Friday, September 22, 2023

Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass

“As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer has been trained to ask questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces the notion that plants and animals are our oldest teachers. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer brings these two ways of knowledge together”
, says the blurb of Braiding Sweetgrass, which is enough for me to want to read the book. There are three main strands in the book- the author’s exploration of Native American wisdom, her musings as a mother and the need to take action now- all three of which are braided together in much the same way as Sweetgrass.

According to Native American legend, Sweetgrass was the first plant to grow on earth. “Breathe in its scent and you start to remember things you didn’t know you had forgotten.” Sweetgrass is a powerful ceremonial plant and it is also used to weave baskets. Like Sweetgrass, the book describes indigenous wisdom and a world where each species lives in balance with the other. It is also extremely practical and draws attention to how urgently we need to heal the world.

The book is divided into five sections-

Planting Sweetgrass, where we are told stories from Native American folklore and of how it relates to us today. We learn about the gift of reciprocity and of how to communicate with the natural world. Tending Sweetgrass draws on the author’s experience as a mother and connects human mothers to Mother Nature. In Picking Sweetgrass, we learn about the Honourable Harvest- never take the first or the last, never take more than half, always seek permission before taking, take only as much as you need, take in a way that causes no harm, offer thanks for what you have been given, leave a gift of reciprocity. Braiding Sweetgrass talks of rediscovering nature, of learning to love the land instead of merely seeking to understand it. The last section, Burning Sweetgrass, is perhaps the darkest. It speaks of how human beings have destroyed nature and made it toxic for all living beings- but even here there is hope. Hope that someday soon, we will learn, and we will help nature heal.

At the core of the book is the difference in two ways of living, each described perfectly through their respective creation myths. The way of the Native Americans is the way of Skywoman, who fell to the earth, and with the help of all the creatures (including a few who sacrificed their life for her), planted the seeds she had brought with her, and created a world where all lived in harmony. The Western way is described by the story of Eve who was banished from Paradise and had to make her way in the world by fighting for what she needed- the consumeristic way. How much better is the way of giving with gratitude, where there is reciprocity between the giver and the receiver and each is responsible for the survival of the other. When Western colonisers first encountered Native Americans, they thought that they were lazy, but in reality the difference is simply that one set of people is driven by greed and the other by need.

The book is full of human and non-human teachers who have much to teach us- lessons on reciprocity, on giving, on helping each other and on living in harmony. The story of the Three Sisters in particular stands out. Corn, Beans and Squash are the Three Sisters who grow together, each providing what the other two need. Corn provides support for the beans, squash prevents attacks on the corn and the bean, bean fixes nitrogen for the corn and squash. Yellow, green and orange- the three plants have adapted so they grow together in a symbiotic relationship- together, each of them produces more than any of them would individually. But, adds the author, there is also a fourth sister- human beings. It is the human being who collects the seeds, protects them through winter and plants them at the right time. The human being benefits from the abundance of the Three Sisters, but the Three Sisters may not exist without the human being. This story tells so much, not only about the adaptations in nature, but also about the role of humans in the ecosystem. A role no more or no less than that played by any of the other species.

We tend to think of human beings as the apex of the evolutionary chain. We place our species on a special place in the ecosystem. In reality, though, we are just one more species among countless others. This realisation should make us feel insignificant, but it makes us feel magnificent to be an intrinsic part of such a complex whole.

We live in a consumeristic world. We think everything the earth has is ours for the taking. Some of us worry about the future of our species and advocate for reversing some of the damage we have done. This book is revolutionary. It urges us to put aside everything we have learnt and to understand that another world is possible- one where we respectfully take only as much as we need, and do so in a manner that doesn’t cause harm. It would call for a drastic rethinking of everything we know before such a world becomes possible, but it is something worth aiming for.

I summarise with an extract that shows how human intervention is often not just beneficial but necessary to the well being of other species. In a scientific experiment to determine which method of harvesting Sweetgrass was most beneficial, plots of land were monitored over several months. A few plots were left unharvested as a control-

“The surprise was that the failing plots were not the harvested ones, as predicted, but the unharvested controls. The sweetgrass that hadn’t been picked or disturbed in any way was choked with dead stems while the harvested plots were thriving. Even though half of all stems had been harvested each year, they quickly grew back, completely replacing everything that had been gathered. In fact producing more shoots than were present before harvest. Picking sweetgrass seemed to actually stimulate growth. In the first year’s harvest, the plants that grew the very best were the ones that had been yanked up in a handful. But, whether it was pinched singly or pulled in a clump, the end result was nearly the same: it didn’t seem to matter how the grass was harvested, only that it was.”

We speak of Climate Justice and Environmental Justice. While both are important, neither is sufficient. Till we understand the fundamental truth that each species is bound to the other with strands of reciprocity, and occupy our allotted place in the world knowing that truth, things look bleak for us as a species.

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Can we stop romanticising women in the kitchen?

