Monday, November 3, 2008

Two nuns, two Indias and the politics of identity

Swarna Rajagopalan, Through their bodies we strive, New Indian Express, November 3, 2008.

(Also available here.)

In October, two Catholic nuns from India made news.

First, news broke about the gang rape of a nun in Kandhamal on August 25, 2008. Her rape was part of the anti-Christian mob frenzy that followed the killing of Lakshmananda Saraswati. She was dragged out of her hiding-place, raped and paraded naked in the market-place. She alleges that the police were watching and did nothing. Neither did others in the marketplace.

Second, Sister Alphonsa was canonized and India celebrated. Saint Alphonsa’s miracles were remembered and her followers and faithful interviewed, as we watched the Vatican ceremony live. Those who had never heard of Alphonsa before that day now know a great deal about her, her hometown, her miracle and her schoolfriends.

Within us, live two Indias.

The first India I know is that of my great-grandmother, walking down from her home to pray at “Alphonso kovil” in the neighbourhood, a ritual we continued on every visit to Chennai. The nun from Kerala, her contemporary, became a much-loved part of our family pantheon.

The second India, also somewhere within many of us, has responded to communal violence against Christians in Orissa and Karnataka in a shamefully muted way. It is petulant about the pride we felt collectively at Alphonsa’s canonization, pointing out that India has other women saints.

But this article is not about my family, communalism or ‘Indias,’ old and new. It is about the way in which women become the currency or the medium through which we transact or express identity politics. In October, what the Orissa nun and Saint Alphonsa had in common is that their lives and stories were drawn into political battles far removed from their own experiences.

Women, their bodies and their lives are too often gadgets deployed in political struggles over delineating what defines a national (or local) community and what relationship each part of society shall bear to this whole.

The symbols of the group are cast as women, whether as Mother India, Britannica, Thamizhthai or Rosie the Riveter, inspiring the group to act upon its self-definition. The symbol is given attributes—a nurturing temperament, the spirit of battle, divinity, chastity, sacrifice, discipline—that are then extrapolated onto women in the group. This works, first, to stereotype women in the group; they are uniformly nurturing, feisty, adventurous, chaste, and so on. Then it serves as a moral code for women, laying out do’s and don’ts for them of dress and behaviour. Expressing the group’s values, these become custom, ritual and norm, into which all the members of a group are socialized and to which they are expected to conform. Women, who live this code, become its first teachers; prisoners becoming jailers, one might say. Transgressions of this code are punishable by the group, physically, through shaming or ostracism. These codes also assure that when Mother India and Rosie the Riveter are done with their work of inspiring the troops, they can return to the private sphere to live and teach the group’s code.

Because women come to embody the group, its values and the continuity of the code that defines it, they are the most effective target for its opponents. Historical and contemporary case studies around the world show that subjugation is often expressed through sexual violence. The abduction, rape and enslavement of men and women is a common detail in accounts of most military encounters. The acquisition of concubines and wives from the enemy’s ranks is a symbol of military victory. This is what Helen of Troy ultimately stands for. The recognition of rape as a weapon of war is an acknowledgment that interpersonal acts of violence are not isolated from hostilities between groups.

‘Jauhar,’ ‘sati’ and ‘karo-kari’ all express the belief that the honour of the group (whether community, family or clan) lies in the bodies of women. Women must die rather than risk the loss of this honour which does not bind the group’s men in a similar way. (That this honour is in strange ways tied to property, inheritance and succession is the subject of another article.) Riots and mob violence pose particular threats for women and girls, because rape, especially rape by a gang, is both to act out and to express hostility and dominance. The war begins elsewhere, but is ultimately waged on and over female bodies.

Gender stereotypes, gender roles and behavioural codes have one unintended consequence. In times of conflict, they create an unexpected space for agency. Women are able to act as mothers, even when the demands of group honour restrict their movements in the name of protection. ‘Mothers’ have organized to search for missing children, to tend to the wounded, to organize supplies and to rally for peace. Where daughters, sisters and wives are confined to the so-called safe haven of the home, mothers cross its threshold into public action, time and again in Chile, in Kashmir, in Northern Ireland, in Sri Lanka and other conflict zones.

