Tag Archives: Feminism

Girls Aloud

It’s a sunny morning as I make my way through the city of Lucknow. The wide roads and half built flyovers give way to narrow lanes on the outskirts of the city. A meta-city awaits me in a slum hugging one edge of the city.

There are vegetable vendors, cheap clothes shops, grocery stores, tailors, chai wala, samose wala, people going for their daily wage jobs, even a school and a college and a few wedding tents. There are no open spaces. Most houses are unfinished brick structures, a work in progress. The richer people have painted houses and the work designation of the male member is proudly painted outside – mostly police officers who have earned enough (by dubious manners probably) to build their imposing oasis in the midst of the mess which exists.

There are no electricity poles, no sewage lines and no visible signs of pucca roads in many places. Post-monsoon water and garbage stagnate every few feet and herds of mosquitoes sit nonchalantly on them until pigs take a dive in the water, forcing them to fly away. Goats, stray dogs, cows, rats and flies complete the animal kingdom.

There is a Japanese saying translated in English, which says – a nail that sticks out will be hammered it. Everything here is hammered, squished, battered and forced to live in the space where every breath is a mixture cooking oil, dust, sewage, and the perennial male gaze and comments. Class, caste, religion and gender intersect here, giving it an uneasy flavour of diversity.

There are lots of men on the streets. A few women are part of the public milieu with their heads covered if they are Hindu and wearing a burka if they are Muslim. It’s heartening to see young girls going to school. I wonder if things are really as bad as I have heard. The next few days are spent unraveling the web of my questions. I think I know the answers. I have travelled so much in this country. I have covered so many stories. I know how it works. But I am so very wrong. And I don’t know it yet.

The slum is a thriving centre of local economy but most importantly it has its own set of social rules. Rules if not followed can lead to the collapse of the system which exists. Men go to out to work and women stay in the house.

The lanes become narrower as our car jostles for space. Inching closer to our destination, we are brought to a rude stop by someone digging in the middle of the road, trying to repair a mud pathway which has become sludgy. We have to cover the rest of the distance on foot.

Two young girls meet us so they can accompany us to our destination. They have a bright smile and confidently say their hellos. We exchange pleasantries as we walk past a cow shed, a small shop which a TV blaring out loud, an open ground. We hop over a two feet wall and enter a small house. I am greeted by a young woman, her excited dog, her shy mother and a man and a woman who are sitting in a corner, narrating a story.

The room is bare except a bed with a bright yellow bedcover, diagonally opposite it is a rickety old table, a dirty mirror propped on it. A few certificates and trophies adorn the wall and the table. On close examination they give a ‘certificate of excellence’ to the courageous work of the Red Brigade and its twenty five year old leader Usha Vishwakarma.

As the dark curtain flaps away, I listen to a woman discuss her woes – successful with an entrepreneurial spirit, she is a figure of jealousy within the menfolk of her village community. The upper caste men unable to accept how can a mere lower caste woman complete a university degree, work and earn enough to support her family. She has been threatened with gang-rape along with her teenage daughter. There are menacing letters given to her community members which talk about how the upper caste policemen who will look the other way when she is raped and/or murdered.

As someone who has had equal access to education and opportunity at work – unquestioned – I am horrified to hear her story. I have heard stories of the Uttar Pradesh badlands and the defined gender and caste roles which exist there. I have heard of harsh punishments for not towing the line. I have heard of machismo that every ‘man’ is supposed to assert. I have never believed that stereotypes can be true. Surely, these are just stories which our pop culture and cinema talk about. An aberration which the media reports about.

I am obviously wrong.

And then I am wrong again. Because sitting next to her is her husband, supportive of her, trying to find a way to help her. Not all men are caricatures of the stereotypes. Usha finds ways to help her – holding a gender sensitization camp in her village, teaching the women and girls self-defense, teaching them ways to stand up instead of cowering in fear.

But this is a band-aid approach to a problem rooted into the system, woven into the fabric of the society. There are no easy ways to fix it.

