Tuesday, November 28, 2017

#nosgbv #LetterboxResistance: Two poems

#nosgbv Note to Self

"I write myself a note each day,
and I place it in my hat.
The wind comes by, the hat blows high
but that not the end of that
For ’round and ’round the world it goes
it lands here right behind myself,
I pick it up, and I read the note,
which is merely to remind myself
I’m Hans Christian Andersen,
Andersen, that’s me!" (Frank Loesser, c. 1952)

I heard this song in my teens, as part of an album of Danny Kaye songs, and have loved this idea of reminding oneself of who one is. Too much of our intrinsic self is altered by the world around us. Physical and sexual violence are not the only ways in which one can be diminished. One is also diminished and damaged by the ways of the world.

For instance, a crawling infant picks up an odd-shaped, bright colourd object lying within reach. She puts it in her mouth. Someone calls out, "Girls don't play with cars!" She does not know she's a girl, she does not know it's a car. It's handy. It's bright and attractive. It has an interesting shape and texture. It may have a good taste, or better yet, make for a good bite. But now we've begun to place limits on her curiosity. At fifteen, when she would rather play a game than read the news, we will reverse our instructions, and say to her, "You must show an interest in the world." In both instances, we will expect that curiosity to follow set patterns. She should show an interest in these questions and not those. With a little bit of luck (to borrow from another song), she will pay attention neither at eight months nor at fifteen years.

There is also our running commentary on physical appearance. Who the baby looks like; is the toddler tall for her age or not; does the boy have girlish eyelashes; is the girl too active for her own good--even little children are not spared. Puberty unleashes the worst in us. "Better take care of those pimples or you'll be scarred for life." "15 and still such a girlish voice?" And this before people move on to temperament and skill-sets--can she cook yet? why are you letting him choose a subject without job prospects? I want to say that we are changing, but I suspect that is still largely an affirmation. 

By the time we reach our 20s, what is left of that infant--blithely unaware of gender, curious about everything, accepting of everyone? Gone. Long gone. Doesn't matter. 

What matters is what is left within us. We are full of do's and don'ts, taboos and inhibitions. We convince ourselves of what we cannot do, for one reason or another. So many of us do not feel entitled to dream. We would like, very politely, a good job, a decent partner who is not too abusive and a good life. We would love more, love to have it all, but in our station, our dreams must be drawn within the borders of a limited space on the universal canvas. 

By the time we reach the middle years, it's hard to find ourselves--our truest selves, our best selves--in the middle of this mess of strictures and strings. And so today, as part of #LetterboxResistance, Prajnya's 16 Days Campaign activity of the day, I want to write myself a note--an aide-memoire. 

Dear Self,

Clear the clutter. 
Cut the crap.
Throw out the don't's.
Be ruthless with should's.
Sort out the do's,
and discard what you won't use.
Dust off the cobwebs
of duty and fear.

Find your true self,
bright, unafraid
and full of heart.
And hold on tight,
that's the hard part.
Through storms 
and fires and wars
that wage, stay still,
glow steady,
refuse to be caged.

From, Your Shadow.  

Monday, November 27, 2017

#nosgbv That feeble no

We have been talking about consent since yesterday, and the infamous 'feeble no' judgment has come up just once--maybe because we've really been talking basics.

But I want to reflect a little bit on the 'feeble no' that you know and I know is out there. It's the feeble no we teach our daughters to say so that when they visit someone and are asked, "Would you like some tea?" they know how to simper and say, "No, Aunty." It just needs to be loud enough to register as a polite answer. One level up and it would be too boisterous.

In workshops on sexual harassment, I hear that 'feeble no' all the time. I ask young women what they would do if someone propositioned them, and how they would communicate lack of assent. They reply, with the energy of a two-day old bouquet without fresh water, "No." That no. Then I make them repeat the 'no' with more and more energy and feeling till it brings the house down.

It's not their fault. They've been told to be seen and not heard. To be useful and not impose. To serve and to please without consideration for their own needs and feelings. To efface themselves.

Aunties and Uncles and Akkas and Dadas of all descriptions have felt free to pinch their cheeks in childhood and comment on their physical growth in adolescence. "Big girl you've become, aaah?" And then of course, "Come, give me a hug, I have a teddy bear for you." The girl that says 'no' audibly is the one who is a brat, a disgrace to her parents and watch out, will go nowhere in life thanks to her bad temperament.

That feeble no, carefully calibrated so as not to be heard, is the one that gets the most practice and praise all of one's life.

