Tag Archives: Women

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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A Lost Paradise

When I went to Hyderabad for the first time, I was told to go to Paradise for their scrumptious Biryani. A Hyderabad bucket list thing to do. And I wasn’t disappointed.

But today, I am not just disappointed, I am ashamed. I came across this blog post going viral on facebook and clicked on the link, only to read this about the behaviour of the resturant staff:

 

For all those living in Hyderabad, India, Paradise hotel is synonymous to biryani and is one of the most visited restaurants in the city. Located in Secunderabad, the hotel was so iconic that it lent its name to the place where it is. I say ‘was iconic’ because it no longer is, for me anyways.

Last night, I was there with my family celebrating my mother’s birthday. After dinner, we came down and were waiting for our car to be brought around by the valet. There was this one woman who was selling mogra flowers, a street hawker, right near the restaurant.

Now Paradise for whatever reasons has bouncers as security personnel outside its premises. My husband, my cousins and I were just talking about what was an outright lecherous look of a bouncer towards this woman, when another bouncer walked in (at this point, the woman was surrounded by four bouncers) and asked her to move away from there. Now, I understand that the parking area is managed by these guys, but what right they have to order people off the roads? Anyways, even as she began to walk away, the bouncer pushed her to the ground–yes on a road where traffic flow is quite heavy; snatched her basket of flowers, tore them and began to hit the woman. When we along with the other customers started to scream and run towards the bouncer hitting the woman, he pushed her again to the ground, and ran inside the Paradise garage.

We were quite enraged at this point and ran inside the garage only to be stopped by other bouncers who told us to ‘get lost’ and one went to the extent of saying that the woman was beaten because she was ‘drunk’ and ‘misbehaving’. By this time, a considerably big crowd had gathered all of them demanding for the bouncer to be handed over. Not only were the other bouncers and security guard protecting the culprit but they went a step ahead and threatened customers to leave or forfeit their cars which were in the garage.

In a matter of seconds, the bouncers also began closing the garage doors and had barricaded one of the entrances to the hotel. A so-called Manager appeared on the scene, behind the barricades and told us to leave, saying “You are making a scene out of nothing”.

At this point, I called 108 and had also informed a couple of media houses about the incident. Soon, i saw a Rakshak vehicle (police patrol jeep) and stopped the vehicle and informed them of the incident. When the SI, one Shiva Prasad, asked the security guard what happened he said “nothing happened these guys are just making a big deal out of nothing”. When the police went inside to get the guy, they could not find the guy either. But what was heartening, at this point to see were the many people who had witnessed the incident, coming forward and informing the police. Many had waited for the police to come to complaint.

When i spoke to the other women hawkers there they told me that they are bullied on a daily basis by the Paradise security men. “They push us around, spoil our flowers and sometimes even grope us. We put up with it because we have no choice and have to do this for a living,” said one of the hawkers Lakshmi.

This is the appalling state of affairs in our city and country. What did the guy who pushed that woman and beat her think? That no one would react or that he would get away with it? I guess he thought both. And for all that i know, he might actually get away with it. While i did file a complaint with the SI, am yet to hear about the actual details and realistically speaking, i know that Paradise can ‘afford’ to bribe their way out of this incident. Their reputation will be hardly hit if the media does not take up the issue. Despite, working with the media i feel thoroughly helpless and frustrated that this matter has not been brought to light (as yet atleast) And so decided to go ahead and blog about it.

The manager who  was apprehended by the police last night was almost nonchalant and seemed assured that nothing would come out of this.

But what caught my attention was this- even as i was ashamed that something like this happened in my city, the number of my fellow Hyderabadis who rose to the occassion and fought for this woman who believe me was quite shaken and scared.

There are a lot of underlying issues here. One of class and gender. The inequality of it all. This security guard aka bouncer was assured of his management’s support and hence took the step of assaulting a hapless woman. A woman he knew, would not be able to fight back on her own. By calling her a drunk, the other bouncers somehow felt they had the moral authority to hit a woman. What was disgusting was the complete lack of responsibility on the part of the management.This attitude that she is no body so we can do whatever needs to be cracked down on not to mention  these so called security guards need to be sensitised.

At a time when there is so much public anger on the lack of safety for women, this incident just goes to show how much work’s to be done when it comes to this issue. But, I have hope now. Hope, that people will no longer stay quiet when incidents like this happen. Often, it takes one person to react-(in this case it was my family which reacted in unison)- to encourage other bystanders to stop being spectators. If the police takes action against these guys, they will be setting a wonderful precedent in the city. The incident also brought to the fore the concept of safety for thousands of women employed like this. Who are they to approach when such things take place and to what extent is justice actually delivered? Apart from strengthening laws, its time we even think of how to make women aware of their rights so that they can fight back.

And yes i know for a fact that I will NEVER step foot into that restaurant or any of its branches again  or even order from there. The only way these big establishments will understand the gravity of what happened last night is when people begin to boycott them.

I generally don’t ask for my blog posts to be shared, but this one i will. Please read and share this as widely as possible. We need to come together to teach a lesson to these guys and cut their arrogance. This might be a long shot, but i believe in the power of social media.

 This is cross-posted from the original blog here.

I hope one day, we can create an environment where it is NOT acceptable to mistreat women, hit them or harass them. The change has to come from us and our voices in unity. 

Amen.

 

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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

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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Woman

I keep you in my womb, safe

I give birth to you

Man, I create you

 

My eyes unsleeping

My body unaching

My love unwavering

 

Yet monsters you become

Teaching me painful lessons

For no crime of mine

 

You touch my feet as Sita

And yet you ask me

To walk on hot coals

 

You ask  Saraswati for knowledge

You ask Laxmi for wealth

You ask Durga for strength

 

And yet you kill me

Before I am born

Are you really a man?

 

I am your daughter

I am your sister

I am your mother

 

You forget this

Outside your home

Even in your home

 

I bear quietly

The pain you give

Swallowing it like a bitter pill

 

I am strong

And yet you think

Of me as weak

 

My unspoken eyes

See what you have

Done to me

 

Wait for the Kali

In me to rise

Man, you will cower away

 

I will cause you pain

I will give birth

Only to my daughter

 

I will nurture her

Make her strong

And battle worthy

 

Trust me, man

You don’t want to see

Laxmibai with undocile eyes

 

So fight with me now

Not against me

Stand up and be counted

 

Because my war cry

Will be hard

For you to ignore

 

I will die

A thousand deaths

For my sisters

 

Until you have

Learnt your lessons

The hard way

 

I will be nirbhaya

I will be amaanat

I will be a braveheart

 

You will know

My many names

Until none exist

 

Then you will know me

As respect, dignity, equality

As woman not Kali or Lakshmi

 

———

 

Thoughts after the Delhi gangrape incident

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