Thursday, March 23, 2006

Will somebody please sit up and take notice?

This is a mail I received from an activist with the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, in Betul, Madhya Pradesh (I am reproducing it, sic, below) and I'm wondering what to make of it because, despite all the talk of a victory of sorts in the Jessica Lal case, thanks to a media-supported campaign, I see no sign of a report in the national dailies in Delhi, which might have prompted some action.
And to think that these are journalists getting murdered... whither solidarity?


A LONE WITEENESS TO JOURNALIST'S MURDER SHOT DEAD

Betul, March 11, 2006
Within a week of framing the charges in the journalist's murder, today the main and the only eye witness has been shot dead in bright day light at point blank range in Betul city of M. P. The bureau chief of Hindi Daily Raj Express was lynched in his office in Betul on 13th September2005. The witness Manoj Arya had, many times, complained to the police that there was a threat to his life, but he was not provided with any security. The same Journalist had expressed his apprehension to police before his murder but he was not taken seriously.

While lot of heat is being generated by Jesica Lal case, this murder of a lone whiteness to journalist's murder has exposed corrupt nexuses between police and criminals. Samajwadi Jan Parishad demands immediate action in the matter and action against erring police officer. SJP also demand overhauling of Criminal Justice System.

Prostitutes - in black and white

Think of prostitutes.
What are the first things that come to mind?

Narrow lanes, lined on both sides with red-lipped women dressed in blouses and petticoats. Bare navels, distended. Fleshy cleavage.

Or do you imagine balconies, strung with filthy rags, filled with women with painted faces, calling out provocatively.

Or do you see tall faux-blondes, sitting alone at a bar, looking a come-hither?

Is that what you think prostitutes are made of?

Then look at this picture that I have not been able to get out of my mind, weeks after I first saw it. This picture that melts me, warms me, moves me, and gives me a reason to smile in the middle of a day when there's too much bad news.

Look at the whole series by Maya Goded: The prostitutes of La Merced.

Blood for belief?

My grandmother used to say 'qayamat se daro' (Or maybe she didn't; maybe it was some other grand-maternal figure in the family). She taught me to fear the Day of Judgment, when we're confronted with ourselves : that truly is qayamat... What we did, didn't do, should have done, and wanted to do.

I must confess that I don't believe in an apocalypse, or a final confrontation. I must also confess that if I'm wrong and grandma's right, then I don't look forward to giving an account of myself.

But, in times like these, when the 'judiciary' in Afghanistan thinks it can kill a man for converting to christianity... at times like these, I begin to wish for a day of final reckoning, now, so they could come face to face with a god, his messengers, or somebody who's THE authority.

Because, how, in god's name, can you justify the taking of life? Especially when a man's done nothing except admit that his beliefs have undergone a slight change? Not murdered, not abetted, not waged war, not abused children... all he did was convert.

How, how, how can anyone justify a death sentence?
How can you justify even wanting to pass that death sentence? How can you justify putting somebody on trial for a new set of beliefs? How can you call yourself a muslim, if you do so?

How can you forget that before Islam, there was Cristianity, and Judaism, and a thousand different kinds of faiths in the world? That every single person who took to Islam, must once have belonged to another religious community? Mohammad himself was not born into Islam; he created a new religion, and got a whole lot of others to convert.

If these Afghan 'judges' were to come face to face with Mohammad tonight, how would they justify ending a life, just because that life wanted to try a different route to finding god. How would they explain their greed for spilling blood?
Because that is all it is, finally.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

When in trouble, blame the blog

And now, Judith Miller blames the bloggers too!

Miller describes to Vanity Fair the process by which the Pajama People destroyed her:
The bloggers were without editing, without a way for people to understand what was good, what was well reported—to distinguish between the straight and the slanderous. Things would get instantly picked up, magnified, and volumized.
In Miller's mind, the bloggers not only poisoned her relationship with the Times brass but also with her colleagues, who, she says, "believed what they read on the blogs."

Them, and a lot of other people... But seriously, now who's slandering whom, I'd like to know.

This is how you show some respect

Now this is how a government deals properly with women, if it wants to treat them with respect.

To me, the act - of letting strippers take meal breaks and a weekly day off - is a strong indicator that this country, or at least the majority of her people, respect the women who may choose to strip for a living.

In the process, it sends out a signal that everybody has the right to choose their own livelihoods, without facing moral umbrage from those who do not wish to make their livelihoods in the same way. It also helps organise a sector, however small the numbers of workers involved, letting them know that their rights are worth protecting, and that they are valuable as workers and citizens.

