Friday, January 21, 2022

Feminists could be allies of MRAs

[While MRAs reserve the greatest vitriol for feminists, if they put their prejudice aside, they will realise that feminists will be strong allies.]

 In the social media storm surrounding the ongoing hearings at the Delhi High Court to seek to do away with the exception provided to marital rape under the IPC, the greatest noise has been made by the self-proclaimed MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists).

These men are mostly victims of the misuse of Section 498a of IPC, which was enacted to protect women from harassment from their husbands and their families. Their contention is that just like S/498A has been used to harass men, similarly criminalisation of marital rape too will be misused to “destroy the lives of men”.

MRAs have chosen to direct all their ire against “feminists”, and hold them responsible for the fake cases filed under S/498A, and for the cases that they assume will be filed after marital rape is decriminalised. However, if MRAs step back for a moment, they will realise that their biggest allies in their quest for justice will be feminists.


Before I go further, I will say that the statistics MRAs quote are misleading. They say "majority" of cases filed under S/498a are "fake". What they actually mean is that of the cases filed under S/498A, less than 15% have ended in conviction. That does not, however, mean that 85% of cases are false, because that figure includes cases that are still pending in courts, cases withdrawn under duress, cases which were settled out of court, and even a few cases that were dropped because the victim lost faith in the system and moved on. The number of cases which resulted in a direct acquittal is actually quite low.

More importantly, a very small fraction of women who are victims of harassment actually approach the police, and of them, the police registers an FIR in fewer cases. So to get the percentage of false cases, one will have to compare the number of acquittals to an estimate of the number of women who experience sexual, physical or emotional abuse from their husbands and their families. This figure is sufficiently small to dismiss all the arguments about how the lives of “millions of men” will be destroyed by feminists once marital rape is decriminalised.


Having said all that, S/498A is certainly misused. Even if the number of men who are victims is low, each of them does face mental suffering which cannot be trivialised. However, far from enabling women to file false charges, feminists will actually side with the victim. Feminists, by definition, strive for an equitable world. We side with the victim who is seeking justice. So if a woman files a fake case under S/498A against her partner, our sense of natural justice will make us side with him, as long as we are convinced of his side of the story.


That apart, there are two other very practical reasons why feminists are against "fake cases".

Every time a woman misuses S/498A, it makes it harder for a genuine victim to seek justice. Anyone who has approached the police to register a case under S/498A knows how the police uses one "fake case" they might have handled a few months back to discredit the testimony of all subsequent victims. The victim seeking to file a case against her husband or his family is subject to a barrage of questions, and the police often delays filing the FIR for several weeks, thereby exposing the victim to prospective violence in her marital home. No feminist wants that, so we will provide as much support as we can to ensure that fake cases are weeded out.


Also, whenever there is a case of spousal violence where the aggressor is a woman, it is used as a whip to lash at all feminists. Thousands of women could be subject to domestic violence everyday, but if one woman hits her husband it makes news, and all feminists are expected to take responsibility for it. We, therefore, want to do all we can to keep down the number of fake cases, so we do not have to expend energy explaining that though we are called “feminists”, we are not responsible for the actions of women who are oppressors themselves.

It is to be noted that feminists are often the first to speak up for vulnerable men- male victims of CSA, homosexuals, physically challenged. We will, similarly, speak up for men who are victims of misuse of S/498A, since we side with the victim against injustice.

I wish the Men’s Rights Activists take some time to understand what feminism means, and instead of targeting feminists all the time, try to get us as allies in their quest for justice.





Saturday, January 8, 2022

Book Review: Bad Blood

 Unputdownable is the only word to describe John Carreyrou’s ‘Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup’. Though the story of the rise and rise and rise and ultimate fall of the Silicon Valley bio-tech start-up, Theranos, (and its Founder CEO, Elizabeth Holmes) is well known, the book still reads like a fictional thriller.

I remember reading a profile of the Founder CEO, Elizabeth Holmes in 2014, and being absolutely impressed by her youth, her beauty, and her obvious brilliance. It almost seemed like a fairy tale- a 19 year old engineering student coming up with an idea that will revolutionize medical diagnostics, and setting up a company that will make her the richest self-made female. How could someone so young develop a revolutionary technology, and also set up a successful company, I wondered. The answer lies in this book.

