Women and Family Honour

Two stories have erupted in the Indian media over the last month, both to do with young people, love and parental opposition. The first ended in tragedy, with investigation stil continuing into whether Rizwanur Rahman was murdered by his wife’s father (or arranged to have been murdered). Shocking ofcourse was the fact that the West Bengal police actively colluded in trying to separate the couple, on the grounds that they came from very different backgrounds. The second case, has a happier outcome, atleast till now – with Telegu film megastar Chiranjeevi’s daughter Sreeja leaving home to marry her boyfriend. Scary though, that she felt she had to seek police protection against her family, as she feared that they would meet the same end as Rizwanur-Priyanka.

Technically, Indian law is very clear on this – the legal marriageable age for women is 18 and 21 for men, and absolutely no statute exists that forbids people above this age to marry each other. (Well, atleast if one is male and the other is female, since Indian laws are still Victorian when it comes to homosexuality.) In practice though, as both these cases show, there is a wide gulf between law and public mentality.

Many people still view children as “property” or as some sort of owned goods who must repay parents for their good upbringing. Further instead of looking at people as individuals, there is a tendency to look at them as representatives of their families and families honour. Especially when it comes to women, their behaviour is seen as reflecting on the family’s honour. Hence, the number of insane websites where once can see Chiranjeevi fans berating Sreeja for “bringing down” Chiranjeevi’s name. (No, I am not linking to that rubbish!) Its not that sons are absolved of such expectations. Except that traditionally, society allows men a lot more leeway by giving them employment opportunities and chances to physically escape from the family network. For women, until very recently, such escape wasn’t possible, and even now, for many, it isn’t. The standards of behaviour for women are also so much higher that its easier to find fault. Things which are excusable in a son, for instance, are often not in a daughter. One hears of many families who are fine or atleast ok with sons drinking, but would be scandalised if a daughter did.

These things are slowly changing, and the tremendous public support for Rizwanur’s family and his case, is heartening. But sometimes, the change of pace is just so dishearteningly slow and the consequences so terrible.

Theory and Reality

Pamela Slim, of Escape from Cubicle Nation, has this lovely post on Theory versus Reality, and while she talks about it in the context of business, really, it can apply to just about any aspect of life. How often do we get into something with an idealized version of what it would be like, and then jump in headlong, only to start the firefighting right away. Sometimes, its idealism, sometimes its just wanting something so hard that we imagine it exists! Even veterans can’t help committing these mistakes, but ofcourse, we can try to deal with them better!

The 46th Carnival of Feminists

After a bit of a gap from the last one, the 46th Carnival of Feminists is here, as always, celebrating feminist writing (not necessarily only women’s) from around the world. Hosting the Carnival is lovely, first of all, because it led me to so many blogs that I didn’t know of, previously. I suppose it reflects the way blogging is today, that the bulk of entries came from UK and US bloggers. Language issues eliminate the large section of people blogging in languages such as Mandarin, Japanese, German or French. Nevertheless, given the limitations, I’ve tried my best to be as inclusive as possible. For ease of reading, I’m dividing this up into a few sections dealing with different things.

Section One, is posts to do with Feminist Theory, where, I don’t mean theory in the strict sense (not being an academic!), but posts that deal with issues relating to women, the underlying theories of behaviour, factors, solutions…

1. Is Reading Cosmo sexist – Joseph Orosco’s post on women participating in objectification/ perpetuation of stereotypes about themselves.

2. Greta Christina writes on the increasing amount of dominant-male-submissive-female porn that she is seeing, enjoyed by both men and women. She uses this to construct some very interesting arguments on how a fantasy about prescribed roles can sometimes be an escape from the constant struggle to reverse those roles, in reality!

3. GrrlScientist goes in search of her rhetorical penis, as she wonders what caused The Scientist to exclude (well read) female science bloggers from their list of “top” science bloggers. In true scientific fashion, she postulates a number of hypotheses, though the answers are not that easily found.

4. Another Science blogger, Dr. Signout offers some theories on what makes people so uncomfortable around breastfeeding women.

5. Alex Remy at Writing Evolution has a very logically built up piece on why she supports the right to abortion and why pro-choice advocates need to do more to counter myths and fallacious arguments.

6. Deborah from In a Strange Land analyses coverage of a research paper which suggested that women’s happiness is not as high as it should be, and wonders why people were so quick to include the Feminist movement as one of the likely causes.

7. Bridget Crawford at Feminist Law Profs dissects some popularly held beliefs including that feminists of different times don’t understand each other, and that young feminists have abandoned the law as a means of change.

8. The Hoyden about Town tears up a paper that seemingly applauds feminism, but then, only ‘because its not all lesbians, and does have attractive women, you know’.