Later Usha and I have a chat. She talks about a time, almost seven years ago when she was eighteen. To support her carpenter father, the eldest of four children, she had decided to augment the family income by working. She started to work with a local NGO, teaching under-privileged children when one day a male teacher tried to rape her. She fought back and ran away.

The next one year was a blur, spent dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The social conditioning meant that she believed that she was responsible for the sexual assault, that she had asked for it. Approaching the local police would have meant dealing with questions like what was she wearing and why was she with a man. She didn’t tell her family either – the shame would make her unmarriageable. Dealing with the trauma on her own, at times she would break down, at others filled with rage. Slowly she began to confide in her friends. In turn they told her their stories of sexual advances, harassment and rape.

As the day progresses, we walk outside and she shows me the bushes and the open ground near her house. Many kuccha houses have been built on the edges but hers used to be the only house at the end of the maidan about four years ago. Many young girls would meet their lovers there at dusk.

Growing up on a diet of Bollywood films romantic notions of love like meeting of the eyes, sending love letters and walking past the boy one fancies is what love means for these girls, forbidden to interact with the opposite sex. As rules go, good girls stay at home or go out accompanied by a male member of the house and come back home to help with the household chores. Lover’s trysts are for bad girls who are game for anything.

Before the other houses were built, twice girls were rescued by Usha or her mother when in their eagerness to meet ‘boyfriends’ they were pounced upon by the boyfriend and his friends. Crying, shaking with fear, both girls were lucky enough to spot her house and flee there. The men, waiting outside Usha’s home so they could rape them. In neither of the cases, the girls reported the crime to police or told their families. And Usha says there is no data to confirm if others were violated in the same spot.

The men who mostly live there are daily wage labourers. They work for a few days or weeks on a job, earn enough to survive and drink. Then they idle away their time in frustration, jobless, standing around tea stalls, gossiping and passing comments as women and girls walk past. These socially acceptable behaviour patterns are cues for younger men and boys to behave in the same manner. Emboldened and influenced by the men around them and their favourite bollywood films – they sing sexually suggestive songs as girls walk past them. And if they really want to have some fun they grab her hand or snatch her scarf.

Usha tells me that the ground was a popular location to play cricket during the day. To access the main road, or visit the shop or exit the slums, one had to pass through the ground. With groups of men standing there the whole day, Usha’s ears would sting with sexually explicit remarks, wolf whistles and kissing sounds, undressing with eyes – in short street sexual harassment. She and other women complained to the police, but the officers asked them to change their routes or timings because boys were born to ‘eve tease’ girls.

Angry and helpless, Usha saw all around her that young girls and women were suffering in silence while unprovoked sexual violence continued in the slum. The last straw probably was when Usha’s one bedroom house expanded to two rooms and beyond, a jealous neighbour tried to assault her younger sisters.

And then enough was enough.

Usha, her friends and sisters decided on a novel approach – they started to verbally confront the boys. Taken aback at the insolence of the girls, the boys didn’t know how to react. Some retreated but others continued. The girls gave them a few chances and then visited their houses and talk to the parents, persuading them to talk to their sons. Some people responded with anger, labeling the girls as prostitutes for being outside their homes. But other parents spoke to their sons.

Eventually a smaller group of men remained in the ground, challenging the girls to try and avoid harassment. Being pushed in the corner for too long, the girls channelized their anger and beat the boys. The public shaming was enough for most to never come back there or look the girls in the eye. However, some filed police complaints against Usha for the assault and a slew of false cases.

But something began to change. The girls started to believe that they weren’t lesser than the boys, that they deserved the freedom on the streets as much as the boys did, that they deserved to be treated with respect, that their body belonged to them.

With the other girls Usha decided to organize a formal group. All the members were girls who had faced some form of sexual violence. They would wear black and red outfits, black for protest and red for danger. As they would walk down the streets of the slums, men would taunt, “Here comes the Red Brigade.” And that’s how the group was christened – by reclaiming the words from a bunch of harassers.

