Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bedsheet and bigotry

Right now, I am wearing a skirt that my mother unflatteringly describes as a bedsheet.

My mother does not like me wearing bedsheets. She does not wear bedsheets herself. Through childhood, the one constant memory of her clothes comes to me wrapped in chiffon sarees in flowery prints and sleeveless blouses. And stilettos. Turtlenecks in winter.

And then, there is one other memory. Only once have I seen my mother wear a bedsheet.

It was a dark night, perhaps close to midnight, and we were piled into a tonga, from the railway station to the maternal-ancestral house in which I was born, and to which I had not returned since. I was half-asleep, though thrilled to be sitting in a tonga, when, to my surprise, my mother began to unpack a bag.

She pulled out a bedsheet and draped it round her head. By way of explanation, she told me that she did not wish to offend our hosts - the larger extended family.

Once we entered the house, I understood why. Back then, the house was still divided into 'zenana' and 'mardana' sections. Now, this word 'zenana' might conjure up visions of royalty, and a palatial section replete with special, fragrant swimming/bathing pools and jharokhas.

No such extravagance. This 'zenana' was simply that part of the house where 'outside' men were not permitted, and where women could lie about on a charpai, without a veil. When they stepped outside the house, they put on a burqa, or draped a thick, dupatta-like piece of cloth around themselves. A chadar.

My mother does not wear a chadar. But she loves her family, even those of the family who wear the veil and treat her with a mixture of affection and exasperation, for not conforming.

I do not wear a chadar and, to my immense relief, many of the women from the maternal-ancestral household have given it up. Yet, I cover my head in places where it is expected of me - in a dargah or a temple or a gurudwara. I do not do this because I think the demand is justified. I do this as a mark of respect to my hosts of the moment. After all, when you visit somebody else's house, you do not question their rules - if they say 'take off your slippers', you take them off; if they lay food on a dastarkhaan instead of a table, you sit down cross-legged, on the floor.

The trouble arises when people begin to insist that the rules of their house apply to public spaces. If, for instance, the priests began to insist that I cover my head on the streets, I would stop looking upon them as temporary spiritual hosts, and would be very suspicious of them.

On the other hand, how would you feel if you visited somebody's home, and this somebody insisted that you strip down to your underwear, because those are the rules of the house?

That is why this business of the chadar (chador/burqa/burkha/abaya/ hijaab/purdah/ghoonghat) is such a prickly one.

For, you see, I can easily imagine such a situation. After all, we are not allowed to step into swimming pools unless we wear a swimsuit. There could well be beaches (don't know of any, yet) where you are not allowed unless you're in beach-wear. There are clubs and lounges where you are not allowed in, unless you're in formal 'evening wear'. (I clearly recall one instance in Bombay where a journalist was thrown out of a pub for being in a salwar-kameez).

Do you find any of the above situations acceptable? For a society where these rules apply, would you use adjectives such as 'rigid' 'orthodox' 'ultra-conservative' and even 'oppressive'?

Why does the chadar provoke such extreme reactions, then?

To me, this is a very significant question. Partly because, and sadly because, the veil often comes as a package deal. It comes laden with a set of no-nos, with fear and disrespect for women's bodies and ambitions, and with a patriarchy-heavy culture. Not always, but often. Not always in Islamic nations; also in rural India where women are often punished for breaking free of the ghoonghat and stepping into the political-economic limelight.

I find myself recoiling from both ends of the extreme - the injunction to wear the veil, and the insistence on banning it.

On the one hand, I completely agree with the authorities in this sort of scenario, where, in brief -

A primary school teacher - a language teacher, in fact - wears the hijaab, masking the face, except for the eyes. Kids find it hard to understand what she's saying. The school authorities ask her to either give up the burqa or leave her job.

After all, a teacher's job is to teach and teach well. Besides, the burqa serves no purpose in the classroom (if it serves any purpose at all). If your religious beliefs prevent you from working properly, well... too bad. Make a choice.

On the other hand, there is this country that wants to ban all forms of hijaab, including the headscarf, as a move towards outlawing 'sectarian dress'.

This is silly.

Would you also ban hats? What about a fez? What about the cap the pope wears? What about scarves that are worn on the head but tied at the nape of the neck, like a bandana? What about bikinis? What about sarees? Are they sectarian? Are they cultural? Are they are a threat?

Can a woman in a bedsheet/tent be a threat to a nation?

