Miss. It was such a strange word, and it meant so much.
I miss what she looked like – the silver-grey-blue eyes, the eyes nobody else had, the eyes she prayed so hard I wouldn’t get. The eyes she told Ma were ‘strange’, the eyes she celebrated me not having as I screamed bloody murder in her arms.
I miss the way they twinkled every time she smiled, like a tiny little star glistened inside each of them, more than the diamonds in her ears ever could, as the corners creased and crinkled ever so slightly.
The same eyes that spewed forth tears and tears of laughter as we were doubled over on the sofa laughing at something all too inconsequential every single day.
Her constant laughter around her house as she imitated everyone we knew, down to their most subtle tics and quirks.
Peering over the balcony full of the plants she loved so much as we watched people go by on the streets below and she imitated them too.
Her neologisms and nicknames for everyone and everything, something I can’t resist doing now that I’m an ‘adult’ just like she was, whatever that’s supposed to mean.
I miss the extra puli in everything, just because I loved it like that, though nobody else could stand it. That little tongue smack we both did when the zing hit.
Talking to her over endless glasses of Cad-B as she cracked the silliest jokes, the funniest jokes, and sometimes the most scatological ones I’ve ever heard. Dirty jokes are even funnier when they’re from your grandmother’s youth, I’ve learned. And dick jokes never get old, they’re just flayed away.
The sound of the big steel drums as the lids clattered everywhere, as mixture and murukku and everything from paati’s last Grand Sweets haul came tumbling out of packets hidden away just for me.
The child who lay in her lap recounting absolutely irrelevant information became an adult who did much the same. Curls knotted from swimming, gentle hands pressed oil into my scalp and patiently detangled every last bit as stand-up comedians did their bit on Star Vijay.
I often find myself thinking of a stupid joke she would have loved, or that macroeconomics theory she would have explained to me had she been around. My grandmother, the economics genius who would likely have explained the Grexit, Tsipras and everything in between to me in the span of a few minutes was also the woman who watched what seemed like a ridiculous Tamil version of Grey’s Anatomy as we ate in silence.
I miss the situationally inappropriate giggling, the laughter that never needed a reason to be, but just was. The knowledge and security of those two arms, so similar to my own, enveloping me as I felt the things I needed to feel without saying the words I could have.
As I hurt, seeing the tears fall from her eyes instead of my own.
Of the parcels that came every month for that little girl when her grandmother lived quite far away, of the dozens of pattu pavadai that always arrived in brown paper bags, of sweaters that smelled of naphtha but were cherished for years like a dear friend.
I miss hearing “paati, Anu wants to speak to you!” in the background as you scrambled to the phone.
Of the crinkly silk sarees you loved so much and the best toilet humour I will ever hear. As the strictly vegetarian you watched me eat my very non-vegetarian KFC and made that ridiculous breast joke weeks before you left for good. That time Joey paraded your bra through every floor of the house and then dropped it on the porch as we cried with laughter.
Of the smell of love, now encapsulated in sambar and mothballs, of the coconut barfi that has remained a memory since you left.
To the warm, living being with two legs who is now a picture on my wall with those same twinkling eyes, consumed by the sizzle at the crematorium that fateful January morning.
Today, Caitlyn Jenner came out to the world, happy and finally free to live her life as herself, and be true to her own identity. She debuted some beautiful pictures on the cover of Vanity Fair, and they were deservedly lauded.
As a cis*-woman myself, I have never and will never know the struggles of being trans. However, the cover got me thinking about gender binaries. Is femininity, merely the idea of being a woman, so closely associated with an external, physical ideal of beauty? Why must being female necessarily mean fitting some external ideal of ‘beauty’, whatever it is?
It is one thing to applaud Jenner’s admittedly gargantuan courage in taking the step publicly – it will doubtless provide some inspiration and courage to those who could not, for whatever reason, come out as trans. However, it seems as though it is the ‘prettiness’ that is being publicly lauded, with plenty of online commenters comparing Caitlyn to her ex-wife, Kris, pitting the women against each other.
And that brings me to a more pertinent question – is the gender binary so pronounced that dressing in lingerie, hair styled, posing and makeup are construed as a true portrayal of femininity? Is that all there is to being or identifying as a woman?
Humanity begins the binary at youth. Dresses versus shorts. Pink versus blue. Barbie vs G.I Joe. (This brings to mind an old episode of Friends, where Ross was correctly called out by his ex-wife’s wife, after constantly trying to replace his son’s Barbie doll with an action figure.) Short hair versus long.
Left to their own devices, children have been seen to play with whatever toy is nearest them, or whatever catches their fancy. The gendering of those toys, if they are humanoid, does not matter. Unfortunately, people gender the most inanimate, genderless things – like Lego or Meccano toys, which contribute to children’s analytical and cognitive development – and they somehow take on the label of being ‘for boys’.