It was precisely her lack of scientific knowledge that empowered Elizabeth Holmes to chase an idea that someone with even a bit of experience would know could never work for practical reasons. Like a primary school student drawing a fantastic beast, Elizabeth Holme’s idea had everything- a single drop of blood drawn from the finger, miniature device, multiple tests conducted simultaneously, results out virtually in real time. She didn’t have the expertise to make any of it happen, but she had the charisma to sell her Vision to others. And she drove them to do what was impossible.

Her youth and her passion impressed a group of very powerful older men, who became her greatest champions. Most of them didn’t understand the technology, but were swayed by her vision, and the fact that others from their network believed in her was sufficient for them. It is often said that men have access to Old Boys Networks in a way that women never do- but Elizabeth Holmes, either despite or perhaps because of her gender was able to tap into them as few others could.

The story of Theranos is the story of many tech start-ups. Fake it till you make it. Holmes never even had a working prototype, but she had the audacity to sell her vision to many. It was a classic case of creating an image and letting the image sell itself- even prestigious medical schools went out of their way to honour her merely on the basis of her assertions. Her Board was so packed with heavyweights, that nobody noticed she didn’t have a single expert from the field of medical diagnostics there. The financial projections were never met, and product deadlines were constantly missed, yet she successfully worked on FOMO to ensure her backers stayed with her.

Carreyrou dismisses any theories of Holmes being misled. From the earliest days, the start up resorted to distortions and untruths. During live demonstrations, fake results would be beamed to impress prospective partners and investors. Code was written to ensure that when the device malfunctioned, instead of beaming an error message, the progress bar would appear to slow down, so people decided not to wait for the results but pick it up later at which time false results would be submitted.

Bad Blood is the story of a Founder CEO who was all image but no domain expertise. Employees were recruited by selling a vision, and then insane demands were placed on them. The corporate culture was personality driven, and nobody was allowed to offer constructive criticism or push back on insane demands. People who left (or were asked to leave) were threatened with lawsuits if they went back on the non-disclosure agreements they signed.

Theranos never had the product they claimed they had- more effort was put on the aesthetics of the product than in the product itself. None of the USPs which Holmes spoke about in public were actualised. Yet, they were able to maintain the illusion for over a decade and raise multiple rounds of funding. Had Theranos been a regular tech start up, a lot of it could have been forgiven. But the consumers were people, and the decisions of life and death were taken based on the test results. Errors, and there were several, could have proved fatal. Which is why employees quit, and the entire investigation was launched.

Bad Blood reads like a thriller- at times, it seems too unrealistic even to be fiction. We keep marvelling at how so many were fooled for so long by so little. The cast of characters is varied and well etched. It is an exemplary piece of writing, which will appeal to many. Above all, it is a cautionary tale.


Thursday, January 6, 2022

Boye ped babul ke

 Three young people have been taken into custody for creating an app which “auctioned” Muslim women who have a presence on Twitter.

A group of high school students beat up a Muslim classmate for participating in the garba celebrations.

Young men and women with ‘student’ on their bio are all over Social Media spewing hate and issuing threats to anyone with a different political ideology.

“How did young people develop so much hate?”, we wonder.

Sant Kabir has the answer-

करता रहा सो क्यों रहा, अब करी क्यों पछताए |

बोये पेड़ बबूल का, अमुआ कहा से पाए ||


These young people didn’t get beamed down from outer space. Nor did they need any special brainwashing to get this way. They are all a product of the toxic environment they are exposed to at home and outside. The adults in their life are full of hate, bigotry and gross entitlement, and they grow up thinking that is the only way to be.

My son was 7 when he uttered the words “Sala Musalman”. Since I couldn’t imagine him using the slur, I probed. He’d picked it up from a friend, who’s school teacher used it often. Though I tried to tell the mother of his friend, she was really not concerned. Seeds of bigotry planted early and growing unchecked.

