Thursday, December 21, 2017

#nosgbv Dignity and violence

Yesterday, a short video made its public appearance. It ostensibly showed the late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, J Jayalalithaa, as she lay in her hospital bed,  sipping juice and watching TV. Her clothes were in disarray, as ours get when we are relaxing, thinking we are alone.

This suggests that the video was shot without her knowledge, and shot by someone who did not care about her sense of dignity or her privacy. It was shot without her consent.

The video was meant,  we are told,  to convince voters that she was well taken care of and to tip the balance in favor of the Shashikala faction. In fact, it tells us that these were people who did not and do not care about JJ and what she would want. She was and is an instrument for them. But that is a different discussion.

Suppose this were not a hospitalized leader but a young woman changing clothes or a teenager in the shower. What would we call this video? There are penalties in the law for shooting photos and videos without consent. It is a violation of rights,  privacy and the law. A crime.

The law uses old fashioned language like 'outraging modesty'  and we are wont to smile. But what else is a video like this and who is going to file an FIR on behalf of a leader who fiercely guarded her privacy and public persona?

Last night, CNN India played the video over and over. What is the penalty for that?

We will not ask. We use and lose the leaders we claim to idolize. Like we do all other human beings.

If this is the fate of someone who was so powerful, what can the truly powerless expect? How meaningless are the memes that dominated 2017 for the elite? Consent? #metoo?

Where do we begin to change thinking about respecting each other, about rights, about borders, about privacy?

Monday, December 18, 2017

Mea culpa: I too have eaten dinner with Pakistanis

For over a week now, my conscience has been pushing me to write this mea culpa, for I too, have eaten dinner with Pakistanis. Yes, those same Pakistanis that Indian social media insists can never be innocent or trustworthy. Alas, I too am anti-national.

I have not just had dinner with Pakistanis, I have had breakfast, lunch, mid-morning coffee, afternoon tea, anytimeisteatime chai and late night green tea with them. And also, ice cream. I won't apologise, but I do confess.

The first Pakistanis I got to know, although they then were too far away to share any meal, were my Pakistani brother and his family. I did not eat with them until 1985, but I did send the occasional rakhi across the border. In 1985, I visited my brother on his American campus, and stayed with his cousin sister who, as a very hospitable South Asian, fed me. I also ate with him and his many Pakistani friends--dal chaval and pizza, as I recall. But all that was in the US, so it may not count.

In the meanwhile, my uncle visited Ajmer Sharif and came to Bombay just to meet my parents. I was not there but I believe he did not eat anything at our home. This is a terrible thing in South Asian culture, as you know. He did not eat. But many years later, when I visited their home, I ate many meals--lunch, tea, dinner--all specially planned for the visiting vegetarian daughter. A treasured memory remains sitting at the dining table, enjoying delicious apples from Pakistani Kashmir. The apples were sweeter for the affection with which they were chosen for me.

Long before that, my only other South Asian classmate in my MA International Relations course was a Pakistani woman about ten years older than me. She and her husband were both lecturers in Political Science in Pakistan and had come to study in the US. They were shocked (him, especially) that my parents had sent me alone to the US at 20, and adopted me. I ate at their home regularly--yes, usually dinner--when my classmate would cook sabzi separately for me, and feed me dal, subzi and roti early with her two little kids. In her eyes, I think I was not much older! They would make sure I ate--and what did they have that they shared so generously, she was a student and he had a campus job, and they had a relative staying with them too--and then one of them would walk me to the bus stop and make sure I got back to my dorm. They were family. But I am told now, they could not be trusted. So maybe there was arsenic in the delicious firni I ate in their house that I miraculously survived?

You might say, these are 'ordinary' people but it is the security-diplomatic gang one should be leery of. Perhaps. Perhaps.

You see, I have eaten dinner with them as well. Many of the people whose op-eds you read and that you watch on hydra-headed TV discussions are people who were in non-official track, confidence-building programmes with me in the early 1990s. We stayed together for weeks, and ate together, and talked all night, and much more... and confidence was built. And friendships that will last a lifetime. Friendships between people who shared similar experiences, across borders, with sometimes contradictory perspectives--but friendships, anyway.