As adults who could know better, these same children, as all of us once were, are trapped in a cycle that we do not know how to get out of. The cycle of fitting, or being made to fit into boxes and compartments that as fluid beings, mentally, sexually or otherwise, we do not need to belong in. And thus femininity comes to be associated with dresses. With lingerie and red lipstick and roughly tousled hair that looks as if a woman is in the throes of amorous passion but still immaculately made up. That is our ideal of ‘sexy’, of ‘feminine’, when those words cannot either be defined or boxed in. As many women adhere to conventional standards of ‘fashion’ as do not. Does that make the latter group any less feminine?There are women who are fond of heels, high, low, anything in between. There are also as many women who would rather wear slippers or trainers. It does not make either group any more or less feminine either.
But Caitlyn’s cover, and so many Vanity Fair covers before hers, seem to ideate female beauty as being just that – a dressed up, made up, posing, pouting being on legs.
There is often an interview that accompanies the glossy, high-end pictures of a Vanity Fair spread, but the interview tends to be secondary to the photographs. Every bit of publicised coverage about Caitlyn mentions that Annie Leibovitz is the photographer, but there is no mention of the writer assigned to the job – his/her job is a secondary, cursory thing. The interview may focus on Caitlyn’s struggles, her transition and what came with it – but the piece at large focuses on her new physical attributes, which while I am sure are important to her, unfortunately seem to connote that that physicality is the essence of femininity. There are several other things popular media seems to label as decidedly feminine, in the absence of which women are ‘less woman’ somehow – however, those are not relevant to a discussion of Caitlyn and her journey and will be discussed separately.
Is Jenner an icon for inspiring many young transwomen to be able to come out? Yes. We must remember that transwomen and transmen are not all from the same circumstances – they may not have access to medical facilities, counselling, healthcare and the other things Caitlyn has had access to. Will Caitlyn’s courage still inspire them to be able to be able to publicly embrace their identities? One hopes so – but we should not denigrate, belittle and compartmentalise women and box ‘femininity’ whilst we try to publicize and bring attention to what it means to be trans, and help the public understand it.
One should not be at the cost of the other.
Either way, I wish Caitlyn every single happiness, and I am sure she will have more of it now that she is able to freely embrace her life in all its glorious entirety.
*cis implies that your gender identity matches the sex you were assigned at birth
and you WON’T believe what happened next!
Apologies. If that clickbait headline didn’t suck you in, I hope what I have to say will. Recently, a well-known website ran a piece on a British blogger, Lucy Hemmings, who visited the country, but went through some horrific experiences and felt the awful effect of our completely patriarchal society first-hand. I would like to preface my piece by saying I do not wish to belittle her or her experiences. I’m certain they must have been extremely traumatic, I’m sorry that she went through them and I wish her luck in healing.
This is addressed to the Indian men ‘apologising’, and that being seen as a wonderful thing. It isn’t.
The motive of these ‘apologies’ is suspect, as is the language used in them. One reads: “thank you for showing that India is not Slumdog Millionaire! Thank you for showing people we have a beautiful culture.”
‘Culture’ is not just one thing. It isn’t the backwaters or the marshes, or the palms swaying in the background. ‘Indian culture’, that oft-repeated term, is also a fictional angel or demon, depending on who is playing that card and how. It is as much ingrained in the Indian psyche to stoop to patriarchy as it is to boat in the backwaters. Or likely far, far more. Going by the state of roads in every single city in this nation, open defecation is also part of this ‘culture’. So is marital rape, which somehow still has no legislation against it.
Comments on various websites show men saying “its all a feminazi [do NOT fucking use this word] activist for dowry (sic)” or somehow implying that a) feminism and feminists are evil incarnate, or b) working for women’s rights is somehow unnecessary in ‘Indian culture’. These comments, many of which declare allegiance with an idiotic concept known as ‘men’s rights activism’, are ironic in their very existence, displaying exactly why India needs feminism so badly.
Another comment read, and patronisingly so: “So I just thought to say sorry (on behalf of everyone in India). I know you have moved on, learned the rules to live with more security. But I thought a sorry would make a difference.”
A ‘sorry’ for what, exactly? For reaffirming the patriarchy? For ‘ensuring’ she ‘learned the rules to live with more security’, security that is a basic human right and should not be tied to what I wear, how I look, how long or short my clothes are, my size, and so on and so forth?
What about all of the INDIAN women who face this garbage on a daily basis? Are we supposed to have internalised the ‘rules’ this wonderful man reminds us so we can ‘live with more security’, and a failure to adhere to these ‘rules’ is an instant ‘rape me/molest me/sexually harass me’ license?
Another man wrote about how he felt bad because he “had a little sister at home” that he “could not imagine all these things happening to”. Maa-behen feminism is the bane of Indian feminist existence. Is the only way for a man to know how to respect a woman as a human being to imagine her as his mother or sister if he has one? Must one need some sort of personal visualisation to be able to understand the issues women face? Or does human empathy not exist anymore? I have never needed to imagine myself as a dog to feel the pain of a dog (my own) that injured his leg. I felt sympathy and understanding for what he was feeling.