As more and more vulnerable girls started coming for help, the group expanded into learning and teaching gender sensitization. Someone did a story in a local newspaper and help poured in form of a martial arts trainer who started teaching the group self-defence. A silent revolution began at the homes of these girls as they began to question patriarchal norms and the culture of victim blaming.

Then the horrific December 16 incident happened.

A group of fifteen girls became a group of hundred. And even though core members remain between fifteen and twenty, many volunteers walk through the doors of Usha’s home, determined to change the society that colludes to keep them quiet.

National and international press has flocked to her home to try and understand why these girls have to take extreme measures – confronting and beating men. Is it the need of the hour? Is it symptomatic of a bigger problem?

The slum represents what is wrong with the society – men who believe sexual violence is the ultimate power, the victim who would rather keep quiet, the society which at one end is steeped into traditional values and at the other changing too fast, the lack of consent, the deficiency of the justice system.

On my second day there, Usha impassively points out to the house where a one month old girl was raped, another where a five year old and another where a twelve year old were raped. She spent days at the police station and the families’ homes pleading them to press charges, following up with lawyers and doctors. Having made the mistake of keeping quiet once, she knows the price of silence is much higher than the price of standing up to violence.

Outside in the slum when I ask people about the Red Brigade, men instantly clam up feigning ignorance about the group. They refuse to acknowledge the Brigade’s existence but when the girls walk past, they avert their gaze, knowing fully well that unacceptable behaviour will be punished. All the men I interview grudgingly tell me that now women want to step out of homes – for work and education. They are clearly unhappy with the way these girls are changing the rules about not bowing down, demanding equal presence in the public space and the consent of their bodies. They believe that the old system was far better.

By the third day, I have stopped noticing the flies, the pigs, the smell of garbage and stagnant water. I see girls walking nonchalantly on the roads, I see a woman manning a snack shop. And in Usha’s house the girls are getting ready for the monthly protests – to mark each month of the death anniversary of the Delhi gang-rape victim. The girls are painting posters, giggling, gossiping, their camaraderie and warmth palpable. Jokingly, they tell me that the boys of the neighbourhood are too afraid to date them, lest they get beaten up.

I ask them about school and their dreams. All of them have fought at home to continue their education, not so they can get good husbands, so they can be lawyers, activists, teachers and leaders.

The stirrings of a revolution are just beginning.

For Usha the fight continues everyday – to raise collective voices against sexual violence, to make sure that the girls complete education, that they are not forced to marry at a younger age, that the police registers complaints of sexual assault, that more women and men can be empowered through gender sensitization.

Wise beyond her age, she talks about reaching out to men, to make them equal partners in the fight. The feminist movement, according to her, cannot be restricted to women. She is not fighting for “women’s issues” but for equality and dignity of life. In her eyes, the balance of the society is restored only when both men and women stand together, not when the oppressed decide that one day they will become oppressors. She regrets that sometimes they are forced to beat men. As the sun is setting on a winter evening, slowly  she says she will be the happiest when one day there won’t be a need to have a group like the Red Brigade.

Till that time it looks like the nail which was battered and beaten into submitting to the pressure of the society’s structure is now starting to stick out, somehow managing to break free and vowing to pierce through. And in the slum of Naubasta Khurd, men are learning this the hard way.

———

The essay is based on a news story that I covered recently.

 

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84 Minutes

Those 84 minutes of hell

That you endured

Screaming, Shouting

Fighting, Pleading

 

You know you woke

A nation which was asleep

You were a ray of light

Just like your name

 

My fearless sister

Are you at peace today?

