel free to meet our highest potential without being hindered by unhealthy competition?

You may be wondering why I have taken a less festive approach to International Women’s Day and am asking these potentially uncomfortable questions. I promise you I didn’t start out this cynical. In fact, I started out quite the opposite – if I could have had feminist slogans on my diapers, I would have! Throughout my teenage years I volunteered with women’s NGOs, and continue to do so in some capacity today. I was one of those girls who would rather have a tee-shirt that said “the revolution is my boyfriend” than have an actual human one. I think I limited my own literary forays for some years by refusing to read anything by authors I derogatorily labeled “dead white men”. I was proudly, radically, obviously and – I must admit, perhaps a little obnoxiously – feminist. And then the disillusionment set in.

At some point in my life as a young activist, I began to see that polemics and politics only go so far. How far does philosophy translate accurately into one’s practical realities? One’s fundamental humanity and compassion are all that really matter – it is of no consequence if this can be backed up by proselytizing or theory. You know how this works. I am almost certain that there is no one here today who would not name her grandmother, mother, aunt or sister as her personal inspiration – a woman who did not necessarily know of or say that she subscribed to theoretical ideals but nonetheless manifested the best of them in her life and across the lives of all she touched.

Today my feminism is nuanced by the understanding that as with all great adversaries, the most significant challenge to female empowerment comes from within. From within our ranks, from within our own hearts, from within our own inability to look beyond a reactionary and defensive stance.

But there is something else that also comes from within. And that is strength. Women have always regarded as being strong, and we are, but in modern times we are also powerful. I think of power as originating from an external source, from the validation of being in a certain position of influence. But strength has a far more esoteric source. It manipulates less, and moves more. There is a difference between strength and power – which do you operate from?

And I ask these uncomfortable questions not because I am above reproach but because I also deal with them in my day to day life and work. Sometimes, I frown on the actions of teenage girls because they do not seem as empowered as I was at their age. Or I might secretly judge someone of my generation for having had an arranged marriage, letting her in-laws dictate her career choices, or not realizing how beautiful she is because TV commercials tell her otherwise. But who am I, really, to judge? How would I know what those girls or women have been through and what has shaped their decisions? Why can’t I just respect that they are different, but no less equal? Concurrently, I struggle to undo and unlearn traumas imprinted on me because I am a certain kind of woman, born into a certain kind of culture, in a certain era. I struggle to not be manipulated into being pitted against other women in social and professional situations by those who know just how to push those buttons. I struggle to deal graciously with female associates who have backstabbed, cheated and even plagiarized me without having to descend to petty conflict that would only satisfy those who believe that women cannot evolve out of our habituated enmity. Because I believe we can.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year (and celebrate it we should!) let us also bear in mind that the struggle is far from over. Women’s empowerment should never be reduced to individual success stories. It should be about collective well-being. As long as women continue to operate from that deeply embedded place of suspicion and resentment, we will never be free. No matter what material, social or intellectual heights we scale, we will never be free unless we learn a new paradigm with which to see other women. With which to see ourselves.

There are two ways to light a second lamp: you can do so by snuffing out the first as you ignite the second, or you can allow the flame of one wick to touch another, and inspire its own flame. You are a luminous being. Be secure in this knowledge. Let your light illuminate as many lives as possible. It will not diminish your own.

I would like to end this talk with a quote from an anonymous source that I came across on the internet. I find it comforting – and I hope that you too will be inspired by it. “Blessed are the women, who have grown beyond their greed, and put an end to their hatred. They delight in the beauty of the way things are, and keep their hearts open, day and night. They are like beautiful trees planted on the banks of flowing rivers, which bear fruit when they are ready. Their leaves will not fall or wither, and everything they do will succeed.”3

Thank you.

(1) http://www.internationalwomensday.com/about.asp and http://forum.libr.dp.ua/viewtopic.php?f=17&t=175

(2) http://sports.espn.go.com/wnba/columns/story?id=2517642

(3) http://maluna.tumblr.com/post/153247208