For me, the veil, in any form, is a tricky issue. Not just because it indirectly makes women responsible for the potential crimes against them, not just because it violates my aesthetic sensibilities (though I have to confess, I was forced to reconsider after that photograph doing the forward rounds - the one with a row of women in black burqas, faces covered and legs bared... I can't find it; does anyone have it stored away somewhere?), but primarily because it is incumbent upon women.

I can understand the temptation to call for a ban, because, sometimes it seems as if that is the only way to protect women from a forced tent-ization, to divorce their clothes from their rights and duties.

Yet, I would like to reserve the right to wear a burqa, as and when I choose to.

Because I will NOT do anything you force me to do. I will NOT wear a bedsheet even if that's the only guise in which I am allowed to enter heaven, for I don't believe in a God who cannot bear to see his own creations uncovered. But nor will I NOT wear a bedsheet, just because you don't like it.

And if a woman with her head covered, frightens you, you probably have deep-rooted insecurities and need to see a shrink.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Five things feminism has done for me
(in response to Aishwarya's tag)

I've been trying, but how do I pin-point what feminism has done for me? Besides, there are kinds and kinds of feminists - which of them do I thank, for what? Perhaps, a better way of doing this would be to point out what life would have been like, if it were not for the feminists of the last century.

1] I would not have had the right to vote.

Like I have said (in this post, remembering the struggle for universal suffrage) equality is a long journey on a rough road. Today, I can vote because it is taken for granted that women have a stake in the politics of a nation. It was not always so. To be denied the vote is to be denied citizenship, to be denied the constitution, to be rendered powerless and voiceless in a democracy. I am grateful I was not denied all this.

2] I would not have realised that I have a choice - about everything.

Through childhood, my brother and I were treated the same. I never thought about feminism; it was never discussed and it was certainly not upheld as a virtue or a necessary part of our education.

My earliest recollection of feminism is a family member laughing about the 'bra-burning type'. I did not ask questions, but this little floating wisp of info stayed in my mind - that somewhere, somebody was burning her bra... why? Later, I began to wonder - What does it mean to wear, or not, a bra? What does it mean culturally, socially, intellectually?

I have yet to meet any woman who burnt a bra, even as a token gesture (they're too expensive). But feminism has shown us that we can, should we choose to. And if we choose to, feminists can explain what exactly we will be rejecting - not a piece of cloth with clasps, but an idea - about what a female body is supposed to accomplish.
(Recommended reading - Germaine Greer's The Madwoman's Underclothes)

Take something as simple as the right to be neither Miss or Mrs, to insist upon Ms - I would not have known that I had the choice, if it had not been for the feminists who have exercised that choice before me.

Similarly, it is feminist movements who have argued for abortion rights, contraceptive rights, etc. I feel much, much safer living in a country where I have these rights, legally. I would, for instance, not like to be in Nicaragua, right now.

3] I would not have known who I am, with whom I belong.

The first time I heard the word 'feminist' was when it was hurled at me like an accusation. Which prompted me to go look it up in the library and begin to read up about it. And then I knew - this was where I belonged. Amongst women who are not content to be the gentler sex, the second sex, the weaker sex, the anything-but-equal sex.

Feminism, to me, is an intellectual cave of refuge. Now, I wear the label like a badge of honour. In fact, I admit that I am impatient with women who are not feminists, and unforgiving towards men who are not.

4] I may never have gone to college.

College may not have given me much by way of (academic) knowledge, but it was fun, gave me a couple of lifelong (one hopes) friends, gave me ideas, and the space to find out what my talents were and how I was going to use them. Which led to still-higher education, which led to a job, which led to independence.

5] I would not have learnt to question religion, social norms, economic systems, political systems and my own beliefs.

Questioning is the first step towards freedom. It would have been easy to conform. But as I grew up, read books, argued, confronted this business of being a woman - our place in the world, the rules that bind us, the sacrifices demanded of us - I began asking questions. One question led to ten anothers. One theory led to ten others. When I began asking questions about one thing, I learnt to question everything else. I'm still asking.

I'm tagging -



Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Good essay

I entered my hostel and was given my room. Ten minutes later, I was on my knees with a leash around my neck....After so many years, I can list all these forms of ‘ragging’ dispassionately, but no one should be misled. Brutality and oppression remain just that, no matter the name used for them. Who were these seniors, and why did they humiliate us so?

