Women and Religion

Readers must have been following the case of the Saudi rape victim who was, in a perversion of justice, sentenced to 200 lashes for being in a car with a man not related to her, when the rape occurred. She was sentenced to 200 lashes? Yes, you heard that right. Since Saudi law prohibits women (and men) from interacting with unrelated members of the opposite sex, she was considered a law breaker herself, not a victim, and sentenced to 90 lashes. Which was then, increased to 200 as a punishment for publicising it in the media.

Now it appears that King Abdullah, the current Saudi ruler, has pardoned the woman, while strenuously maintaining that the justice meted out was not unfair. Its just his prerogative you see, to pardon people, it doesn’t really mean anything.

I believe that almost all religions (or the customs through which they get defined) are oppressive to women. But where the state actively colludes to enforce this oppression, there is little hope except in the form of such knee jerk reactions.

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Do we still need to talk about Feminism?

Tamizh readers who pop over to Lakshmi’s blog, Malarvanam will find themselves moved by this piece titled Do we still need to talk about Feminism? I was certainly much troubled by this piece which focuses on the dark side, and indeed shame, of the state of Tamil Nadu – female infanticide. Since the majority of readers, I assume, cannot read Tamizh, I will mention here in translation, some of the issues she has spoken about so eloquently.

Female infanticide has for been long prevalent in Tamil Nadu (TN), especially in some districts, for various cultural reasons. The most significant one ofcourse being that girls are required to carry a hefty dowry with them when they get married, a dowry so heavy indeed, that it can break the backs of most working class and middle class parents. In this situation, families try to put away the cause of trouble as soon as she is born. Coupled with the traditional belief that a boy is needed to light the funeral pyre to send one’s soul on its way, and the feeling that boys will take care of one in old age, girls have very little chance indeed.

Lakshmi’s piece starts with the case of one Ravi, from Dharmapuri district, who already has a male child, yet, when his third child turns out to be a girl, kills her and justifies it in this manner, “I already need to repay a lot of loans. In this situation, I thought how would I bring up this girl too, so I killed her.” Further, the magazine Junior Vigatan that she picks up this story from also has an interview with an organisation called Podhigai, working on the ground to combat this heinious practice. Lata, one of the leaders at Podhigai confirms that the practice is really far from over, and that there are many cases that do not come into the public eye.

Lakshmi also quotes the Social Welfare Officer of the Dharmapuri district, Sailakshmi, who mentions that “…The situation has improved. This is the first such incident since I have taken charge. Otherwise, in most cases, if there is a girl child born, they will drop it off in the Cradle Babies Scheme…”

The Cradle Baby scheme was a well meaning scheme started up by the TN government many years ago, when the issue of female infanticide was brought to light. While the scheme has had its successes, and atleast it prevents some girls from being killed who otherwise would have been, it is not a solution for infanticide itself. As Lakshmi says, “They avoid the sin of killing their infants, and instead, leave them with the cradle baby scheme – as orphans.”

Lakshmi left me much disturbed. While I have heard often before of the female infanticide happening in parts of TN, I was somehow under the impression that the practice is dying down. On the other hand, it seems like a very slow road indeed. Nowhere are we close to a situation where girls are genuinely viewed as equals and as assets to the family. Instead, people move into more and more devious ways of maintaining their prejudices. Can’t kill them? The police have become too watchful? Ok, never mind, lets abandon them. Even easier, kill them while they are in the womb itself. While Indian laws allow the freedom of abortion without any other conditions – they do have one condition keeping in mind the gender prejudices of Indian society. Sex determination is infact outlawed for this reason – that gender does not become a criterion for abortion. In practice, many unscrupulous doctors have no hesitation in performing this test and telling parents what sex the child is – so that they can decide, whether it can be ‘allowed’ to live.

Makes you want to throw up, doesn’t it? But what can we do about it? I felt close to tears when I read Lakshmi’s powerfully written piece, hard to reproduce here. While many organisations are working to combat these, this is not about girls alone. Unless we have enough Indian men who will stand up and say that they will not take any sort of dowry, girls are likely to continue being seen as a burden. (And no, dowry is not restricted to the uneducated poor, in case anyone has such notions). In a patriarchal society, unless both halves change, there is no hope of our girls seeing the light of day.