And the women peace activists I work with now, who have gone from strangers to friends to sisters, who know what sorts of bangles I like and that I want to have a blog about fabric and embroidery someday using photographs of their clothes. The alliances made when eyes meet over shared hurt--one complains, the other consoles, without words. And yes, I am so sorry, many meals have been shared with these terrific women--and a regional buffet of munchies fuels our meetings, where chilgoza meets murukku.

And many other meals all over the world with friends and professional colleagues from the Pakistani side of the border.

I forgot to tell you about the Pakistani fellow-intern from Karachi whose 1971 memories were a mirror-image of mine. But I don't think we ate dinner together, so it doesn't matter.

I meant to write a detailed, chapter and verse confession, but I realise there have been too many meals in over half a century to list here. Also, too many deep and too many silly conversations. Too many books and too many mixed tapes. Too much tea and too much laughter. Tears too, when I first moved to a city where I (still) have few friends, but I could call Islamabad on my cell-phone and share my transition travails with close friends. Too much silliness over international calls made just to get instructions on how to receive faxes on a home printer. Too much water under this friendship bridge.

Mea culpa, even though I do not understand how warmth, love and friendship can ever be anti-national.

Do you think that sharing salt and bread build mutual obligations that keep us from hurting each other? Isn't that a good thing? Isn't that why breaking bread together is a part of spiritual practice? Not eating together preserves the walls between us; Indians have used that as a way of maintaining caste difference over thousands of years.

Do you think that hearing each other's stories reminds us of how similar our struggles are, making it hard to demonise each other? Isn't that a good thing? Is it not a good thing that we get to know each other's frailties from a place of care than of enmity? That we can protect each other?

Isn't communication--over dinner or tea--especially important when you disagree? And a good friendship is not one in which you agree all the time or that you follow slavishly, but where there is enough honesty not to fake all that and enough respect to give each other space to be quite different--but not so much that a helping hand cannot reach.

All my life, I have thought these were good things, and that building the personal ties that keep us from mutually destructive policies was a fabulous idea. I still do. Mea culpa, for that too.

Let me close by sharing with you something a Bangladeshi diplomat said to me during an interview in 1985. I was being clever and asking how he defined South Asia. His brilliant reply: "South Asia stops when you go to someone's house, and the food no longer tastes like home." My South Asian home has many rooms, each quite self-sufficient and separate, but our dining tables merge under the force of that common civilisational instinct to stuff people's stomachs to the point of stupor--and food across the region tastes of spices and condiments we have traded across millennia. Wherever I move, across this table, whoever I break bread with, I am still eating at home and that is how it feels.

But have it your way--so, mea culpa.

The fear of not writing

There really is no need to be so freaked out over words not written. After all, they are words no one is ever going to read.

But being read is incidental to the need to write. Which is about the words that run through my head day and night, barely allowing me to sleep, crystallising into dreams in which books are read and speeches are made and letters, life-changing letters, disappear as you are reading them with anticipation. They must be continually emptied and my brain defragmented. Unlike my cupboard.

The need to write is about reminding myself that I am alive. Somewhere beneath the endless smiling and supervision and editing and showing up... I survive in that little space deep within all these external layers that I have to wear to be an adult in the world.

And as that world transforms into something I deplore, writing is resistance. Even when no one reads it, writing is resistance. It is the only form of resistance I may perform competently. But today, this kind of writing is time-bound. News happens and if you haven't outraged, written, published and gone viral in five minutes, do you exist?

To which that voice inside me asks, luckily, 'Does it matter?' Does it matter only when you respond immediately or does it matter that you do not respond at all? I am going to go with the latter, and still write all these blogposts that have been in my head, waiting for my body and mind to synchronise just enough to put them down.

If I do not write, even belatedly, I will be the weak link that lets the chain down. 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

#nosgbv #stoptransbill2016 Why we should all care about TG Bill 2016

Last night, I finally read several of the #stoptransbill2016 tweets and was horrified. I was sorry that I had been running around so madly with campaign activities that I had not been reading or retweeting any of the protest posts before this.