Pain does not have to be somehow astrally projected onto a loved one for one to fully comprehend its effects, something the people who espouse maa-behen feminism do not seem to understand, or even want to. Signs plastered all over the Bengaluru metro say “she is your daughter or your sister – do not steal her innocence.” Can one not feel sympathy and understanding for a victim of molestation unless she is related, or we somehow mentally pretend she is?
The men apologise furiously for a ‘foreigner’ having had a man masturbate at her. Except that there are millions of women every single day who are masturbated at, or have been masturbated at in the street. I am one of them, and I was too mortified to inform the police. I continued on my morning run, but the incident is quite unfortunately burned into my memory. I have had men ‘accidentally’ push me aside, their hands too close to my chest for comfort. I am a hundred percent certain I am far from the only person this has happened to, and I’m sorry to say it is likely happening to somebody as I type this.
Where are the Indian men apologising for the people who do this to Indian women? Plenty of them are guilty at staring 6 inches south of a woman’s face whilst talking to her. Where are the men apologising for the fact that our ‘culture’ promotes products like Fair and Lovely, which by its very name implies that fairness is lovely?
This entire incident proves how rampant racism is in India – and it’s entirely reflexive. In the Indian obsession with white skin and white people, these poor, apologetic men seem to have entirely overlooked the biggest demographic that suffers the repercussions of our wonderful ‘Indian Culture’ – Indian women.
The article ends with a letter from a man who writes: “P.P.S thank you for wearing kurta and kameez and respecting our culture and traditions”, which seems from the letter to have been something she did after being masturbated at, to prevent it from recurring.
Which would be fine… if that ‘kurta and kameez’ wasn’t what more than half the population of women wear in this country, every single day, and get masturbated at, catcalled, sexually harassed, molested or raped in spite of wearing. And that, dear man who wrote the letter, is because sexual harassment has nothing to do with what’s on my body, and everything to do with what is in your mind and those of men all over the country. That a woman exercising her own right to wear what she pleases, do whatever or whomever she wishes to, is a license to judge her character, and an open invite from her to sleep with you. It is not.
This somehow seems to all tie in with an attitude I have observed to be a very Indian phenomenon: the obsession with how others perceive us, our nation, our everything. These letters seem less to do with actual concern for Lucy or the awful incident that happened, and more with how people perceive India – as a ‘land of rapes’, a place where women are not respected, treated as equal beings, a country so steeped in patriarchy it’s emanating from the street, from the urine of all those men who piss on the street with impunity, with neither civic sense nor the risk of getting raped as so many women and young girls do when they are forced to void themselves in the middle of nowhere because there are no toilets for their use.
Instead of sweeping, insincere, misappropriated apologies that reek of desperation, the best ‘apology’ would be changing attitudes. This means not questioning what a woman was wearing, or her character, when she was sexually harassed. This means not condoning marital rape, not excusing its legality. This means treating women with respect, as equal human beings, which is what they are, and respecting their choices. This also entails not poking fun at an actor for starring in a video that may have been an ad campaign, but held a pertinent message all the same, a message the large demographic of Indian men want to deny – that sex is not something a woman is ‘expected to give a man’ – it’s an activity that is supposed to be pleasurable for both sexes. Marriage does not give a man the right to demand sex as he pleases. But our sex-starved nation, which is depraved enough that our ministers think sex education will somehow lead to promiscuity, will not acknowledge this.
This means not posting ‘behen ki ****’ on an online forum, or leering at a woman’s legs or breasts. No disparaging Sunny Leone for her choice of career. She chose to be in adult films – that was her prerogative. She now chooses to be in Bollywood cinema, which I argue is possibly more covertly sexual than adult films, and in the dirtiest way possible. That, again, is her prerogative, and it is not any more or less ‘respectable’ than anything she chooses to do – because she has chosen to do it.
Is anyone going to apologise to the women in the Sports Authority of India hostel, for the authorities who harassed female athletes for consuming alcohol and drove them to suicide?
A final rejoinder to the man who wrote in thanking Lucy for ‘respecting traditions’ by ‘wearing kurta and kameez’. Hey, the skirt I wore the other day was longer than the veshtis most men wear to go about their daily business – is that an open licence to molest them,too? [Hint: It’s not. What I’m wearing, or not, gives you NO license to touch me, or even look my way.]
I thank Messrs Rodgers and Hammerstein for providing me the inspiration for my conclusion, which is what I truly see as the reason for the ‘viral’ nature of those insipid, sickening letters.
White skin and ‘Indian culture’ tied up with string, two of the populace’s favourite things.
A barbaric attack this afternoon at the Paris offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo left 12 dead and several others severely wounded.
“…in [what is purported to be] an apparent militant Islamist attack, four of the magazine’s well-known cartoonists, including its editor-in-chief, were among those killed, as well as two police officers.”
Reports from several reputed news sources claim the attack as being carried out by people claiming to be part of Al Qaeda, although this has not been entirely corroborated yet.
While multitudes [myself included] have come out in strong support of the cartoonists following the attacks at Charlie Hebdo, some media outlets seem to highlight the ‘fact’ that Charlie Hebdo persisted in its irreverence, subliminally implying somehow that they deserved it. A perverted apologism of sorts for a violent, ruthless attack.