Compare and contrast this with our own Maharashtra government's decision to ban dancing bars altogether, thereby depriving thousands of women of their livelihood. Such blatant disregard... such an impoverished sense of right and wrong.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Links and meets

Two spaces I've been meaning to link to, for a while now.

How The Other Half Lives
For some good writing and some significant questions,

Tattletale
for some exceptional writing by someone I'm proud to call a close friend.


In other news, Neha - of Desipundit and Within/Without fame, is going to be in town this weekend, and there's a blogmeet happening. I am not in town, unfortunately, but am sure the others will turn up in droves for coffee and conversation.

Friday, March 10, 2006

rimjhim-rimjhim

When rows upon rows of cycle-rickshaw-wale lie curled up on the passenger seat of their blue rickshaws, head and shoulders swallowed by their dusty gamchhas, at 11 in the late morning...
toh samajh lo, dilli mein raat baarish hui hai.

When white china roses, growing a few feet from the ring road, who've spent February refusing to sit up and take notice of the spring, suddenly sit up straight on their delicate stalks, each petal achingly poised like a butterfly wing waiting to be painted upon...
toh samajh lo, dilli mein raat baarish hui hai.

When your chin turns out, and up, to meet the gulpworthy crisp air...
toh samajh lo, dilli mein raat baarish hui hai.

When there's traffic jammed on both sides of a railways crossing, but no horns are blaring and no faces are frowning....
toh samajh lo, dilli mein raat baarish hui hai.

Dilli mein raat baarish hui hai.

If, when... and until then

Yesterday, I was filled with a deep, deep sense of despair.
Never, in recent memory, have I felt this numb, this deflated. As I read, account after account, after abusive account - from women and men and the children we have been - I was engulfed by a frozen sort of exhaustion.

Account after abusive account on Blank Noise led to more windows opening up into my own memory - this happened to me too, at ages six, eight, nine, ten, eighteen, fifteen, twenty-five.... all of this and more. That man, that place...

Writing the last post, I had thought I was making the token gesture - how difficult could it be to speak up, anyway? If I can live it, I can talk about it.
Talk about something that's choking our gender-divisive culture, something that is making monsters of us when it comes to sexual attitudes and liberties.

When the comments started pouring in, I was a little overwhelmed. Then the downpour became a deluge, and now, I am very quiet, very sad.

Because... that these 'strategies' I had written of, in part-horror, part-rage, with a sense of bitter irony, should be taken as 100% serious advice.... could anything be sadder than that?

One part of me wants to un-read it all - all those hundreds of stories here, in the comments and those entries for the blog-a-thon. As if un-reading it, could undo it.

But for all that, I have more to say.

If we're going to build a serious debate around this issue of abuse (please let's give 'eve-teasing' a grand burial right now. This minute. The word has no significance, no relevance, no place in our experience), we need to talk beyond the rage, beyond the sharing, beyond the opinions.

Because if we stop here, then we might as well have never started.

The first thing we have to deal with is the definition and scope of 'harrassment'.

We may recognize that each individual has different needs for personal space and different perceptions of appropriate behaviour, BUT if we're going to take a legal stand, insist upon pan-Indian, or even global standard of behaviour as a norm, we're going to need specifics.

Is staring/ ogling/ checking out/ leching wrong?
I don't think so.

Does it make me uncomfortable?
Yes.
A man leering at you through the evening can ruin your party. But I also recognize that this bothers me more in situations where I know the leer can easily turn into a grope.
Besides, there are many occassions on which I have 'checked out' members of the oposite sex (no pun intended, she says, biting down a smile). I want to continue to have the right to look at men, appreciatively or just to guage the attraction quotient. Men have the same rights, then.

Is whistling, passing comments, singing songs wrong?
No.

Does it annoy me, as a woman?
Sometimes.
But I recognize that the man is not phycially or psychologically damaging me in any way, and so he has a right to whistle, sing or comment.
EXCEPT when the words turn abusive or sexully violent. Verbal violence is punishable by law. Threats are punishable by law, and there is no reason a woman(or man) should have to hear any.

Is touching wrong?
Yes.

When you touch a another person without his/her permission, you run the risk of violating the person. If you touch them in places that are - in normative terms - regarded as sexual areas, therefore off-limits for those who do not have sexual rights over you, this person will be perfectly justified in snarling, snapping, slapping or otherwise reacting violently to your gesture. You could also be punished for it legally, though we - as a society - must come to some sort of agreement about what punitive action is fair, or deterrant enough. (One blogger - I'm confused about who - suggested community service. Picking up trash. Scavenging. I think that's not a bad idea, actually.)

