Tag Archives: gender

The High Priestess Never Marries Wins A Laadli Award

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I am so deeply honoured that The High Priestess Never Marries has won a 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media & Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book (Fiction). The award ceremony was held at the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, on May 12 2017. I was presented the award by Kamla Bhasin.

It means all the more to me because the Laadli Awards are not literary, but feminist.

The complete citation for the award is as follows:

“Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.”

 

The Venus Flytrap: Smile Or Snarl

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The photoshoot had a brief I’d never encountered before: Don’t Smile. Instead: look angry, displeased or exasperated. I was to look, in short, like the difficult woman society thinks I am. The task should have been easy. But standing there in my pretty make-up and my prettier fabrics, hoping the sun would neither make me sweaty nor wash my dark skin out on camera, I hesitated. Forget looking intimidating or pissed off. I was just going to look worried. Worried that I wouldn’t look good trying to fulfil a rather wonderful opportunity, that is: to defy the expectation that women should smile more. Smile always. Smile through everything.

The gendered regulation of smiling came up often during Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, when she was first criticised for not appearing cheerful enough, then for “smiling like she’s at her granddaughter’s birthday party”. Russian President Putin said this in his International Women’s Day speech last week: “We will do our outmost [sic] to surround the women we love with care and attention, so that they can smile more often.” His speech did not mention how the Russian parliament recently voted 380-3 to decriminalise domestic violence that does not result in injury. Or how a newspaper responded to this decision by telling women to be proud of their bruises.

I’ve been told that my face at rest is a sad one, but most women are told they look angry. Hence the phenomenon of “resting bitch face” (RBF), which became a buzzword a few years ago. A woman can be thinking deeply, waiting, being stoic rather than emoting, listening intently – doing anything but smiling, basically – and she has RBF. All because she is doing something other than transmitting signals of acquiescence, agreement or availability through a smile.

Here, I must interpolate a cultural issue. Certain places are known for the friendliness of locals (unsurprisingly, tourism tends to be major economic source in these places). I grew up in two such places, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, where it is true that people generally smile more, to strangers and known people alike – at least, as compared to Chennai. This remains a source of lasting culture shock to me, and I clock it as one of the ways in which I misunderstand others, and in which I am also misunderstood. This may be why I couldn’t really fulfil the photoshoot’s requirements, to be the Nasty Woman (thanks, Trump) I am. I don’t personally get told to Smile More. Instead, the fact that I smile frequently – habitually, and through conditioning – is seen, not unlike what happened to Clinton, as being condescending or cunning – at best, coy. And often, sexually available.

But once, browsing transfixed in a bookstore, I didn’t pay heed to a man who seemed to always be hovering nearby, muttering under his breath. The moment he managed to grab my attention, I automatically smiled at him, unaware I was being harassed. He looked utterly taken back, and fled. It’s funny, isn’t it, what people will find scary in a woman? A snarl or a smile, it’s all the same to someone who seeks only to control a woman’s reaction – and fails.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 16th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Not Your Women’s Day

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We don’t want your token rose because what do you think this is, Valentine’s Day? It’s not Mother’s Day either, and you need to find a way to respect women that doesn’t require them to be desexualised into a familial role.

We don’t want your chocolate unless it’s as dark as the history of our oppression, as bitter as you think feminists are, and full of nuts – which is what we’ve been driven to by all these antics.

We don’t want your “saree day at the office” dress code because we are not employed for your viewing pleasure. And – on this day or another other – if you have a problem with our bra straps showing, or our bare arms, or the fact that we won’t wear a slip under a white tunic, we’re certainly not going to make the effort for you.

We don’t want your special discounts. Unless that discount happens to be 25%, which is where the gender pay gap in India stands as per the latest report by Monster India. And no, we don’t want to hear your smug justification about how you spend 25% more time at the workplace than we do. It’s not our fault if you can’t manage your schedule as efficiently. It’s not our fault that we leave on the dot because when we get home, we have even more to do, because no one considers that housework is also work.