Irreverence can go to extremes, and it has done so repeatedly. In its most modern form, it has all but regressed in its entirety to its original iterations: to use, manipulate and control masses, a tool for power, whether that power is political, monetary or plain old physical might.
That oft repeated quote still stands: “Religion is like a dick. It’s fine to have one, but don’t go waving it around in people’s faces…”
AND don’t go stabbing people with it.
I would like to openly aver that there may be personal bias in that I am personally against the concept of religion in and of itself, and of the opinion that it has done far more harm than good in society. However, it is not anybody’s place to state to another what they may and may not believe [a job extremists take entirely upon themselves, and have done violently in this case].
Extremists seem convinced somehow that their beliefs are the ‘truest’, the strongest, the most faithful to an imaginary sky being on which they base their entire set of values and morals. (To the woman in Central London who once told me atheists ‘have no morals’, we choose to found ours on a reason unrelated to fear of punishment, retribution, becoming a Christmas turkey et al.)
Is your belief so weak that pens and pencils can shake it, cause it to be insulted, irreparably damaged? Is your ‘all-knowing’, ‘all-powerful’ being, the creator of all humanity and everything in existence, the one for whom you commit these crimes, so fragile that words will hurt it? The same being that threatens to punish a being for eternity for being ‘evil’ needs guarding and protection from a few words? Less reminiscent of a god, more reminiscent of a schoolyard bully too chicken to get a taste of his own medicine. Is THAT your belief?
Is belief asking people to ‘multiply’ to ‘replenish their numbers’? To arrest, silence, kill those who disagree?
Censorship is a world issue; Indian cartoonists have in the past been arrested for what was interpreted as ‘seditious work’. Protests are currently on in India against a film that showed, according to detractors, the country’s biggest religion in a ‘bad light’. [It didn’t – it was a sardonic, much-needed take against godmen and the money-spinning, divisive business that is religion.]
Multitudes protested – on the internet, vocally, in their homes, which, while I personally disagreed with, is perfectly alright. Extremists took it further, with picketing, physical violence and threats.
No physical harm came to any being, however, which is a significant relief, but does not condone the attacks.
Extremism, specifically extremist religion, is a plague. A veritable cancer, seemingly attempting to eat humanity and peace from the inside out; by attacking people, education, free speech and thereby, rational thought.
People have protested from time immemorial, with religion as their goal, their instrument, tool, their means and their end.
To protest film, literature, thought or dissent. In an ideal world, Deepa Mehta would never face widespread protest, and neither would Rajkumar Hirani. Salman Rushdie would never have had to flee, and neither would M.F. Husain. In a sane world, nobody would die as a result of the rabid insecurity of extremist factions, and their cowardly, bloody violence.
Perhaps we should remind ourselves today that if our beliefs (whether in a sky being, a tenet, a school of thought) are as unflappable as we believe them to be, names will never hurt them. It is that belief that should be under question in the end.
To those who believe an absence of religion necessarily means an absence of morality, where is YOUR morality now? In the pointlessly spilled blood of 12 innocent people?
Today, instead of backing down to those who have proclaimed themselves defenders or protectors of faith, each one of us must make a conscious effort to defend something ourselves: the license for others to say things we may not like or agree with, but respecting utterly their choice to express it anyway. The freedom of expression includes the freedom to offend (and being offended is one of humanity’s favourite pastimes).
With these attacks, extremists hope, in silencing those who disagree, that others who disagree will silence themselves. Fear for self censorship. That the threat of attack will lead them to ‘fall in line’.
Today, write more than you did yesterday. Say something you were afraid to say. Speak up about atrocities against everyone. If you protest the Paris attacks, protest those threatening the freedom of expression in your own political and geographic arena. Each time you feel personally slighted or violently offended at a film meant to point out exactly that, check yourself.
Murder is never defensible, and this was not merely an attack on the 12 victims at the offices of Charlie Hebdo. It was an attack on the freedom of expression, of the expression of that opinion without threat. It was an attack on every one of us with a voice that wants to be heard without silencing itself in fear. It is now up to us to not be cowed down; in the words of the slain Charlie Hebdo editor Stephane Charbonnier, to die standing, rather than live on our knees.
Recently, Free Thinkers, a group of Facebook users, organised the ‘Kiss of Love’ movement. The kiss of love was floated in social media by a group of youngsters known as free thinkers, in protest against Bharathiya Yuva Morcha attack on a hotel in Kozhikode last week, alleging immoral activities.
The movement, in which people who signed up decided to have a kiss-a-thon in Kochi, a major city in the southern Indian state of Kerala, was intended as a symbolic message to the police…the moral kind. The kind who persist in bandying about that oft-repeated turkey, “Indian Culture”. The self-appointed upholders of what is truly Indian. Morally. Sex sadly is not one of these ‘moral’ things to them. However, it is deemed perfectly acceptable to urinate, defecate and masturbate in the street. I have personally seen a street masturbator and multiple street urinators and defecators in the past week.