I also believe that we Indians already recognize this, cultural conditioning be damned!
That is why there are many more incidents of feeling up/groping/pinching in crowded places like buses, trains, bazaars, footpaths - where it would be hard to pin blame, where one can pretend it was all an accident. That is also why men will take fewer chances if a woman is accompanied by a man, but will grope and pinch with alacrity if they're in a big group themselves.

Is following/stalking wrong?

Yes.
I have not figured out the precise definitions for this, but legally, at least, there is a precedent for disallowing stalking. (And we really must learn to use the word 'stalking' instead of 'following', which sounds like a benign sort of thing a cute puppy-dog might do, when he isn't nipping at your ankles.)

Is propositioning wrong?

I don't know.
We are swimming in slightly murky waters here. Almost all relationships begin with a proposition of some sort. (This, incidentally, is the same line adopted by every single stranger who has come up to me with a proposition for 'friendship') Almost all of us have accepted some propositions at least partially, tentatively, from some trusted people.

I personally do not blame the stranger who walks up to me, saying he wants to have sex, or offers to 'buy' me. He is only asking me a question. I find it offensive - but I think we, as women, must also learn to question the reasons for our taking offense at such a question. Why are we so insulted if somebody equates us with, or treats us like, a prostitute?

(Speaking for myself, I find it equally offensive when I am asked my religion while entering a temple or a mosque, or filling up a government form. In all honesty, I think the latter is a far more dangerous question).

But when I have said 'no', and this stranger persists in making his offer, it does amount to harrassment. Then, I have the right to tell him to get lost. If he doesn't listen, I have the right to drag him to the law enforcement authority.

Which brings us to the cops.

The police is known to be unsympathetic. I think we should lobby for the police to be especially trained in dealing with instances of harrassment and I also think that the women's cell of the police should be prepared for complaints against their colleagues who fail to treat a victim of sexual harrassment as they should. The battle will be uphill at first, but a few prosecutions should set a precedent. Precedents are good weapons.

And yes, I believe training and counselling does help.
I have been to a police station alone in Delhi - fighting off my own instinctive misgivings - and have found at least one bunch of officials to be polite and non-lecherous, even though they may not have been as quick and efficient as I want them to be. I was later told that some sections of Delhi police have been slowly workshopped into behaving with a modicum of courtesy. If this is true, bless the workshoppers.


Some people have spoken of clothes and the impact they have on harrassment.

From personal experience, I know there is no direct correlation.
The first incident I mentioned, when I was 13, occurred when I was in frilly frocks and still had ribbons in my hair. Almost all later incidents have happened when I have been in shalwaars and full-sleeved kameezes.

Strangely, the rare times when I have stepped out wearing short skirts and tank tops, men have kept a slight distance. I fail to understand this paradox. But I do have a hypothesis -
When I am wearing a short skirt in public, I give out a signal. That I am not meek. I'm not your regular bhartiya naari and that you cannot count on my being a placid, accepting victim.
Many more men stare at bare shoulders, bare legs... many more women stare too. But, in my limited experience, few men dare to touch a woman they're shocked by.

And yet, knowing this, I find myself hesitating. Worrying.

I bring out my short, revealing clothes every week, try them on and put them back in the cupboard. This is not because I will attract potential molesters. This is because I know that IF there is an attempt, I will be held responsible. I will hear 'but look at what she's wearing'.
I do this because my own women-friends come up with quasi-insulting statements like 'you don't like clothes, do you?'. Because I've been told that there's a time and place for every dress; high heels and bare shoulders are only okay if you're at a private party, amongst friends and are getting picked up and dropped off in a private car.
I've been told and I cannot shake off the fear that IF something goes wrong, I will be humiliated even further by allegations that I was 'asking for it'.


THIS fear is what we have to counter.

We begin by watching our own tongues. When we see a girl in a mini-skirt in the train or in the vegetable market, we stop saying 'ohmygod! what's wrong with her?'. We have to stop telling each other 'your bra strap is showing'. (It's only an effing strap! Give me one good reason why it should not show?)

Sure, the change will take time. But the change must come from us. From everybody who believes that a person has the right to not be molested, whatever the circumstances.


Some other men mentioned feeling ashamed. They are angry that all women view them with suspicion, contempt and fear.

All I can say, is - the burnt child dreads the fire.
Or like we say, doodh ka jalaa chhaas ko bhi phook-phoonk ke peeta hai.

Besides, the nice men are in a bit of a minority. I can recount more than ten incidents of harrassment, right now, without having to dig into the darker recesses of memory. Listening to other women, I'd say that ratio is fairly average. If there are ten wrong-doers for every one victim.... you do the math.

