(photo: Akhilesh Kumar, The Hindu)
Sixteen days ago a 23 year old woman in Delhi was violently gang-raped, beaten, and thrown from a moving bus. Today it is being reported that she has died from her injuries in a Singapore hospital where she was airlifted several days ago. This case is set to change the way the country views sexual violence against women. Protests have been ongoing since the incident, with candlelight vigils being held across every major city. Women and men are waking to the sobering realization that this girl could have been them, their sisters, their daughters.
While this case is an anomaly due to its severity, rape and sexual violence is an everyday occurrence in Delhi. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a woman who hasn’t experienced some form of harassment while going about her everyday routine. I don’t want to downplay sexual violence in other cities, but in Delhi the normalization of harassment has finally hit a head.
I’ve had this discussion several times during my time in India, why sexual violence is far more common in North India, compared to other parts of the country further south. Even in comparing the two mega cities of Delhi and Mumbai there is a huge cultural difference. I’d always presented two fairly simple explanations. Firstly, the demographic composition in the north and south is vastly different. Misogyny is rampant in the north, and generally accepted culturally while the further south you go equality between men and women increases. The south most point of India, Kerala, has a population that is almost entirely literate and ancestral property laws favour women over men.
Secondly, the population density of the two cities is vastly different. In Mumbai even in suburban areas women are more commonly visible at night. I’ve been living in Navi (New) Mumbai which is a suburban area far from the busy localities of Bandra or Colaba. Still, if I return home at midnight I’m able to take an auto with relatively little concern. I would be terrified taking an auto in a more central part of Delhi alone at the same time of the evening.
There has been a huge amount of discussion about other possible explanations, and solutions to this problem. The obvious, taking a harsher stand towards those who commit crimes against women aside, there has been talk about addressing this at a cultural level - the need to change the attitude of men towards women. However it is really difficult to take politicians and media outlets seriously when they are throwing out so many mixed messages.
The son of the president, Abhijit Mukherjee, himself a high ranking politician had the following sexist comments about the women participating in the mostly peaceful protests that had been taking place in the city. “Those who are coming in the name of students in the rallies, sundori, sundori mahila (beautiful women), highly dented and painted….Giving interviews in TV and showing off their children. I wonder whether they are students at all….what’s basically happening in Delhi is something like pink revolution, which has very little connection with ground realities.”
Other Congress party politicians back peddled furiously and made some expected remarks about the need to respect women, but the damage had certainly been done. In the days following the attack a seminar in Madhya Pradesh was held on sensitivity towards women, Dr. Anita Shukla an eminent (female) scientist did some not so subtle victim blaming.
“What she was doing with her boyfriend at midnight, it will happen when she would roam till late night with boyfriends…When she knew that she is surrounded by six drunk men, why she didn’t she surrender before them, at least she would never have been in the condition in which she is today”
The media is no better. This is a sample of the daily newspaper which is delivered to households across Delhi.
I’m sure the message of respecting women may be lost when ogling half nude celebs over toast and tea. These images are purposefully chosen for no reason other than their sexual nature, they certainly don’t correspond to the articles.
There is no doubt that there needs to be a change in the mindset of the north Indian male. There is no one to blame for sexual violence against women than the perpetrators of the acts themselves. However how exactly is this issue to be addressed? Politicians are rape apologists, blaming girls who dare to venture out of their homes after dark for the atrocities committed against them. The media that on one hand is so sympathetic to women on the front cover of the paper is happy to show them as little more than sex objects on the inner pages to sell more copies.
Everyone is hoping the death of this young woman acts as a catalyst for change in this city. That’s the official line, lets not let her life go to waste. Still, I can’t help but think that what aspirations and dreams she must have had for herself, what little consolation all of this will be for her mourning family. The people have spoken, it is the responsibility of the government to show some real determination in changing the culture of violence in this city and stop women from suffering the indignities they experience everyday.
The last parade he ever enjoys.
Today in the slums we were eating lunch when we heard some commotion outside. I thought it was a wedding party with all the music and cheering. But instead of a groom there was a dressed up little boy. So I asked my coworkers what was going on. ‘Oh he’s getting circumcised today.’
Worst ending to a party ever.
(Hijras on the train. North India, 1996)
My fascination with hijras dates back to my earliest memories of visiting India as a child. I remember the palpable excitement of sitting in the train and hearing the distinctive singing and clapping as they made their way through the compartment. Eventually they’d stop where my family was sitting and I’d watch them perform their standard blessing and a song for some coin. Usually one would place a hand on my head and call me Pinky. My mother always humoured me, saying that seemed drawn to me more than anyone else. Logically they probably could see admiration on my pudgy bespectacled face, the money ready in my hands.
