On Taking The Bus

This is a guest post by Deepti. She just finished her Masters in communication. A connoisseur of good and meaningful writing, she spends half her day glued to the thousand feeds on her Google Reader. She spends the other half, nurturing an unhealthy obsession for American crime procedurals, cinema, and dissing popular culture. She researches telecom policy and accessibility for an NGO in Bangalore and waits for Fall, when she can go to Grad School and get her PhD.

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It’s never a random decision. Oh I think I’ll take the bus… nope can’t do. Not dressed like that anyhow.

Being a girl in India means many things.

It means you’re valued less, you’re harassed more.

It also means that you have to be very very careful about how you choose to cloth yourself when you go out. Am I going to a conservative neighbourhood- definitely not the skinny jeans then? Can I walk around in boxers in my home? Sure but always be ready to pull the fastest trick change into pajamas if a guest comes calling.You’d be amazed how many times I have changed from perfectly okay clothing to go somewhere because; well… it’s just not okay to go there.

I know all about, I have the right to dress how I want and not get raped.

But I also know something else- I most definitely don’t want random men to stare at my legs when I walk down the road in a skirt. I don’t want to be whistled at by random teenage boys on bikes. I don’t want to be standing in a bus and have to bear uncomfortable staring from the men at the back because my shirt is clingy.

Does that mean I have to always dowdy up? No not really, because you see my upper middle class privilege lets me do all kinds of things. It lets me have a car that I can drive around in wearing whatever the hell I please. It lets me go to malls and restaurants and coffee shops and plays in revealing clothes where I can walk in confidently with the expectation that no one will look at me threateningly. Because that’s not what ‘people like us’ do now is it?

But yes, I police myself. I don’t wear skirts to work even though I want to because I have to take the public bus. And even if this is Bangalore where its quite okay to dress how you like because this is where the cool people live, And even if the bus I take is a nice red Volvo with air conditioning and padded seats and really helpful drivers and conductors and ‘a better class of people’ who can afford the Rs 30-40 fare and who don’t ‘ostensibly’ engage in leching (It’s called ‘checking out’ if it’s done by software techies instead of day labourers, I believe), I don’t because I still have to stand everyday at a bus stop for five minutes waiting, when I all I want to do is be swallowed up by the earth because I can feel every single man staring at me.

This constant mortification, even for five minutes, is not a price I am ready to pay for the joy of baring my legs. Call me a coward, call me a bad poster example  for liberation, but I won’t do it.

The skirts meanwhile, lie unworn…

P.S. Any comments which hint at malice or scorn over the fact Deepti doesn’t wear the clothes she likes, and is bringing down the name of Feminism by extension will be promptly deleted. Before you think of commenting, keep in mind the geo-political location of the writer, that will curb a little privilege showing too. I’d also like to remind you about this wonderful page that is still open for guest posts.

A Conspiracy Of Silences

A couple of weeks ago, the lady I buy my bi-weekly magazines from near the railway station started talking to me. The caste system is so pervasive¹ that all we’d ever exchanged over the past three years is, “Has [x] magazine come yet?” — from me — and she’d say, “No Madam, no one reads this one, so I have to send out a special order for you” and we’d smile at that gesture, but that would be all. So two weeks ago, when I went to the stall after a few weeks of absence, somehow, she asked me about my plans after graduation and I mentioned something about going out of Mumbai and before I knew it she was telling me about her daughter; how she wants to study further but doesn’t have the means. I’d seen her daughter a few times, helping out around the stall, I’d thought she was around my age, but it turned out she had two years to graduation. That day, I put this newspaper lady in touch with a couple of activists who worked specifically with underprivileged Hindu girls — the newspaper lady’s family came from a challenged economic background, but as Hindu Brahmins, they occupy higher shelves of the caste system. I don’t particularly like these activists and their goals but knew they’d help these two women out. Yesterday, I come to know the daughter rounded up about nine more girls from similar economic backgrounds but from varying castes which of course, the activists couldn’t stand for and helped only the Hindu girls. As people, we are constantly choosing and prioritising one over another, even if we don’t want to; build-ing and break-ing communities and spaces, they always carry with them little parts of us we show and hide. I didn’t want to approach these activists at all for their restricted goals, but by reaching out to them six more girls benefitted. However, the three that get left behind, their silences roar the loudest.