The two nuns, working in Kerala and Orissa, could have scarcely imagined that their lives would be a part of a political discussion that also evoked Mother India, Helen of Troy or the Chilean Mothers of the Disappeared. Patriarchy unrelentingly weaves them all into the politics of identity as symbols, as vectors and as battle-grounds and makes their lives currency in battles over conscience, culture and history.

Swarna Rajagopalan directs Prajnya Initiatives (

Work as extreme sport

Swarna Rajagopalan, Going to work is fraught with great risk, New Indian Express, October 13, 2008.

Recently reported events have demonstrated that earning a living is becoming a dangerous undertaking.

The first is Saumya Vishwanathan's murder while returning from her work at a news channel late into the night. The Delhi Chief Minister acknowledged that Delhi was unsafe and then described the victim as "adventurous" for returning home by herself at that hour. Since less adventurous Bangalore call-centre employees who had office transport, met similar fates at the hands of those who were supposed to escort them safely, this comment has rightly offended many. In an earlier incident, a Chennai domestic worker was burnt alive by her (female) employer for not returning a loan and not showing up to work. The employer then tried to buy the silence of those around and inevitably got caught.

Both of these people were put at risk not by entering an adventure show or participating in combat but by simply going out to earn a living. Neither of these appears to be a gender-related crime, but the fact is that going out to earn a living is a particularly high-risk enterprise for many women.

The litany of working women's challenges is not news—unequal pay for equal work, work environments that disadvantage them by rewarding male bonding and cronyism and of course, workplace sexual harrassment.

Sexual harassment is defined by the Supreme Court as unwelcome sexual behaviour including physical contact, soliciting sexual favours, sexual comments, showing pornography and any other kind of sexual overture. What makes sexual harassment abominable is that it is not an expression of interest between equals but that the abuser leverages their power within the organization to contrive a favourable outcome. Sexual harassment also takes the form of a work environment that is uncomfortable or hostile to work in.

Since the Vishakha judgment, many organizations have created procedures for lodging and investigating complaints. But how well these work is another question, as is the ability of a victim to access them. There is also the question of abuse of these provisions.

Other challenges faced by working women relate to working conditions. A few weeks ago, when a Saravana Stores outlet caught fire, reports also emerged about the conditions in which their workers were housed and how little they were paid. They were more shocking than the safety conditions that prevailed in the store.

Getting to work and getting back from work are also fraught with risk. Street sexual harassment is a reality in every city. Walking to the bus stop, girls are accosted and propositioned. Crowded buses alone are not intrinsically dangerous, but when they are packed with male passengers who feel free to touch, pinch and fondle, the dread begins right there. Going to work on a bike is no doubt better, but the chances of being followed down quiet stretches of road remain. Company transport is not a foolproof solution either.

The patriarchal response to these challenges is protection rather than social, attitudinal transformation. What is it about our society that makes men behave like predators and what is it about our culture that practically condones it?

But when women cannot go out to work, what happens? Workplace and street safety affect livelihood security and public health.

First of all, statistics about violence within the home belie the fond hope that women and girls (or boys) are safer at home. Silences about violence within the family are arguably louder than those about workplace harassment. Lack of economic independence locks domestic violence victims in abusive relationships. The social environment is changing, but in the absence of alternative support, all the woman has is the age-old advice to 'adjust' to her situation.

Working women contribute to the household income, and when that income falls, nutrition levels fall, first affecting women and girl children. Weak, undernourished women give birth to weak, low birth-weight children. Low birth-weight children remain sickly throughout their lives, burdening their families and ultimately, society with the cost of keeping them in good health and compensating for their inability to work.

The inability of women to contribute to the household income further devalues the girl child, reinforcing the attitudes that encourage sex-selective abortion. The idea that girls are a burden also results in their forced marriage or even sale to traffickers, to say nothing of her not earning money towards her wedding.

Education and employment empower, but if going to work is a risk-taking enterprise, where does that leave us?

The Chennai domestic worker probably took a loan from her employer because no one else would give her one. The job, the loan and failure to repay the loan were probably all factors beyond control. Neither that nor absence from work deserve the death penalty.

Saumya Vishwanath was a bright, dedicated professional. Whether male or female, and even in our notoriously unsafe national capital, her commute should have been safe.