 [First published in Women’s Web]

“Instead of purchasing food from restaurants through ‘swiggy’ and ‘zomato’, let the children taste the delicious food made by their mother and let the children play at play grounds at that time and come back home to the mesmerizing smell of mother’s food. I leave it there to the wisdom of parents of minor children.”

This observation was not made, as might be supposed, by a group of women gossiping about how their daughters-in-law didn’t feed their grandchildren the way they fed their children. This observation was made by Justice P.V.Kunhikrishnan of the Kerala High Court, while giving a ruling on something that had nothing to do with children or their nutrition.

In a case where he was required to rule on whether or not watching pornographic videos on one’s own phone could constitute an offence of obscenity under IPC, the High Court Judge chose to take the opportunity to offer unsolicited advice to parents of minor children. While one could argue that cautioning parents (and guardians) about giving their children (or wards) unrestricted access to the internet could come under the broad ambit of the judgement, offering advice on how children should spend their time and what they should eat was certainly way beyond his brief. Yet, he did so, because motherhood is so romanticised in India, that nobody thinks there is anything wrong in expecting mothers to conform to the stereotype.

There are primarily two things that are wrong in the comments made by Judge Kunhikrishnan- the fact that “fresh, homecooked meals” are a basic requirement in every household, and the expectation that it is the mother who should provide it.

Indian women spend more time in the kitchen than anyone else
In a global survey where over 27,000 respondents from 22 countries were interviewed to learn more about their cooking habits, it was found that Indians spend 13.2 hours in the kitchen every week- which was the highest among all the countries on the list (While the report did not specify, we know that, unlike in other coutries, that figure is entirely female labour).

These findings are not unsurprising, because the basic expectation in most Indian households is that all three meals should be prepared from scratch everyday. Unlike in other countries, the emphasis on “fresh” food is so great that Indians rarely cook and freeze in large batches.

Unlike in Western countries, the concept of “ready to eat” food is also largely absent in India. While you can find precooked food on supermarket shelves, it is an extremely niche market- one that most families avoid. Over the last two decades, cooking pastes (ginger-garlic paste and tomato puree) and blended masalas have finally taken over our pantry, thereby reducing the time spent in the kitchen, but even now, you will find men and women romanticising grinding masalas and pastes by hand, and bemoaning how packaged masalas never taste as good freshly ground ones.

While nobody denies the fact that food prepared at home is likely to be more healthy than food that is ordered from restaurants, it is time society stopped passing a moral judgement on people who “order from Swiggy and Zomato”. Once families start ordering meals on a regular basis (instead of as a treat, or as a top up to an existing meal), there will automatically be a spurt in the number of people supplying nutritious meals cooked in hygienic conditions which simulate those of a home kitchen. It is because of insufficient demand that there are not as many such suppliers as there could be.

Cooking is a gender agnostic skill, then why do we assign it to women
The second issue is the expectation that it is the mother who is responsible for creating the “mesmerizing smell” of home cooked food. Cooking, like most other household skills should be gender agnostic. If a household decides to cook most of the meals at home, the responsibility of preparing the meals should be a shared responsibility.

Sadly, this is rarely the case.

Even young men in their 20s and early 30s take immense pride in stating that they cannot even boil an egg. While the existence of cheap labour in our cities ensures that even the occupants of bachelor (or other all male) establishments enjoy home cooked food, it also ensures that men grow up thinking that there is no need for them to learn to cook. Once they get married, these men assume that their wives take over the responsibility of ensuring there is food on the table, and the vicious cycle continues.

A substantial portion of an Indian woman’s life is spent in ensuring that the family is fed, and this responsibility restricts her opportunity to do something more productive and meaningful with her time. This can only be changed gradually by teaching the next generation that cooking is gender agnostic and that it is not essential that all meals should be “fresh” or “homecooked”.

Most importantly, it is essential that society stops passing a moral judgement on women who choose not to spend a disproportionate amount of time in the kitchen; statements like the ones uttered by Justice Kunhikrishnan neutralise any small gains that we may have made.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Are ‘Good Grades’ The Only Thing That Matters?

[First published in Youth Ki Awaaz]

 The other day, Sanjeev Bikchandani, a successful serial entrepreneur and a co-founder of Ashoka University posted:

Grades Matter
These two photographs are from the 1978–79 issue of my school magazine The Columban.
In that era grades were not private and they were published in our school magazine.
In 1978 around 200 students in my batch wrote the Class 10 Board exam.
The list in the picture shows the academic performance of the top seventy students.
The cohort is now averaging approximately sixty years of age. A good time to take stock of the career trajectories of people.
If I look at the top fifty students by academic standing and try and piece together their careers here is what I see.
Two have passed away and I have no news of another six.
Out of the remaining forty two eleven studied Economics at St. Stephens. Thirteen went to IIT. Seven went to IIM Ahmedabad. Another six went to other business schools including Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg and Carnegie Mellon. I see seven PhDs from the leading universities of the world (Berkeley, University of Michigan, Harvard, Stanford, Yale among them). I see a gold medallist and a distinguished alumnus from IIT Delhi. I see a Delhi University record holder in mathematics. I see that almost all the others went to other excellent colleges — SRCC, AIIMS, MAMC, BITS and others.
I see people working as professors at Princeton, University of Texas and Cornell. I see entrepreneurs and senior executives and bankers. I see a former President of SoftBank, a former India head of BCG, a former partner of McKinsey, a two term Lok Sabha MP and former Minister of State for Finance and a former Minister of State for Civil Aviation, a founder of Everstone Capital, a former India CEO of Coca Cola, three medical doctors, a photographer and a musician and a nationally ranked squash player.
Almost all of these fifty have had stellar careers in their chosen field and all of them got to where they did by dint of their effort and their academic accomplishments.
To the best of my knowledge none of them did drugs and nobody did politics and aandolans in college.
The point I am making is that good grades open doors. Unless you are from an already wealthy family and can look forward to an inheritance or if being financially successful is not one of your aims and you don’t really want to get into the next good institution of learning or get a job in a leading organisation you should be focusing on academics as your most important priority.
Good grades open doors. The effort you put in to achieve these grades adds intrinsic value to you. This is old fashioned advice but it is true.
However you will need to be patient and toil diligently and consistently for a longish period of time for the payoff’s to come. You will need to attend every class, read every reading, prepare for every exam and work hard on every assignment. You will need to focus and be committed.
Having said this I acknowledge that there are different yardsticks to measure success and the type that my class has demonstrated could be dismissed by some people as blinkered and so so middle class and conventional.
Your call

In the post, he analysed the career trajectory of the top 50 students of the batch of 200 students who took the Class 10 Board exams from St. Columba’s School in 1978, and used the fact that most of them would be considered “successful” to conclude that “grades matter”.

He says, “Eleven studied Economics at St. Stephens. Thirteen went to IIT. Seven went to IIM Ahmedabad. Another six went to other business schools including Harvard, Wharton, Kellogg and Carnegie Mellon. I see that almost all the others went to other excellent colleges — SRCC, AIIMS, MAMC, BITS and others.” While everybody will agree with him when he says, “almost all of these fifty have had stellar careers in their chosen field”, one cannot conclude, as he does, that “all of them got to where they did by dint of their effort and their academic accomplishments.”

St. Columba’s was one of the most elite schools in the country in the 1970s. While the students may not have been the children of millionaires or of royalty, they were certainly from families that male up the intellectual elite. Their parents were IAS and IPS officers, senior officers in the Armed Forces, pilots, lawyers, doctors and other educated professionals. While these families liked to think of themselves as “upper middle class” (and not “rich”), they were the people who ran the nation.

The students of St. Columba’s were at the apex of an inequitable pyramid, and every advantage was stacked in their favour. They grew up in families that prioritised education. They had the best teachers. If they struggled with a subject, they could get tutors to provide one on one coaching. They could access to books and libraries.

When they graduated, they had ready-made professional networks which they could tap into to get good jobs. They were fluent in English, which in itself guarantees a large measure of success. They had financial and emotional safety nets which enabled them to take calculated risks. While one does not discount the good grades that the students got, the odds are stacked so much in their favour that it would be hard for any student from St. Columba’s to fail spectacularly in their professional life.

Statistics only make sense when compared with other data sets

Statistics should never be viewed in isolation. In order to draw any conclusions on whether or not grades matter, either of two comparisons should have been made.

The top 50 in a batch of 200 represents the top quartile of students graduating from St. Columba’s in 1978. Comparing the career trajectory of the top 50 students with the career trajectory of the students with ranks 101 to 150, would have given an indication of whether “good grades” led to a significantly better professional career or not. If ‘only’ grades matter, most of the students in the third quartile should (at best) be working in low paying jobs which barely qualify as white collar. Though we do not have any details of what these people are doing, given the family background of the students and the fact that they are fluent in English, it is unlikely that any of them are in similar jobs (unless it is out of choice).

The other comparison could have been with the career trajectory of the toppers from 50 government schools in Delhi in 1978. If ‘only’ grades matter, the 50 toppers from government schools should have enjoyed much greater professional success than the students from the top quartile of one particular school. After all, each of them is the best in their school, not just one of the top 50! Again, we do not have details, but it is safe to assume that most of the toppers from government schools would not have enjoyed even a fraction of the professional success that the students of St. Columba’s did.

Even talking about these comparisons would seem ludicrous. How can anyone even think of comparting students from a elite English medium school with the students of a government school? Yet, when we talk about how “grades matter” and we say “good grades open doors. The effort you put in to achieve these grades adds intrinsic value to you”, aren’t we presupposing that the only thing that differentiates one who does well professionally from one who doesn’t is the amount of effort put into getting good grades”?

Though we believe otherwise, there is more at play than just ‘hard work’

When I was younger, I too believed that it was my hard work that got me where I was. But I was comparing myself to others with the same advantages as I had. Yes, I certainly had good brains, and I worked extremely hard, but it wasn’t just “my” brains and “my” hard work that got me where I was. I had privilege that I chose to be blind to, because I was comparing myself to others like me.