"Do you want another piece of dhokla?" No, thank you.
"Do you want to watch another channel?" No, thank you.
"Would you like some more tea?" I wouldn't mind. (Not, "I would love some!")
"I love you. I think you should go on a date with me." No. Please, no.

We tell girls that adding the word 'please' is wrong. That assailants hear the 'please' and nothing else. That they think it's the no-that-means-yes. 'Please' enfeebles 'no.'

There was that whole piece in the judgment about how educated women should be able to come up with more than a feeble 'no.' Agreed. The problem is educated women are also raised in a patriarchal society to be nice girls. And educated women are also afraid of assailants provoked to even greater violence. And educated women think, let me get away with the least physical injury.

I don't know. The truly mysterious element in the whole consent conversation is what goes on in an assailant's mind when he pushes past the push-back, the no, the attempted escape--to force himself. How do you not read the signals when someone does not want you near them, touching them, on them or in them? How self-obsessed do you have to be? How entitled?

And that's really what it is. Entitlement. Entitlement makes consent irrelevant.

"I love you. I think you should go on a date with me." No. Please, no.

It's not the 'no' that is feeble. It's the inner "But naturally!" in the assailant's mind that is too loud.


The distaste for 'no' runs very deep. We wanted to make a word-cloud graphic for the Twitter chat Prajnya had today on consent. Several attempts later, we realised that the various softwares we were trying were filtering out 'No' and 'Not' from the artwork. We figured out how to re-set the filters to get the image below. But... art imitates life?


As I write this almost-frivolous blogpost, Hadiya's right to choose has been dismissed as irrelevant. Rather than allowing her to pick where she wants to live and what she wants to do, she has been assigned a guardian. Women are too silly and emotional to choose and must be infantilised and protected. So not only are men entitled, but women are also less than human. How then can their assent or dissent matter to anyone?

And this is exactly why people feel free to make decisions for women--including whether they should have intercourse forced on them. They couldn't possibly be able to arrive at a preference on their own. And as for rights, those are for equal citizens.


The tone of these blogposts is a little flip, maybe, but I realise as the words tumble out that there is a clutted and overgrown forest inside my head, accumulated over the years of reading about these issues. I get to write and speak about them all the time but in sanitised, palatable and formal ways. Where does all the clutter and confusion and incoherent fury go--because, believe me, it is in there, dictating these words faster than my fingers can make them appear on this screen.... they must find a home in order for better ones to appear.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

#nosgbv Men, and the matter with including them

I want to write about men. 'Men and boys,' to be specific.

In the years we have been doing this gender violence awareness work, it has become quite a mantra to say, "Oh, we must include men and boys..." and I am always ambivalent. Today, Prajnya's event was a panel and discussion (I do mean that) on the theme 'Men Talk Consent' and so, given that writing a little bit to reflect on what we are doing, this would be apt today.


So why this ambivalence? After all, society will not progress if one part of it is kept behind, and that part cannot move forward unless everyone is on board with the idea. So yes, of course, men and boys matter.

I think I worry that patriarchal habits die hard. I worry about how well-trained we women are, even feminists, to take care of men that we may roll over and let them play, once we let them in. I worry about how much we worry about them. But, one by one...

Patriarchy looks after its own. That is how it has survived for yugas, not just centuries. So we say to men, you are the good guys, you are our allies, and we let them into the safe spaces we have carefully built. In their presence, we reproduce the politics of the world outside--of heterosexual sexual politics, of currying favour, of taking care, of pandering, of deference. We share our secrets because they are our allies. But does that empower them to dominate us further?

I worry about who we become when men are around. We become girls. We become mammas. We stop being the whirlwinds that will sweep aside injustice and iniquity.

I worry that we will let men in and then because they know everything, they will mansplain our lives to us, simplify feminism to binaries, organise the work-flow, make the money decisions, and run the movement--like the world we are trying to change.

I worry that feeling obliged to listen to how men feel about how we feel about ourselves will make us edit and dilute the very articulation that strengthens our resolve. When I am in a workshop and women ask--always the women--about the misuse of laws that are supposed to protect women, I want to say, "Men have a law that protects them. It's called patriarchy." Sometimes, if I am tired or hungry, I crabbily snap, "You know, I really don't worry about men." But usually I talk about the probability of abuse, the likelihood of wrong use... and I hate that. I worry that all our work time will be like that.

I worry that including men will make feminism about them. It is about them, too, but it is so hard for us to find any space where our voices are primary. I begrudge them that of which I have so little.