Did you look down from Heaven

And smile a little bit

 

Di d you see the people

Cheering outside the courts

And did you see the fire

Which was lit by you

 

Are you happy that

Those animals are caged

That they will spend their

Rest of the days, waiting to die

 

It will be hell for them

And you can watch them

With some satisfaction

I suppose

 

I hope your 84 minutes

Of agony and distress

Be 84,000 for them

Oh fearless one, rest in peace now

 

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My Mumbai Colleague

My Mumbai Colleague

Like you,

I am a journalist

 

Like you,

I visit many places

For work

 

Some lonely

Some crowded

Some in the evening

 

Like you

I was an intern

When I was 22

 

Tasting the new success

After a college education

Exploring my world

 

Like you

I was a professional

Doing my job

 

Like you

If my assignment was in the mills

I would have gone

 

Like you

I would have never thought

I would be violated on my job

 

Fight, my sister

Be brave

For all of us

 

Don’t listen to anyone

Who says

That you were

 

In the wrong place

At the wrong time

Or in the wrong clothes

 

It wasn’t you

My Mumbai colleague

It’s them

 

They were in the wrong place

At the wrong time

With the wrong intentions

 

It’s not your shame

It’s not your izzat

It’s not your family’s honour

 

That they took

Who hunted

In a pack

 

It’s their’s

They should be ashamed

Of being worse than animals

 

They assumed

That they were

Powerful

 

But they are wrong

You are a woman

Shakti Chandi Durga

 

Rise, my sister

In your fight

I hold your hand

 

Like the girl on

December 16

Jolt us out

 

Of apathy

Of desensitization

Of nothing-can’t-be-done attitude

 

Fight the fight

For all of us

My Mumbai Colleague

 

Work

Laugh

Live

 

Live

My Mumbai Colleague

So they know

 

They don’t have

Any power

Over you

 

Live

Because it’s your life

To live

—–

Poetry written for this fellow journalist

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Walk (Part 2)

What it means to walk for Indian women

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March 11, 2013 · 8:57 pm

Walk

Walk.

A simple task we humans learnt when we evolved from being apes. A task which allows us to reach our destination, allows us to discover life. It’s something we take for granted because it’s so unimaginably mundane, so ordinary. And yet, it’s something, we Delhi women fear.

Our mothers revel in joy when as babies we learn to walk. And the opposite of that joy when we grow up and they say – don’t walk, the city is not meant for you to walk.

It was Maya Krishna Rao’s booming voice counting the numbers, until she stopped at twelve. And said she would like to take a walk at midnight. At 3 AM. At 4 AM. I nodded vigourously and clapped. My eyes tearing a little.

As a child, I was never afraid of the dark or the night. I was enamoured by the mysteries it could hold.

I love the night because I am moved by the beauty of the stillness and calm, when I can watch the stars and hear my thoughts. I love spotting the Orion and the Big Dipper through the night, their changing positions providing a sense of time passing by.

It’s glorious to walk down the streets in the night. I did it when I lived in England. With various friends and acquaintances, saving the snails on our walking paths in the summer, walking slowly to conquer the black ice in winters, after a night of club-hopping. Or simply finding a bench and sitting there alone. I was almost unafraid of the dark corners and empty roads. A little voice in my head saying, “woah, you are so brave.”

And then I came back to India. To Delhi. To the city where I have grown up and which has played an important role in shaping me. To a city where I dread walking. I drive everywhere, don’t take the public transport, wear shapeless androgynous clothes when I need to go to the grocery shop across my home.

I was a soldier once. In my teenage years, through school and college. Leered, leched, touched, groped. Psychologically scarred, physically scared. I was afraid. I was violated. I was meek. And then I was angry. In my battle fatigues of jeans and t-shirt and my backpack as my armour, I would walk on the opposite side of the street traffic, rarely on unlit pavement, in crowded buses, on alert. I would grab any hand which tried to touch me. Confront, kick, slap the violator. But it kept happening. Again and again.

So I stopped.

I bought a car and now I drive everywhere. I don’t walk anymore. Not in the winter sunshine, not in the first rains of the monsoon, not on cool summer nights.