However behind my professional success was the fact that I had access to the best education my parents could afford- yes, they made personal sacrifices to pay for my education, but that they valued the education enough for them to do so itself is a privilege. Nobody questioned me when I aspired to occupy a place of excellence. My family supported me and my ambitions at every stage, and without that support, I doubt if I would have achieved what I did.

Though I chose not to think about it, I was born and brought up at the apex of an inequitable system. A system that empowered and enabled me to compete on what I thought was a level field, but actually was one that was stacked in my favour. There are many who are as intelligent as me. And are willing to work as hard as I did. But at every stage they are denied opportunity.

The vast majority of students in India, struggle to find teaches able and willing to teach. They do not have access to libraries. They do not have a family that can sustain their curiosity. They are constantly derided by the education system. Even after they get admission into good educational institutions, they are often not accepted as equals by the faculty and other students. Their competence is questioned, even though there is no reason to presume they are in any way not equal to the rest.

When they are ready to graduate, recruiters look at fluency in English as much (if not more) than they do at grades. Personal and professional networks play a key role in career progression. Not everyone has the financial and emotional safety net to take professional risks. In short, the field is stacked against the vast majority of people in the country.

Till those inequities are removed, the elite should not make blanket statements like-

“However you will need to be patient and toil diligently and consistently for a longish period of time for the payoff’s to come. You will need to attend every class, read every reading, prepare for every exam and work hard on every assignment. You will need to focus and be committed.”

While there is nothing wrong with the statement, what we should be more worried about is trying to ensure universal access to quality education, healthcare, livelihoods and social acceptance. Yes, good grades open doors, but they do so only for the elite. To not recognise your own privilege is to choose to moral blindness.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

How Can Anyone Deny That Pallavi Menke Is Drawn From Yashica Dutt’s Life?

 [Savarnas have always just taken from Dalit communities. When compounded by gender, it becomes worse. The makers of Made in Heaven should rethink their stand on Yashica Dutt’s claims. I write in Woman’s Web].

Pallavi Menke, in her understated, yet exquisite Gaurang creation with fresh jasmine flowers in her hair and bright red lipstick was stunning as a Dalit Buddhist bride in the episode “The Heart Skipped a Beat” of Made in Heaven Season 2.

The symbolism of a Dalit bride stepping through the water of the elegantly decorated pool to get to the mandap could not be missed. In 1927, Dr. BR Ambedkar led the Mahad Satyagraha where a group of Dalits drank water from a public tank which they were not allowed to use. Nearly a century later, in some parts of the country, Dalits are still prevented from drinking water from common water pots. Yet, here was a Dalit bride (even if played by a savarna actress), who was walking through water in what was clearly a venue which would normally try to keep people of her caste out.

Even while some commented on the propriety of a Dalit character being played by Radhika Apte, a savarna actress, many revelled in the pride of being represented in such a positive way. Said one twitter user- Loved this episode of Made In Heaven, which revolves around a woman struggling to assert her Dalit identity in a world that constantly tells her not to. I cried buckets while watching certain scenes, as it felt too relatable. An incredibly relevant story that shouldn’t be missed.

A predictable savarna response to this episode

There was an immediate backlash from savarnas. One twitter user, for instance wrote-
Don’t know which Dalit wedding (since they made it a point to say that’s what it was) or Buddhist wedding looks like this — but sure. Might have made more sense to show them donate the crores they spent on this gala, to support Dalit-owned businesses or anything more practical.

Sadly, this is a predictable savarna response.

Each of the weddings in Made in Heaven was opulent- why should only one wedding be singled out as wasteful and extravagant? Why should the money spent on a Dalit wedding be donated to charity, but not the money spent on other weddings? It is individuals who pay for weddings from their personal funds; unless a person is taking a loan from you to fund a wedding you know they cannot afford, nobody really has the right to determine how much the person spends on it.

Similar arguments are often also made when statues of Ambedkar are erected in public places using public money. I too have been guilty of thinking of how the funds could be better utilized in improving primary education for students from marginalised communities, and in giving them scholarships for higher education.

However, writer and activist, Yogesh Maitreya had a response to it and explained how statues to Ambedkar instilled a sense of pride in Dalits- “Ambedkar’s statues are neither inactive nor purposeless. They are the reminder of where you belong and what you inherit. Before I began to read, I grew up seeing him and it instilled in me a sense of confidence and empowerment. His statues are never found or situated in Savarna localities nor beyond Dalit bastis. Ambedkar’s statue is an entrance to the Utopia where you begin to dream to stand alone even when surrounded with storms. Ambedkar’s statue is a beginning of a dream of every Dalit who aspires to break free from the clutches of caste in every sense of the word.”

Yashica Dutt rightly pointed out the plagiarism in taking from her life with credit

The storm was dying down, when a bigger controversy erupted. People who had seen the episode found the obvious parallels between the character of Pallavi Menke and Yashica Dutt, the author of ‘Coming out as Dalit’.