These Indian religious nuts are probably all living in Biblical times, then. The times of immaculate conception, over and over and over again. The sort of immaculate conception that is repeated in every corner of the country. The kind that has got us to a 1.252 billion strong population as of last year’s census. [Probably higher this year.]
But no, let’s get back to how sex is bad and immoral and corrupting people, shall we? Nobody’s having it, how dare they? It is against the culture of the country with the world’s second-highest population.
Kissing is a beautiful thing. So is sex, but it is possibly too ‘scandalous’ for our upholders of tradition and culture to discuss (the stork dropped them all from the sky, of course), so let’s start small. Kissing. Affection. Love. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in a sexual context, but is a thing of beauty even then. Sexual =/= bad, dear desi culture upholders.
This movement was meant to show two fingers to the moral police, comprised of individuals, groups, families, and scariest of all, political parties. [I say the scariest because of the sheer monetary and physical power they hold and wield as dangerously as an unsheathed sword.]
Trolls to the Facebook page for supporters of the Kiss of Love movement have variously posted things such as these
“will you marry the ‘thing’ you brought to kiss”
“I don’t have a problem. But everyone should take those ‘things’ you kissed back home with you”.
But dear man, you do in fact have a problem. The same problem far too many people in India face. That rape, sex and ownership are all somehow interconnected. And the topic that interconnects them in your mind is that timeless Indian favourite, virginity. Specifically, female virginity.
Countless films, instances in real life and suggestions by ‘well-meaning’ MORONS suggest to survivors of rape that they marry their rapists. Marry the people who chose to violate them and their space to exert power.
Their ‘logic’? That the rapist has already ‘taken’ this girl’s virginity, which of course is the entire deciding factor in her value as a woman and human being, so he might as well keep it. This patriarchal, backwards mindset is sadly echoed by women nationwide, women who write into advice columns asking about ‘how to hide from my partner that I have had sex with my previous boyfriend’.
Nobody should need to ‘hide’ anything. And by nobody, I mean no woman, because this ‘sexual shame’, this stigma women are made to feel if they are even the least bit free with their sexuality, is suffered by them and them alone. Men wear their sexual prowess like badges of honour. Women are slut-shamed instead.
Religion divides our nation, and has done so for years and years. However, causes like these seem to unite every regressive, extremist religious wingnut against one massive cause, in their quest to both decide and enforce what is ‘moral’. Freedom. Self-expression. Feminism. Nationwide equanimity.
India does not talk about sex nearly as much as it should, and this is very likely one of the causes for our uncontrollably high population. Nobody TALKS about sex or the issues that come with it. STDs and Venereal Disease. Pregnancy. Family Planning. Safe sex. EQUAL PARTNERS in sex and the fact that it is not just for ‘male pleasure’. The whole she-bang.
The prudish and religious both like to pretend sex doesn’t happen, exist, is ‘western’, the result of a foreign invasion. Ironically, it is possibly due to repeated foreign invasions that a liberated, mentally, physically and sexually free country became the nation of prudes that it now is. Victorian ideals have been left behind while conquerors left for their own lands, their own countries now societally liberal and their people liberated.
Unfortunately, this specific colony has decided to keep these classically ‘Western’, colonial ideas of propriety and prudishness, adopting them as their own, and becoming resistant to freedom of thought or expression, or the expression of sexuality, which to them is inherently baaaad. Here, however, is an excerpt from a book by a very non-Western man. A certain Vatsyayana. The writer of our lovely sex manual written nearly two millennia ago.
In the style of one of my favourite comic-book villains:
Riddle me this, prudes who’ve appeared, who’s afraid of the big S-word?
I had the opportunity to speak to organisers as well as representatives of the movement. Several organisers and participants in Kochi were taken into custody by local police in what they described as ‘preemptive action’. To ‘prevent disruption’. Disruption of what, exactly, they did not mention. Several religious extremists attempted to attack them as well. The movement, however, has gone from strength to strength. The Facebook page for Kiss of Love was reported by the cultural torchbearers I have expounded upon, and was subsequently shut down. Support has multiplied since, however, with a burgeoning number of subscribers to a new page that has since appeared.
Reflective movements are now happening across the country – one of the country’s leading educational institutions, IIT Bombay, held its own kiss of love movement, which was a roaring success, and supported by the faculty at the institution too. Under conditions of anonymity, one of the organisers of a specific city-based movement shared with me the sort of language that has been used against him: he and his fellow protesters have been described by “the majority of people [who] called this movement as “drunkards and drug-addict” movement”.
Not one of these people has been able to articulate why exactly this movement is so offensive to them, what they think will happen as a result. Meanwhile they have no public outcry against rapists who roam free and assault women and children with absolute abandon, and question women on what they are wearing, if they ‘dare’ to report sexual assault.
Support, however, is growing among the rational, by leaps and bounds. We are now in exciting times. Free Love movements may have happened half a century ago in the rest of the world, and we are behind by all means, but it is incredibly exciting that it is now actually, actively happening here.