When I heard this yesterday, the first thing I did was look for financial aid that would suit these three girls, and as it turns out being caste, religious and a gender minority means you enter How Oppressed Are You Really Game™ which is almost always designed to leave you out, and two of them didn’t ‘fulfill’ the criteria for receiving the aid; though the one who did get aid brought forth two more girls. Next week, these girls are seeing another educational reform activist — this one is specifically for Dalit women — and hopefully some solution will emerge. In social justice too, we are constantly con-structing similar communities — not speaking of individual acts, rather the ones that are cultural context based — whether these communities have origins online or in physical geographical borders, they are shaped by production process — read dominance of the digital dollar — and actual histories. What troubles me is, we start with logical and factual fallacies or the Need To Help As Many As Possible, like this small group of girls sometimes we too look at solutions only in singular steps and spaces. In the case of safe spaces, there is an overwhelming urge to create a space where silence isn’t an act of violence but a choice, maybe even a protective gauze that will save us from the omnipotent presence of the DoucheColonial Empire. I confess, this is a tempting and beautiful fantasy to even consider, the possibility of a space where marginalised bodies and voices can express themselves without being attacked and cracked open is too tempting– the myth of ‘reverse-racism’ would be the first one to go if I had my way — and then we’d be human equivalents of unicorns. But even in ‘safe spaces’ — virtual and otherwise — a dichotomy slips through that dictates who remains inside, who eventually speaks, who has the authority to be believed; virtually speaking in most spaces that I’ve interacted in, all we do ‘see’ are absences, ‘hear’ only absences. It gets even trickier when the body you’re interacting with has a face and a name to go along with², this voicelessness is ‘harder’ to ignore — of course we can quantify pain, humiliation and violence! Like this for instance  — and the desire to make an insular community deepens.

Given the differences in languages, dialects, caste and class statuses re-aligning margins and commonalities — within our unique marginality — is not only impossible, but an extremely dangerous concept to even consider. Providing one marginality and slipping into someone’s space is step one to obscuring someone else’s struggles, which flies into the face of the ‘safe space’ goal, not to mention how it serves to homogenise people and their specific intersecting locations. So instead of the Revolution™ or that Perfect Safe Space, can we just interrupt — if and when we have the ability — the bigger mainstream ideal, be it in feminism or elsewhere? I’m not insinuating that communities that have been proven unsafe over and again for marginalised bodies need to be contested and constantly challenged — I’d rather talk to you of time travel instead — just pointing out how the onus is always on the marginalised body to carve out that ‘space’, ‘community’ or ‘origin’. Instead of ‘building communities’, what if we focus on shifting locales of power and loosening borders? Whether we like it or not, most of us are points of access to others — for instance, while teaching I am the point of access for children between theoretical knowledge and practical use when learning and re-forming syllables — I have little to no control over being ‘this’ via medium. What I can do, is ask access at whose cost and context? There are times when I absolutely loathe this position of access — being a cable wire for the ‘global’ to objectify the ‘local’ isn’t fun! Who knew! —  but what if we negotiate this ‘position’ of access?  Instead of challenging the militant Hindu activists — and not receiving any help at all — what these girls chose to do is seek aid elsewhere, while bringing forth more people in the chain.  Similarly, instead of fighting in harmful and unsafe spaces, if we leave our absences behind, we can re-orient ourselves to providing access to marginalised bodies, to local producer communities so that they can re-insert themselves as actors within the global arena and prevent re-appropriation of their identities.

To paraphrase my friend’s words, “As a Third World Woman, don’t expect me to build anything, ever. What I will do is express myself with break and silences as I disrupt the hegemony. Don’t expect me to smash and tear anything down, I have enough people doing that to me as it is”. Ultimately, what I hope to do is give and receive access that will enable Othered bodies and me the position of strength to negotiate within hierarchies and hegemonies. Meanwhile, my silences conspire and leave marks, re-present to us absences. Today, this minor disruption is more than enough.

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1. I couldn’t ask about her ‘problems’ as it would definitely be me squandering my caste-privilege about considering I didn’t know a thing about her then; she couldn’t ask me because of the invisible — but firm — class dichotomy me being a customer created.

2. Many virtual interactions are considered ‘unreal’ because ‘bodies don’t matter online’, or in an essence ‘get left behind’.

Re-Membering Ties; Re-Forming Bonds

Last week, I read Houria Bouteldja’s essay on Decolonial Feminism And The Privilege Of Solidarity and came away with agreeing with most of it, though there are some big problematic themes hazed over — like the ‘question’ of Islam and feminism co-existing (hint: this shouldn’t take consideration) or even the notion of ‘decolonisation’ mentioned many times in the essay, making it seem as if a ‘decolonial’ state of being is indeed possible (without using time-bubbles that too!) that there will be a time when colonisation will be washed clean from under our skin or given the radical left Maoist thrust of the website, the essay doesn’t mention ‘rescuing’ Marxism from Marx’s colonialism — but all of this disappeared as I read the speaker subverting the concept of ‘solidarity’ — physically and viscerally — by standing in solidarity with White women, which was her way of disrobing White feminists of extending ‘sistersong’. I read, “Solidarity with [insert nationality here]” and impulsively liked how ‘solidarity’ as a privilege was reverted, like Caliban cursing at his master¹, the act of reversing roles was more important than focusing on what she actually implied. Considering the speaker is an activist, her goal was to level the uneven power dichotomy of ‘solidarity’ when practiced by White (Imperial) feminists and possibly for her solidarity ‘ends’ there, and not in likening herself to any White feminists. All of this I knew and acknowledged as I read the essay for the first time; I’ll admit that the Calibanian instinct didn’t die away even after days. So for a while, I started believing that solidarity is a desirable concept when disrobed of imperial and neo-colonial intent and action, even prioritised theory over action so to speak, forgot that my dusty skin cannot be cataloged either way quite this easily.