A couple of years later, I overheard another friend of my son ticking off a security guard, “pata hai main kaun hoon? Do minute mein naukri se nikal sakta hoon.” (/”do you know who I am. I can have you thrown out of your job in two minutes.”) The 12 year old was clearly repeating words he heard his father and/ or mother utter. The entitlement was taught by example, and constantly reinforced to a point where it became second nature.

I’ve often observed mothers waiting for their car outside a mall trying to coax their kids to finish a fast-melting softie cone. When surrounded by kids begging for the cone, they shoo the kids away, but dump the cone in a dustbin and rub their hands clean before getting into the car. If you ask them why they couldn’t have given it to the kids, they mutter something about not encouraging ‘dirty’ kids. This doesn’t exactly teach empathy, does it?


I am sure all those children are now pursuing professional degrees in well regarded institutions. In a few years, they will be in good jobs where the starting salary is much higher than the annual income of an average Indian family. Yet, what are the values they have imbibed? Hate, bigotry, lack of empathy, selfishness, taking privilege for granted.

Is it any surprise that these youth carry their sense of entitlement with them, and grow up to be hatemongers? Isn’t it expected that far from being aware of their privileges, these youth grow up thinking they are the victims of an inequitable system?

The environment that our children are growing up in doesn’t help either.

Movies and TV shoes celebrate misogyny and violence. Sexual harassment is mainstreamed in popular culture. Almost none of the popular actors, singers or sportspeople consistently speak against social evils, and many even promote caste pride, religious indoctrination and misogyny through their posts on social media. 

The narrative of hate peddled by the mainstream media boom from our TVs every evening. Video games bring out our violent streak. And even school textbooks present a one-sided narrative. Growing up in this environment, it is hard for youth not to be indoctrinated to some extent.

While it is a relatively small number of youth who actually commit hate crimes, the vast majority carry their toxic ideology with them, and will eventually spawn the next generation of similarly radicalised youth. The vicious cycle feeds itself.

Is there any hope at all?

If you look at the same generation, you do find some exceptional people. Young men and women fighting for the planet, speaking out against atrocities, asking uncomfortable questions to those in authority. There are teenagers who engage in nuanced discussions, and create art that holds a mirror to society. These young people use social media to speak up against bigotry and misogyny. How are they different from their peers?

Most of them come from homes where they were encouraged to speak up. They were allowed to question authority and hold views different from those of their parents and/ or teachers. Their parents instilled the core values of honesty, empathy and respect in them, and they were tasked with the responsibility of standing up for those who were being bullied by others. Many of them read extensively, and learnt to use the internet responsibly.

These are the youth who give hope that with proper effort, radicalisation can be overcome. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”


Sunday, January 2, 2022

Book Review: Kari

 Kari’s smouldering black eyes drilled into my soul from the stark cover of Amruta Patil’s graphic novel for almost a month before I finally gathered the courage to dive into the turgid dark waters of her Soul. Kari, the protagonist, inhabits the same time and space that I called home for several years- we might even have taken the same local train to work or back- yet, superficially, we couldn’t be more different.

Brooding, melancholy, drawn to the dark, Kari introspects on the urban lifestyle, on sexuality and people’s reaction of fidelity, on lesbian relationships and how the heterosexual society often sees it as a temporary deviant, on paternal expectations and the guilt of children, on domestic violence and the studied silence of society when it encounters it. As Kari navigates the labyrinth of ‘Smog City’, collecting symbols like we collect ticket stubs, you start seeing glimpses of yourself in Kari and of Kari in you.

The book is in sombre colours. Like the world Kari inhabits- 

“Smog city looks even more anaemic in the sun. Left to itself long enough, everything in the world withers, wastes, fades away to brown and grey. Tarpaulin and trash. Cinders and ash. Vegetables turn to potty. Red curtains colourless, add to this, streams of women and women, like rotos and slaves, in equally tired colours. We are scared of too much colour.”

But when you least expect it, that monochromatic world gets drenched in colour. Sometimes, it is the colour of the magical, sometimes of the mundane. But colour it is.

Some of her musings are spot on-

“There are settling girls, and there are unsettling girls. The ones who seem to have it in them to be flyers are the ones who want to snuggle into settling. The ones who look as settled as old housedogs want to twist their way into flying. Necessarily, you must be defensive about being a settling sort of girl.”