I am not an expert on LGBTIQA+ issues, and I have a great deal to learn. But I am, and always have been, 1000% clear that every human being has the same rights and that each of us has a right to live happily and well, with love and without violence. From that vague, generalised starting point, my journey with Prajnya has also been a journey of learning new perspectives, new vocabularies and new frameworks. I don't speak or write very much about LGBTIQA+ issues because like a lot of other people, I am afraid of inadvertently saying the wrong thing. I don't want to hurt in the name of support or being an ally.

But here I am. Outraged and shocked enough that I am going to take a chance on this and try and tell you what I understand as well as point you to others who can explain better. 

In 2014, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court directed the Central and State Governments to recognise trans persons as a third gender. They recognised that trans identity is determined by a person's choice and not by biology and held that forcing people to have Sex Reassignment Surgery is illegal. The recognition of third gender rights extends to social, economic and infrastructural spheres. This judgment was welcomed by trans persons and activists as it reflected their own thinking and wishes. 

In 2015, Tiruchi Siva introduced a Bill to enshrine the ideas and instructions of the NALSAR judgment in law. That too, was widely welcomed. 

Not to be outdone, the government then introduced its own TG Bill and it is this Bill that we are all protesting. Why?

First of all, it is underpinned by some horrific thinking about gender and sexuality and trans persons in particular, that dehumanizes and others them. Read this Twitter thread for an illustration. 

Second, it reverses the gains made in the NALSA judgment by returning to thinking about gender identity in biological terms. That is, my gender is what someone else says it is, based on my body parts, and not how I feel and what my own instinct about myself is. Not only do trans persons not have the right to choose their identities, but from this follows the right to choose to live in a way that makes them feel right, feel happy. 

Third, it removes agency from the trans person's life by placing them in the custody of others in the name of protection. Beware of patriarchy's protective instincts because it only protects itself. What it does to those that do not fit its unnatural taxonomies is to infantilise and dehumanise them. Women know this, but we must extend this understanding beyond our gender. 

Finally, the Bill is silent about violence, and in fact, reduces the punishment for sexual violence against trans persons from the usual seven years to 6 months to two years. Why? Is this not an equal violence? And is it a lesser violence to the promoters of the Bill because individuals who do not fit into a textbook binary are lesser humans? 

Actually, this is the crux of the matter. In 2017, a proposed law that tells us that some of us are less than others must not be countenanced by anyone with a heart. Forget the words you don't understand. Forget the politics you don't follow. Forget everything. Just think: If someone told you they were going to make a law that said you were not as human as they were, how would you feel? Abandoned? Betrayed? "You would cry too if it happened to you."

STOP THE TRANS BILL 2016. Do whatever you can. 



Shalini Nair, Transgender community terms govt’s Bill as ‘regressive’, launches nationwide protest movement, Indian Express, December 9, 2017.
Sampoorna India, TG Bill Factsheet



(Happy to add other sources and links, and follow recommendations, as advised!)

Friday, December 8, 2017

What's on your mind?

Every social network prompts us: What's happening? What's on your mind? Having hit some mental wall made of thermocol and sawdust, but desperate to blog--to show myself that I am still moving--I am going to answer that question.

Very mundane things are on my mind.

Why has no one designed a sensible way to store saree blouses? I have kept them in drawers. I have kept them on shallow shelves and deep shelves. I have kept them in organizing racks. But before you know it, they are a mess. All that ironing wasted and never to be found when you need. This is on my mind as I rush out to a campaign meeting every morning. Why has no one designed a good way to arrange saree blouses?

I am also thinking about do-nothing vacations because I would really love one, thank you very much. I want to go somewhere--no, not Pondicherry--where I am not required to do anything. I don't want to feel guilty that I am not seeing everything there is to see. I don't want to feel like I am wasting nature by not wanting to vigorously walk. I want to eat, read, sleep, daydream, stare, and rest to the point where I am then ready to do some yoga and strolling around. And no unnecessary chitchat. I don't want to be responsible for anything. I Googled 'do nothing vacation' because those who can, go, and those who can't, Google. I must say that everything listed sounded like hard work--and also full of non-Indians, which means that some desi creature comforts, like tasty vegetarian food, are unlikely to be available. And no, I don't want to go to Pondicherry--because I would take a car from Chennai, and then feel responsible for the welfare of the driver.