9. Lina @ The Uncool Blog talks about “grey rape” cases and makes a case for giving these a name, that allows the victims to talk about them, even if they don’t recognize it as rape. (as commonly understood).

In Section Two, I bunged in pieces that deal with specific events, programs, actions and relating to activism as well.

1. Cara at The Curvature talks about a case where parents tried to force a young woman into having an abortion – and while this may end up becoming fodder for anti-choice supporters, it really goes to show that control over women’s bodies is wrong, in any form it takes.

2. Matttbastard has a really detailed piece on how previous attempts to provide a more equal space for women in Zimbabwean politics, are being unraveled.

3. Ann Bartow at Feminist Law Profs discusses the single-sex schooling experiments underway in some American states, whether they indeed foster better learning or simply reinforce gender stereotypes. She also provides links to other resources on these.

4. Blue Milk has a very simply worded but really thoughtful post on a recent bill introduced by Australian senator Natasha Stott Despoja, to provide paid maternity leave.

5. Sabrin Chowdhury at Adhunika, A Bangladeshi women’s blog discusses the domestic violence below the surface, the cases of South Asian women in the US who may never speak up and never be heard.

6. The Blog Document the Silence wants to raise support for more action against crimes being perpetuated on women of color in the US.

7. Jason at Gorilla Sushi writes to talk about his support for a local Planned Parenthood Clinic, and this is interesting – even though he defines himself as being against abortion.

8. In a related post, Holly at Menstrual Poetry gives a highly factual and balanced view of what Planned Parenthood clinics actually do, as opposed to the blindly held view by many that they exist solely to perform abortions.

9. Debs at FeministFire writes on the domestic abuse help programme in the UK which is well meaning and does offer help to affected women, but perhaps not enough.

10. While civil rights activist Aung San Suu Kyi is well known, Kyaw Zwa Moe highlights the contribution of various ordinary women to the pro-democracy movement in Burma, often at very high cost to their lives.

11. Jaymi at the Feminist Pulse has a lovely interview with Erin Weed, founder of Girls Fight Back, an organizations that helps women to counter violence.

12. Payal Saksena at Ultraviolet, an Indian Feminist Colla-blog, writes on the new Domestic Violence law in India and how it could bring about change.

Section Three deals with popular culture and media, including blogging.

1. Louise has an alternative view on Tarantino’s Death Proof, where she cogently argues why its not necessarily misogynist even if it shows violence against women.

2. The indomitable Tamil Punkster takes on all those cretins who troll feminist blogs and leave mindless comments

3. The Plain(s)Feminist talks about why its disgusting to be calling Britney Spears fat, and what it says about the name callers themselves.

4. Chelsey Clammer review’s Nima Naghibi’s ‘Rethinking Global Sisterhood’, a book on the relationships between Western and Iranian feminists, that examines how Iranian women have been appropriated for the ends of other factions, be it Islamists or Western feminists.

5. Kate Smurthwaite dashes any pretensions Dove may have of saving the world, with its campaigns for “real beauty”.

6. Kestrell compiles a list of 100 feminist and queer movies, book and personalities.

The last one, Section Four, deals with personal experiences that bloggers have written about, relevant to feminist issues.

1. Emily has a story about her grandmother, and goes on to talk about pregnancy and childbirth related deaths around the world.

2. Roy answers a reader’s question on what’s in it for him in being a male feminist.

3. The Saudi Stepford wife has a lightly-written yet heartbreaking post on why even though her own personal circumstances may be good, any woman in Saudi Arabia could end up being just chattel.

4. Bombay Dost talks about a small act of standing up to harassment, which makes her feel wonderful.

5. And here, I also place my post on worshipping the Goddess, a festival of great importance to me (and millions of other Indians…)

Researching pieces for this Carnival certainly showed me how much of good writing there is from various perspectives. And while not everything is well yet, the efforts of women and men from around the world, to change things, either in their own lives, or in the communities around them, was so heartening. I hope all the visitors to the Carnival had an equally good time reading. Thank you!

Submissions for Carnival

(This is a sticky post and will stay here till the 24th. Regular posting continues below.)

I am going to be hosting the next Carnival of Feminists (Yaaaayyy! I am so thrilled to be doing it). Please therefore do submit posts (either your own or something that you’ve come across) that fits the theme of the carnival. I don’t have a specific theme for this issue, but as always, the piece must concern itself with some aspect of women’s lives. Original pieces only, not pieces just pointing to links. Also, recent posts, which means work that has happened post the last Carnival

If you need more information on what sort of writing is usually included, the Carnival of Feminists page has all the details. Where in doubt however, do send, no harm in that!

How do you send in entries?
Well, use the submission form or email me the link at aputhebird AT yahoo DOT com.

