Wednesday, November 30, 2022

#nosgbv Futility

I had promised myself that I would blog everyday. I make this promise on a regular basis and too often, do not get to keep it. But I am proud to say that I do not give up and I persist and start over and over. So it is today. Yesterday, I was just too tired to post. Today, I am too blank. Or maybe, not blank but just saturated with things that I have said too often. 

After today's event, as we sat around talking, we egged each other on listing all the challenges to ending gender violence. Each challenge was more complicated and underlay the previous one. How do we do this? This is an impossible task. 

The sense of futility pervades this little promise I have made to myself to blog. What difference does it make? No one reads this blog anyway. And if they did, what difference would it make?

The longer I do this, the harder it is to answer the question about what difference it makes. Because it is clear that nothing makes a difference. Most of what we do is simply surface work--even when we change the law, it is just work on the surface. Beneath the designer vocabulary and the expensively, exquisitely* perfumed posturing, we are just the same-old, same-old products and pawns of patriarchy. 

Cynthia Enloe's book about the resilience of patriarchy leaves us thinking about the ways in which we are complicit in reinforcing patriarchal values and misogynistic ways. Yesterday was Women Human Rights Defenders' Day and today is South Asian Women's Day. What did I do to mark either of those in a way that at least casts a puny pebble at patriarchy? Not much.

I tell myself that we are all working ants and if we keep our heads down and just move along, someday, some ant, somewhere will reach our destination. I remind myself of the Gita--do your work. Or for that matter, Voltaire--cultivate your own garden. 

As I write this on the 6th day of Prajnya's 2022 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, my fatigue and sense of futility drain me. Perhaps, I actually have nothing to say that matters. 

*Thank you @syrinje for reminding me of this exquisite word. 

Monday, November 28, 2022

#nosgbv Who will protect us from our protectors?

 I am settling down to blog after having just watched a news video of an attack by men claiming to be from the Hindu Sena on the prison van carrying Aftab Poonawala who is now infamous for abusing and finally murdering and chopping his partner into bits. They said to the mediapersons around them that they would protect their sisters and mothers from such people. 

Somebody ask us, sisters and daughters and mothers, what we would like. 

Respect. Consideration. Kindness. Honesty. Not because we are delicate darlings. But because we are human. 

What does not translate into happiness for us are protection, patronage or possessiveness. So much abuse happens because men think they are protecting women, or being benevolent dictators/ benefactors, or showing their love by staking territorial claim on their bodies, their choices and their identities. Actually all of these are abuse. Patriarchy does such a good job indoctrinating its female victims that we lap up masterful heroes, and identify with heroines that swoon in someone's posessive grip, or buy tickets to watch films where male leads forcefully plant kisses on women turning them forever into devoted slaves. 

But in real life, protection is the rule that says you cannot go to college because there will be boys on the bus. It says that you cannot go out to earn a living because men will harrass you, and when they do, you will be blamed for stepping beyond that 'Lakshman Rekha.' Sita was not abducted because a king wanted to avenge his sister's humiliation at the hands of her husband and brother-in-law or even because two kings were fated to fight an epic battle and she was the pretext that fate had written into the script. She was abducted because she stepped past the Lakshman Rekha. 

Protection offers patriarchal politicians a quick fix to the questions we raise about gender equality. More women's buses. More lights on streets. More CCTV cameras. More police. Death penalty. No night shift for women workers. No girls in evening college. And so on. It makes them look like they are doing something. 

What they actually do is to hem women further and further in while those who abuse them roam freely. Rapists roam free while their victims shelter. I am not speaking of any one case here but a general reality. 

Can we please confront the beast? Is there someone in politics that has the courage to say that the problem is how men are raised and how we forgive them everything? That does not mean they must be hung or castrated but can we have realistic punishments for the small acts of bullying and misogyny that begin in childhood, can we model fairness and equality in our homes? Can someone in politics take a stand on the kind of vicious sexist speech that is rewarded by the deal-making in the men's toilet (sorry, locker room is too dignified for the horrible things male politicians say in India)? Can someone say that such people will not get tickets, no one will campaign for them? All these groups of men that will protect us from ourselves and others, who will protect us from them and the deathly cocktail of their prejudice, entitlement and unthinking vigilantism?

