Arise Goddess Kali

I was going to write an end-of-the-year rant about my pet peeves within my smug little existence, trying to detach myself from the rape-protest drama in Delhi. Horrible, brutal crime, I told myself but I now live in New Zealand so should not be worried with what happens back home. I am safe here, I can wear what I like, do what I want, go out at any time of the night. I live alone, am independent, no one judges me. Sweet as. I was wrong. So, so wrong. This innocent young girl’s death has made me angry. Mad, stomping angry.

The last time I went to India, in 2010, men stared at my breasts as I walked the streets. Fully clothed in my khadi salwar-kurtas, not making eye contact with any unknown males, I used to go about  my work with men still coming up right in front of me, their eyes on my breasts. Then there was the time when a male bus passenger rubbed his penis against my shoulder as I sat in a crowded bus. He went on even as I slouched further into my seat contemplating whether to yell at him and make some noise or just let it go. That was my default setting. Like so many Indian women who grow up in India. Make yourself as inconspicuous as possible and even if you have to protest, think about it first because everyone, even other women, will turn around and tell you it is your fault. I mustered all my courage to yell at him and while he backed off slightly he yelled at me to ask what he had done. The implication being that I was just a mad woman to shout at him to stand straight and not lean against me; it is a crowded bus. How could I have asked him to keep his penis to himself and not on my shoulder? Is there a Hindi or Marathi word that a decent woman can use in public to describe the organ? If I’d spoken in English then I would have immediately been ‘modern’, further implying deterioration of my morality. Now I am in New Zealand. No catcalls from Indian men gathered at the end of each street, no one rubbing against me, groping me or staring at my breasts. In reset mode. Procrastinating any reaction to a young, innocent girl brutally raped, keeping it out my mindspace. Then she died. A life full of hope snuffed out. So I got mad, stomping angry. Mostly at myself. Somewhere in the comfort of reset mode compassion and empathy for my sisters was deleted. Besides, my intellectual snobbery stopped me from engaging in any discourse against the death sentence and stoning that the many Indians were calling out for. But now I want to plunge into it.

So I’ll start by arguing against the death sentence and stoning that so many Indians are demanding for the rapists. Stop; think. Did these six men just drop from the sky or are they a part of the Indian society? Where did they get their attitude towards women and violence? Or the idea that they could get away with such a brutal crime; that the police might not do anything? Indian governments of all ideologies have sanctioned rape in the name of suppressing rebellion and uprisings. When did middle class India last check the human rights record of the Indian Army against Kashmiri and North-Eastern women? Or the police raping tribal women in the Red Corridor? Or was it okay to use rape as a weapon for the safety of the rest of the Indians? The Culture Of Impunity and disrespect for women is not an aberration but ‘normal’ behaviour. So who deserves the death sentence? Indian soldiers? Indian police? Fathers that rape their daughters? Husbands that rape their wives? Brothers that rape their sisters? Politicians? Or we the people? For turning a blind eye?

Now let’s look at the prominent women who reacted to the rape.

Stoic Sonia-ji remained silent as per usual. Only to come make an appearance on television reading from the teleprompter.  Fake much?

Then there was Sushma-ji. The keeper of the virtue of us Hindu women said if the girl survives then she will be like the living dead. Not, (read subtext if you can through her boring lecture) because she had lost her intestines but because she was raped and would have no honour left.  Sushma-ji may I remind you that once upon a time you wanted all advertisements for sanitary napkins removed from television because they were a bad influence on us innocent Indian women. Perhaps we should have stayed at home five days a month and continued using old sarees to soak up our menstrual discharge? This way we would have been safer ya?

And finally Jaya-ji. The distress is genuine but to believe that because we worship so many goddesses Indian men actually respect women in real life?  Oh Jaya-ji, you are so naive. Only in our Bollywood films and only after we’ve had an item number in skimpy clothes and the man has tamed her and ‘saved her’ will the heroine find redemption in treating him like god. Only then will he respect her in return.

Overall the larger issue of the treatment of women remained unaddressed. What is it that makes Indian society treat Indian women shabbily? Here is one explanation. This is the story not just of one child who died after rape but many more who die before they are born, many who suffer because of insufficient dowry, domestic abuse, sexual abuse and abuse from institutions that are meant to protect them. Women like us and those not like us. This is the story of everyone’s attitude towards women as victims of sexual assault. Lawyer Flavia Agnes tells among other tales how the doctors examining a rape victim in Bangalore were more interested in the elasticity of her vagina than finding forensic evidence.

As India moves towards more economic liberalisation, with good or bad effect, society is bound to change and with that the Indian democracy. Which means we have to let go of the old absolutes of culture, tradition and religion that kept us rigid and inflexible; not reject them but adapt them.

For that to happen there has to be a revolution with a new leader. Not Narendra Modi, not Rahul Gandhi, not Anna Hazare, not Arvind Kejriwal and not Kiran Bedi. Not any of the right or left wing politicians but the people. The people will throw up their new leader. Before that will arise Kali, once again from the people, the power of the people, especially of the women. Because it is the women who will destroy the men who worship her then rape her before giving birth to him and nurturing him again.