When questioned, the director Neeraj Ghaywan, put up an Instagram post where he thanked “Yashica Dutt and her book which made the term “coming out” become a part of the popular culture lexicon for owning one’s Dalit identity. This inspired Pallavi’s interview section in the episode.”

This acknowledgement was, obviously, not sufficient for Yashica Dutt who pointed out, rightly, that while she appreciated Neeraj Ghaywan for acknowledging her work and contribution on Instagram, it came only AFTER viewers pointed out that the character was based on her and not before. Yashica Dutt also pointed out that an Instagram post did “very little for the millions of the global viewers of this Amazon Prime show.”

What Yashica Dutt was seeking was merely a public acknowledgement that the character of Pallavi Menke was inspired by her life and work. Instead the director, Neeraj Ghaywan continued to insist that Yashica Dutt was merely one of many Dalit authors (the others included Sujatha Gilda and Suraj Yengde) who’s works the team studied for inspiration.

The producer, Zoya Aktar, then went on the defensive and stated that she was “disturbed” by the “misleading reports and comments” by Yashica Dutt, before going on the describe how Pallavi Menke’s backstory was very different from that of Yashica Dutt’s and that the storyline was completely fictional.

There is little merit in what Zoya Aktar claims

While Pallavi Menke might be a Maharashtrian Ambedkarite who studied law at Columbia University and is the recipient of several awards, unlike Yashica Dutt who is from Rajastan and studied journalism at Columbia University, these are merely superficial differences. There are far more similarities between the two than differences. Both used caste agnostic surnames and hid their Dalit identity while in India. After going to Columbia University, both decided to “Come Out” as a Dalit, and wrote books on their experience. Both were public figures who are conscious that for them the personal and the political are intertwined. To completely deny that the character of Pallavi Menke was based on the life of Yashica Dutt is dishonest.

Art almost always imitates life. All good fictional characters are based on or drawn from real life people, and it is precisely this that adds depth to the work of fiction. Many of the characters in Made in Heaven itself are familiar, but the difference between them and the character of Pallavi Menke is that they are all composite characters, while the inspiration for Pallavi Menke is predominantly drawn from one person.

The storyline is entirely fictional. While Pallavi Menke might speak the same language as Yashica Dutt, the situations she encounters and the way she deals with them is fiction. Yashica Dutt cannot, as some say, claim royalties from the episode because the storyline is fictional. But what she can and must demand is an acknowledgement that the character is based on her life and work.

This too is what Yashica Dutt wants when she says, “I request the show creators to acknowledge my life’s work and ideas that contributed to this episode …. beyond a post on social media, and within the show’s credits.” Her request is perfectly justified, and to give her due credit for inspiring the central character will only enhance the impact of the episode which in Yashica Dutt’s own words is “no less than a cinematic triumph when it comes to showcasing what it truly looks like for a Dalit woman to take power back in this casteist society.”

Sadly, however, even while the episode celebrates a Dalit woman seeking her place in the world, the discourse in the real world will continue to be driven by savarnas who choose to negate a Dalit woman’s contribution.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Why We Should Not Remain Silent When Confronted By Bigotry

 [First published in Youth Ki Awaaz]

“When she came to work for us, our house help told us her name was Rakhi*. Since she wore shakha pola and sindoor, we didn’t suspect anything even though she admitted she was from Bangladesh. It is only in the last few weeks when she started behaving strangely and not even drinking water that we came to know her name is Rubia* and she is Muslim. She has deceived us so badly, we may have to ask her to leave.”

A few months back, during the month of Ramzan, these words were uttered by a well-educated, professionally qualified woman (let’s call her Sakshi) in a group of similarly qualified women. Sakshi was immediately challenged, “yes, deception is bad. But given the current environment, can you really blame Rubia for hiding her religion?”, she was asked. Sakshi, however, held her ground and kept insisting that the “deception” was unpardonable- “If we can’t trust her on this, how can we trust her on anything else?”

We tried reasoning with her, but she refused to accept she might be wrong
We explained that we are all guilty of small acts of deception- haven’t we all texted a friend and say the traffic is killing and we will be 10 minutes late, while in fact we are still waiting for the Uber to arrive? Or haven’t we pulled on a shrug while leaving home because our mother-in-law may not approve of our spaghetti strapped top, and taken it off as soon as the doors of the lift closed. But she insisted that those were insignificant deceptions, but her domestic help masking her religion was a major one deception which could not be overlooked.

We reminded Sakshi that while engaging a housekeeper, we should be concerned about the quality of work and her work ethics, not her religion. Her height, weight and religion mattered no more than the name of her favorite actor. But she continued to insist that she didn’t care about the religion of the house help, she was bothered that she had been deceived.

We then tried to explain how in the current environment where people are openly talking about boycotting Muslim run businesses, Rubia had only been exhibiting caution by masking her religion. That even if religion didn’t matter to one employer, it would to another, and she didn’t want to jeopardies her chances of getting the job. The person still insisted that it was a matter of principles, and that if the house help could lie about her religion, she lacked integrity.