The Comeback Post, And Human Fodder for Advertising

For the last month or so, I have been in a true blue blogging funk. I can’t put my finger on the exact reason, but strangely I just didn’t feel upto posting. Partly I think its because I started blogging initially as a fun activity and now, especially with wordpress, I feel I am getting too much into this circus – blog stats, views, ratings, technorati etc etc. Ofcourse I know I can choose not to, and a lot of the time, I feel I’m much less bothered about it than others I know. Still. Somewhere the original reason for blogging seemed to be moving away. Then, the weather here and the cold and cough it brings along, makes me feel disinclined to do anything more than the bare minimum.

Until. One of my favourite bloggers, Megha, piped in and rapped me smartly. (Well, blogically). “Ok, we are way past the ‘few days’. Come back now”. Thats what she says. Its about time I guess. I hope everyone else missed me too 🙂

Now, lets get started. Has anyone seen the latest Airtel corporate ad? Whats with ad folks? I don’t know how anything about the human condition can become fodder for advertising. Sure, ads are meant to relate to our lives and touch a chord. But is it really justifiable to use what looks like a refugee camp to wring out tears from your audience? For those who haven’t seen the ad, its about two boys on opposite sides of barbed wire, getting together to kick a ball. More tears are wrung out by one litte boy actually getting snagged under the wire for moments. The moment I saw this ad, I thought, what the hell, next will they be showing us two Abu Ghraib prisoners talking to each other? (Communicating, you know, which is what Airtel is all about).

I know the ad is somewhere meant to show the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and blah blah. But it somehow just doesn’t come out that way. The feel good phrase at the end doesn’t help – everything will be fine as long as we talk to each other. (Something on those lines). It just feels like some fairly big problems in the world are being belittled with this trite solution. What do you think?

Happy Deepavali!

This blog is going to be down for the next few days, while I enjoy my Deepavali (or Diwali) with family….So I thought I’d pop in here in advance to wish everyone a very Happy Deepavali, a lot of fun and much light in your lives.

Big Companies, Slow Moves

A couple of days ago, I came across some promotion for this new product from the Unilever stable, the Taj Mahal dessert teas. Since I was already walking out of the supermarket, I couldn’t go back in to check it out, but it set me thinking on why do big companies often enter new markets late?

Premium teas and flavored teas, have in the last couple of years, really picked up in the Indian market. I don’t really have any data to back this up, but the sheer variety that is available and the shelf space that is being dedicated to such teas, surely is some evidence. And this is happening not just at premium outlets or really large stores, but even at neighbourhood family run supermarkets. So there has to be a reasonable level of demand happening.

But Hindustan Lever (or Hindustan Unilever, as they are called now), one of the largest brand-owners in the Indian tea market, has really not set foot in this market, or not to a great extent. I recall seeing some cardamom and such flavours from them, but the exciting new flavours are all really being brought out by other brands. Earl Grey, Chamomile, Orange Blossom, Vanilla, Mint, English Breakfast – you name the flavour, and its available on Indian shelves now. The brands are usually Tetley, or Sri Lankan teas like Dilmah. The strange thing is none of these brands really had any significant presence in India until five years ago, and now they are the face of premium tea, while HLL which owned the tea category, keeps touting the same old Taj Mahal as its premium brand.

Which brings me back to my question – why do big companies often enter new markets late?

I think their very size handicaps them when they look at new markets. For a Rs. 1000 million sized brand, an opportunity that is Rs. 10 million worth, seems very small. The brand waits, and waits, until the opportunity becomes worthwhile. In the meanwhile, smaller brands with smaller ambitions start developing the market. Conventional marketing wisdom infact accepts this as a viable strategy where a big brand enters a market once it has grown to a certain size, and then proceeds to chew it up on account of sheer size and financial and distribution muscle. It could work; On the other hand, smaller brands do sometimes acquire a certain image especially in premium categories, and a late entrant could end up with some lost opportunities.

Any thoughts on this?

How does your company Interview – Part II

A long time ago, I did this post on how some companies interview people and the various biases they bring with them. Now Bombay Dosti has this interesting rejoinder from the other side of the table, and why some of those very practices may be valid in the Indian context. I don’t agree with all that she says, but she does make a mean argument, so go read!

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.