This support has, contrary to cultural torchbearer belief, not been restricted to ‘educated’ ‘westernised’ English-speaking intelligentsia. Translated below, a post off the site, originally in Malayalam:
In public, in police station and even in front of police station
We have unity
Unity that can never be broken
You are the ones who have lost and not us.
We have created history.
That game would be victim-blaming, female shaming, target naming, scapegoat framing. All of them sides of the same multi-dimensional terrestrial entity known as misogyny.
There have been several high-profile cases in the public eye and national media, each of them an instance of one or more of the above. Most recently, a certain extremely famous national starlet, recently in the news for her latest film release, was featured on the front page of a national daily in what can only be described as the most crass, appalling way possible, in a tweet that has since been removed. [It described ‘OMG, Deepika’s cleavage!’]
Some attempted to pass it off as a ‘marketing ploy’, ‘strategically placed’ to market Ms. Padukone’s new film. While I appreciate that film marketing can often stoop rather low, the use of the female body in the basest of attention-seeking ways was beyond repulsive.
Fortunately, in an extremely positive move for not only herself but for women across the nation, the star in question did not stay silent, instead choosing to respond to the article in kind.
Historically, in India, women have been taught and conditioned, generation by generation, to be ‘ashamed’ of their bodies, that their bodies are something to be ‘hidden’. It is a regression to the ideals of a woman’s body being a ‘gift’ to be given to one man and one man only: the woman’s husband.
Regressive, misogynist and attempting to not only impinge on but entirely destroy a woman’s self-will or own right, this sort of ideal continues to persist in 2014, and unfortunately not only in rural pockets of the nation.
Worse still is that it is because of these years of being repressed and pushed down that women have begun to believe these ideals too. That their bodies are to be ‘kept pristine’ and ‘gifted’ to one man, that their virginity is a prize that goes to the ‘highest bidder’, in a way like the mizuage of the geisha of old Japan.
Most Indian women, unless from specific socio-economic strata and levels of education, are neither free nor comfortable with their own sexuality, because they are brought up and taught not to be; that it is something they should not possess, or ‘preserve’ for the man. Openness, self-belief, one’s own mind, opinions, thoughts; all repressed in the repression of the expression of their sex, of their womanhood, and of their personalities.
Breasts existed, but they were meant to be covered. Hidden in their entirety. In existence for mankind to look. This ideal persists in the behaviour of men in public to this day, even in the most cosmopolitan of areas. Even in the least low-cut of tops, cleavage and breasts will be stared at, ogled in the most vulgar way just because, in a way that many men here seem to consider their birthright.
In personal experience: I was walking down a street to find an auto-rickshaw to take me home from a friend’s at 9 a.m., not by any means an ‘ungodly hour’ in our great ‘Indian culture’. A man on a bicycle drove past, shouting ‘arre khulla hai, aam dikhte hain!’ – roughly translating to something too disgusting for me to want to explain, but I will try “It’s open, I can see them mangoes”.
I was wearing a regular t-shirt.
While it is entirely irrelevant what I was wearing, a lot of the Indian public (men, women, ‘upstanding, educated’ members of society) use the way a woman is dressed as a reason to lech, ogle, or take it further to molestation and rape – everything from end to end on the spectrum of sexual harassment.
The star in question, however, questioned the publication, letting them know she was a woman with breasts that she was not ashamed of, a first for women in public in the country.
And in an extremely heartening move, the country stood behind the star, who has since gone on to publicly admit how violated she felt after the tweet. The publication responded with a rejoinder that only worsened the situation, but the actor stood her ground.
However, women, whether in the public or private eye, are rarely spared the ignominy of being taken apart like this, judged for their situations, their sexuality, blamed for being the victims in this Circus de Chauvinism, with the trapeze acts of the tabloid media.
A former actor, an incredibly talented young woman who has been in a few films before, was recently found to have been involved in what was described as a ‘high profile’ prostitution racket involving ‘rich, high-profile industrialists and businessmen.’
I appreciate that there are countries where prostitution is legal, but I also believe a very small number of women currently choose willingly to engage in the profession, at least in South-east Asia. Trafficking is a very, very real, very pressing issue that needs to be dealt with, and unfortunately most women, sadly of all ages, are forced into prostitution. Until that issue is even slightly alleviated, which does not seem like a reality in the current situation, and in consideration with several other factors, this will not happen in my opinion.
In the press, however, really all over it, was the name of this starlet, which, although it is open information, I choose not to repeat out of respect. Not the ‘high-profile rich businessmen’, the ‘industrialists’, the men who paid the prostitutes, because their ‘identities needed protection’, because they were ‘not to be exposed’, because ‘their family lives would be ruined’.
The young girl whose acting skills and life fell by the wayside, the young girl who was forced into the flesh trade. Her name was emblazoned across publications, headline news, lurid details all over the media. The men’s identities were hidden, protected, secret as they continue to be.
The excuse? The men deserved privacy, according to members of the public and press. The men paid a ‘premium’, and deserved to be protected. The men had families, they said, that would be broken by this revelation. Their lives would be completely altered, they said.
