Why I Am Not Celebrating a Female Doctor Who

There was much rejoicing on both sides of the Atlantic about the BBC’s recent announcement that the 13th Doctor Who will be played by a woman.

As a feminist and someone who fights for gender equality, I am not celebrating.

Doctor Who is an original BBC science-fiction series that launched in 1963 and ran until 1989, and then revived in 2005. At face value it might feel like progress, that after more than fifty years, the BBC has finally cast a female lead. And my objection might seem counter-intuitive, but my problem is that this is entirely the wrong kind of progress on this issue.

My mother-in-law, a wise woman, was also a path breaker in the field of medicine, during a time when it was entirely male-dominated; she explains my disappointment with something she used to say, “The moment they allow a woman into a profession, you know the money has left it.”

To be clear, I am not talking about how much Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor Who, will get paid (although I am curious if her salary will be on par with her male predecessors); what I am referring to is the idea that we still seem to be perfectly willing to accept sloppy seconds for women in this modern society or ours.

In every field, it still feels like it is only when men are done fully dominating, do they acquiesce and allow a woman into it. Doctor Who is yet another example of a role written for a man, that we are now telling a woman she can play – how bloody generous of us men, in 2017…

If we wait long enough then women will eventually be able to do all the things men have discarded. Is this the message we want to teach our daughters?

There are those who will argue that it is still not a bad thing and it does no harm to have a woman helm the same characters that men have forever been associated with. We have witnessed this trend with an all-female Ghostbusters movie, now a Doctor Who, and next maybe we will see a Jane Bond, a Harriet Potter and India Jones?

Following this path might make us feel better but it is superficial and intellectually lazy: please let’s not call it progress.

It actually does more harm than good, because rather than strive for true equality, we satisfy ourselves with the false belief that we are on our way to achieving it, and pretend that we are making strides, when we are really just taking settling for much less.

Most importantly, acquiescing to this path lets the male dominated TV and movie studios completely off the hook, while allowing them to cheaply reboot tired old series and characters under the guise of promoting feminism.

No.

We will only make honest progress when the BBCs and Hollywood studios start investing the same millions of dollars writing new, original female characters that can go on to become screen and merchandising legends in their own right. We must not let them get away with recasting old male characters to gain PR and novelty value at the box office.

I want to see the silver and streaming screen graced with a generation of strong female heroes who will show our daughters that women can do anything. I want to see female characters that not only serve as role models for our daughters, but also become an inspiration for every young boy.

That is real progress, and until we start to see this happen, this feminist will refrain from celebrating.

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JNU and the Defense of Mother India

Mother India & Rape 2_Feb 16

#DonateAFace

Why We Should Use Our Outrage For Good

(Image credit: Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press)

WARNING: long read…

While I was surprised by the small but vocal backlash, against India’s Daughter, I was even more amazed to see the amount of time and energy people have spent writing blogs, tweeting, posting, gathering and sharing global rape statistics (someone has even made a YouTube documentary called “United Kingdom’s Daughter”). All this to discredit a documentary that does more than any other I have seen to honour the memory of an amazing woman who lost her life in a brutal gang rape in India.

The thing that saddens me most is that, if even half these people spent half of the same energy to actually start a discussion on the gender inequality issues we have in India (like every other country), just imagine the progress we could have already made.

To begin with, I don’t know how anyone who has seen this documentary can say that it is an indictment of Indian society and ALL Indian men. While I saw some of our imperfections (as with EVERY society on the planet), I also saw the story of a beautiful, modern, smart, independent young woman with forward thinking and open-minded parents. It made me want to strive to create a society where Nirbhaya’s are the rule, and not the exception. Why not put every last bit of energy we have towards making India a country where “a girl can do anything”, as Nirbhaya used to say.

Nobody in the world, or in their right mind, believes that rape, sexual abuse, misogyny and sexism are a uniquely Indian problem. Some of the outraged point to a Western media bias against India, saying the media only focuses on negative stories about India. To them I say, yes, there absolutely is a bias in Western media, but surely you do not believe that this documentary is part of some greater conspiracy to malign India, because the facts within it remain undisputed. The brutal rape happened, Nirbhaya’s parents have suffered, all India was outraged and our judiciary and government took unprecedented action as a result of it, and the attitudes of some men (not ALL Indian men) exist in society.