I am ashamed I stopped fighting. I became tired. I became battle-weary. I stopped re-claiming the public space which was mine. The pavements which were mine to walk, the buses which were mine to take, the gardens and the blue skies which were mine to see, the cityscapes which were mine to explore.

I miss walking.

I am sorry I stopped fighting. Because that’s when I became afraid of the dark and the light of the day. Because that’s when men decided they were the sole owners of the public space. That I was an anomaly there. That I needed to be shown that bus wasn’t meant for me. That I should have been in my private space, in my home, in my kitchen.

I felt anguish. And then the familiar anger. In every cell of my being.

It was the night of 1st January 2013, when after a holiday with friends, I took an evening flight back from Bhubneshwar. The only one out of the city which reached a foggy Delhi at about 8.30 PM. I took a taxi home at 9 PM with my sister who was patiently waiting at the airport, her flight from another city having landed a few hours ago. The Delhi incident fresh in the mind of people, we were strange objects of fascination standing at the airport, daring to take a taxi.

A furious and a concerned sister confronted me at home, calling me “stupid enough” to fly back on a late evening flight and then use the public transport to get back home. Fighting back tears and rage, I told her I wasn’t afraid. That I refuse to be afraid. That I refuse to cow down. That fear was not my prison. That men needed to know that women could and would be a part of the public space. They NEEDED to accept my presence there. I didn’t need to be apologetic about it.

It’s our collective failure that we gave them power over us. It’s our collective failure that we kept quiet too long. It’s our collective failure that we made them think we were weak.

And so yesterday, when I listened to Maya, I remembered what it was like to walk. I remembered the solace I took in the quietness of many nights when I was privileged enough to walk, the chaotic days when the streets were mine. I was filled with melancholy, then helplessness. And eventually angry enough to demand my right. I wanted to walk.

Her words stirred up something inside. It opened the pandora’s box. The feelings which were kept aside for practical purposes. The cravings which were checked, now demanding to break free. To feel my feet on the mother earth which created us. To feel it pound the earth with a purpose. Without a purpose.

When the emotionally charged evening ended, I decided to walk, having parked my car a kilometer away from the Delhi Rising site. It was a pleasant winter evening. Maya’s words echoing in my ears, “Walk, I want to walk.” My female colleague looked at me with uncertain eyes.

“Let’s take an autorickshaw,” she said.

“No, let’s walk,” I replied.

“There is a dark stretch,” she insisted.

“I’ll kick any bastard in the balls who tries to harass us,” I replied in anger.

“No,” she shook her head.

Eventually, we took an autorickshaw till the point where our cars were parked.

One day, I want to walk, really walk. I want to wander the streets enveloped in the blanket of night and discover what secrets it holds. I want to wander the streets in the brightness of the day, smile at strangers and hear their stories.

Because if I can conquer the darkness of the night and the brightness of the day, there will be nothing to fear. Then I can be unafraid. Then I can be free. Free enough to do the most mundane task we humans do.

—–

Essay written after attending the Delhi Rising event as part of the One Billion Rising campaign. Words inspired by Maya Krishna Rao’s powerful monologue at the Delhi Rising event.

 

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I Rise

I rise

Because I want to walk down that street

Freely, happily, unafraid

Just like you

 

I rise

Because a fire was lit

And it’s burning brighter

In every atom of my being

 

I rise

Because I was defiled

My crime was being a girl

Thirteen with no breasts to touch

 

I rise

Because you look at me

Like you want to rape me

Undressing me with your eyes

 

I rise

Because I want to run

Feel the wind in my hair

Without any fear

 

I rise

Because I want to see the world

Travelling to my own tunes

Just like you

 

I rise

Because I am a sexual being

And whatever I wear

I never ask for it

 

I rise

Because I am a woman

Your equal, your greater

Never lesser that your half

 

I rise

Because this is my fight

Because you assumed me weak

Subservient and quiet

 

I rise

In war

In pain

In fear

 

I rise

In hope

In prayer

In freedom

————-

For the One Billion Rising Campaign and it’s Delhi event

Meanwhile watch this

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fL5N8rSy4CU#!