Do none of these apply to the young woman who was the obvious victim? Does she not have a ‘life that would be completely altered’? Privacy that she deserved, a family that would be affected? The judgement that invariably seems to follow? Yet it was HER name, not theirs, emblazoned across headlines, it was she who was blamed for being forced into the sex trade.
Finally, there is the recent case of Suzette Jordan, who was the victim in the horrendous Park Street rape case. She was on her way home from an event, and brutally raped in a car by her attackers. Instead of protecting her, taking down her complaints and pursuing her attackers, police and ministers dismissed her, lambasted her character.
Due to the fact that she had been drinking (shock, horror, only a man is supposed to do that in India!), she was dismissed as ‘characterless’, a drinking single mother? “Devoid of morals”, they called her. The chief minister of West Bengal, the capital of which is Kolkata, where the rape occurred, dismissed the case as a ‘sajano ghatana’, or a made up story.
Suzette was accused of being a prostitute, and that the ‘deal had gone wrong’. She was merely a single mother going out to a discotheque.
What ministers, police, lawmakers, locals, the chief minister even, failed to understand was that it was a violation of her personal rights. Even if she had been a prostitute, no person had any right to do anything with her against her own wishes. The so-called ministerial diaspora thought that was the ‘excuse’. Suzette’s family were judged, her daughters stared at.
Recently, Suzette and her fiance visited a Kolkata restaurant for what seemed like a routine meal. They were however refused entry by the head waiter, who labelled her the ‘Park Street Victim’, and refused her entry on that basis. She was sent away from the restaurant after being derided and shamed by the management.
Yet again, the second time for Suzette, the victim, it was she who was blamed. The first time, for being raped. For being ‘loose’ and ‘going to a disco’ and ‘drinking’, things the “aadarsh bhartiya naari” is not supposed to do, haye haye!
This culture of shaming the woman, this idea that it is the woman’s fault, needs to stop. The ideal of the man needing to exert and assert his ‘power’ over the woman, which is what rape really is (it’s not sex!) needs to end. This sexism, this easy selling of women’s sexuality needs to stop. Women need their own right over their own sexuality, not permission from anybody else or the right for them to do with it as they please, for games to be played with those who are helpless.
Women are not men’s to be sold or bought in any way, shape or form. They own themselves and everything that comes with it. And that is something they should be proud of, not need to hide behind closed doors out of fear.
Fingers need to pointed, publicly and legally, at the true perpetrators of the crime, not the scapegoats who can be easily framed, not those whom it is most convenient to blame.
Sadly, when the wheel of fortune is spun, the arrow of the blame always lands squarely on the woman. We need to stand up, as many have recently done in each case, protesting against this blame-the-woman culture, and change the way the wheel spins entirely.
On Ectogenesis and What it Could Mean For Society
Ectogenesis refers to the “growth of an organism in an artificial environment”, outside the body of its parent.
Recent developments and scientific research have meant that ectogenesis in humans could become a reality in a realistically close time frame, one that could have ramifications for current generations; as soon as the next 20 to 30 years.
Research has extended beyond theoretical hypothesising and macro-testing. Mammalian testing has shown positive results, which holds significant meaning for future endeavors involving humans.*
Experiments on smaller mammals have, in light of their limitations, been successful†.
The potential effects of this research are gargantuan, and could change the course of human life entirely. Several significant effects come to mind, and are significant from both feminist and scientific perspectives.
First, the mass availability of this scientific method would spell the end of ‘non-viable uteri’ ; with the creation of an artificial gestation container, the conditions provided to the foetus by the uterus and other components of the female reproductive system can be externally created and regulated. Constant mechanical monitoring will minimise intra-pregnancy risks or accidents that are simply down to sudden chance. Pregnancy losses due to accidents would be entirely negated, as would possibly any other uterine issues, foetal nutrition, placental detachment and a host of other issues those in Obstetrics and Gynaecology could explore in more significant detail.
Mechanical monitoring and constant, programmed adjustment of conditions could also be more reliable than its manual counterpart, as the aspect of human error would then have been largely removed. This would also remove the ‘biological clock’ aspect of conception, pregnancy and childbirth, although detractors may have issues with the ‘age’ at which it is ‘suitable’ to be a parent, and the limitation of the physical strain on child-rearing is a possibly significant issue.
Homosexual couples, for example, gay men who wish to conceive naturally, would no longer be dependent on surrogacy to have a child. Ova, donated either anonymously or with the consent of a loved one, could be gestated with no physical strain or dependence on a third party. This also solves several other issues related very closely to surrogacy.
Ethics and legislation surrounding surrogacy are rather nebulous, and the potential issues are enormous. A very real example relates to the surrogate, who may not be the egg donor, desiring to keep the child she has gestated. In this event, while legislation may or may not be available, dealing with the potential issue of a surrogate going rogue, or developing an attachment to the foetus, a desire to keep the child might prove difficult to deal with, an issue that has occurred in the past.