Also, when did the Western media become our moral compass for how we see ourselves? I for one do not care what the Western media has to say about India; we are defined by our own actions. Let us never forget that. What I am saying is that even if the film was biased, why not take the parts that are real and work to fix them. A great nation does not fear criticism or cower when faced with unsavory truths, but shows the world a better way and leads from the front. I want India to respond by demonstrating how we will take the lead on the gender equality movement, and in doing so show the rest of the world a better way forward. That is the best %#&@ you…

One final thought on this; it is easy to be critical of everyone and everything. Criticism comes very easy to all of us, and it also makes for more pithy tweets, Facebook posts and attention grabbing headlines. But in the end, criticism alone neither fosters meaningful dialogue nor facilitates the type of debate than can lead to change. In this storm of criticism, consider that the most important aspect, Nirbhaya, has become a footnote.

So we can choose to stay focused on being critical of every little detail, event and person, ignoring that there is no such thing as perfection and that we are all imperfect. Or we can accept that change does not come about in a logical fashion, on some pre-ordained schedule or through luck and prayer. Instead, we can recognise that serendipity most often arises out of all the imperfection, horror and chaos around us. If we can seize on these opportunities and use them to further causes (for the greater good, rather than for ourselves) then we have a much better chance of achieving success and creating lasting change.

Now let’s examine the so-called ‘facts’ and the various arguments that people have been throwing around in social media to discredit the film and film maker.

1. Shocking as it may be to see and hear in full technicolour, nothing the rapist or his lawyers say are things we have not heard from our own leaders from across the gender, political and social spectrum. Read: “Why India’s Daughter Holds A Mirror to Our Society” (each quote has a link to a reputable media source). I think we can also agree that the rapist and his lawyers were not provided a script and were all allowed to speak their minds. As an aside, I also appreciate the fact that the documentary had no narration; which one can argue might have given it an inherent bias.

2. Leslee Udwin has stated many times and even sworn in an interview with Scroll.in, on her children’s life, that she did not pay a single penny to the rapist or his lawyers to gain the interviews. One other point to consider is that is entirely plausible that Mukesh Singh was prepped by his lawyers and encouraged to speak in order to help his plea hearing. It might explain why he kept insisting that he was always behind the wheel and never touched Nirbhaya.

3. There has been much flap about why Nirbhaya’s friend, who was with her on the bus, did not appear in the film. Any psychologist will tell you that a person who has suffered the level of physical and emotional trauma he did will likely take dozens of years before they are able to talk about it; leave alone publicly. This is a well-documented fact. Second, Ms. Udwin has said that she tried for six months to get him on film but that he refused. More recently Ms. Udwin told the Asian Age that he asked for money and she refused on moral grounds. (Source: Asian Age article).

4. Ms. Udwin clarifies in another interview that Nirbhaya’s father did not want to use his daughter’s real name in the Indian version but agreed to feature it in the International one. However, with the Indian government banning the film, neither she nor the BBC has had much control over which version is being posted across the internet. However, I do think people are rightly upset with the narrow and ‘sensational’ manner in which the BBC chose to market it, and for removing global rape statistics at the end of the film. Ms. Udwin says this was done without her permission and she too is unhappy about it.

5. I have seen the graphic below posted in many places to prove that there are more rapes in the developed world than in India.

Rape Stats

Again, nobody has claimed that rape is solely an Indian problem but let’s review these statistics, with some additional context, and by digging a little deeper into some of the unique underlying societal issues:

  • Marital rape is still considered legal in India (unlike in the USA and UK)
  • Until very recently, an 18th century, ‘two-finger’ test was still being used on rape victims in India. There are still questions on whether this recent ban has been fully implemented (Firstpost article).
    • Further, until the outcry after what happened to Nirbhaya there was little rape sensitivity training within the police force that I am aware of. Personally, I know in many cities I still think twice about involving the police in ANY matter. Ask yourself how comfortable a woman might feel going to a police station in Haryana to report being raped?
    • Consider what we subject rape victims to during the legal process and how they are repeatedly humiliated in open court, as happened with both Suzette Jordan (Scroll.in article) and the Uber rape victim.
    • It is true that across the world, rape is the most underreported crime, but if we are honest with ourselves, can we deny that in India there are perhaps greater societal and familial pressures NOT to report incidents – for fear of “shaming” the family?  Globally, and in India, some 90%+ of rapes are committed by someone known to the rape victim.

The point is that there are still many barriers and disincentives in the Indian systems and society that we need to work on changing.