“The Airlines lady who travels in the same compartment as us day after day, has bruises on her arms and face today and her eyes keep welling, but no one asks her why. Our eyes dart towards her, but we go back to travelling in too much proximity. Two inches from one another and expressionless.”

“I wait to watch their train leave just as I waited to watch their train pull in. I wait till they have disappeared. Until the next train pulls in. I have temporarily regressed to being a guilt ridden and miserable child.”

Amruta Patil’s ‘Kari’, for all practical purposes, is the first graphic novel for adults that I read, so I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. Having read it, I now wonder if the bar is set too high.


Should the legal age of marriage be raised?

 [On the face of it, Yes. But there are nuances that need to be considered.]

The Union Cabinet has cleared a proposal to raise the legal age of marriage for women from 18 to 21, and will be introducing a Bill seeking the Amendment soon. On the face of it, it seems like a great move, but if you look at the ground reality, is it really such a good idea to raise the age of marriage for women from 18 to 21?

As per current statistics, upto 30% of women in India were married before the age of 18*, despite the fact that the legal age for marriage was set at 18 years in 1978. This conclusively proves that the law alone is not a deterrent against child marriage.

Many of us believe that child marriage is due to lack of awareness about the minimum legal age of marriage. However, the causes are actually much deeper. It is for convivence, out of concern for the safety of the child, or because of societal pressures.

In families/ communities where women are not encouraged to go out to work, there is little to be gained by educating a girl beyond a certain level. Such girls are married off as soon as a suitable groom is found. Typically in these families the search for a groom begins after the girl attains puberty, and she is often married soon after completing her class 10 board exams.

In households where both parents engage in labour, even if the girl is sent to high school, she is forced to stay alone at home for a few hours every day after school. Parents perceive this as a risk, so unless there are safe after school activities, they get the girl married off as soon as possible. Typically, such marriages take place after the girl graduates from the local school, and needs to travel to another village for further studies.

In many communities, traditional livelihoods require a woman to assist her husband in a part of the livelihood process (to give a few examples- toddy tappers need wives to make jaggery, weavers are assisted by their women in the preparatory process, sugarcane harvesting requires a couple to work in tandem). In such communities, girls are necessarily married off early since their economic value is unlocked only after marriage (in some communities which rely on entertainment as a source of income, even girls as young as 14 are married off).

Once a girl attains puberty, her “safety” becomes of prime concern to the family. If the family suspects she may be in a relationship, or that someone “unsuitable” is interested in her, she is typically married off to the first man the family can find. The legal age of marriage then works against her, because she needs to wait to attain that age for fear her parents will have the marriage annulled otherwise, but the family has no such fear.

Though we often think that child marriage is a product of poverty, it is not. Even in “well to do” and “well placed” families if a suitable match is found, the girl is engaged to be married, and the wedding solemnised as soon as she turns 18. If the match is extremely “good”, and if the groom’s family is unwilling to wait, the wedding takes place even before the bride turns 18.

All these factors ensure that the rate of “child marriage” in India is between 27% (UNICEF) to 47% (ICRW), despite the fact that the legal age of marriage was set at 18 more than 2 generations ago.

What, then will happen if the legal age is raised to 21? It will not necessarily delay marriages. All that will happen is that the percentage of women being married before legal age will shoot up, making the woman far more vulnerable than she now is.

Assuming a family allows the girl to study upto Class XII, she will graduate high school at the age of 17/ 18. What after that? Most families do not want their girls to travel long distances either to work or to go to college, so unless there is a college that is perceived as “safe” in the neighbourhood, she will be kept at home for 3 years.

OR, she will be married off. Regardless of what the law says.

If the law refuses to recognise a union conducted before legal age, then the “child-bride” will not have any legal rights in her marital home. She will be far more vulnerable to emotional, physical and sexual abuse than she is now where the law is on her side. In case of pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies, she will be subject to unnecessary harassment, and this could even lead to unsafe abortions.

The law will also work against women who want to marry partners who are deemed “unsuitable” by their families. They will necessarily have to wait till she turns 21 for fear of the family using the law to pull them apart. But if the family suspects such a union, they will get her married before legal age since they do not have any such fear.