I worry about our tendency to praise and reward men for every small thing--from making beds to making feminist revolutions. Will we fall over ourselves trying to make the men feel important and special?

And then there is a strategic worry--in a cosy domestic feminist universe that admits male allies, those women who are paired with the allies will have strategic alliances, but what about gay women, trans women or single women? If men come in and take over feminist spaces, we will be left on the margins. Again.

Patriarchy is like that. You give a photo of an inch and it acquires the entire football field.


And so I overstate my case just a little (just a little).

Today, we had a panel of three men and a male moderator and an audience that was fifty percent male. And they were asked to speak about how adolescents learn about masculinity, about being men and about navigating the yes-no minefield. About consent. All of them talked about never having learned to talk about this--about not even having heard of consent till they were adults.

And as I listened to the conversation, I knew that we needed to take this much further. But for men to be able to talk about these issues, we really need to create safe spaces for them too--to say the wrong thing, to not be performing for women--and we need to bring them to the point where they can take the conversation about consent and connect it to a larger conversation about privilege and entitlement. They need to have the awkward and bumbling personal sharing that has sharpened feminist analysis. They need to find the words that feminist have been tap-tap-tap-tapping and waiting for them to learn. With the best hearts, men still have a long feminist journey to undertake before they can be fellow-travelers, leave alone allies.

But how do we get them into those spaces? Surely not through celebrity concerts and VIP-led programmes. For women's organisations, this is the puzzle. Whatever we design and set up, it bears the impress of our perspective and our agenda--just as the rest of the world reflects a patriarchal perspective and agenda. If we want men to journey on their own and arrive where we are, we cannot be plotting the route for them. Or can we? I don't know.


I guess we need male allies to reach men and boys, but can we keep them in their own quarter in our feminist safe-havens, unable to roam around and mix freely, dipping into this interesting confidence or that important decision-making conclave? Let's allow them to stay but show them their place. (See, I told you, patriarchy's lessons are hard to shake off! )


Full disclosure: I run a feminist organisation which has an all-woman Board, a mixed Advisory Panel and several male volunteers. I am also part of a feminist women's peace network which does not admit men, although they are invited to participate in some of our public programmes.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

#nosgbv The Power of Collective Campaigning

Today is International Day for Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women.

It is also the first day of the 16 Days of Activism to End Violence against Women, an initiative of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the US. Over the years, women's organisations, most of them feminist, have adopted this fortnight of activism and made it their own, sometimes conforming to the global theme, sometimes not. As those who read this blog may know, in Chennai, Prajnya (my organisation) does this with a full calendar that literally takes in every one of the 16 days.

We have been doing this since 2008 and today, our eight campaign begins.

What has changed since our first campaign? When we started out, in most places, we had to begin by describing how pervasive gender violence was. It cut across caste, community and class, and also actually, gender--if you embrace the idea of a spectrum of identities. Then, in 2012, the Delhi gang-rape changed that. More people were talking about violence against women, especially rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment. It became less difficult to convince middle class people that this was something that could happen to them or someone they knew. We extended our agenda to include legal information and bystander intervention on a more routine basis.

In 2017, I look around and even in Chennai, there are at least 5-6 other organisations doing something this fortnight. And I think: So is this time to get out of this game? To hand over the baton.

In many ways, our campaign is unusual--even if I say so myself. We have something going on everyday for 16 days, as exhausting as it is. We cover a range of gender violence issues, in various degrees of depth, and we reach out to a wide variety of audiences, through very different media. This year, 'consent,' sexual and reproductive health rights and violence against women in politics stand out in our calendar, but we also have a session on heteronormativity (as a kind of violence), two sessions on domestic and intimate partner violence and one consultation on workplace issues. There are arts programmes and there are policy-oriented discussions.

But given the cost to the organisation (we lose momentum on a lot of our routine work because this takes so much from us), I do wonder if it is worthwhile. If we do awareness work year-round, what does it matter whether we are part of the global campaign or not.

And then, we come back next year and do this all over again, and this is why.

The observance date--all observance dates--allow us a way to gain access to new audiences. We are able to say, "Do you know it is this UN date, and we would like to do a programme with you or for you?" There is a greater likelihood of hearing a positive response. The 16 Days expand that window considerably. We say, "This is a global campaign," and our ability to reach new people is vastly improved. Our partners (especially those outside the social sector) are able to say they were part of this observance.