  • The practice of dowry is still prevalent practice, and nobody can deny that in many parts of India, girls continue to be seen as financial burdens while boys are considered prized possessions. But don’t take my word for it:
    • Look at gender gap figures from a 2013 World Economic Forum study where we “emerged at the near-bottom of the heap, before only Azerbaijan” (Source: Times of India).
    • Or at the female foeticide figures; a panel of Indian experts, gathered at CII earlier this year, described it as “Though, a lot of laws and acts have been framed against this evil, until and unless mind sets see a revolution, the gender ratio will keep falling” (Source: Times of India)
  • Look at a 2014 study of attitudes among youth conducted across 11 major cities in India which found that the importance of “gender equality” scored the lowest. Here are a few other findings (Source: Firstpost article):
    • “52% of Young India thinks a woman’s place is in the kitchen”
    • “39% of girls and 43% of boys, agreed that women have no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence”
    • “55% women and 59% men, whether a woman wears jeans or a sari, her clothing is to blame if a man chooses to manhandle her”
    • “A whopping 43% of the men are under the impression that well, tough luck women, you had that coming, now suck it up and accept it (on sexual violence)”

6. Some feminists have also been critical of the film for ignoring their movement in India. First, this film was never meant to document the rise of feminism in India, or showcase the movement. I laud all the women in India who have dedicated their lives and been championing gender equality. Many have been shouting till they are hoarse from the rooftops for decades – and now suddenly a British woman has appeared out of nowhere and grabbed all the headlines, perhaps positioning herself as the champion of this cause. While, I fully understand where the emotions are coming from (and they are justified), I also ask if the issue is not bigger than any one individual or movement. In the end, does it matter if the spark was lit by a white woman or a green Martian? Why not use it as an opportunity to now take control of the debate and further this cause by driving the public discussion. Let’s use it to keep the media spotlight on the issue and affect much needed change in our society.

7. The title has been another bone of contention because some say it serves to reinforce the patriarchal mindset that exists in society. On the title, even if one concedes this as a valid point, does it really matter? Living in America with political correctness now reaching a point where such great care is taken not use even a vaguely incorrect or offensive term – I feel like the focus on the actual issues and debate is more often than not diluted. This undue sensitivity and hang-up with words or terminology might make us feel better, but it also serves to ensure that we miss the forest for the trees.

8. There has also been much ink spilled over Ms. Udwin allegedly flouting and disrespecting Indian laws, both during the approval process and with the film’s release. Yet, the government, in all their rhetoric, so far has been unable to make its case in a way that separates the legal and procedural aspects from the content of the documentary. If it turns out that Ms. Udwin broke laws, then absolutely prosecute her, BUT it still does not change the realities contained on film. It seems to me that the government is more ashamed of the picture it paints of India and the negative impact it might have on India’s image abroad; rather than any serious legal lapses. They have gone as far as calling it a crime that Ms. Udwin released the film – I ask them; would it not be a greater crime NOT to release this film, sweeping these realities under the carpet and never giving us an opportunity to change them?

Why India’s Daughter holds a mirror to our society…

“The victim is as guilty as her rapists,” “She should have called the culprits brothers and begged before them to stop. This could have saved her dignity and life. Can one hand clap? I don’t think so…”
Asaram Bapu (Spiritual Guru)

“…no one commits rape intentionally. It happens by mistake.”
Ramsewak Paikra (Home Minister, Chhattisgarh)

“Women should not venture out with men who are not relatives.”
Abu Azmi (Maharashtra State Chief, Samajwadi Party)

“In the urban culture, where women are out with their boyfriends till late in the night skimpily dressed, rape instances are bound to be higher than in rural areas where women are mostly confined to their homes and are dressed properly,”
Abu Azmi (Maharashtra State Chief, Samajwadi Party)

“Boys and girls… they had differences, and the girl goes and gives a statement that I have been raped. Should rape cases lead to hanging? Boys are boys, they make mistakes.”
Mulayam Singh Yadav (Samajwadi Party Head, former Defence Minister & Chief Minister)

“This is a social crime which depends on men and women. Sometimes it’s right, sometimes it’s wrong,”
Babulal Gaur (Home Minister, Madhya Pradesh)

“Many students misuse mobile phones by watching blue films and hearing obscene songs which pollute their mind,”
Binay Bihari (Minister Art, Culture & Youth Affairs, Bihar)

‘“Women should not wear bikinis in beaches ‘for their own safety’, and ‘girls in short skirts visiting pubs’ are against the culture…”
Sudin Dhavalikar (Senior Minister Public Works Department, Goa)

“Crimes against women happening in urban India are shameful. It is a dangerous trend. But such crimes won’t happen in ‘Bharat’ or the rural areas of the country.”
Mohan Bhagwat (RSS Chief)

“It’s not the state government which is responsible for rapes, in fact in most of the cases its consensual sex.” … In 90 per cent cases, the girls and women initially accompany boys on their own…”
Dharambir Goyat (Haryana Pradesh Congress Committee Member)

“…people must choose between a ‘promiscuous culture’ that allows public kissing, or a city made safe by moral policing.”
Satyapal Singh (Police Commissioner, Bombay)