What then is the solution?

Education

Awareness

Empowerment

What is needed is to work at the community level to create awareness on why child marriage is not desirable both from the health perspective and from a social perspective.

What is needed is for the community to recognise that a woman is as capable as a man in creating economic value, she will no longer be seen as a burden which is to be set down at the earliest possible.

Once this happens, the age of marriage will go up organically.

I have personally witnessed this in two communities where we worked over a sustained period.

In one rural community, the average age of marriage for girls was 14, which coincided with the end of schooling in the local government school. Once the community realised the value of continuing the education, and began sending them to high school in the nearest town, the number of child marriages dwindled. After graduating from high school, many of the girls who would otherwise have been married at 14 enrolled in technical/ vocational courses, and the community was determined to not get them married till they were economically independent.

The experience in an urban slum community was equally dramatic. Girls were earliest married at the age of 15 or 16, but after a few years of intervention, the average age of marriage shot up to above 20. In that community it is common to see families where the first born girl(s) were child brides, but their younger siblings are in college, and where the mother proudly declare, “we will get our daughter married only when she wants it.”

History has shown that enacting a law alone has not been enough to deter child marriage. What is needed is sustained behaviour change communication at the community level to ensure that the community recognises the value of educating and empowering the girl child.

Lokmanya Tilak exemplifies this contradiction between the legal and the personal. At a time when girls were married before puberty and many died at childbirth when the marriage was consummated, he opposed raising the legal age of marriage to 14. It was his belief that the law should not “meddle” in the personal life of people, and that we should, instead, focus on changing behaviour. He followed up by ensured that his own daughters were not married before the age of 16.

One can challenge Tilak’s position on the grounds that a law was needed to save the lives of the child brides who’s bodies were ravaged by pregnancy and childbirth before they were ready for it. However, that is no longer the case today. While it is desirable for a woman to get married at 21 rather than at 18, the lower age of marriage is not a health risk. Hence, it is better to lead the change from the social perspective.

Before talking of raising the legal age of marriage for girls, let us first ensure that the existing law is implemented.

* this is an approximation. Studies from reputed agencies show the figure as anything between 27% to 47%.

Behold, I Shine

 [Q: How do you review a book which taught you so much?

A: You don’t even try.]

“It is often assumed that the women of Kashmir have not suffered the brunt of direct violence as much as the men there have done. But is that really true? Or is the scale of their suffering underestimated because it is difficult to access women’s stories? Also, what of the indirect violence that has been inflicted on them- shouldn’t that be accounted for?”

Freny Manecksha’s “Behold, I Shine” attempts to document the voices and narratives of the women and children of Kashmir. She examines the ongoing conflict in Kashmir through the gender-sensitive lens, and through stories attempts to answer questions like- has militarization hardened existing patriarchal structures, how do notions of security interact with the patriarchal belief that the rights of a girl child are less than those of the boy, how do young women cope with the overwhelming restrictions in the Valley, how women who are victims of sexual violence also need to deal with the reactions of society, are women in Kashmir supressing their fight for gender rights because of the larger fight for azadi. With sensitivity and grace, Manecksha examines each of these issues, and more.

There is an overwhelming number of “half widows” in Kashmir- women who’s husbands have “disappeared”, and they do not know if he is still alive or dead. Not only is the “half widow” left in an emotional limbo of not knowing what happened, she is forced to fend for her family financially. More importantly, she is often required to negotiate the spaces between her natal and marital family, neither of which wants to acknowledge her agency. Her quest for justice can only continue after overcoming all those other factors that seek to derail it, and the quest itself opens her up to further vulnerability.

The book examines how a woman’s body is converted into a battlefield. Of how victims of sexual abuse have to deal not only with the violence of the act, but the violence of a society that continues to shame her, the victim. Manecksha talks of how by articulating the question of why a woman who was raped is not accorded the same status as a martyr, people are forcing society to acknowledge that rape is a political weapon, and thereby delinked from shame and loss of honour.

The book describes how mothers of sons who have disappeared use their conventional and highly personal identity as a mother to draw attention to the deeply political issue. Manecksha describes how some women have used their personal loss to transform themselves into activists drawing attention to a larger cause.