Surrogacy and the selection of a surrogate mother is an arduous, tenuous process inundated with extensive paperwork, which leads several people to seek surrogate mothers in countries where legislation is more lax and human life more abundant, and, consequently, less valuable in terms of legislation. Women from these countries, including India and Thailand among others, are paid money to be surrogates. Human life is commodified, these specific lives reduced to wombs-for-hire, and several of the women in these countries are trafficked, leased out as ‘wombs-for-hire’, receiving a negligible chunk of the sum paid to their ‘lessors’ for those with access to funds, reduced, as it were, to characters from a dystopian world straight out of the mind of Margaret Atwood.
The existence of external wombs would pare down significantly the quest for ‘wombs for hire’, although this could be over a longer time frame because the technology will be expensive in its nascence and not entirely widely accessible to begin with. However, it could help combat a significant social evil.
The possibility of extra-body gestation also opens up several avenues for women who wish to have children in view of their careers. Pregnancy would no longer be a physically taxing stretch of life that forms an encumbrance on work, physical activity or any other task a woman wishes to undertake, and no longer cause a pregnant pause in careers, which could then progress as normal as they do for men. This could result in a move towards more equanimous parenting, beginning to break patriarchy-imposed barriers which are ‘reinforced’ using ‘nature’ and ‘biology’ as excuses for inequality. Women would no longer be necessitated, forced to stay exclusively within or around their homes, as further and further excuses for the justification of gender inequality are eradicated.
This scientific development could have the potential to help break glass ceilings.
The effects of body issues, dysmorphia and changes are significant, even on non-pregnant women, and entire industries function off these aggressively marketed, purely appearance-based products. This could put an end to the significant medical and physical effects of pregnancy on a woman’s body, therefore affecting neither her physical health nor her mental health, by way of impacting her body image.
However, is the philosophical issue largely surrounding the ideal that childbirth is attributed saintlike, magical qualities even though it is merely a biological process common to every mammal in existence? It is not ‘sacred’ in any form of the word; this is merely a human endeavour to make fantastical that which is not.
The oft-repeated ‘wisdom’ of the patriarchy, in order to cause the virtual imprisonment of the female within the home, has been, across geographies and socio-economic strata, the avowal of the basic reproductive differences between the sexes, the need for the mother to be the ‘primary provider’ simply because ‘science’ or ‘biology’ dictated it. That the woman was meant to be the bearer of children for the family she married into, which continues to be the widely, nay, primarily held belief in several developing and developed countries. The familial and societal pressures in these countries cause a Handmaiden’s Tale-esque scenario, with an actual alienation in the minds of the women who go through these experiences between their bodily choices and the decisions they are forced to take, the societal pressures to have a child that one may not necessarily desire.
While these scientific developments may blur some ethical lines, they elucidate and outline far more clearly some others that could help science, legislation, the structure of society and the human race at large, in a multitude of ways, although they may bring with them some potential issues that will need to be discussed and examined in far greater detail.
The termination of pregnancy and related issues would need to be analysed. Although ectogenesis, as a deliberate scientific process, is entirely intentional, the potential for the desire to terminate the pregnancy is entirely possible.
Considering Roe v. Wade is based on the ‘viability of the foetus outside the mother’s womb’ to adjudge the potential for termination of pregnancy, this issue would need to be explored in greater detail in the future, as a foetus potentially growing in a ‘pod’ is entirely viable ‘outside the mother’s womb’.
If ectogenesis becomes a reality, science will dictate a new reality, one that, to me, heralds positivity in terms of biology and sexual equality. Pregnancies would be easier, safer for both foetus and mother, and natural childbirth more accessible across society.
Women need not be primary caretakers anymore, and the reality of ‘househusbands’ that John Lennon imagined, of men being the principal caretakers of their children, taking over more traditionally ‘female’ home duties’, or becoming ‘mothers’ in the historical sense of the term as they take over the majority of caring for their children, a task previously relegated automatically to women, irrespective of career, choice or personal desire.
Our world is changing every day, from the bottom up, and should ectogenesis become a reality, the dichotomy of a gender-based societal division of roles would cease to exist, or at the very least pare itself down on a long enough time frame. These roles would affect significantly patriarchal societies that consider women mere tools for reproduction, should human ectogenesis become a reality, the kind that is widely available to those who wish to use it.
As of now, external wombs are still experimental, so until further study and work, the term ‘Human Ectogenesis’ is up for grabs. Perhaps a collaboration among Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler and Phil Collins?
*Japanese professor Dr. Yoshinori Kuwabara of Juntendo University has successfully gestated goat embryos in a machine that holds amniotic fluid in tanks.
† Over a decade ago, Dr. Helen Hung-Ching Liu, Director of the Reproductive Endocrine Laboratory at the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell University, engineered mouse endometrial tissue (the tissue that forms mammalian uterine lining) to an extra-uterine framework or ‘scaffold’, as described in her research, successfully growing a mouse embryo to term.
Although human trials are not permitted for ethical and philosophical reasons, Dr. Liu grew a human embryo for 10 days in an artificial womb, with the goal of developing, someday, an external womb. Legislation, however, permits a fourteen day cap on this sort of research.