Sunday, November 27, 2022

#nosgbv Rambling reflections on domestic violence, dowry and imaginary safe havens

For three years or so, I've been part of a project that seeks to understand how domestic violence survivors access help and justice. Some of their stories are heartbreakingly familiar. One has seen so many variations all of one's life that I went from rejecting that women should fast and pray for good husbands to thinking that they desperately needed to because good men and good marriages seemed so rare. Nothing in our world was going to hand a woman romantic or marital happiness on a platter. 

When I was young, the first bad marriages I heard of were those of the women who sometimes worked in our homes. Their husbands would snatch away their salaries, spend them on alcohol and then beat them. I heard of this often enough that I am very, very uncomfortable around men who drink alcohol. The alcohol-battery association was so real to them that it is still real to me.  (On another day, I will write more about this.)

No, as many of the survivors in our project said, it was not the alcohol that made them abusive. The alcohol gave them the courage to act on their abusive ideas and it became a pretext to grant them impunity. Alcohol does not cause abuse but particularly in India, women in most communities have pinpointed to alcohol consumption, alcoholism and the presence of alcohol stores as a source of insecurity to them. 

I now hear young people I work with say they are uncomfortable with this association. And they have a point when they say it comes loaded with class prejudice. But when you hold consultations with trade union women and self-help groups, one of the first things they point to is the location of their local TASMAC store. 

When I grew a little older, in the films I saw, marital families would ill-treat their daughters-in-law and demand more and more dowry. With the advent of Doordarshan, we saw these themes of dutiful and abused daughters-in-law, mistreated wives and endless dowry harassment in films screened in every Indian language--in the Marathi and Gujarati films on Saturday evenings, in the Hindi films on Sunday evenings and in the other regional films they began to show on Sunday afternoons. In Indian films made as late as the 1970s, the long-suffering Sita-heroine was featured either to glorify patriarchal culture or to showcase 'social evils' in the service of the new nation-state. Marriage was inevitable but almost always quite a miserable state of affairs. 

And it was very hard to miss the messaging about dowry: Dowry was evil, dowry was bad, dowry led to domestic violence. The government assiduously communicated that giving and taking dowry were punishable by law.

In the 1980s, one read about an epidemic of bride-burnings and kitchen accidents that were all related to dowry demands. Women's groups protested and filed complaints and insisted on investigations. We now recognise dowry deaths in Indian Penal Code. We read of these things scandalised--who were these people still giving and taking dowry?

In families like mine, dowry had not been a part of weddings for two generations and the simpler the wedding, the more proudly people remembered it--one ceremony, cotton sarees, small guest lists, temple weddings, court weddings. I learned that it was not the wedding that mattered but the marriage. 

I was out of India between 1992-2003, and in this decade, it seems as if all of this socialisation was just tossed aside. Weddings became ostentatious--actually, weddings became an industry and ostentation was now merely a minimalist expression! I was shocked to meet people whose weddings still involved a discussion and then display of dowry given. Whoa! Where had they come from?

They were always there. We never quite rooted out the idea that we had to get rid of our daughters somehow. That they were not on their own good enough but their lack of value had to be compensated through gifts of cash and consumer durables. That we needed to bribe men to marry them. That our own value was reflected in how much we devalued our daughters by sending them off with large dowries. We were always like this. 

A few years ago, at a college training, I added a slide on the Dowry Act passed in 1961. It still shocks me to think of the young women who came up after the session to say they had no idea that there was a law prohibiting dowry. Some time later, students interviewing me for their magazine told me that they felt obliged to have destination or theme weddings. Every single serial treats marriage as the only end-game for female characters. 

What happened along the way? How did I grow up in exactly the same country and culture and turn out so differently? For that matter, so many of the women I know and young women I work with--how were we so lucky as to escape this?

This research project has brought home some other horrific realities. Young women beaten or raped on their suhaag raat (first wedding night), keeping quiet and asking friends discreetly--is this what marriage is? Because they have no clue. They are married, whether at 16 or at 22, before they are ready to be in a marriage or understand what that partnership should be like. All around them, they have only seen abuse. And in this post, I am talking only about physical and some sexual abuse--I haven't got to verbal or emotional abuse at all. 

Women have no confidence in their ability to survive. We are raising unconfident daughters in an age when male hubris is nauseating--and powerful. Women also have no confidence that their families, their communities or their government will support them at all. If anything, many women see that all of these support the powerful--in this case, their abusers. If the first months of the pandemic saw a lot of 'woke' discussion on the 'shadow pandemic,' the matter stopped with the discussions--we have not improved our support infrastructure significantly enough that a repeat of the situation would not leave women just as helpless. 