By this time, we were fed up, and we reminded Sakshi that survival was more important than principles. “She needs the job. If the only way she can get a job is by masking her religion, then if we have any principles, instead of condemning her, we should be asking ourselves why she needs to do so.” She, of course, continued to insist that deception was wrong, and that we cannot condone it.

We couldn’t convince her, but we refused to ‘agree to disagree’
At some point, we realized that there was no point even arguing with her. Most said we could agree to disagree, but a few of us insisted that bigotry needs to be called out. In a country where people are taking public pledges to boycott Muslim traders, and Muslims are being beaten up on suspicion of eating beef, nobody can be blamed for attempting to mask their identity. It is a matter of life and livelihood for the house help, and a person chooses not to recognize it, it is more than just a difference of opinion. As Jack Cameron said, “Calling bigotry an opinion is like calling arsenic a flavor”, and unless bigotry is called out, it gets normalized.

Choosing to live in a utopian land isn’t an option either
Sakshi’s was a clear case of bigotry. But when I narrated the same incident in another group, Deepika (not her real name), who doesn’t have a single bigoted bone in her body, burst out “But, of course, what Rubia did was wrong. She shouldn’t have lied to her employer.” When we tried to explain why a person many be compelled to mask their religion, she said, “Why should anybody care about her religion. Religion doesn’t even matter anymore.” Deepika genuinely believes that since she doesn’t think the religion of a person is important, it doesn’t matter to anyone else either.

Unfortunately, only upper caste, economically well off people from the majority community have the privilege to state that religion doesn’t matter. Religion certainly matters to the young woman with the neutral sounding first name who finds the landlord no longer wants to give his flat on rent to her after hearing her surname. Religion certainly matters to the person travelling by train through a communally sensitive state and who couldn’t sleep at night for fear of what might happen if a mob saw his name on the passenger manifest.

Religion certainly matters to the mother who gets a note from her son’s school asking her to send only vegetarian snacks in the tiffin box because other parents complained about the kebabs she packed (and which were polished off by the same students who then complained). Religion certainly matters to the vendor who is no longer allowed to set up a stall at the fair where his family have been participating for decades.

If Rubia told a potential employer that her name was Rakhi, it was because she desperately needed the job, and didn’t want to be turned away because of her religion. Well-meaning people cannot blame her for doing what she did, because the reality she operates in is very different from the reality we live in. On the contrary, people with good intentions should speak up against the system that forces her to mask her identity.

Silence is not an option; our silence enables perpetrators of hate
It is extremely easy for us to say that we are not confrontational, and that we prefer not to get involved. However, at some point, remaining silent no longer remains an option.

As author, Naomi Shulman wrote- 

“Nice people made the best Nazis. My mom grew up next to them. They got along, refused to make waves, looked the other way when things got ugly and focused on happier things than “politics.” They were lovely people who turned their heads as their neighbors were dragged away. You know who weren’t nice people? Resisters.”

It is important for all of us to become resisters. Because if we who have a voice do not speak against injustice, who will?

Friday, August 4, 2023

Barbie the Toy is different from Barbie the Movie

[Under all the pink and hype, Barbie the Movie, is Feminism 101 for the uninitiated. I write in Women’s Web.]

We didn’t have Barbie in India when I was young. I do remember asking for a Barbie when a relative come from abroad, but was told something about how playing with Barbies killed the imagination. I am not sure if it was my mother who decided Barbies were unsuitable for me to play with, or my aunt, but I do know I never had one. Since nobody I knew had one either, I didn’t really miss having a Barbie either.

I was in high school by the time Barbies were introduced in India. Far too old to even consider wanting the toy! Besides, by then, we had already started reading about Barbie, and how she can setting unrealistic goals, and that her vital statistics were so weird that she would have kept toppling over had she been a real person. There was also all the criticism of how Barbie perpetrated gender stereotypes by doing nothing more than dressing up and looking pretty. By then it was popular to look down on the overtly sexualised Barbie, and I did so too.

I disliked all that I thought Barbie stood for
All Barbie seemed to do was change clothes and look pretty. Even the so called ‘Professional Barbies’ were clones of each other- overtly sexualised, unattainably thin and wearing those impossibly high heels. I blamed Barbie when companies created pink versions of consumer durables and targeted them exclusively at women- I didn’t want to pay a premium only for the colour. Over time, the dislike turned to indifference; and I was not even aware that Mattel had brought in diversity in skin tones and body shapes.

Then, earlier this year, Barbie re-entered my life through social media. “This Barbie has [insert passion]” memes started popping up.

The pre-publicity for Barbie the Movie was like a tsunami this summer. It seemed like a cute movie, but I didn’t even think of watching the movie till my son told me that it was a deeply feminist film, and that there is one scene I would particularly enjoy. I couldn’t imagine how a toy that has been criticised for perpetrating unrealistic body standards and gender stereotyping could star in a feminist movie, so decided to watch it.