Can you imagine the scale of this gender's collective fear? Where is the room for rational behaviour, or trust?

Yes, this too can change.
For every man that tries to grope me, if there are five men stopping him, it will change.
For every small gang that roams the streets looking for somebody to harrass, if there are two small gangs on the lookout to protect, it will change.
For every woman in an oversize t-shirt, walking with a file across her chest, if there are a hundred who refuse to cover up, refuse to de-sex their persona, refuse to slouch, it will change.
For every family that tells a daughter 'don't go out alone at night', if there are fifty families who send their girls out at night, armed with the determination to have fun and the confidence that they're not going to be the only women out alone, it will change.
For every woman who scurries past, head bowed, if there are ten who strut, and smile at nothing and everything, it will change.

When we have men and women talking to each other without being censured for it,
when boys in school are taught to take permission before touching women,
when girls in school are taught that it is okay to give this permission, if they want to,
when both genders can interact without fear of ostracism or moral policing,
it will change.

Until then, I leave you with these lines by Dushyant Kumar :

"sirf hangama khadaa karna meraa maqsad nahin
meri koshish ye hai, ki ye surat badalani chahiye.
mere seene me.n nahin to tere seene me.n sahi
ho kahin bhi aag, lekin aag jalni chaahiye"

[My purpose is not to simply create a furor
this attempt is to try and change our situation.
And if not in my breast, then let it be in yours -
it doesn't matter where, but the fire must burn]

Let's keep this fire burning.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Streets, stories, strategies

I had my doubts about blogging this - writing about street harassment. After all, it's as common-place as paan stains, as ubiquitous as spit.... Will my saying 'NO' to harrassment prevent it? How does telling my stories serve any purpose?

But while discussing the Blank Noise Project with a male friend (who has never maaro-ed seeti, never chhedo-fied, never sung lewd songs, never felt up, pinched, grabbed any part of any woman), he told me: "How do you know? Some teenaged boy somewhere reads this and decides not to molest women... you never know." For men like him, I write this.

Some things, you learn to expect, growing up a girl.

You expect to confront harrassment as surely as the sun in May and the fog in a Delhi December.

When you leave the house, an invisible snake of alert suspicion will wind down from your shoulders down your back and become a clenched fist in all public spaces, through all journeys.

How optimistic you're feeling about man-kind, on any given day, determines whether you take a bus home, or just hop into an auto, or a cab, knowing you cannot really afford it. If you really cannot afford an auto some day, you will not take the bus at rush-hour.
You'll let bus after bus after bus go past. Waiting is tiresome. But waiting is easier than bristling.

You didn't always expect to do this, of course. One learns these things, by and by.

I began learning in Bombay. Yes, that delightfully sprawling city that is so kind to its women.
My first lesson was delivered atop the railway bridge at Andheri station when I was 13 years old. My first visit to this city by the sea. The first brush with the overspilling local trains. The first time someone grabbed my 13-year old breast.

After all these years, I cannot forget - his face pudgy, more fair than dark, moustache, white shirt, briefcase in hand, big belly, must have been about 40. Old enough to be my father. I remember he had walked into me - or pretended to - and while I struggled with the shock of what he'd been doing under the guise of walking into me, he calmly walked away... Just a regular uncle-ji hurrying home after a hard day at work.

What did I do?


Nothing. I kept walking, alongside my brother.... My 17-year old brother who might have picked a fight if I'd told him.... What could I have told him?... 



It was too late anyway. The crowds had swallowed all of us so completely.

Some things, you learn to expect (though relief is always unexpected).

Therefore, you will be very pleasantly surprised when a man takes the seat next to you, and actually leaves two inches breathing space between you, instead of pushing so close that the windowpane leaves marks on your forearm.... All the same, old habits die hard, and you will spend the journey with a clenched fist balled up somewhere in your shoulderblades, because, you never know when he'll start acting up, do you?

You will also feel miserable when the well-behaved one gets down two stops before yours - it's too much to expect two well-behaved men sitting next to you on a single trip.

But no matter how much you steel yourself to it, sometimes, you will still get reduced to tears.

Seven years later, again in Bombay, after swearing to travel only in the ladies compartment of the local train, I learnt yet another lesson: some 'ladies' compartments turn into a free-for-all feel-up-jam-session after nine o'clock at night.

Suddenly, there were men's crotches pressing into my face, my knees and my shoulders. I stood up and fought my way to the door. Only to be surrounded by half a dozen men offering to 'get me out safely'. As the train stopped, half a dozen men got on, half a dozen got off. Trapped between them for a few seconds, I lost count of how many hands felt me up.