Finally, I am thinking of fruit. Because I am so very tired that fruits are the only thing that appeal to my palate right now. And for some reason, I alternate through the day between craving cranberry juice and Indian-style nimbupani (not sweet lemonade).

Gender violence is not on my mind although I do a satisfactory simulation thereof when I am at a campaign event. Therefore, despite setting myself this blogging goal, I seem unable to pull myself together enough to say anything about anything relevant to #nosgbv.

So, in answer to those who want to know, all -3000 of you, this is what is on my mind.

PS: As I write this, my heart wishes it could be at Sharanya Manivannan's poetry reading and book launch but my body and mind will not budge. Also on my mind.

Monday, December 4, 2017

#nosgbv "Self-care"

Words enter the public discourse as if they have always been there. And young people especially, use them as if they have been and are self-evident. After all, they have no idea of what has gone before; in addition to youth, they are also largely bereft of history education.

"Self-care" is one such phrase. It rung true but awkward when I first heard it, from our 2014 Campaign Coordinator. We were talking about service providers and burn-out and a host of other work-related issues. "Mental health" holidays are similar; I knew people in the US who took them. I write this, putting one word after another, feeling desperately in need of both self-care and a mental health holiday. Both are elusive in my world.

I think about the women who attended last week's consultation on women and work, and how many--if any--of them have the luxury of self-care. I see them waking up early and running through the day, meeting one set of obligations after another. We ask about hobbies in the ice-breaker round and many of us mention sleep. No one remarks about this because it does not surprise us that we are all so tired. 

But when we talk about work conditions, exhaustion, burn-out and self-care do not figure. We talk a great deal about toilets, about sexual harassment and about workplace equality. We do not talk about being tired. 

Some of the women in the room are extroverts. At the end of the day, they say they like to spend an hour chatting with neighbours. I recoil at the thought. I wonder, yet again, if things are just easier for extroverts? Are they simply less tired because they are energised by all that human interaction? 

I think about my work and how it seems to never really end. How can I rationalise my workload while meeting all my responsibilities? I have tried zoning by day, by hour. I work hard and I am actually very efficient, too, if you look at how much and how many different things I do in a day. But it's never enough. And self-care feels like work. 

Someone at the consultation talked about self-actualisation. I am very privileged but even I feel like that is a distant goal when I think of my daily task lists. 'Getting through' seems like the most ambitious goal I can set. Between the ten thousand things that need doing--drafting, formatting, listing, chatting, encouraging, web update, this, that and some days, most days, I want to put smiling on that list--there is no time to do the things that would replenish one's energy--painting, reading, music, daydreaming--leave alone to self-actualisation. 

I start to say, when will other structural issues be resolved so we can think about this. And then I realise, if we don't think about this now, we will not be around to enjoy those gains!

#nosgbv Politics, with passion

I heard the term Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) for the first time in 2011. I was not convinced of the category--and as with self-nominated awards which are the norm now--I was sceptical: How do we sift the genuine defender from the many pretenders? I did not contest that WHRD faced a special category of challenges in doing their work. That seemed obvious. When you layer patriarchy's obstacle course for women seeking to work in the public sphere with the state's antipathy to challenges, it is clearly going to be very, very hard--especially hard--for women to do human rights work.

The other concern is, what is human rights work? Pretty much everything, really. So again, who is a WHRD? It seems to me I am an ordinary person doing some work on gender, peace and rights until the state decides it doesn't like. So it really is the state's reaction to WHRD that necessitates and creates the category? Perhaps.

Six years later, the analytical concerns remain but they feel insignificant next to the work that WHRD do.

There are the famous ones. The women of Idinthakarai. Teesta Setalvad. Soni Sori. Ruth Manorama. Those names are only the beginning of a list. And then there are the countless others--the uneducated women who can talk labour law and economics as well as anyone in an economics think-tank; the women from communities in the crossfire between state and militants who are able to talk about counter-insurgency and impunity; the journalists who take risks and face rape threats for writing about what is happening in the world. Honestly, the list is very, very long, of women who get up and go out and do what is needed to build a better, a fairer world. All of them are extremely important to the world in which they work and most of them are insignificant in the eyes of the world. Whether we hear about them or not, all of them face any number of challenges doing their work.