*Contains some minor spoilers*

The plot of Barbie the Movie, by now, is well known
The Barbies exist in a fantasy land called Barbieland where all the Barbies ever made wear their beautiful clothes and live their perfectly perfect lives where “Everyday is the best day ever, and every night is girls night, from now until forever.” While the Barbies have their cool professions, the Kens just hang around waiting to be noticed by Barbie.

Then, Ken and Barbie are forced to venture into the “real world” where Ken discovers patriarchy, and returns to Barbie world to infect it with patriarchy. By the time Barbie returns to what has now been renamed Kendom, the Kens are in charge, and the Barbies are serving them. Barbie and the discontinued Barbies, with some help from her friends from the real world, regain control.

In the new Barbieland, the Kens are given more rights than they had previously, though when Ken asks for a seat in the Supreme Court, he is asked to work his way up from the lower courts!
*end of spoiler alert*

The storyline is a takedown of patriarchy and is certainly feminist
The pivotal scene of the movie is the “It’s literally impossible to be a woman” monologue by Gloria, the woman from the real world who befriends and assists Barbie. “It’s literally impossible to be a woman,” she tells Barbie. “You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don’t think you’re good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we’re always doing it wrong.” You could see women nodding along while she described the many ways in which the system is rigged against women.

While to feminists the monologue was merely Feminism 101, it did force other women and sympathetic men to acknowledge the ways in which women are imprisoned by the need to live upto everyone else’s expectations.

The line, ”you’re supposed to stay pretty for men, but not so pretty that you tempt them too much or that you threaten other women because you’re supposed to be a part of the sisterhood”, for instance, not only exposed the Beauty Trap but also the pressure to Lean In and be part of the Sisterhood. Left unsaid was the fact that men are untouched by so many issues that literally paralyse women.

The fact that both the original Barbieland, where the Kens were merely accessories, and Kendom were dismantled sends out the clear feminist message that any world where one gender holds all the power at the expense of the other is not a sustainable world. In the new Barbieland, the positions of power are still controlled by the Barbies, but the Kens are given the opportunity to work their way into it- hopefully the Kens will face fewer obstacles than women do in the real world.

The movie also explores the criticism against Barbie
Gloria’s tween daughter, Sasha, is vehemently anti-Barbie. When Barbie strides in expecting to be loved, Sasha tells her exactly why she dislikes everything Barbie stands for. Barbie cannot refute that, though she tries, because the reality is that Barbie does initiate young girls into unrealistic body standards, and many, including Lisa Ray have publicly stated that playing with Barbie led them to suffer from body dysmorphia and anorexia for years.

On the other hand, the fact that there were President Barbies, and astronaut Barbies, and journalist Barbies, and physicist Barbies and Barbies following every other profession, means that young girls were told that their gender did not prevent them from having whatever career they wanted. Even though these Barbies were literally indistinguishable from the Barbies leading the suburban dream of every American housewife (minus the husband), they did show girls who may not have other such role models that a woman could be anything she wants to be.

Unfortunately, this messaging has been lost in the pink and the hype surrounding the movie. When Malala posts a picture of herself and her husband in a Barbie toy box with the caption, “The Barbie has a Nobel Prize. He’s just Ken.”, you admire the confidence of Asser Malik, because it is not easy for any man, least of all a man from the subcontinent, to admit he is “just Ken”.

But you are also disappointed because nobody should be a “just Ken”. Every individual has an identity and is deserving of respect. If the takeaway from the movie is merely the line “He’s just Ken”, then the movie didn’t achieve what it set out to do- to get people thinking of a more equitable world.

For me, three scenes sum up my thoughts about the movie
Scene one
The first scene is where Barbie and Ken, upon entering the real world duck into a store and walk out wearing brand new clothes. The shopkeeper chases after them to pay for the clothes, and they seem unaware of the existence of monetary transactions.

This is one of the criticisms levelled against Mattel- that people who play with Barbies don’t realise that they need to pay for all the stuff she owns, and that they grow up unaware of the consequences of swiping a credit card to buy something they cannot afford.

Scene two
The second scene I loved was when Barbie is sitting on bench trying to make sense of the real world. And older lady comes and sits next to her. Just to be kind, Barbie tells her she’s beautiful, and the old lady smiles and says, “I know”.

Not only was this a tender moment of Sisterhood, through those two words “I know”, the director of the movie conveyed that beneath all the hype and pink, real beauty was something only the heart can see.

Scene three

The third scene was when Gloria swerves the car off the road. “How did you learn to do that?”, Sasha asks. “From this man I dated”, replies her mother vaguely. “You mean Dad?”, asks a wide-eyed Sasha. Even tweens seeped in feminism can’t imagine that their mothers existed before they became their mother.

Feminists are often guilty of similar thoughts- each new wave of feminism builds on the foundation erected by the earlier ones, and while criticism is both valid and necessary, it is not right to completely denounce a feminist from an older generation- had she however flawed not existed, we may not be around in a position to critique her.