We tend to characterise public spaces as unsafe for women and homes as safe havens. It is time to acknowledge that give what a misogynistic culture we are, any place where we are present is inherently unsafe. Women and girls and boys must fear the sexual predators in their homes. Women and girls must survive structural deprivations such as being fed the least, being a low priority for education and health care. Girls grow up being told they are a burden and in a crisis, getting rid of them through marriage becomes a solution for family troubles. Relationships are unequal, fraught and violent and each generation teaches the next to expect violence as normal. 

I can type these words. I have lots of words. But the question is: When will this change? How will this change? Will it ever change? Will young people see marriage or other relationships as partnerships rather than hierarchal transactions? 

It is so hard to have hope in such a dismal world.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

#nosgbv For the sake of the daughters who did not survive

Amartya Sen made the idea of "missing women" famous--those baby girls who should be walking among us but are not because someone aborted them as a foetus or killed them as an infant or simply neglected them so much that they did not survive ordinary childhood illnesses. Our mothers and aunts and sisters and daughters and nieces who should have been with us. 

I think about them a lot. Many years ago, trying to connect gender to security when it was not a thriving subfield with its own conference circuit, I began to look at sex ratios. In the districts from which my parents came, and whose attitudes you might have expected them to possess, the sex ratio began to decline around the year of my birth. Everytime I think of that, I think how luck I am that my parents did not choose to get rid of me while hoping for a son.

From that lucky fact, my life has been blessed with good fortune. My parents thought it appropriate to feed me, to school me, to nurture me and to encourage me. Most girls barely get to enjoy one of those things. For every one of these blessings, I sink deeper into debt.

What do I owe the daughters who did not make it? Where do I begin to calculate that?

For sure, I owe it to them to make the most of opportunities and gifts I have received. And I owe it to them to re-invest those in creating a world where fewer and fewer women go missing. 

How do you re-write male child preference into a genuine ability to care for all children of all genders with the open heart that they show adults until trained otherwise? 

Punishments will take you only so far and incentives are almost as shallow. But if we can start pushing at the reasons that people give and showing them that they are not valid, maybe something will shift? 

You tell me you want a son to take care of you when you are old. I show you a generation of children of any gender who are unlikely to live at home and take care of you. And I can also show you daughters who take care of older parents. 

You tell me that your son will cremate you and perform your shradhdha every year and I can tell you that now daughters are doing the same. What is more, maybe neither of your children will believe in the customs and so no one will do this for you. And when you are dead, how do you know you will care?

You tell me that your son will carry on the family name. Daughters keep their names nowadays and your son may choose not to have children. What would you have paid for the probability of extending your family lineage? 

People argue that they have the right to choose the genders of their children. By extension, also the skin colour and IQ and so on. This is just wrong. 

The fact that India's missing women in the last century make up the population of more than one medium-sized country makes me so angry that I don't even think we need a rationale for why pre-natal sex selection and femicide are wrong. 

But if you needed instrumental reasons, and we live in a cost-benefit driven age where the most convincing arguments either address money or security or both--then the work that Valerie Hudson and Andrea Den Boer did more than twenty years ago on 'Bare Branches' may convince you. They found that when the numbers of men outnumbered women in a society, society was prone to enter a period of unrest and civil war. The available women married men of high status and those who were left unmarried and without families went off to join gangs and militias. 

We also know in Indian states where the sex ratio has been very lopsided that a shortage of brides has resulted in the importation of women from other regions. But because families cannot afford more than one bride, several brothers and sometimes the father-in-law share them. I do not think I need to say more about the plight of a woman trapped in a strange place with strange men and no right to say no. 

In patriarchal societies, even shortages don't raise the value of women. 

My grandmother had six daughters. When neighbours came over to her mother's place, ready to lament, இன்னும் ஒரு பெண்ணா? (Innum oru penna--or ponna, in the colloquial? One more girl?), my feisty greatgrandmother would say, yes, playing on the word for gold, பொன் (pon)--more gold! Her faith that women were gold, that they had minds and hearts that could do anything, that they could speak out and challenge and be themselves and her lessons in solidarity make me a fourth generation feminist.

For these four generations of women who survived and thrived, and for the children of all genders of the fifth and sixth that we are raising, and for the sake of the daughters who did not survive and are missing--I must find the small tasks everyday that will contribute towards changing this world.