We don’t want your complimentary salon services unless you promise to ask each one of your patrons, “Who are you doing this for?” and have them at least ponder the answer before ripping hair out of their skins with hot wax. And we don’t want the allied weight loss programme, ever. Don’t even offer.

We don’t want your free cocktails, because we never liked Ladies’ Night to begin with. Here’s an honest poster for you: “Stags! Here’s bar full of half-drunk women disappointed with watery shots, just waiting to you to hit on them!” Yeah, that. Just try lowering our inhibitions while we’re busy raising our standards.

We don’t want your contests that basically require competing with other women. Just No.

We don’t want your televised speeches and mandatory tweets about the girl child, not when your misogynistic actions and ideologies contradict them.

We don’t want to hear how strong you think (you have to say) we are, because this isn’t a weightlifting tournament.

International Women’s Day falls on March 8th every year, so this is either a day late, or 364 days early. It’s been observed – not celebrated, necessarily, but observed – since 1909, and was initially known as International Working Women’s Day owing to its political (specifically, Socialist) roots. The day’s history is one of strikes and protests, and here are some in India this year: a silent protest by Garment Labour Union in Bangalore, a double-observance of Savitribhai Phule’s death anniversary called Chalo Nagpur, and.. I can’t even find one more to finish my sentence nicely. I dearly hope there are more.

The pink-hued capitalism and condescension we see around us this week demeans the day’s true meaning. How shall we observe it next year?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Lady-Oriented

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I learned a new adjective to describe myself last week. It’s “lady-oriented”. This expansion to my vocabulary came courtesy of a Central Board of Film Certification document banning the film Lipstick Under My Burkha. Everything about the trailer of the said movie looks amazing. Women having conversations with other women, women exploring fantasies, women admiring themselves in mirrors, women experiencing pleasure. Lady-oriented, definitely. By a woman (Alankrita Shrivastava), full of women and most importantly, for women. What’s not to like – unless maybe you don’t really like women?

Instead, the industry (and its gatekeepers) commend films like Pink (starring Amitabh Bachchan and, sorry, who were the female actors again?). I didn’t like it, but understood: it was a feminist film about women who are not feminists, made for other women and men who are also not feminists. It was not a film made for me, frankly. But Lipstick Under My Burkha might be. Will we ever know? Not if the CBFC has its way.

In Hollywood, meanwhile, a sexual predator just received an Oscar. But Casey Affleck, with multiple sexual harassment allegations against him, is hardly the first. Roman Polanski is only the most obvious example: his 2003 Best Director award was accepted on his behalf as he cannot enter the United States without being incarcerated for rape. Meryl Streep gave his win a standing ovation.

But Brie Larson, who had to present Affleck’s Best Actor awards at both the Golden Globes and the Oscars, refused to even applaud. This, like Denzel Washington’s visible anger at being thanked by the perpetrator, also caught on camera, was the only permitted expression of her horror. For Larson, who won an Oscar herself last year for portraying a sexual abuse survivor, to have to twice felicitate Affleck is a perfect example of the glass ceiling: no matter how hard a woman works, she is ultimately forced to kowtow to the patriarchy, which will always validate even its worst abusers. Sometimes to standing ovations from other women.

To come back to the situation in Indian cinema, actor Prithviraj recently pledged to stop supporting sexist films, apparently having an epiphany after his colleague, who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted, came back to the set. I liked the gist of his statement, as reported, but could not read it beyond “God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!”, its patronising introduction. What I wonder is this: why did his colleague have to return to work in order for him to achieve enlightenment? If she had chosen to retire, would he have also have kept choosing to play chauvinists, unable to make the connection between environment and effect?  Awe for her bravery – incidentally, a favourite trope of films about, but not for or by, women – is just another form of objectification.

Sigh. How sad it is that nearly every time we want to talk about women’s empowerment, we’re invariably drawn back to the context: misogyny.