Barbie the toy is not Barbie the movie
Personally, I loved the movie because it delivered a powerful message in a light hearted, fun way. While watching the movie, it is important to separate Barbie the toy from Barbie the movie. The toy was controversial and the debate about whether Barbie the toy has a positive or negative (or mixed) impact on young girls will continue long after the movie leaves the theatres. But the main message of Barbie the movie was a feminist one. It will give men and women who don’t really understand feminism a perspective on the inherent inequity in society. They may choose not to use the word feminism, but the idea matters more than the name.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Women's Bodies Are NOT Your Battlefields In Times Of Conflict!

 [The video of three women in Manipur being sexually molested by a mob triggered this article which was first published in Women’s Web]

Trigger Warning: This deals with graphic gender based violence, violence against women, rape and war-time sexual violence on women, and may be triggering for survivors.

The recent video which shows two Kuki women being paraded naked by a mob in Manipur has provoked a cry of outrage both on and off social media. The video has forced people who tried to ignore the ongoing violence in Manipur to break their silence and speak up against the outrage. It draws attention to the sad reality that a woman’s body is the preferred battleground for those seeking vengeance or for those wanting to assert dominance over a family, a clan, or a state.

While women and girls are always vulnerable to sexual violence and exploitation, they are most vulnerable during wartime and times of political conflict. Throughout history, sexual violence against women and girls has been used as a systematic strategy to humiliate, subjugate and terrorise groups of people.

The numbers are staggering
It is estimated that anywhere between 200,000 and 400,000 women were victims of sexual assault during the Bangladeshi Liberation Movement.

This document by the UN records that more than 60,000 women were sexually assaulted during the decade long civil war in Sierra Leone and about 40,000 during the civil war in Liberia. Nearly 60,000 Bosnian-Muslim women were raped during the unrest in the Balkan, anywhere between 100,000 and 250,000 during the Rwandan genocide, and over 200,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Closer home, it is estimated that anything between 75,000 to 100,000 women were abducted and raped in the months leading up to Partition and during its aftermath.

Historically, sexual violence in conflict zones has often been regarded as an unavoidable and inevitable consequence of war and conflict, and the perpetrators of violence have seldom been punished. However, the unprecedented scale of gender-based violence, particularly in Rwanda and the Balkans provoked international debate on re-conceptualising rape and other forms of sexual violence as ‘war crimes’. This, in part, led to the International Criminal Court declaring in 1998 that gender based violence was indeed a war crime. However, despite this declaration, the enforcement of laws pertaining to widespread sexual violence against women, particularly in conflict zones, remains weak and women in conflict zones remain vulnerable to gender-based violence.

‘Honour’ of the family tied to women’s bodies
Though the crimes were sexual in nature, revenge and ethnic cleansing were the reasons cited for the abduction and rape of the women.

As Urvashi Bhutalia who has documented the post-Partition violence in the Punjab says, it is hard to estimate numbers because families choose to forget the woman who has been abducted, and the abducted women choose to forget their story from the time before their abduction.

This is largely because in those communities, the “honour” of the family is tied up to the purity of their women, and the way families retain their honour is by denying that their women were abducted. This is also the reason why even when women were rescued from their captors and returned to their home countries, the families refused to take them back and they ended up being forced into prostitution.

It is not only in wartime that women’s bodies become a battlefield
The video from Manipur also reminds us reminds one of the scene in Bandit Queen, where the actor who played Phoolan Devi was made to walk naked through a mob of jeering men. It is also reminiscent of many similar videos that have been made of women being paraded through the village they can be “taught a lesson”. In fact, in India, stories of sexual atrocities against Dalit women are so common that we have almost become immune to them.

In one such case, when a journalist asked the victim if she recognised any of her perpetrators, the woman famously said, “sab the”(everyone was there)– all the (dominant caste male) villagers were present while the violence was being inflicted on her. In each of these cases, the sexual violence perpetrated against the woman is less about sex and more about power and dominance. When the dominant caste men are displeased with a person/s from the oppressor caste, their preferred way of seeking vengeance is by asserting sexual dominance on the women.

This is directly linked to notions of patriarchy and the belief that a woman is the property of the man/ family/ clan. Sexual assault of women is therefore a way of humiliating men by violating both their honour and their exclusive right to the sexual possession of ‘their’ woman – “honour revenge. In this scenario, though the sexual violence is against the woman’s body, autonomy, integrity and self esteem, her subjectivity is denied and it gets recognised only as a crime against the men/ family/ community.

The need for an intention to change the situation
Goal 5 of the Sustainable Development Goals which calls for Gender Equality specifically states that it should be the goal to “Eliminate all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other forms of violence.” This can only be achieved when the international community demands accountability for sexual gender based violence especially in conflict zones.

While it is true that international organizations should respect the territorial integrity of a nation and should not interfere in internal matters, it is also imperative that sexual violence as a weapon of war should be condemned. Balancing the two is one of the biggest challenges that the world is facing today, and unless sexual violence against women in conflict zones is addressed, gender equality will remain a distant goal.


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