By when does the Carnival go up?
I plan to upload by the 24th Oct, Wednesday, Indian Standard Time (IST). Since IST is about 9-12 hours ahead of various US times, and about 4-8 hours ahead of various European times, I will wait until late evening on the 24th. Other Asian countries + Australia shouldn’t be a problem, since these are ahead of India anyways.

So folks, please go ahead and help me put up one lovely Carnival!

Worshipping the Goddess

Last Sunday was Vijaya Dashami, the tenth day of celebration after the Navaratris. And what exactly do we celeberate? Well, in the South, its the victory of the Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura who was terrorising the world. North Indians may hail Dussehra as the victory of Rama over Ravana, but in the South and the East, its the Devi who holds sway.

As a child, Navaratri (or Dussehra) was always one of my favourite festivals. I loved it for the Golu that came up every year – the festival of dolls, lovingly arranged on makeshift steps, and rolled up carefully in old soft cloth and put away, until the next year’s Golu. I loved it for the school holidays which were arranged to coincide with the celebrations. I loved it for the payasams my mother made, one for each of the nine days of prayer that Navaratri is. I loved the careful allocation of worship – Navaratri has nine days of festivity, my mother used to tell me, because we give three days to Lakshmi, three days to Saraswati and three to Durga. But most of all, I loved Navaratri because, it is a women’s festival.

For many of us who grew up in the seventies or eighties, even if you came from a reasonably liberal family, there would always be something that you couldn’t do, because you are not a boy. Some idiot who would commiserate with your parents because they didn’t have any boys. Someone who suggested that my dad (who had a perfectly valid reason), would have made it to my first birthday, if I had been a boy. Enough people who proposed that you study to be a teacher, not because it is interesting or worthwhile, but because it is a career a woman can have and get back at 3 0 clock.

So while my family is fairly liberal and never really prevented me from doing anything significant on account of gender, these little barbs still hurt. Navaratri then, was a huge dose of specialness being handed out on a platter. During Navaratri, whether or not anyone else had new clothes, the girls in each family did. Because Navaratri is a celebration of the Goddess, for these nine days, its mainly women who participated in the festivities, who arranged the golu, who visited the neighbours and got to eat delicious sundal and payasam. Girls got to dress up in their finest clothes each day. We were told repeatedly that the festival was for Us.

Also, worshipping these Goddesses made me feel good too. While Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga (Shakti) are the spouses of the trinity, Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva respectively, they are worshipped not as adjunct goddesses, but as powers in their own right. Lakshmi, the goddess of Wealth, Saraswati, the goddess of Learning and Durga, the goddess of Strength – these three cover pretty much everything one needs to live! A festival that glorifies them feels so close to my heart.

Today I see many boys taking a keen interest in the festivities, and in a few generations Navaratri may no longer be a girls-only function, it may just be a girls-first thing. I don’t regret it though. By then perhaps both genders will be much more open to sharing things traditionally meant only for one.

Lagaa Chunari Mein Daag : Prostitution & Purity

Is prostitution as justifiable a means of earning one’s income as any other? Or is it the loss of ‘honour’, a loss that can never be reclaimed? I saw the latest Rani Mukherjee-Konkona Sen blockbuster, ‘Lagaa Chunari mein daag’ yesterday, and came away with the impression that it tries to address both possibilities without really making up its mind in the end. (Some spoilers may follow)

The plot is simple. Two sisters, a cultured family in Benares, fallen on bad times. Elder sister (Rani Mukherjee playing ‘Vibha’) makes it to the big bad world of Mumbai, and other avenues failing, ends up as an “escort”, making big money and paying up for reversing the family’s fortunes.

This is Bollywood ofcourse, where even poverty is picture perfect, so how could prostitution be any different? I would actually not be too harsh on this, though other reviewers have been scathing about the film’s rose-tinted depiction of prostitution. Yes, Vibha is shown rolling in money, she visits her clients at high end hotels, they even escort her back to her car politely and she wears Manish Malhotra saris. There is no soliciting on dark roads here, no abuse from drunk clients, no bargaining over rates. But then, one doesn’t really expect a Bollywood movie to get into these things.

For starters, what was interesting was that Vibha chooses this route. Even in the first instance, where she gets duped by a man offering her a job in return for sex, she still chooses to spend the night with him, she doesn’t choose to walk away and look for another job the next day. This itself is a bit of a first in Bollywood – how can the virtuous heroine possibly choose to trade her body for favours?

There are as many feminist positions on prostitution today as there are definitions of feminism itself. Personally I feel prostitution in itself need not be considered any more evil than other trades. We sell our minds everyday, don’t we, when we work for someone else? Why then should an individual not sell his or her body? In reality, ofcourse, at its best, prostitution reflects the imbalance of a world where women sell and men buy, because women are prized for their bodies (read glamour/beauty) more than anything else. At its worst, its often a sordid world of coerced sex and organised crime, notwithstanding the few Vibhas or Belle de Jour’s.