The double burden of housework and outside work, that dogs women in any sphere, does not spare them. Women multi-task because they have no choice. They face criticism for neglecting their families, even if they don't, and many women receive zero support from their spouses and children, forget appreciation. They are ridiculed, reviled, threatened and in the case of women defenders, the threat extends to family members--"I will hurt your children. Your spouse." After all the work that they do, day to day, they are rarely the face of their movement. When time comes for the official dialogue, the negotiation or the UN conference, it is the man who gets to go. Women are sent out as the vanguard of protest marches, bearing the first lathi blows, but decisions are made by men.

And yet, women go on for the simple reason that Jody Williams, Nobel Laureate, gave me last month: "I can't un-see."

Against all the odds, they are out their fighting--not for their rights, but ours. They do it with passion, and with humour.

Both of which were conspicuously missing from a student debate last week on whether WHRD deserved special attention. It made me wonder whether making something part of a curriculum simply sucks the life out of it. Does education hammer out every last sign of life in the human spirit?

I have had the privilege of knowing--on pedestals and as peers--many, many women human rights defenders, most of whom may have not cared about the term. They do care from the bottom of their toes to the tops of their heads and back about the world in which we live, and they pour every last particle of spirit into what they do. They cry, they rant, they laugh, they sing, they listen, they connect with others and they love. Being with them is a renewal of one's own spirit.

The debate on Wednesday was lacklustre and ill-informed despite an OCD prep-sheet we had despatched in advance. And most heart-breaking, the speakers seemed to be going through the motions. I ask you, if those who fought for us everyday--through all the storms of life and through all the barriers of patriarchy, class and state--brought this (lack of) spirit to their work, where would we stand?

WHRD certainly deserve a fraction of the passion and love they invest, as a return.

Please support those who are trying to support WHRD, in their work and when they are in trouble, by supporting their evacuation and asylum:


Within India, you might consider donating to:

  • (PUCL does not accept donations, but you can certainly find a way to support their work)

These are some of the people who consistently work to defend human rights defenders. There are many others, and you can Google, do your own 'due diligence' and give. Bear in mind that you are making this decision to support human rights work at a moment that is fraught everywhere in the world. Governments take human rights activism personally and respond with pettiness and force. WHRD (and other human rights defenders) stand their ground in the face of this; won't you? If not now, then when?

The warm-up post and the sabbatical

(This should be sub-titled: What you can write because no one is reading!)

It is far easier to think up a blog project or blogpact than to keep up the writing. Obviously. Writing for one's own blog is like exercising--it only really is for oneself, so how important can it possibly be? If you don't do it, no one cares. A couple of people may care that you don't exercise but that you are not writing--absolutely no one cares.

To me, not writing is like losing sight of a lifeline in a large ocean of infinite responsibility and duty. This is about the only thing I do that is for me. Everything else I do because I am supposed to, because it is an obligation, because it is my responsibility, because it is my duty. If I don't, who will. But with writing, if I don't, who cares? Well, I do. And this is the one thing I really try to keep up in order to remember that I am alive.

But the press of those responsibilities and the growing limitations of my body mean that if I miss a certain window in the day, I simply cannot make the time to write. The demands of the day have consumed me whole.

More frightening is to discover when you do fight your way through the jungle of everyone's needs and sit down to write, only to find you have not a thought in your head. You are so weary that every thought or idea has been sucked out, feels stale... you are not really living but simply putting one foot before the other, minute to minute.

And so yesterday, I dragged my body to an event, praying fervently that my mind would keep up. It managed. But I was struck by how difficult it all felt and started talking about taking a break. It feels do-or-die at this point. But I cannot go away, and unless I do, I cannot detach from all the demands--the one urgent question that becomes a one-hour discussion, the cheques that I must sign--the document that must be read... I am stuck.

But I must find a way to truly detach, especially from the work of the NGO, which is now becoming unbearably overwhelming. My great failure is not to be able to walk away at ten, not because I don't want to but because I have not raised enough money to hire enough full-time staff with a professional leader that can manage everything.

So the challenge this morning is not just to catch up on those SIX blogposts I should have written on schedule, but also to find a way to come unstuck and free myself so I can do the things that will help me reclaim my time and space for work that I love.