Over the years, as more and more organisations have become part of this global calendar, the buzz is louder. Wherever you turn, someone is hosting an event, writing an op-ed or posting a video on gender violence. It is hard to pretend the issue doesn't exist. It is as if we are trying to break down a door and more and more shoulders are bringing their heft to it.

There is a sense of solidarity, as people make time from their own calendars to support each other's programmes. We co-create programmes and help each other out. We retweet each other and share each other's videos and posts. In all our diversity, we are one for a fortnight with a singular objective--to end sexual and gender-based violence. As the campaign catches on beyond the women's movement and the UN--with institutions for instance, wanting to organise something--we can see the beginnings of a shift crystallise. When the 16 Days are referenced in people's conversations, we know this is working. It's the power of the collective. We work year-round, but this fortnight makes a difference.

And so we hang in there, using it to the best of our ability, year after year. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

#nosgbv Sounds of Silence

"And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share...
No one dare
disturb the sounds of silence."

I have been listening to this Simon and Garfunkel classic most of my life. But yesterday, as I listened during my evening walk, ahead of writing about the impossibility of speaking up about everything that happens, I was struck by how apt it was. "No one dare disturb the sounds of silence."

I too have been reading about the controversy over Padmavati, and have retweeted a couple of articles and posts I agree with, but have not said anything. Of course, I have views on this but I have not aired them, for many reasons. Today, I am wondering if they are reasons or excuses, and I have to conclude that maybe they are both.

You wake up in the morning and turn on any news source or pick up an old-fashioned newspaper, and there is a barrage of information that you can barely process. If you let one grab your attention and start to respond, you do little else in the day. And I tell myself, I run an organisation that works on gender violence awareness day in and out. Surely, my time is best spent doing my work. A hundred philosophical aphorisms support my view from Voltaire's 'Il faut cultiver son jardin' to a refrain of many Tamil spiritual teachers, 'Chumma iru.'

But someone threatens to behead a woman and I have nothing to say.... how do we reach that point?

It's not just the threat to an actress for doing her job. It is that entire flood of news, each item of which is devastating to someone's life and symptomatic of horrible, inhumane traits deeply embedded in our society. Like the incident my mother read about yesterday, where a five year old boy followed a girl of his age to the bathroom, forcibly pulled down her underwear and raped her by inserting a pencil up her vagina. What is the reaction you can have to something like that? My first thought is that he is learning this from the adults around him. Violent abuse is a widespread habit and normalized in many households. Who is doing this to whom within his line of vision?

And just where do you begin to fix such a horrible world?

Decades of hard work by the women's movement and the exigencies of filling up 24/7 news have brought us to a point when in a day, we hear not about one or two or even three incidents like this but several and then one or two are chosen for their dramatic values and replayed to us over and over. We tune out in order to function.

The result is that we normalize cruelty and inhumane behaviour over time. For instance, when Gauri Lankesh was killed, we had actually created enough room for people to say, "But you know these were her views." The point surely was, no matter what her views and your disagreement with them, it was wrong to kill or hurt her. But we have missed that point completely.

With Padmavati, we are debating historicity and freedom of expression and all of these are very important, but the bottomline is surely: since when have we come to accept violence as the normal language of disagreement between people? Since when is it normal for us to be distracted by relative trivia (was she real or not?) and governments to remain silent about physical threats? And then, if the government was to use my own logic, then it could arguably say, "If I took a position on everything that happened, who would introduce demonetisation or collect your garbage?"

When do we speak and when do we let something go? This is a really hard decision. This blogpost is not about my sharing an epiphany on this question but simply working my way through it by writing.

First of all, as I said, it is hard to react to everything that happens--one does not know everything that happens, one cannot be in responsive/reactive mode all the time, one wants to think things through... that said, when do I decide that it is time to say something? When does an issue feel critical enough that it is important for me to speak?

Second, do I have something constructive to add? Usually, no, and that is one reason I stay silent. My tweet or my blogspot would add nothing that is not already being said. On some issues, I stay out all through. On others, I voice my support by signing a petition that makes sense to me. On a few others, I say something by placing it in a broader context, historical or comparative, which is what I am trained to do. But then, in the face of escalating violence, is being selective important or should one just push back all the time?

I don't know much about most things that happen. I know a little but "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing," as many school autographs reminded me. Should I wait to learn, should I leave it to experts to lead or should I say, at this moment, it is the heft that counts--all hands to the deck, all voices into the chorus that must push back this silence.