The movie decided not to concern itself with these issues. However, one must give it credit for portraying prostitutes (even though of the high end variety) as worthwhile human beings like everyone else. The heroine does feel terrible guilt for taking up such a course of work, but then, would a small town Indian girl really not feel sullied with such work however glamorous it may be? To that extent, I thought Vibha’s reactions to “losing her purity” were understandable, even if we, the enlightened audience, wish that virginity were not equated with purity.

While the heroine feels “impure”, the reactions of the family was the most interesting bit of the movie for me. The mother (Jaya Bachchan) was a bit of a shocker – she tacitly allows the daughter to continue working in this manner, despite her conservativeness. In that sense, she is perhaps the most hypocritical character in the movie – she cannot help judging her daughter for her fall from grace, at the same time, the money is most useful and she will not refuse it. But this again is not unheard of in real life. And probably more realistic than any number of other similar movies where the prostitute is cast out by her own family for her ‘shameful’ activities, even if these have fed the family. The completely supportive attitude of the other family members when they come to know of her work, was a relief.

Finally, it was good to learn that Bollywood can even deviate from the classic formula, where the only acceptable end for a prostitute was death or eternal loneliness. Here Vibha finds companionship in a man who loves her knowing fully well her occupation. This is probably a first for a mainstream movie. While salvation still has to come in the form of a man, atleast the ending did not preclude ‘normalcy’. To that extent, it is a breaking down of barriers where the prostitute and the ‘pure’ were parallel lines moving into infinity, their destinies having no point of intersection.

(For an alternative scathing review, read Anindita Sengupta’s piece at UltraViolet; Theoretically I agree with a lot of what she says, but then, she doesn’t take the conventions of a Bollywood movie into account, whereas I would say that the movie does a decent job, within those confines. Its not the most insightful look at prostitution, but it is a step foward.)

Women, Belonging, Ownership

When I was much younger, I used to enjoy reading Richard Bach. Today I find a lot of his writing too sentimental, pompous and sometimes even naive, but one of his books, The Bridge Across Forever, made a point which I appreciate even more with time. It talks about relationships in which people grow together, rather than away from each other. And in these relationships, he compares both people to balloons, free to go up on their own, not weighted down by love, but empowered by it.

The reason I was thinking about this was, how in a lot of cases, relationships are really not bonds of mutual trust or love, but bonds of ownership. While possessiveness can be a trait of either gender, our society perhaps acknowledges it as ‘right’ in a man over ‘his’ woman. Which is why, ofcourse, until recently, marital rape was not considered a crime in India. Women ‘belong’ to their men. This is why many men, , will find nothing objectionable about harassing a random woman on the streets – they are not ‘bound’ to protect her, the laws of common decency don’t apply.

Many of our movies portray this, overtly, or subconsciously. One of my biggest problems with the blockbuster Kal Ho Na Ho, is that SRK’s character simply “decides” that the girl he loves needs a better future than what she can have with him. This is not about sacrifice. This is about assuming that the girl cannot be trusted to decide for herself. The men in her life must make the best choices for her, even if this means lying to her so that she changes her mind and decides to go in for another man. (who has been suitably vetted by SRK ofcourse).

However well meaning such decision making may be (he just wants her to be happy, isn’t it), they have no place in a truly adult relationship. The concept of ‘belonging’ intrudes into our lives in many other ways. In many communities, married women wear sindoor, wear a mangalsutra, or special bangles, like the Bengali shakha-pola. One is really forced to ask, where are the equivalents for men? The answer is ofcourse, that men don’t need to show their belonging. Since they are the owners. Women on the other hand, need to be marked out as already belonging to someone, so that they are not approached again. (In practice ofcourse, married women are harassed as much on the street, since the sickos who harass, are not that discriminating).

Belonging also means that women become part of another family, the starting point being, moving into the husband’s household. Today this is not a given, in many urban families. But not all women have these options. And a woman who wants to live independently with her spouse, will often be branded as breaking the family. As I mentioned before, the joint family did have some advantages. But coming from a three-daughter household, the injustice of a patriarchal set up strikes me acutely, and not just in a theoretical manner. If our Indian system places such a premium on caring for one’s parents, how come girls’ parents are left out? Its a short step then, to preferring boys who will care for you in your old age. Thankfully, there is more space for negotiation now, as opposed to the earlier “compromise”, a word I hate. (Having heard it enough as a sort of ‘mantra for young women getting married’)

In such a situation, there really can’t be any balloons floating up. I’d like to think that atleast us urban, affluent types are no longer in such a situation. But while we may have a lot of freedoms that our mothers and grandmothers didn’t, unless we can still belong* to ourselves post marriage, there is a long road towards equality.

*I use the word belong in the sense of have and assume responsibility for our own decisions.