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Stealing Spaces

Note: I am re-publishing an essay which I read here. I think it is relevant and makes sense of the issues of rape and sexual harassment in India.

———–

A woman’s place is in her home, in her kitchen and in her duties as the mother, wife or sister. It’s her father, husband or brother’s prerogative to keep her safe. As a woman, she is accompanied by her father or her brother in a public space. She doesn’t negotiate with men, she never learns to be on her own. Her domain is a private place, in the four walls of her house. This is how most of Northern India has functioned since a very long time. Even now, in most villages and towns, the above statements hold true.

What happens to such men when they, in search of economic prosperity, come to bigger cities and a thriving metropolis like Delhi? Or they, even if living in big cities, come from such patriarchal cultures? They find women unaccompanied by men, driving, walking, using the public transport, working, wearing what ever they want and most importantly, negotiating the public space like they belong in the complex social milieu.

The old ideas of women’s need to be protected, to be kept at home, to be kept safe, all melting away in front of their eyes. Instead they find these creatures – bold, secure and confident. And then begins the game of reclaiming their space, their perceived threat to masculinity.

Ask any girl or a woman in Delhi about sexual harassment, termed so beautifully as ‘eve teasing’, and they will have horror stories to tell. At 13 being groped at places where breasts don’t exist, at 14 being flashed by a man in an alley, at 15 being touched between the legs in public buses. A Delhi girl grows up fast. She knows she is fair game for being letched at, cat called and groped at any age. Her first encounters with anything sexual is strange men trying to reach in her pants or touch her breasts. She knows that no doesn’t really mean no. That no will mean a green-light to the man. But before she learns to say no, she is taught to be quiet, she is told not to confront such a person and she is told to look the other way. That there is shame in feeling violated. Shame in the way she dresses, shame that she took that bus or walked down that street. That it is her fault, somehow.

A Delhi girl grows up thinking that it’s perfectly normal to be wary every single moment of her life outside her home. That it’s normal to think that every man on the street will try to assault her and when he doesn’t, it’s a miracle. At some point if she decides to confront the ‘eve-teaser’, then the power balance starts to tilt. In most cases, this deterrence works but in some it doesn’t. What most people fail to understand is that it’s a man’s pent up desire to have sex at that very moment with that girl or a woman. Sexual assault or harassment is hardly ever about having sex, it’s about asserting power.

And in such context, when a Delhi woman doesn’t just use the public transport to work or study, she also wears what she wants, ‘hangs out’ with her boyfriend, and even enjoys a drink or two, it creates an imbalance in a man’s game of power. She is economically empowered and will assert herself. She is not just bending the rules, she is breaking them. Centuries old culture is crumbling and she is being blamed for it. The onus lies with her to preserve the traditional space she belongs to. And the onus lies with some men to show that she has violated their public space and thus she needs to be violated in return.

The challenge ahead lies in the way public spaces are perceived. A women’s only coach in the Delhi Metro has been lauded by the Delhi woman. This is a relatively safe place for her from prying hands. But a solution which has helped her, has also hindered her. Men seem to think that all the other coaches belong to them, that it’s okay to harass a woman in these coaches. It’s detrimental when women employees are told not to work beyond 6.30 PM, when they are told they will be escorted home after 8.00 PM. Because the message goes out is that a woman is a property which needs to be ensconced in a safe-space.

So, even before a man has properly learnt to negotiate that a woman can exist in the public space, the message of segregation and time-boundaries has made him unlearn that the public space belongs to both. Unless a Delhi woman learns to demand her equal right to remain and negotiate in that public space, she will never be able to normalize her presence in it.

Rapes will continue to happen in India. Because women will continue to pour into the space which belongs to all. Because some men will continue to feel threatened and show them that their place belongs inside the sanctum of their houses. And the onus, once again, will lie with the woman to steal that public place which colludes to keep them away.

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