“Women display their bodies and indulge in various obscene activities. Women are unaware of the kind of message [their actions] generate…”
“Women equally responsible” for crimes against them.
Vibha Rao (Chairperson, Chhattisgarh State Women Commission)

“Rape cases are on a rise in the country because men and women interact with each other more freely now.”
Mamata Banerjee (Chief Minister, West Bengal)

“This western model is alarming. What is happening is we have imbibed the US. We have lost all the values we had in cities…”
Ashok Singhal (VHP Leader)

“We should pay more attention to where our girls are going. Mobile phones should be banned,” We should stop our girls from wearing jeans.”
Ranvir Singh (Khap Panchayat Leader, Haryana)

“These pretty women, dented and painted… Have no contact with ground reality,”
Abhijit Mukherjee (Member of Parliament and son of current Indian President)

“Just because the country attained independence at midnight, is it proper for women moving at midnight?”
Botsa Satyanarayana (Congress Committee President, Andhra Pradesh)

“Rapes are not in the control of the police … Even the villagers from coastal Andhra are wearing salwar-kameez (as against traditional dress). All these things provoke,”
V Dinesh Reddy (Director General of Police, Andhra Pradesh)

Why We Must Watch India’s Daughter (an Indian man’s perspective)

I cried when I watched this documentary.

I did not cry because I was shocked by what the rapists or their lawyers said or from shame, based on their views about women (they did not say anything India and the world does not already know), but because of the dignity and grace of Nirbhaya’s parents and because of the glimpse we get of a truly amazing young woman, who would have made us all proud. The BBC was wrong to market it in the way they did; they decided, like most media institutions today, to pursue a path of cheap publicity to gain views through sensationalism and controversy by focusing on the rapists. This film is not about the rapists.

I cannot even begin to fathom the enormity of her parents’ loss or the depth of their suffering. Yet they have presented themselves with an élan and dignity rarely shown by world leaders or royalty. Their wisdom, stoic demeanour and perspective prove once more that being rich or poor has nothing to do with human dignity and grace. I know a lot of wealthy and well-educated people who have far more medieval and regressive attitudes toward girls. Nirbhaya’s father and mother not only celebrated the birth of their daughter with the same fanfare reserved for boys, but also gave her everything they would have given a boy.

Unlike most of us in India, they realised that their child’s happiness had little to do with what they might want for her or what our society’s minimal and ambitionless expectations are. They decided that the greatest gift they could give her was to nurture the independent spirit with which she was born, and do everything in their power and limited means to help her realise her dreams; not their dreams. So when she asked them to invest the money her father was saving for her marriage into her education, they not only obliged but also sold their ancestral property to help.

Instead of forcing their child down a path of marriage and throttling her ambitions, they lauded and supported her choices. It seems like they gave her a strong value system, taught her to differentiate right from wrong, instilled principles and then let her fly. They allowed her to make her own choices and mistakes, but were there to help and support when she asked for it. I think many parents today feel that they need to protect their children from the world, when they really need to give them the values and skills that will help them take on and face the world.

I was also moved by a story about a boy who tried to steal Nirbhaya’s purse. A policeman caught the boy and started to beat him until she intervened and asked the cop to stop. She told him that beating the child would not help him learn his mistake. She took the boy aside and asked him why he tried to steal her purse. He told her that, like her, he too wanted nice clothes, shoes and to be able to eat hamburgers. She bought the boy everything he asked for but also made him promise never to steal again. Wow. Her actions are again a testament to how her parents brought her up. And it makes me think about how we are busy building statues for Mayawati and temples for Modi – boy, do we have our priorities all wrong.

Yes, the film also interviews one of the rapists and the defence lawyers. But it neither glorifies rape nor gives these men a platform for self-aggrandisement; in fact, it left me feeling the opposite. I felt sorry for these sad and lost men who are clearly trapped by their small minds and their medieval misogyny. But the thing that struck me most about what the rapists and their lawyers said was that it sounded like the same things our politicians and leaders have been saying for years (See: Why India’s Daughter Holds Mirror to our Society”); their attitudes about women’s place in our society and their indifference towards women was no different. This, I believe is the reason, our leaders have had such a violent, vicious and fearful reaction to this film. They cannot bear to look into this mirror…

The reason I believe that every Indian MUST watch this film is two-fold. One, rape is a global problem, not just an Indian one, and monsters exist in every society. Let’s use this as an opportunity to begin an honest and public debate about our demons. This way we can start to change the attitudes of the next generation of men, empower women with self-worth and give them equal rights from birth. If we refuse to confront the ugly truths behind its underlying causes, we will only ever treat the symptoms; much like our government does with hastily passing new laws banning lingerie on shop mannequins or by banning Uber.