Finally, we are quiet because we don't think it will make a difference what we say. This is the silence that breaks my heart. Where do we go from here? We abdicate our right to protest because we don't think it makes a difference. Governments--this one, any one--are not going to pay us any attention. We are schizophrenic about buying into everything the government tells us but not trusting that it will pay us any attention. Why are we investing so much in a government that we cannot hold to account? My mind says to me now, "Don't go down that road today. Don't digress." Yes, but it is also part of the problem, no? Citizens are quiet when citizens are helpless and when citizens secretly agree. I don't know which one scares me more.

There is the silence of the hive or of ants as they go about their work. And there is the silence of those that will not speak because they are in denial. Which one is mine? I am realising I have to ask this question every single moment of the day if my own silence is not to be read as tacit consent.

I genuinely don't know.

Postscript (added 25.11.17)

The best comments on the Padmavati question have come from this cartoonist:


Thursday, November 23, 2017

#nosgbv Giving thanks in a season of #metoo

With this post, I am setting myself the task of blogging everyday about sexual and gender-based violence from now until at least the end of the 16 Days of Activism to end VAW season--which, for us at Prajnya, ends mid-December. I am committing to writing--not to anyone style, so some of this is going to be fact, some fiction, I am guessing.

I will tag all these posts #nosgbv.


Today is Thanksgiving in the US, arguably the most important American holiday and for academics, a moment of relief at the break-point of a semester when you can catch up on reading or term paper research.

It's been an autumn in which many male icons have fallen from their pedestals like the auburn leaves from northern trees. And women around the world have said, #metoo. None of us has escaped the touch of sexual and gender-based violence.

And yet.

The oft-touted statistic is that one in three women have experienced abuse in their lifetime. The universality of #metoo suggests that the number may be higher--two in three or even three out of three. I suspect that many women and girls simply don't code their experience as violence and therefore, don't talk or report. It's life as they know it.

But just for this moment, I want to think about those who have not experienced violence and express the profound gratitude in those hearts. I want to express gratitude for the violence we escaped.

Thank you for shielding me from all the violence I have not experienced.

Thank you for helping me realise why women pray so hard for good relationships and marriages, but sparing me experiential learning.

Thank you for that time I went into the office building alone on a weekend, did my work and came back, unscathed.

Thank you for the foremothers and forefathers whose struggle and advocacy put in place conventions and laws designed to give me access to justice.

Thank you for every journey on which the man in the next seat has kept to himself and not "accidentally" groped me.

Thank you that the liftman did not flash himself before me alone in the lift, returning from school. And thank you that the librarian did not accost me in the stacks.

Thank you for the times I was too innocent and ignorant to be fearful of what might happen to me, for that moment of blind faith that made a learning experience possible. And for preserving that innocence by keeping me safe.

Thank you for the unknown women--sisters--who form a buddy system for each other on trains and buses and aircraft. And elsewhere in the world. Thank you for solidarity and caring.

Thank you for the times when I put myself in danger and you quietly took me out.

Thank you for lifting my colleague's hand from my knee before a nudge became a caress I did not want.

Thank you for making sure that although #metoo, it was not as bad as it could have been. Thank you for the realisation that I can survive and help those who had it worse.

Thank you for the dates that ended as I wanted and from which I returned fully conscious.

Thank you for sparing me displacement, exploitation and the personal experience of collective violence.

Thank you for the late evening interview where we stayed on our sides of the desk and from which I walked back in the dark of a dangerous city, safe.

Thank you because I escaped that abusive relationship.

Thank you for putting kind and gentle people in my life.

Thank you for the privilege--that I feel guilty about but that shelters me from countless kinds of oppression and abuse.

Thank you for the fathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and in-laws that did not abuse my trust.

Thank you for every cutting word you stopped from exiting my mouth. Thank you for every impulse to help. Thank you for keeping me from hurting others or committing violence.

And I know this is selfish, but thank you for making me the one person that the lecherous supervisor did not hit on.

Thank you for sparing me all the bad things that could have happened, even more than I smart from the ones that did.

Whoever, whatever is responsible for my good fortune, thank you a million times over. Thank you for the sheer random, dumb luck of being safe.

Next year, please spare everyone else too--the weak, the meek, the unorganised, the scattered, the scared, the silent, the dispossessed, the abandoned--and spare those who are not these things, but still do not escape. They did nothing to deserve this (no one ever does). I thank you in advance for your consideration.

I also thank you in advance for the sensitivity and awareness that all of us will develop this year. I thank you in advance for the pandemic of kindness and non-violence for which I pray.

Really, just thank you.