That’s why I like this word, “lady-oriented”. It doesn’t even have to consider the male gaze, like literal lipstick worn under a burkha or peaceful ignore-the-doorbell bralessness. May we have more lady-oriented films. May we have more lady-oriented everything.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 2nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: For The Women Who Weren’t Born Men

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Maybe they don’t know everything, the women with the divining sticks, but they sure know how to reel a girl in. Maybe they don’t see everything, but they do see you there on the beach, alone or in some laidback configuration, and somehow – they see enough.

And so they come up to you as you’re rolling your jeans up or dusting your bum off, scrunching the newspaper your sundal came in and absentmindedly considering whether to litter, trash or recycle. And they look you in the eyes with a smile of recognition and say: “Nee ambulaiya poranthirikanum, ma!” You should have been born a man.

Even later, when you find out that there’s nothing unique about this line, you will consider it a compliment, because it is meant as one.

And the shore-side soothsayer will offer you this opening gambit as she takes your palm, because whatever else she knows or doesn’t, she can intuit you aren’t going to take it as an insult.

Though later, you learn: some women who do terrible things to other women have been told it too. Other women who do worse things to themselves have been told it too. Are those also ways to be men, then? “Internalised misogyny,” you think. Women who should have been born men because maybe then they would hate themselves, and each other, less.

Even later, when you bristle and say, “Well, if I lived somewhere else, was steeped in better societal conditioning, desexing me wouldn’t feel like a compliment.”

But you don’t live anywhere but here. You live here in this city by the sea. With a long beach where you could be detained for holding hands at night. And by the brightness of day, you give yourself away because only someone who doesn’t mind sun-kissed skin would be loitering. Someone like you, a woman like a man.

Count them and see how few they are, the women. How far between the canoodling (straight) couples and the water-shy families. While half-naked men splash around like they own this city, or indeed, this sea.

“Should have been born a man”, you ponder – and you look at the transwomen who also mill about between stalls selling blackened corn and displaying balloons to shoot for prizes. And you wonder what the fortune-tellers say to them, though you don’t quite know how to ask.

And not yet, not today, but soon – you may wander along that beach and arrive at the memorial of another woman who “should have been born a man”. And you’ll think of the crowds of men in white who surrounded her, and all the women still in their kitchens, whose lives she made a little easier.

At first, when you were younger, you thought that all that the fortune-tellers meant with that provocative, alluring opening gambit was this: that you have courage in excess, a province you demurred was not exclusively male. Later you understood: if you were a man, in this place and in this time, what you could do with that courage would have multiplied. Or to put it another way, perhaps you wouldn’t have needed that much courage at all.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on December 8th 2016. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: When It Comes To Hair, There’s Another Type Of Conditioning

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In the middle of a match at the WTA Finals in Singapore against an opponent she would go on to defeat, the tennis player Svetlana Kuznetsova sat down during a changeover and requested a pair of scissors. Without a mirror, she reached behind her head and began to hack off inches of her thick, tightly-wound braid, grimacing with effort.  As she took the last few snips, the crowd began to clap.

She didn’t loosen her braid first, or go off the court to cut it. The shorned locks remained on her chair for the rest of the match.

This wasn’t the first such occurrence in the sport, however. As an article on Tennis.com says: “Andy Murray cut the front of his hair during a defeat to Rafael Nadal at the year-ending 2015 ATP Finals in London. Boris Becker trimmed his bangs during a four-set Wimbledon semifinal win over Ivan Lendl in 1988.” What made Kuznetsova’s action unusual enough to make headlines was that she had defied an implicit beauty convention. Watching the video of her chopping off her hair gives one the same awe as seeing pictures of Alicia Keys sans makeup or the dancer January Low onstage, bare-bellied, at seven months pregnant.