The second reason is to honour the memory of Nirbhaya. She wanted to live; even after everything that happened. Nirbhaya wanted to be a doctor, she called it the most honourable profession – being able to heal people and save lives. Let’s use this as an opportunity to make India a place where a “girl can do anything,” as she used to say.

If we do this together, not only can we create a stronger and more powerful India, but we will honour Nirbhaya’s memory and ensure that she lives forever.

Times of India, Sexism & Deepika Padukone

It started when the Times of India (the largest English daily) featured a close-up of Deepika Padukone’s cleavage (one of Bollywood’s most famous actresses) with the caption: “OMG! Deepika Padukone’s cleavage show.” Then something rather unusual happened; Deepika Padukone tweeted, hitting back at the newspaper and telling her seven million followers: “YES! I am a Woman. I have breasts AND a cleavage! You got a problem!!??” Unlike Hollywood actresses, the women of Bollywood are seen but not really heard. Male actors share their views, support causes and take up social issues but rarely do major female actresses make their voices heard. Ms. Padukone struck a chord on Twitter and with prominent people across India, who lauded her for standing up to the rampant sexism that exists in daily life. The Times, instead of apologizing, sent out a tweet (which has since been deleted) saying that they were paying her a compliment and added insult to injury by putting a smiley face at the end of the tweet. Seems their digital department failed to notice that Ms. Padukone had been retweeted more than 7,000 times and a hashtag supporting her -#IStandWithDeepikaPadukone – was fast becoming one of the top trending hashtags. Ms. Padukone then responded with a Facebook post demanding respect for women. It might have been left at that but for the Times issuing an arrogant and childish second post titled, “Dear Deepika, our point of view…” All they achieved is to dig a deeper hole and frankly prove her point about sexism in our media. It has also led to the creation of a new hashtag #boycottTOI. In the letter, The Times accuses her of being hypocritical and suggests that she stirred up this controversy simply to gain publicity for her new film. However, what I found most deplorable about their salacious bully tactic and arrogant defense is this one line; “Deepika, who began her career as a ‘calendar girl’ for a liquor brand…” They are insinuating that a woman who started her career as a bikini-clad pin-up model has no right to take the moral high ground, or take umbrage at the fact that a self-important national newspaper used a publicly available image and added a titillating headline to drive more hits to their site. With this response, the Times has not only proven Ms. Padukone’s point but it is clear that they totally missed the point. She starts her blog post saying, “There is only ONE sign that a woman wants to have sex and that is that she says “YES.” This is the point – even if a woman walked down the street naked it is not an invitation to have sex with her, to rape her or take advantage of her. In the same way, a respectable national news outlet should have enough common sense and decorum not to exploit a publicly available image and use it to cheaply get more online hits. This is not about right or wrong, legal or illegal but about decency and responsibility. It is about setting an example in our society. Indian women live in a society that is already stacked totally in favour of men, one where women are treated as objects or personal property. The Times should be leading the way to change medieval male attitudes and not be justifying their actions by saying that everyone else does it too…

Before Tejpal and After Tejpal by Priya Mirchandani

Seconds later, a silky voice answered and I told her what was on my mind. ‘

I understand you can help me set up an hour of good chat,’ I said.
‘Sure, honey. What do you have in mind?’
‘I’d like to discuss Melville.’
‘Moby Dick, or the shorter novels?’
‘What’s the difference?’
‘The price. That’s all. Symbolism’s extra.’
‘What’ll it run me?’
‘Fifty, maybe a hundred, for Moby Dick. You want a comparative discussion — Melville and Hawthorne? That could be arranged fora hundred.’
The dough’s fine,’ I told her and gave her the number of a room at the Plaza.
‘You want a blonde or a brunette?’
‘Surprise me,’ I said, and hung up.

— Excerpt from The Whore of Mensa by Woody Allen

There are three kinds of men on this planet: those who are unabashed about their lust for women; those who lust for men; and lastly, superior beings who claim to have trained their refined intellect to take over the reins from their not so-refined hormones. The last variety is fairly evolved, calls itself the sapio sexuals, aroused primarily by intelligence (while the rest of us dumb mortals feed off stupidity). A shapely breast can never be the object of their lust. But, a heated discussion on Ezra Pound can hit the spot, and how.

The character in Woody Allen’s brilliant story, The Whore of Mensa, is an intellectually unfulfilled man who has one night stands with women who can fulfill the cerebral needs his wife can’t. It is irrelevant that the man is sated only by paying for and owning the woman’s intellect, even if for an hour, and doing with it as he pleases. While most men feel this story redeems the one-track-mind reputation they’ve notched up, to me, it simply reiterates the innate masculine need to overpower and control. Isn’t there more to an individual than his or her libido, intellectual or sexual?