I cried tears of rage - if only that train hadn't moved away. I wanted badly to drag at least one of them off that train and smash his skull on the nearest railway track.


Some things, you get used to. Like rage.
Your ears will be whispered into, your behind will be touched. Songs will be sung...

You will learn to laugh. Humour is a great self-defence tool.

For instance, when a boy calls out 'good morning, madam' on a busy street crossing, I laugh it off.

When a boy follows me from my office everyday, offering to marry me, I laugh it off.

When silly men accost me on the streets and demand to 'make friendship', refusing to take 'no' for an answer, offer me lifts, I laugh it off.

When somebody calls me 'taazaa malaai', 'mirchi', 'badhiya maal', 'chhammak-chhallo', 'lassun-pyaaz' (yes, even that!), I shake my head and laugh it off.

Over the years, I even learnt to focus on the merits of the songs being sung/whistled, thinking about the musical tastes of the modern roadside romeo, instead of the intent behind the singing or whistling.

But when I am walking home at night and a car full of drunk men slows down, I cannot laugh. I can only seek relief in the other car coming down the road. If that car also turns out to be full of drunk men who also slow down near me... it is hard to keep up a sense of humour all the time.

Five years ago, once again in Bombay, I lost my humour and learnt not to NOT do anything. At Andheri station, again, for the first time, I used violence.

A man asked me 'how much?'.
I tried to walk past quickly.
He asked me a second time. 'How much?'
I took a step forward, then stepped backward, swung around, and threw a punch.
He looked very surprised and asked 'what did I do?'
I didn't stay to explain. That night, my fist was swollen. I'd never seriously hit anyone before.

The next time two times I punched men, it was at railway stations in Bombay. In both instances, I didn't hit out immediately. It was only when they persisted a second or third time, despite my obvious disinterest.

The third time was in Kathmandu, outside a movie hall. The man touched me three times before I finally lost it. He began by protesting - 'I didn't do anything' - and ended by saying 'sorry, sister'.
(Bless his poor sister, if he has one; I wouldn't want to be in her shoes.)


Some things, you learn. Some things are shaken and scolded into you. For example:

When walking, don't think. If you get lost in your own internal world, somebody or the other might misinterpret this as an invitation to grab some piece of you.

You stay alert. Not glaring at every passerby suspiciously can be interpreated as an invitation.

When walking, don't take quieter, narrower lanes which are more picturesque and less polluted. Those are pretty much reserved for the goonda-types and 'eve-teasers' of the city.

When walking past a parked car with the engine idling and man/men sitting inside it, step aside and put at least four feet between you and the car's doors ... don't you read the newspapers?

When lost, don't roll down the car windows all the way while asking for directions. Ask women and chowkidaars for directions, preferably.

Try not to park in basement parkings zone, if alone.

When in public - don't sing, don't smile, don't swing your arms, or your hips. It is better to wear a frown on the streets, along with mouth that looks like it can chew your head off, spewing some rather choice invective, if bothered.

Learn filthy abuse; use it.

When something is lost/stolen, don't go to the police station alone.

If propositioned in a dark, lonely spot, do not slap or insult. In a low, pleasant voice, say you're already engaged. If cornered in a really dark, really lonely spot, give him a fake name, fake phone number.

When accosted by a cop, tell him your dad/grandad/uncle is a senior cop.

If there are less than six people in a bus, don't get on. From Churchgate, at night, don't travel in Ladies first class. From Andheri, early in the morning, don't take the Ladies first class.

Don't hitchhike.

Don't sit alone by the sea for more than ten minutes.

Stop thinking about watching the sun rise over a field, all by yourself.

Stop thinking about long, leafy walks that lead nowhere.

Stop wondering how the streets looks at midnight, after a drizzle.

Stop... I don't know where, if, and how, this will stop. But I hope it does.


There is another aspect to this that I can't help thinking about: it creates a never-ending trap of dependence that many men resent equally.

We women depend - are taught to depend, are left with no option but to depend - on men for our safety and survival.

We can go out, but with 'ghar ke ladke' to take care of us. The brother, husband, father, cousin or boys known to the family will escort us - to a movie, to a mall, to a party. At best, you might be able to manage if you're a big group of girls. But how many times can you walk around as girl-gangs?

We learn, consciously and sub-consciously, that we cannot do anything alone. And if we do, we're going to have wage war every inch of the way.

That lesson is etched in so deep that conceiving of 'life' alone is...

No wonder you need men. No wonder you need marriage. No wonder you cling to the man, because how will you manage alone?
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