I could never quite get a clear answer to what defines a hijra from my parents. Even as children we are so eager to be able to fit the people we meet into assigned slots, and so I tried. Are they men dressed as women? Very masculine women? Somewhere in between? It took me till adulthood to figure this one out. A medical dictionary offers a fairly accurate description:
“A female impersonator or gynecomimetic in the Indian subcontinent, who may have had partial surgical sex reassignment. Hijras belong to a traditional social organisation, part cult and part caste; they worship the goddess Bahuchara Mata. Their sexuoerotic role is that of female with men”
In retrospect I can see why this may have been a little too complex for my parents to explain to an 8 year old.
In simpler terms they are referred to as the third sex. While other states worldwide have their own third sex, such as in Mexico or aboriginal groups in North America, in India they occupy a distinct religious cultural role.
(Hijras dance at a wedding. My paternal village, 1996)
Over the years we took fewer train rides but almost every trip to India I’d run into a few, often begging for money from cars stopped at traffic lights. Unfortunately many hijras are no longer able to support themselves with their traditional cultural occupation, which was being present and dancing at auspicious events. These days many of them are employed as sex workers and are a highly marginalized and at risk community.
Into adulthood my interest persisted. I read academic texts, blogs, and learned more about hijra rights. At the 2006 AIDS conference I met prominent hijra activist Laxmi Tripathi. I never could pin point why I found this particular group so fascinating, but there was something there. Last week it came to me.
I was riding the train home and saw a group of young hijras in my compartment. I chatted with them a little, they were en route to the temple of the goddess they follow. As the train slowed at their stop they hung out the door and one of them made exaggerated kissy noises and flirtatiously winked at some male police officers on the other end of the platform. Her friends giggled at the gesture. In that moment I saw what separates them from everyone else. More than the cross gender aspect, or the unique appearance that they have, it’s the sexual space they are allowed to occupy.
India has changed considerably since we left decades ago. Youth are no longer as constrained by family and societal values to behave in a certain way, and for the most part Indian culture as a whole has moved away from conservatism. That being said there are still public and private spheres, and female sexuality within a socially accepted context is still very much a private thing. This isn’t the case for hijras. They are able to flaunt their sexuality because society doesn’t hold them to the same standard, their behaviour is in a category all of its own. There is freedom in this, which is evident even to a child. When we would take those train rides and visit our village in the north, the young married women would sit with the ends of their saris covering their heads and faces. Romance in Bollywood films was men chasing chaste women around trees, and my modern mother would wear traditional clothes instead of her normal jeans and t-shirt.
To me hijras represented open expression, individuals able to be exactly who they were and be immune to the cultural norms the rest of us had to adhere to. Reality is something else altogether, hijras often face many struggles that we the sexual majority will never understand. Still, in my eyes, if for only one facet of their existence, they’ll always remain free.
Like much of the population, I have a love/hate relationship with facebook. As someone who is frequently far from friends and family it is a great way to be there for all the little things which may never make it into an email or skype conversation. It’s a bit of company with my morning coffee…seeing photos of the house party I missed, new photos of the friend’s baby I won’t meet for months yet, and the travels and adventures of others.
Still, there has been something really bothering me lately when I use facebook which has nothing to do with the much maligned privacy and security settings or even the regular layout changes. It’s something that probably isn’t intended to be offensive or upsetting to others, but every time I see it I cringe. I bet I’m not the only one.
When I see this I want to ask the person a question… did you just compare someone updating your facebook status without your knowledge to a violent sexual and criminal act? Do you think your friend or roommates sad attempts at embarrassing you are in any way as violating as rape? I know the people who use this term are just repeating a colloquialism that has somehow become a part of our everyday lexicon, but just for a minute I wish people would think about what the words they use mean.
Words have weight, they have power. The reason we don’t use the n word shouldn’t simply be because it is socially unacceptable and politically incorrect - it is because of the connotation and hate behind it. In using the n word you reference decades of institutionalized violence towards millions of people. In trying to make light of a word like rape you make it acceptable to laugh at something which I can guarantee someone you know has been affected by. 1 in 3 women is raped or sexual assaulted in her lifetime. Many of you have hundreds of facebook friends, do the math.
Facebook being a public forum means that it isn’t in my power to try and stop these people from casual misuse. Nor do I want to. It’s your decision to post what you do, but please, the next time one of your friends updates your facebook status for you - just say you’ve been hacked.