Profile: male professional, 30 to 55; marital status: not relevant. Symptoms vary from sudden nervousness around the opposite sex, inability to hold eye contact with female colleagues and clients, compulsive need to keep hands occupied with props such as cell phones, cigarettes, pencils or coffee mugs. And, an almost delirious repetition of, “This is not intended as an inappropriate overture. If you find it offensive, I apologise. It will never happen again. Please, don’t sue me,” accompanying every banal gesture made around a woman.

Yup, Disclaimeritis is raging through the corridors and cabins of urban India. The good news is that frisky men with roving eyes and wandering hands will soon be the dinosaurs of the professional world. The not-so-good news is that it isn’t just the crude cabinet minister or misogynistic government servant who’s talking about reviewing his HR brief. Erudite CEOs of multinationals, known for their erstwhile keen sense of judgment and fair play, are re-evaluating, too. The risk factor on female human resource investment has just shot up exponentially post the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2013, particularly after a suave CEO shed his urbane skin and flashed us with his reptilian brain.

The rumblings are palpable. It’s not so much about the new female hires, they claim, as about the many males who pre-exist in the professional environment. “Give our boys a little time to familiarise themselves with what is now kosher and what is not.” This could take a while, ladies. Should we stash away our well-endowed resumes and start baking cupcakes? I don’t have to froth at the mouth to know how long, arduous and soul-sapping a journey it’s been for us to get within touching distance of that glass ceiling. Question is, is it all going to be for naught just because you gentlemen are incapable of keeping it in your pants?

In fact, the recent brazen breach by Tarun Tejpal has resulted in the drawing up of a whole new timeline in the man-woman dynamic in India, i.e., Before Tejpal (BT) and After Tejpal (AT). While BT was clearly a time of free flowing testosterone, zero risk and, therefore, zero reflection in the male mind scape, AT is attempting to usher in restraint, gender appropriateness, and all the stuff that mama hoped would take root in your mind, but didn’t quite.

Ah yes, distractions. So difficult to keep it together when you keep getting wracked with Guilty by Gucci, every time that lissome intern walks past. How are you to keep your mind on P&L when the M&S lingerie haul is being discussed so ardently within earshot? Not easy, we get it. Maybe, you’d prefer a whimpering infant pawing at your chest demanding lunch, as you attempt to finish the last two slides in your presentation. Or, perhaps, you’d like to plan the homicide of that feckless maid who bails out of babysitting the very evening you have to play host to the team from London headquarters.

Such a bummer. We girls were just about getting comfortable in those big boardroom chairs and those sky-high barstools, and bam, we’re being yanked off, right back to square one, at least mentally, if not yet, physically. So, here we are again, girls and boys, back in the old schoolyard, sworn enemies who can’t seem to see beyond our nu-nus and pee-pees. Rumour is that somewhere north of the pelvis, lies a throbbing bundle of nerves that’s the real McCoy. It’s the potent stuff that makes me uniquely me, and you singularly you. The sapio sexuals we spoke of earlier seem to know it, but, I’m not sure they’ve quite got it yet.

Because the cerebrum knows no gender. The intellect, therefore, becomes our most abiding personal signature. The next time you high-five or air-punch that dude who totally gets you because it’s a guy thing, you may want to double check if there’s a sell-by date on his testosterone reserves. Aw, am I being a bitch?

The issue simply boils down to whether men and women can work together without turning the office space into a battlefield, or, a bonkfest? Undoubtedly, we’ve been here several times. Yet, intriguingly, it’s like laying snakes and ladders, a case of climb-sting-slide in perpetual motion. Ouroboros, in a linear format.

Can a man appreciate a woman for her skills as a professional, her intellect as an individual and her qualities as a human being without being influenced by her pheromones? And, vice-versa, with women? Since corporates and marriages are still alive, despite the fact that most extramarital affairs happen at work, I’ll say that we can function without tearing each others clothes or heads off, by and large.

It’s interesting that most, or, all sexual harassment cases in the media glare invariably involve married men. Do single men not feel the need their attached brothers do to harass? Or, do their overtures not qualify as harassment because they are unattached, and, therefore, potentially available to the women they come on to? Ladies, are we labeling an overture depending on the marital status of the individual making it?

The law has woken up a bit late and gone into overdrive on this one, leaving swathes of irate men fuming all over the country. But, boys, you know what? Like marriage, nothing’s perfect. We’ve put up with 40 years of being groped in trains and buses, accepted it as a given, even taught our daughters the fine art of elbowing, just as our mothers taught us. Give us a break now. Can and will the new rape law be abused? Possibly. Just like every other law can potentially be.