From this excellent essay in Tehelka.

Not only did I find myself nodding in agreement, but found myself going down memory lane, and echoing the conclusion the author comes to -

I have never found any use for the education my seniors gave me.... Ragging is a case study for Freud, nothing more.

Do read the whole essay.

Noticed on recent trips undertaken by train

- There is something known as 'Tvarit' reservation, for certain Shatabdi trains.
Tvarit refers to last-minute reservations, as opposed to Tatkal, which means soon/immediate (?) and there is a counter for the same on that platform where the Shatabdi is supposed to arrive.
The counter, unfortunately, was unmanned, both the times I saw it.

- At some stations, there is a facility for charging mobile phones on the platform itself. There is a sort of pillor with plug points on it, with voltage mentioned alongside.

Good ideas, both. No clue if they work.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

Empower, unpower, empower

For a minute there, I felt powerful. For a minute, I thought, it would get sorted now.

Now that I am involved, have learnt to speak up, and have discovered a few tools that can out-intimidate the intimidators, I thought I was just about done with street sexual harassment.

I should have known better... All it takes is five seconds of letting your guard down.

Five seconds, when I step inside the kirane ki dukaan near my house, to buy milk. A man follows me into the shop, and pretends to be just another customer, looking for Archies' greeting cards (in a kirana shop!). I leave, and as I open the gate to my place, the man stops me. Offers to 'make friendship'.

I have heard this so many times, and have responded to it in so many ways that I would have laughed outright. If it was not for the fact that I was suddenly frightened. By the knowledge that the man had probably been following me for some time without my noticing, that he now knew where I lived and that I was alone at home.

I say 'no thank you'.

He does not leave. He says 'don't misunderstand... genuine friendship, I promise'.

I tell him that I have many genuine friends and don't want any more. I ask him to leave. I say 'please'.

He does not leave.

I am reluctant to climb the stairs and open the lock until he has left.

He tries to give me a phone number.

I do not take it. He does not leave.

Finally, I have to turn away, run upstairs and lock all three doors behind me until I reach the top and can peer down to ensure that he has left.

Five seconds on the bus, when I am on the phone with my mother, and thus, have forgotten to stay alert and look aggressive.

The man sitting next to me has placed his hand on my thigh. At first, so lightly that I don't notice. When I do, I turn to look at him, aghast. I am so surprised, that for a full five seconds, I cannot find my voice.

And then, all I can think of saying is - "Ye kya kar rahe ho?" (What are you doing?)

He withdraws his hand with a sudden, quick movement and looks out of the window.

The rage is slow to arrive, for some reason. But while I get steadily angrier by the fractioned second, I notice what a pitiful picture the man cuts - he is a mouse of a man; a trapped rat of a man... if I wanted to, this minute, I could beat him up. Not because I am stronger, but because he is such a coward and I am so angry. All I can feel is contempt.

I say "Get up and get out. Right now!"

He gets up immediately, mumbles something about having to get off anyway, and gets off at the next stop.

The humiliation is his, but minutes afterwards, I continue to simmer. Others have noticed this little exchange of words and some men are turning to stare at me. I stare back at them and they quickly look away.

When I get home, I catch myself wanting to take a bath... And yet, something has changed. This time, my reaction is different from what it would have been two years ago. I did not hit the man. I did not scream. I did not panic. I did not feel the need to create a big scene. I was surprised, felt contempt and anger - I did not feel fear.

This, I realise now, is because of blank noise, partly. I have gotten used to dealing with the problem, talking about it, taking it to the very streets where we endure it... So used to it, that it seems incredible that somebody should actually dare to go on harassing me. A corner of my brain was wondering - 'What? Don't they know?'

And that is why getting involved was good for me.
Blank Noise is not just about getting men to lay off. It is also about empowering women to deal with men who will not keep their unwelcome hands off you. It is as much about dealing with women's fear of public spaces and strangers, as it is about dealing with sexually abusive/intimidating strangers

Which is why I encourage every woman I meet, especially college girls and young professionals, to get involved.

It is hard to get involved, I know. It is hard to make time for a battle that's everybody's battle; there are too many personal ones to fight. But hard though it is, it makes sense. For my own sake, for my sisters and for the women we will bring up, some day.

To show up, to do something - anything! - against sexual harassment in public spaces. Because these are my spaces too; and I can't let somebody alienate me from my own spaces simply because intimidating shit happens out there.
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