An athlete’s practical decision to save her game shouldn’t elicit a “wow”. The braid was heavy and kept hitting her in the eye; her performance improved after the trim. (Bobby pins? Retying? Who cares – it’s just hair, it’ll grow back!) But we’re taken aback, even if for only a moment. Half that “wow” is in admiration of Kuznetsova’s dedication. The other half is pure conditioning. It’s why we’re surprised on some level every time a woman rejects an aesthetic ideal. All the more when the rejection itself isn’t a performance or a statement, but just the simplest and more obvious thing to do.

This calls to mind women who do far more radical things that expose and challenge the policing of hair than simply cutting off a few negligible inches. The classical dancer Geetha Shankaram-Lam, for example, is completely bald by choice. Harnaam Kaur and Balpreet Kaur both sport full beards to honour religious reasons; the former is a model, and the latter became famous for her gracious response upon being shamed on Reddit. The actor Cameron Diaz spoke up in favour of pubic hair, hardly a trivial declaration considering the cultural impact of pornography.

“It’s just hair,” I wrote earlier. But is it? Like the rest of the female body, it’s policed and sexualised. Its figurative power goes beyond beauty and aesthetics. How it’s worn on the head is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sexuality to one’s spirituality. Whether it is depilated or otherwise on the face and body is taken to speak on behalf of everything from one’s sanity to one’s upbringing.

We have much to ponder over why Svetlana Kuznetsova taking a scissors to her braid during a tennis match is almost a spectacle. Would you do it? Why or why not? Our musings can teach us much about how we see ourselves and others, and how we want the world to see us.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 27th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: India’s Crisis Of Faux Feminism

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Last weekend, a woman took her own life in Porur, hanging herself in her home using a saree. She was a painter in her late 20’s, and the mother of a toddler. She was married, and had lived with her parents and her partner. Under any circumstances, a suicide is a tragedy. I won’t name the deceased, but a couple of media outlets have, describing her as beautiful and brilliant (with images of her, but not her art).

In her suicide note, the artist wrote that she had “had enough of feminism”, and that she had been “rude” so as to demonstrate her “feminine strength, penn sakthi.” This is also the subject of both headlines I’ve seen so far on this case (one on a website which had a “Killed By Feminism!” image which seems to have been removed).

But it would be equally remiss of me to criticise media sensationalism instead of looking beyond it to the fact that the artist didn’t seem to know what feminism is, but believed she had been practising it. And this poor understanding is propagated not by the media but by a vast and vocal legion who refuse to study the histories and theories within feminism, consider nuanced perspectives, interrogate personal privilege and positionality, honour intersectionality, cultivate compassion – and above all else, strive to live in alignment, especially when it’s unseen or challenged.

In India, wearing skinny jeans is a feminist act, for a woman’s attire in this country courts judgment and can be used to justify harm. But to declare that one is a feminist because one wears skinny jeans is solipsism. To reject a marriage proposal on one’s own terms is a feminist act. To post that rejection online and expect another person to be publicly shamed for their hurt, confused response – not so much. That sort of posturing has taken over the movement. And it is a movement, not a static display.

When we confuse proving one’s feminism with practicing one’s feminism, we end up – well, exactly where we are.

Suicide is a health issue, and stigma around mental illness is a sociopolitical one. The National Crime Bureau has recorded over 20,000 suicides by female homemakers (“housewives”) every year since 1997 (as a recent study by Peter Mayer shows, almost four times as many as another national crisis: the number of farmers who take their lives annually). This doesn’t include those who worked beyond the home, such as the artist discussed earlier.

Relatedly: even as education rates rise, the female workforce now stands at just 27%. Alarmingly, this is a 10% drop since 2005. So women study for longer, leverage this to obtain marital “security” with partners deemed of greater eligibility, and remain within the patriarchal system as homemakers. The class background that gives them this “choice” also gives them constant online access, and the crushing pressure to brand themselves as empowered.

Where does feminism come in? It doesn’t, not enough. Not for as long as the painstaking long-term work of structural dismantling and the painful everyday work of practice, practice, practice are tossed aside in favour of the clickably cool and the patently faux.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 15th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.