Good Hair; Fair Skin; Feminism Or What?

It all started after I watched Chris Rock’s documentary GOOD HAIR. Now I know. Honest to god. Why do African American women straighten their hair? It is like asking why Indian women bleach their face or use fairness cream. Ideas of acceptable beauty, that is why, to put it simply.  First about the documentary-I had no idea hair is so intimately connected to African-American female identity that even Michelle Obama uses relaxer to manage her hair. There is no other way she could make it so straight. For ignorant little me I always wondered what kind of influence people like Oprah and Beyonce had on the image and identity of African-American women. Never seen Oprah with ‘bad hair’ nor seen Beyonce Knowles with black hair actually. (Although in this image it looks like her real hair.) Apparently it is not just women but African men too who have an opinion on female hair. After all the idea of beauty can be very culture specific and it is what you don’t have that you covet. In this case to be white. Straight, silky hair for African women and fair skin for Indian women (and men).

At one level I guess I am the last person to comment on hair. I was born bald. Then I had to undergo some bizarre Hindu tonsure ceremony at the age of one that made me bald again. As I grew up in middle-class, aspirational, globalising India, when hair colour first came to our parts I decided to go red. Before that we used sparingly use hydrogen peroxide on a lock or two just for ‘style’. But my hair never took to colour rather, colour never took to my hair. It remained black as. I gave up. Until I moved to New Zealand. That first year at university, egged on by my girlfriends, I got red and purple highlights at the campus hairdressers. It was supercool, I thought. Long black, wavy hair with darker highlights. My then boyfriend, generally averse to consumerism, thought it suited me too. But I never thought of straightening my hair. Not even after my sister called me boring. Not even when Indian hair was meant to be coloured blonde/caramel/chocolate/whatever and then straightened with a middle parting. I like my wavy hair. Could not have it any other way. I like being boring too, if that is the term. It is a pretty simple routine, looking after my hair, and so Indian! Oil my hair twice a week, henna every six weeks. Good shampoo, conditioner, serum. Sometime I massage yogurt into my scalp before a wash. No chemicals and rarely the hair-dryer. Of course I indulge in shades of blue-black sporadically, like now in the winter and I do style it for the odd ‘red carpet/cocktail’ event. Because I believe in impeccable, neat appearances; to be pleasing to the self and to others but not enslaved to ideas of beauty. I also like the colour of my skin and sometimes wish it was darker. However it took a long time to arrive at this comfort zone.

Growing up, considered ugly because of my snub nose and weird because of my temperament (you know, asking too many questions, having an opinion and unquantifiable dreams etc), I tried to fit in. To be a good Indian girl. Which means to get high education and marry well. Within that context feminism meant smoking, drinking, wearing mini skirts and being sexually promiscuous. Freedom of thought and expression, challenging the status quo or the inherent ability to choose were not part of the discourse. There was no discourse actually. Nor were there role models. The only ‘feminists’ were single, dowdy looking women whom men and other women poked fun at. They lived in another world, far away from middle India. On the other hand, as my mother insisted, economic freedom was important but only in the context of the family, for the husband and children. Individuality isolated you and community meant caste and patriarchy. So it was a strange place to be. I think it still is, I feel, every time I go back to India or talk to Indians here. Success is equated with beauty pageants and titles, being on television, working for a multinational company, acting in Bollywood films and still being a good Indian girl at the end of the day. Who would be considered successful, Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan or Arundhati Roy?  I can go on about Aishwarya being a product of a consumerist, Indian middle class entrenched in the patriarchy but then Arundhati on the other hand is still from the upper class elite so she can afford to be what she wants. Where does that leave someone like me? Give in or move out.

Non-white women have to create their own paradigms and parameters of female liberation/feminism. It is a constant, continuous battle with the self, your native culture, with the community and the whole wide world. Then there are men. And the media. Images that bombard you with ideas of beauty. Blonde, blue-eyed, super skinny beauty. Or exoticism that underscores the ‘OTHER’. Or losing your femininity completely to become man-like. Hairy armpits, unwaxed legs, a moustache…what do you do? I cam read Bell Hooks. when I did a paper in feminist film theory at university. It took me some time to understand that feminism does not have to be white, it does not have to be anti-world or anti-men neither is it about burning your bra or not threading your upper lip. It is about self-esteem and resisting against the patriarchy. It is about truth, love and empowering your children. It works on a spectrum that gives us the freedom to choose and be. If an African-American woman wants to relax her hair or not, as long as it is an exercise in self-awareness, it is fine. I compare Indian women using fairness creams to African-American women straightening their hair. It is about the capitalist patriarchy and conformity; it is about race and gender politics. I just have not found any discourse or analysis about fairness creams. Yet. ~

PS-Here is some follow up on this post about hair.