Maybe, it’s time for us women to take a leaf or two from you, sit with our legs spread wide apart, scratch our privates in public, breastfeed the baby on an as-is where-is basis, without a care in the world. And, for those men who have had to lump their share of lascivious female bosses on their way to becoming CEO, I can only say, make some noise, desi boys. Speak up and be heard. It may take about a hundred years, but, don’t you lose hope. We’ll be right behind you, groping those worked-out glutes, having the last law.

(Reprinted with permission from Man’s World magazine; originally published January 2014)

WTF Is Consensual Rape?

I recently read an article in DNA Analysis saying there was a 43% rise in rape cases in Bombay, in the first six months of this year. However, this increase in rape is not what made my skin crawl but the fact that it went on to say that the Bombay Police claimed the statistic was misleading because “90% of the acts (or rape) have been purely consensual.” Pardon my French but what the fuck is consensual rape – are they suggesting that there are women and children who ask to be raped? And it begs the question of why such a term even exists or is deemed acceptable in our social and legal lexicon?

I immediately scoured the internet to see if this nonsensical and offensive term actually existed anywhere else in the world. Not surprisingly I could not find a single reference, other than five solitary entries on a site called Urban Dictionary – a place where entries can be created by anyone with internet access. Below were the five entries defining consensual rape; created by some clearly sick people:

  1. Upon a messy break-up, one or both parties of a relationship will wish they never had sex with the other person ever, thereby making each lovemaking session that occurred between them known as “consensual rape”.
  2. When both Parties agree upon a role play situation in which one will try to force coitus with the other person. The rapist will try engage in copulation whilst the rapee must defend against the rape .The rape will end once fornication has begun or the rapist gives up and is unable to to force sex.
  3. When two people are on the ground playfighting in positions that looks more like violent sex to anyone nearby.
  4. When, during the act of being raped, the victim offers to cooperate with the rapist. The impending rape becomes a win-win situation due to: 1) the rapist gets some and 2) the victim doesn’t get the full effects of an actually, violent rape.
  5. This occurs when a person attempts to rape another person, but in a turning of the tables, the other person then attempts to rape the first rapist. Resulting in simply angry sex.

It seems the Bombay police department has been consulting these definitions because I could find no other mentions of this term it legal references anywhere in the world. Please note the startlingly similarity in definition provided by DCP Mahesh Patil, spokesperson of the Bombay police, (in the DNA article): “Most of the times, the rape case is filed following an affair that went sour.” That apart, as per the law, we have to arrest the person if he ends up having an affair with a minor and the parents file a complaint. “In all these cases, the act is consensual but we have to arrest the accused on charge of rape.” (Source: “43% rise in rape cases in Mumbai but the police claims more than 90% consensual” – DNA Analysis)

Disturbingly, what the DCP describes in his second sentence, totally writing it off, is known as statutory rape in most parts of the world, and is also considered a criminal offence. It involves having consensual sex with a minor who is below the age of consent; which in most countries is 18 years of age. This law was designed to protect children and minors from sexual abuse, which is a major problem in India.

We can never solve India’s sexual assault epidemic if we allow the use of, and are willing to accept the terms like consensual rape. It means that as a society we are signaling that there are acceptable and non-criminal forms of rape. More worryingly it just re-enforces what many male leaders have been saying on the issue of rape; that women are often at fault or were somehow asking for it. The existence of a term like consensual rape is abhorrent. It is one we must all reject and wipe from our societal vocabulary before we can start to change attitudes. Perhaps, it helps explains why marital rape is still not considered a criminal offense by our courts. The bottom line is that rape is a serious crime (as it should be to lie about being raped) and until we can all agree, the women of India will never be safe.

Breaking Silences! by Priya Mirchandani

(Photographs by Sinbad Phgura Photography)

The lambs have found their voice. And, when the time is right, a solitary cry can turn into a roaring revolution of change….

The curtain rises to reveal the interiors of a bus. Four men sit slumped in their seats, as a couple enters. The door slams shut even before the bus speeds off. What follows is the dramatisation of the savagery that was inflicted on Nirbhaya, a young Delhi professional, and her male friend on the night of December 16, 2012. It’s not easy to watch, but it’s just as difficult to look away.

The unravelling threads of Nirbhaya’s life are then picked up one at a time, by five women who dare to bare – their scars, their grief and their stories. In short stark monologues, each one breaks her silence. Poorna Jagannathan (formerly seen in Delhi Belly) – who is also the producer of the play – shares her pain at being repeatedly molested by a trusted adult, and then being mauled and groped for years, in Delhi buses while going to school. “For that one hour,” she whispers, “my body isn’t mine. It belongs to everyone on that bus, to do with it as they please. I step out of my body. It’s the only way the child in me knows to survive.” Every woman in the auditorium knows what this feels like, and identifies with her helplessness.