As with so many other things, in discussing safety and work, our instinct is to punish women by restricting their movement rather than to proactively seek and punish those who cause harm to them. It is not a perfect universe, and people have to be careful, but how long will society and its ruling elite hide behind these admonitions? How long will we accept them as a substitute for firm action to make cities and workspaces safe? When will we go beyond protection and punishment towards re-engineering social attitudes towards women?

Swarna Rajagopalan directs Prajnya Initiatives.

Gender and disasters

Swarna Rajagopalan, Kosi’s distressed daughters, New Indian Express, Chennai, September 17, 2008.

On August 18, the Kosi river broke through its embankments to flood most of Bihar and change course. The disaster has taken several lives, displaced over a million people and laid waste to hundreds of villages, not counting those who will die of waterborne infectious diseases in its wake.

So far, women have been mentioned in news reports in the context of childbirth and pregnancy. Some pregnant women have been abandoned by their husbands, but many others have given birth, naming their children after the Kosi.

There have also been reports of sexual harassment of female flood victims, describing government concern relating to the same. Many of the consequences of disasters cut across gender lines.

Death, disease, displacement, bereavement and the overnight loss of livelihood and homes are consequences that happen to men and women. The way in which these consequences are experienced is, however, different.

Studies have shown that women form a disproportionate number of those who die during disasters. The reasons reflect the limitations placed on them by virtue of their gender. After the tsunami, for instance, it was found that many girls and women drowned because, in spite of living in coastal areas, they had not learnt how to swim.

A dramatic change in sex ratio results, partly from death and disease and partly from men migrating to seek alternative livelihoods. Scholars have shown with examples from history that when men vastly outnumber women, levels of violence in general increase, and especially violence against women.

In fact, increased levels of violence and increased vulnerability to violence may be described as the second disaster to strike women and girls in the aftermath of natural calamities.

In a 2005 report, the World Health Organisation stated that interpersonal violence including child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, sexual violence and exploitation including sexual exploitation are likely to increase after a disaster. When women and girls lose their homes and livelihoods, they are particularly susceptible to forced marriage and trafficking.

Along with this comes the increased threat of getting sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS.

In other contexts, feminist scholars have speculated on what it means to a woman when her home — ostensibly her safe haven — is destroyed. Homes are also the site of their closest relationships and much of their work.

The loss or destruction of a home can be particularly traumatic in settings where women are confined to their homes by the norms of their culture. Researchers have also explored the way the home changes when relatives who are also coping with disaster move in or when the family moves, for instance, to the roof or a boat for shelter.

For young girls, it can mean the loss of privacy for personal rituals, from changing clothes to washing. The risk of incestuous sexual abuse is heightened.

Often, discussions about gender and debates about security tend to dwell on macro-level structural or ideological questions, but for women coping with emergencies of any sort, it is the very personal, immediate needs that pose the biggest challenge.

Whether at home or in refugee camps, safe access to scarce bath and toilet facilities pose a real challenge. Harassment en route, prying and molestation while bathing and using the toilet, combined with the need to observe society’s norms of modesty limit when and how women can address their simplest bodily needs.

They end up limiting their excursions to the point where they are at risk for other kinds of illnesses and infections.

Between falling sick due to lack of basic facilities for hygiene and not being able to walk to work without fear of molestation, the ability of women to take care of themselves is greatly diminished. The loss of children in the tsunami resulted in an increased demand for recanalisation surgery as women came under pressure to give birth again.

Forced marriages occur in these circumstances as men seek to rebuild a family structure soon after the loss of their wives. Orphaned girls are particularly at risk. Female-headed households are not unique to post-disaster settings; however, compensation and relief are often distributed on the assumption that only men head households.

Where existing property papers are lost as are male property-owners, title is hard to establish. This is exacerbated by the loss of livelihood in the agricultural and informal sectors.

Without compensation, relief, the ability to reclaim a home or to access agricultural land or other means of livelihood such as a boat or a loom, women cannot rebuild their lives.

Disasters thus return women to a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, poor, brutish” and if you are lucky, short. If you are not lucky, you have to find a way to survive against the odds. As we look at the Kosi crisis in Bihar, the true challenge is not in providing symptomatic relief to victims. It is in recognising those elements of our social and cultural life that place women and girls especially at risk and in ensuring that these are not reproduced in the post-disaster dispensation. Where disaster is anticipated or occurs predictably, such as the Bay of Bengal cyclones and river floods in northeastern India, planned relief should take into account the special challenges faced by women and girls. Unchecked, the real catastrophe for women and children lies in post-disaster violence and loss of livelihood.