However, it is not only those who have suffered direct losses who are impacted. Manecksha talks of how minimization has reduced access to public spaces. These shared public spaces were spaces where women could meet other women and have everyday conversations. How does losing them impact women? The chapter on how Sufi shrines become a safe place for women has a particularly poignant statement- “Shrines are radical spaces where women can experience spirituality, chat with a friend and even have something to eat afterwards”. These are words that will resonate with many, not just from the Valley.

Manecksha discusses how “care”, “control” and “concern” often overlap. Women, particularly, are subject to restrictions, including restrictions on behaviour and clothing. What do women in a conflict zone like Kashmir think about gender rights- does the fight for azadi mean that gender issues should take a backseat?

Though the book begins with a brief introduction to the “Kashmir problem”, what it does not do is to go into the details of the struggle or the reasons behind the rise of militancy. Instead, the book focusses on the women who bear the double burdens of patriarchy and being caught in the crossfire of militarization.

The book is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the gendered aspects of the conflict in Kashmir. Manecksha has done a brilliant job in weaving together the diverse narratives of women from Kashmir to bring out the picture of the double burden that women carry. ‘Behold, I Shine’ is a tribute to their unwavering spirit, which is summed up in one Facebook post-

“Some want to put the hijab on me and save me. Some want to take the hijab off me and save me. Just give me a break, man! I can save myself.”

Dear Men

[An Open Letter to Men who don’t like it when women call out men]

Dear Men,

I am tired. Tired, not of what we are subject to everyday, but tired of listening to you calling us “toxic feminists” who keep “cribbing about men”. I am tired of listening to your unsolicited advice about how we should “take care and be responsible” for our own safety. Tired of how our very presence as a “feminist” triggers you.

So let me tell you what it is like to be a woman.

Do you know we never step out of home without something with which to defend ourselves in case we are attacked? It could be pepper spray, a Swizz Army knife, or a key held as a knuckle duster; we are always prepared.

If someone taps on your shoulder, we’ve seen you turn around to with a smile to greet a friend. Never do that to a woman- her nerves are so taut in public spaces, she may just swing around and punch you.

While using public transport, a woman is constantly on guard. If a man is making her feel uncomfortable, she often strikes up a conversation with a random woman so it appears neither is alone and vulnerable. She is also constantly looking out for other women- for that slight change in body language that tells her that the other person is uncomfortable with the attention she is receiving from a man.

Before getting into a cab at night, a woman almost always makes a call to a friend and passes on the license number. Sometimes she even conducts a one-sided conversation so the cab driver doesn’t try any fancy tricks with her.

You might have seen those “independent women” enjoying a night out together. The last thing they tell each other before leaving is not “tonight was fun, we should get together again”, but “message me after you reach home”. None of them relaxes till all the others confirm they reached home safely.

Before using an empty public washroom, a woman checks that the outer door cannot be locked from inside (in case a man traps her in alone with him), that there are no open windows (from which someone can come in) and that the cubicle door bolts securely. If she doesn’t feel safe, she doesn’t use the washroom- she holds it she finds another one.

When she is traveling alone (whether on work or pleasure), a woman checks out reviews from other single women travellers before making hotel reservations. However wonderful the hotel, she doesn’t make bookings unless it is certified “safe” by others of her gender.

Do you know how many otherwise independent women have NEVER dined alone at a restaurant because of how uncomfortable it gets. You know many restaurants have a separate “family room”, ever wondered why?

Do you know women sometimes book two tickets at the theatre only to ensure that someone obnoxious doesn’t sit in the next seat. Do you know how often a woman in the middle seat on the plane has men leaning into her from both sides?

Have you ever wondered why women who are jogging in a slightly deserted park only have their headphones on in one ear?

Do you know almost every woman pushes the desk against the door when she is staying alone in a hotel?

Do you know there isn’t a single woman who doesn’t have an SOS number on speed dial on her phone?

Do you know we have escape plans in place whenever we are alone in an unknown place?

These are just some of the things you do not know, dear Men.

But now that you do know, instead of accusing us of cribbing, do you think you could do something to make things a teeny bit safer for us?

Warm regards,

An Extremely Tired Women

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