Priyanka Bose (who made an impact in Gulaab Gang) unleashes her furious inner child, still raging at her parents for dismissing the recurring sexual abuse by male domestics. She wipes away angry tears, knowing she’s speaking up to ensure that her child and every other child out there can grow up without being preyed upon in their very own homes.

Sapna Bhavnani, feisty celebrity hairstylist, steps up and confesses to how hard it’s been for her to break the silence to herself. Gang-raped at the age of 20 on a cold Chicago street and tossed into a dumpster, she has never quite been able to confront what happened that night. Her body is now so heavily inked with tattoos that it is hard to find a patch of clear skin. As she watches Nirbhaya fighting for her life, it dawns on Sapna that she’s hiding her wounds behind her tattoos. Twenty years after it happens, she finally musters up the nerve to say the words aloud to herself and let them sink in. “I was gang-raped,” she repeats now on stage, and shares her grim story.

Hiding her scars is not even an option for Sneha Jawale. A dowryburning survivor, her disfigured face makes words unnecessary in her story. Yet speak she does, and relives her ordeal on stage, hoping to reunite with the son that was snatched away by her perpetrators, her in-laws, after setting her ablaze.

The final testimony comes from the exquisite Rukhshar Kabir, a waif-like creature, whose pain breaks through the gentle, calm exterior – a product of a violent and abusive childhood followed by a marriage many shades worse. Before being thrown out on the streets, she was made to pick one of her two children to take with her. She now shares the agony of a desolate mother who flees with her female child, hoping that the male she has left behind will at least be spared the gender-based abuse that seems to shroud the women in that family.

Ankur Vikal, the sole male cast member, plays the male antagonist to each one of the protagonists, masterfully personifying every misogynistic, violent and nauseatingly brutal crime that has been inflicted on these women, and countless others, for centuries. Nirbhaya, the muse, is played hauntingly by British-Indian actor Japjit Kaur.

Status quo is never a good thing. It smacks of inertia, reeks of resignation and spells stagnation – especially if it has remained unchallenged for centuries. Gender abuse and sexual violence is one such issue that has been lulled to sleep in patriarchal societies all over the world. Every now and then there is a loud blip on the graph, but just for an insignificant nano-second, and then it is back to slumber land. The year 2012-13 has been one of those blips on the Indian graph, triggered by the brutal rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ in Delhi, followed by the Goa Thinkfest debacle. The strident public response to both these is what has enabled the media spotlight to remain trained on the rampantly recurring instances of sexual abuse throughout the country.

So, as you watch Nirbhaya, you rise to your feet, applauding these women, their courage and resilience, not realising that the evening of breaking silences has not quite ended. In fact, it has just begun. Hands shoot up everywhere in the audience. A comfortable shawl of intimacy seems to envelop every person in the theatre, and people begin sharing. We hear reactions to what they have seen; confessions about distorted perceptions that have now got corrected, promises and pledges to reach out to survivors with support and empathy, and finally, the stories – theirs or their loved ones.

That’s when it dawns on you what this play is all about. It’s about awakening a Nirbhaya in every survivor of sexual violence, in this country and beyond. It’s about keeping that flame of righteous indignation that spilled on to the streets in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, alive and burning. It’s about pushing for justice and social change in a society that is plagued by inertia, resignation, even regression. And no one could do a better job of cameo-ing social injustices on stage than South African director Yael Farber, a testimonial-theatre veteran, known for her sensitive but strident portrayal of issues like Apartheid.

When Nirbhaya fell so tragically, she set off a wave of seismic reactions, and the dominos continue to topple, after every show, in every city, across the world. Walls come down, barriers are broken, voices that have remained muzzled for decades break free, tormenting secrets are told and hearts unburdened, denial is shrugged off and hurt validated. Most importantly, loss is mourned and life embraced. All this, in what Team Nirbhaya calls ‘The Aftercare’: forty -five minutes of free-range audience participation, with members of the cast taking questions and soliciting sharing. A very thoughtful gesture is the presence of NGOs on discreet little counters outside the auditorium. Should anyone in the audience feel the need for professional intervention, for themselves or someone else who may need help, one can just pick up a card with contact details, and follow up later, in privacy. In every city where Nirbhaya is staged, the team hands over the baton to a panel of experts – social workers, lawyers, human rights activists, celebrities, doctors and counsellors, who will examine the city’s sexual violence and abuse trends and history, and blue-print a way forward. The wheels of change are whirring into motion.

The Fringe Festival in Edinburgh greeted this powerful piece of theatre with a standing ovation every single day. Nirbhaya has now become the gi    rl who could not be silenced even by death.

Reprinted with permission from Verve.com