(Copied and pasted here because the link is not stable at this site. E-paper version.)

Peacekeeping and Gender

Swarna Rajagopalan, Guardians stray from the straight path, New Indian Express, Chennai, August 25, 2008.

The exemplary record of India’s peacekeeping troops is in danger, and thus, one of its claims to good global citizenship.

An internal UN investigation has reported that some Indian peacekeepers in the Congo supported and perhaps even participated in a child prostitution racket near their base camp. Involving over a hundred officers, these charges follow earlier reports that Indian soldiers had been involved with gold and drug smugglers and that an Indian officer was publicly expressing support for one rebel group—charges that pale in comparison to the recent allegations.

The Indian army’s investigation has already begun, and experts underscore the fact that this is an aberration in India’s record. India has readily contributed troops to several of the stickiest UN peacekeeping operations since 1950 and is among the top three contributors to UN peacekeeping operations worldwide.

Thousands of Indian soldiers have served as observers, combat troops, medical missions, election observers, mine experts and engineers in operations that have claimed several Indian lives. In Somalia, Indian and Pakistani peacekeeping troops worked together to offer humanitarian assistance to local communities. In Liberia, a contingent of female paramilitary troops provides security to the President in addition to participating in field operations. With its store of experience, India now offers peacekeeping training.

In the UN peacekeeping operation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, India and Pakistan have the largest contingents in the mission. Set up in 1999 to implement the Lusaka Accord which ended the civil war in Congo, the mission is currently engaged with the disarmament, demobilization, repatriation, resettlement and reintegration of combatants as well as the transition to democracy. India has contributed both military and police personnel to this mission.

One crude and callous response to allegations of physical abuse by soldiers and one that does no credit to any serious army is that such incidents are inevitable given the stresses and strains of military operations, especially when soldiers are stationed far away from their families. To be fair, this dismissal is rarely offered as serious analysis or justification—but one does hear it.

More thoughtfully, it is suggested that lust and aggression are products of the same bio-chemical process and therefore, keeping the balance between self-control and the aggression that army work requires is hard. But the Indian army takes great pride in its socialization of its soldiers and in the various efforts it makes to minimize the possibility of such incidents. One learns that they offer counseling, yoga, sports and service activities to occupy soldiers in these circumstances. So what happened in the Congo? The Indian people also need to express concern over the reasons and results uncovered by the army investigation.

Sexual abuse and exploitation are intrinsically offensive. Where the accused carry arms, and carry them with the sanction of a state, however, these actions occur in the context of a very unequal relationship. UN peacekeeping troops, like colonial troops in another era and occupying troops in other contexts, are outsiders invested not just with weapons but also with the sanction of the international community. They are there as outsiders to impose or oversee the imposition of an order that is tenuous and likely, contentious. Peacekeepers are better-fed and better-stocked with essentials, to say nothing of better-paid, than most people in the communities that surround. The ability to barter food and supplies for sex may make them even more powerful in this context than the possession of arms.

Such huge differences make even the possibility of consensual relationships between adults debatable. What chance does a small girl or boy, a frightened adolescent have to resist rape or trafficking? It is this that places sexual abuse by military personnel, in war, in counter-insurgency or peacekeeping operations, beyond the pale and right on the same continuum as incest and child sexual abuse within the home, street and workplace sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence.

Responsible militaries (or police) in a democracy need to investigate and punish offenders in a transparent fashion, a requirement minimally met by a press release. Responsible parliamentarians, male or female, need to raise this issue disregarding the ‘morale’ bogey. Responsible citizens, male or female, need to keep vigil even when a story slips off newspaper pages. For good soldiers, parliamentarians and citizens alike, good morale rests in doing what is right and not stuffing dirty laundry under the bed.

As such charges crop up against the military and paramilitary, at home and abroad, and investigations fade into the shadows of tomorrow’s headlines, what are Indian women to make of soldiers that also fight in their name?