Dhokla with love
I work with some lovely people. The field staff is always bringing me home cooked food. Today I asked one of them why she makes the effort… “because you’re so far from home”
First class ticket.
(photo credit - AP)
Everyday after work I go home to the family I’m staying with in a suburb of Navi Mumbai. I wash my hands and feet and put on a cup of coffee, which completes the transition between my two worlds. It is an odd dichotomy, days spent in the slums, evenings in comfortable middle class life. I’ve become far more aware of the divide that exists than ever before, the class transactions that take place in quiet unnoticed moments. Growing up in a smallish town in Canada I was sheltered from experiencing the chasm between the upper, middle, and lower classes. It was never as strong a distinction as you see in the UK or in India, certainly in Canada it is far more one dimensional and based largely on economic standing. If I’ve learned anything from living here it is how I am unable to accept the culture as it is, that my own notions on class and equality inform my daily decisions. This is not a virtue.
Tonight for example, my daily commute home. Every month I buy a first class pass. The compartment is a lot smaller, but the idea is that because it is expensive the masses will ride in the regular train and us ladies who ponied up can manage in the two small boxes allotted. This is never the case. Come Chembur, the station where the slums I work in are closest to, women of all backgrounds climb aboard. The train is an everyday site of class antagonism. Just with a glance it is clearly visible who belongs and who doesn’t, status can be determined by the fabric of someone’s clothes, by the way they carry themselves.
The train was especially busy tonight and upon pushing my way aboard I noticed a young woman, perhaps still in her late teens in a bright red sari. She had a small tired face, in one arm she held a baby who was breastfeeding, its face tucked under her blouse. At her feet stood two small children under the age of five who I hoped were her siblings but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were her own.
As the journey continued out of the city, the train slowly began to empty. The woman stood near the seats, leaning on the back for support. The unsaid rule is if one chooses to ride in the wrong compartment illegally, they don’t sit. At the next stop an older woman in her 60s boarded, she quickly assessed who belonged and who didn’t. She singled out the woman with the children and demanded she move away from the seats and sit by the door. The door is not a particularly safe place to sit when you’ve got small children, it remains open throughout the ride and is often where people step when getting on and off at stops. The woman in red didn’t say a word. The older woman pushed on, demanding she move. A girl next to me rolled her eyes, no one spoke, the woman in red shifted slightly to the right giving the other woman space but didn’t move. I could feel the anger building inside of me. I said to the woman, politely, that the young woman has a baby, maybe she shouldn’t be moved near the door. No dice. We argued back and forth and finally without saying a word the young woman, with her baby and one of the children, went and sat by the door. As the train jolted to a stop at my station I nearly stepped on them myself.
I don’t tell this story to make vast generalizations about class differences. Jerks are found the world round. And I can understand the position of the older woman, it is frustrating to have to fight for the right to use something that you have paid for with those who haven’t. Space is a scarce resource here. As an older woman she probably has deeply ingrained values that may not be changing in a country which is quickly moving all around her. At the time though, I just couldn’t see it her way.
After thinking about it further, it boils down to how I am still unable to address my own preconceived notions about how this society should function, despite my not being a part of it. I left the train seething that nobody else spoke up on behalf of this woman and her children. That’s just arrogance. It smacks of privilege. It’s easy to be outraged towards every injustice that happens in day to day life when it isn’t your reality. I wonder how long I’d have to live here to become as jaded as some of the people I meet. A year? Two? How long before the complexities and trials of life force me to reconsider my values? After all, adaptation is survival, and you can only tilt at so many windmills.
These girls often spend their days hanging around our office with their little siblings. Coming from families of at least 7 or 8 children, they play mother to the toddlers. Soon after this photo was taken both babies fell asleep in their laps.
I normally don’t have strong opinions on pop music, but I’m absolutely loving the video for Losing You by Solange. I’ve had a soft spot for the lesser known Knowles sibling since her cover of the Dirty Projectors Stillness Is The Move. Losing You was co-written by Devonté Hynes, aka Blood Orange, whose influence on the track is obvious. It has none of the moodiness of Coastal Grooves but is a smart follow up and brings him to the periphery of mainstream.
The song isn’t a stand alone hit, it’s the video that will make it memorable. Shot in South Africa it features Le Sape - The Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes. The society for people of elegance and ambiance is an informal group of men who share a common passion: tailored, genteel clothes. Their bright apparel is how they self identify as a group, and has created a subculture of style. Last year they got a lot of press, including the book The Gentlemen of Bakongo – The Importance of Being Elegant which catalogued more than their style, it aimed to understand how this trend arose so far from the streets of Paris or London.
These men are generally not wealthy, but are willing to save and invest in the details, the best cloth for their bespoke suits, the right kind of walking stick. The video does a good job of juxtaposing the richness of the clothes with the physical environment. A man smoking a cigar while being measured for his suit… in the back of a trailer. It wisely avoids making any political statements of how this trend came to be in Africa. A four minute pop release isn’t the place to look at the remnants of colonial rule on cultural identity. Rather it highlights the universal appeal of fashion and style. It’s a sartorial statement more than anything else and a beautiful one at that.
Watch here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hy9W_mrY_Vk
Anonymous asked: when are you coming back????
[A common sight near apartment blocks. A very short commute to work.]
This morning sometime between six and seven a woman came into my bedroom, swept my floor, and left. A woman I’ve never spoken to other than tired mumbles and who I wouldn’t recognize again since I never wear my much needed glasses when she’s around.
The way a middle class household is run in India is a marvel of scheduling and synchronization. A team of specialized employees are brought in, each for their own task. Depending on your means you have some combination of the following. A lady to do the laundry, to chop vegetables and wash the dishes, one to cook, one to do sweeping and mopping, possibly even a driver. Usually the woman of the house overseas this whole operation, a full time job on its own.
I can’t speak for all expats, but the concept of hired help has never sat well with me. It seems excessive, a luxury based on the availability of cheap labour which abuses a system in which supply vs demand is heavily skewed. However after repeated visits, it has become clear that while many households may not need as much domestic labour as they employ, it is very difficult to run a house here without it. Due to the hot and humid weather, a strict regime of daily cleaning is necessary otherwise conditions become unhygienic quickly.
Fine, so it’s a necessity, but is it equitable?
A year ago the Planning Commission informed the Supreme Court that an urban resident in India could live off of Rs 965 per month. By this definition, anyone spending more than Rs 32 per day would not be considered to be living in poverty, and would not be eligible for state benefits. For the sake of context, Rs 32 is less than 60 cents a day. Even accounting for a difference in purchasing power parity, it is an absurdly low sum which is expected to cover rent, food, transport, education, and incidentals.
I stayed with some friends last week in Pune, a city close to Mumbai. While there I met their maid a number of times as well as her five year old who tagged along with her while she cleaned, as she presumably had nowhere to leave him. Her job is to clean the floors, light dusting, and to wash the dishes. Work never lasts more than an hour and she would scrub quickly so that she could move onto the next flat. The wage she had asked for was Rs 1300 for the month, working 7 days a week. She is earning on the high end of the pay scale for the work she does, many domestic workers earn far less. Estimating that she works at 4 houses at a time, which would be entirely possible as she was employed by several families in the same building, she could be earning as much as Rs 5200 per month. According to the Planning Commission standard she is just rolling in cash! However she has a husband who is unable to hold onto a job, making her the primary earner in the family. During his periods of unemployment that Rs 5200 has to support a family of three. She had missed two days of work that week because she was feeling unwell and vomiting. Assuming she has at least one more child, which is highly probable, she will be supporting a family of four on that income and will be unable to work around the time of birth. The only way to live on the poverty line is to never fall ill, to never have an accident, and to never have any unforeseen expenses. Life doesn’t work that way- it certainly doesn’t in India.
There aren’t any simple solutions here due to the sheer scale of the problem. A conservative estimate of how many domestic employees there are in India is 90 million. The state isn’t in a position to make poverty amongst domestic labourers a greater priority than any other sector that is also largely composed of the urban poor. There have been some attempts at regulation at the state level, mostly towards having a minimum wage and minimum age for domestic employment, but regulating such a massive informal sector industry is highly difficult. A step in the right direction would be for the Planning Commission and Supreme Court to come up with a realistic monthly spending allowance, and to not suggest that Rs 32 is enough. This cutoff leaves those making just above that amount vulnerable, but it does more than that. It suggests to those employing these workers that low wages are acceptable, and widens the gap between the poor and the middle and upper classes.
In the end the responsibility lies with employers themselves, as they have far greater power within this scenario than the workers or regulating bodies. I’ve seen some people who treat their domestic help with respect with kindness, the family I’m staying with is a good example of that. I’ve also seen housemates in the past argue and renege on agreements with a maid, finding the flimsiest of excuses to cut their payments for the month. If more people could make the connection between the abject poverty they see daily and that person who comes and works for them, maybe they’d be a little more empathetic… but better yet, pay a fair living wage.