When this Pandora’s box opens, it will release all kinds of uncomfortable questions within both family and polity. Because Indian soldiers everywhere fight in the name of all Indians, Indian women will need to ask whether these actions speak for them: child sexual exploitation, trafficking, smuggling. They must ask whether Indian soldiers regard Indian women, girls and boys to be as usable and dispensable as they apparently did those in the Congo—and acknowledge that ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are both unpalatable answers. They must doubt the foundations of their own family life for if male soldiers cannot be true to their training and orders, their other loyalties may also be weak. And if Indian women fail to vigilantly follow the investigation and its findings, they must reflect on their own culpability in making such behavior possible.

Articles in New Indian Express

  1. Swarna Rajagopalan, Guardians stray from the straight path, New Indian Express, Chennai, August 25, 2008.
  2. Swarna Rajagopalan, Kosi’s distressed daughters, New Indian Express, Chennai, September 17, 2008.
  3. Swarna Rajagopalan, Going to work is fraught with great risk, New Indian Express, Chennai, October 13, 2008.
  4. Swarna Rajagopalan, Through their bodies we strive, New Indian Express, Chennai, November 3, 2008.
The New Indian Express URLs are not stable, so I will copy and post the articles here. They are also posted at

Whose security are we talking about?

Published in InfoChange, November 3, 2008.

Whose security are we talking about?

Security is not just about nation-states. It is about the Delhi journalist killed on the streets, the Christian suddenly prey in her home, the bewildered victim of a terror attack, says Swarna Rajagopalan in this new series on security

The festive season in India has become a season of bomb blasts, reaching from city markets to small towns. The almost-stock images of blood on roads, smouldering buildings and stunned survivors piecing together eyewitness narratives are in Indian living rooms every few days. From Assam to Delhi to Malegaon and from Kashmir to Kannur, the ostentatious arrival of a town or a neighbourhood on the 'terror map' opens up questions not just about physical safety and the cross-currents of political socialisation, but also about the 'cleanliness' of financial transactions, interpersonal trust within society and the rule of law.

Two Delhi journalists were victims of violence in September 2008. The first was killed on her way home from work around 3 am. The second was attacked at his bus stop at 9:30 pm. The Delhi Chief Minister's response to the first was to concede that Delhi was unsafe and to pronounce the killed journalist 'adventurous' for driving home alone at that hour in such a city. She argued that it was hard to keep Delhi safe given that it was bordered by villages, drawing in migration and urban-rural relations into a consideration of individual safety.

The violent animosity shown towards Christians and churches spread beyond Orissa with the speed of an infectious disease. Even states with large Christian populations like Kerala and Tamil Nadu have fallen prey. There seems to be very little political will to act.

In the same month, India signed the nuclear deal with the US following many months of political struggle within the Indian political elite. Energy security, which underpins economic security, was the rationale for the deal. Opponents argued that it would compromise sovereignty and limit military security. The diplomatic goal of the US was to end India's isolation, with a view to securing India's de facto adherence to non-proliferation principles and opening up nuclear trade with India. Multi-layered diplomatic efforts, within, between and across states led eventually to the passage of the deal.

Formally dressed (or uniformed) men sitting gravely around a table discussing top-secret matters relating to the life and death of … the State. The ritualistic protocol of diplomacy, the ceremonial pageantry of the military, the romantic intrigue of espionage and the politicking of the high table are the images traditionally associated with security. Of the news items listed above, it is the nuclear deal that most resembles this picture—summit discussions, military calculations and expert consultations, shifting coalitions and internal negotiations.

In general, a closer look reveals diplomacy to be mundanely about visas, trade promotion and being nice to visiting artistes. The army, which does all the hard and unpleasant jobs in society from disaster relief to riot control, sometimes makes situations worse. Espionage is a convenient accusation traded by governments and it does not seem to yield enough intelligence to keep people safe much of the time. Moreover, not every spy lives like James Bond. The road to the high table is paved with more politicking than happens at the high table itself. Regular official meetings, back-channel diplomacy by special envoys and now, people-to-people contacts create the conditions in which the high table convenes.

Very interesting, and very distant from where most lives and their attendant insecurities are played out. But where does that leave the Delhi-ite for whom stepping out of the house is adventurous and the Christian who is suddenly prey in her own home?

Understanding security to refer to a narrow sphere of people and activities leaves so many stories untold; stories from your life and mine, that are better reflected in children's fiction and poetry.

• "My mother said, I never should play with the gypsies in the wood."

• "Anna Gopala, I am afraid to walk through the forest."

• The wolves that stalked Red Riding Hood and "huffed, puffed and blew down" pig dwellings.

• The loaded treasure of Panchatantra stories.

Childhood cautions to young girls—don't stay out late, don't go out alone, don't walk that way at night, don't stand at that bus-stop, don't smile at strangers, don't tell strangers your address, the almost-inbuilt discomfort with touch—were found reflected in these stories and rhymes.

What was real in those stories was missing in the traditional scholarly literature on security. As more women, more individuals outside traditional elite families entered this field, the further from our realities the issues, the debates and the stories seemed.

There are three important areas in which contemporary reality challenges traditional views of security.

The starting point of thinking about security is the question "Whose security?" and the referent of choice traditionally has been the nation-state. There are two problems with this in the real world. Internally, the State faces multiple challenges, relating to its physical (territorial) form, to citizenship and exclusion and to what kind of State it is going to be. Moreover, who are the people who act in the name of the State and on whose behalf do they do so? Combined, they undermine the legitimacy, even the very existence of a given State. Securing such an embattled State is a complex enterprise. The greater the number and fervour of the challenges, the more aggressively defensive the response, intensifying the confrontation. Securing the State comes to equal rendering sections of the State's population insecure.

The second problem arises from the multiplicity of collective and individual actors who are all potential referents like the State. Those who challenge the State within; those whose communities lie across State borders; groupings of States; non-state actors whether in international civil society or the global economy; local-to-global networks that are using today's advanced communications systems to connect and disseminate ideas; individuals who are born in one State, study in another, emigrate to a third, work in a fourth, own property in a fifth and remain connected to all contexts politically, socially and economically and individuals and families who remain completely local in their lifestyle and worldview. Whose security matters? The answer is everyone's, in which case the traditional scope of the field—the nation-state—is obsolete.

Also obsolete is the notion of a multi-tier global political dispensation where each tier is sealed off from the rest, beginning with the home and ending with the international system as a whole. Everyday, in each of our lives, every one of these tiers intersects, interacts and has an impact. Traditionally, the home was regarded as outside the public, political sphere. Today, however, not only do we call on civil society to transform and the State to enact and enforce protections for those within the home, but international agencies like the United Nations Women's Fund also support campaigns against gender violence. Whether bird flu or a financial meltdown, what starts in one place quickly reaches the other. Conflict in one small area leads to displacement, leads to trafficking and finally, sexual exploitation and vulnerability to HIV/AIDS in a totally different setting. What is 'security' about in such a world?

Traditional scholarship about security recognises the 'security dilemma'—when one State buys more weapons, the other becomes insecure and is forced to do the same, leading the first to top up, the second to follow suit… in an unending spiral where security leads to insecurity. In today's interdependent world, insecurity is contagious; no one is secure and well as long as anyone is starving, sick, unsafe or vulnerable. Not taking on the burden of each other's struggles may well make us all more insecure than potential inter-state hostilities.

This fine-sounding affirmation simply brings to the realm of security studies and policy what people already know in development work, in movements for democracy and social change, from newspaper reports and in spiritual teachings.

•Not paying attention to public health and civic sanitation issues kills more people from diarrhoea and dengue (not to mention HIV/AIDS) than most conflict situations do;

•Not paying attention to livelihood issues drives displacement and trafficking;

•Not caring about another person's rights and dignity drives them to express their discontent through militancy.

Terrorism, migration, globalisation and unprecedented ability to communicate worldwide have created a very closely interconnected international society. Social and political actions in one context or at one level have an impact that extends beyond the immediate to everyday life in apparently unrelated settings. For any security perspective to be meaningful or effective today, we need new thinking that has clarity and creativity, combining traditional views with contemporary critiques. If everyone is not secure, in the broadest, most humanistic sense of the word, no one is secure at all.

(Swarna Rajagopalan is a Chennai-based political scientist specialising in security, broadly defined. She is the founder of Prajnya Initiatives for Peace, Justice and Security, a new Chennai non-profit (

Infochange News & Features, November 2008