Co-incidentally two days after reading the essay I ended up taking my students to the Prince Of Wales museum for a ‘field visit’ — calling the museum by a glorified Maratha hero’s name doesn’t change where it originates from or that it attests our colonial past — and somehow while constantly saying “no you can’t touch it” and “yes, that’s a naked body, that’s nothing to laugh about!” we were  standing in front of the Ratan Tata wing — yes those Tata’s — and all the artefacts that came directly from their family heirlooms. One minute I’m telling them to stop giggling at the nude paintings and next moment we come to the section where weapons ‘of the Empire’ are displayed. Rows of guns, whips, knives, pistols — some from the Maratha period, some from the Empire — which were used on ‘natives’; seeing the old Grandfather Clock which still works by London time and finally the cutlery and silverware exposed our (in)visible history. If I were to re-trace ‘that history’, I’d have to look at the gaps and spaces between these narratives and presentations of history, as ‘my’ past is infinitely linked with ‘theirs’. If I were to imagine ‘Indian history’ has a voice, then for the better part of last two centuries it is silenced² judging solely by the artifacts present in the museum, you’d think there were no Indians who lived in India for the time British people hung out here. Had I gone alone to the museum, this would have been the time for me to leave and give in to the crying fit, but my students were around and still wanted to know if those weapons were ever used on us. I must have nodded ‘yes’ as suddenly everyone was quiet for a while. Finally, standing around the creepy, stuffed animals of the Natural History section, one student tells me that his abbujan’s father — great-grandfather that is — used to be a footman to a British naval officer; we don’t look at each other as he wonders out loud if the weapons we saw upstairs were ever used on his abbujan’s father. At that moment — and even today — my first instinct is to cut away all my ties with such a history or a collective past.

‘Solidarity’ as a term and an implied action has too much responsibility for me to simply use it, even while subverting it like Bouteledja’s essay suggests. If I could, I’d certainly like to have no links or connections of colonisation but that is neither my space nor privilege to ‘re-claim’. As strongly I want to play around with the dynamics of ‘solidarity’ — considering how more often than not, it’s Western chains of knowledge and looking at the world that defines the Third World Woman — to say I ‘stand with European women’ — for instance — I’d have to forget and artificially re-member events around me in a manner that will foster ‘kinship’. Like my students too, I roll the word in my mouth as they do every time a new English word is introduced to them and it doesn’t ‘fit’, so to speak. I don’t feel an ‘innate’ bond with Western feminists, I don’t want to extend my arms ‘globally’ and ‘form bonds across borders’. If anything at all, because of my encounters online and otherwise, I’ve become extremely vary of Western feminists who constantly talk about ‘stretching edges’ and ‘re-defining’ the ‘global standard’ as most of these come down to exploitation of the dusty subaltern³. Even if this ‘solidarity’ were to be free of neo-colonial and imperial zeal, I’d probably still be wary, because this ‘kinship’ can quite easily ‘allow’ us to dislocate each other’s experience and well-intentioned rage and end up appropriating cultures — for instance, I care about Islamic and Dalit feminism but have to be very careful about not appropriating their experience in my ‘outrage’, as I’d be prioritising my feelings over theirs; which in interwebes lingo is aptly a ‘FAIL’.

Re-membering history, like they’re pieces of a puzzle is impossible; re-membering past memories where I was in a decidedly vulnerable position — TW for rape threat — is a luxury I don’t have; ‘solidarity’ feels like a poem I must rote learn to properly exercise my ‘feminist card’. I will never know what a Dalit or a Black feminist experiences, ‘sistersong’ allows me an escape-route to believing I do. Instead of chanting ‘sisterhood’, can’t we listen and support? I don’t particularly care if I’m ‘reaching’ a ‘sister’ in Peru, ‘understanding’ her struggle if I can acknowledge that our struggles are different, and I may not always be able to ‘help’ everyone I may want to. Why do we need bonds or ‘kinship’ to understand that All Are Different, All Are Equal?

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1. “You taught me language, and my profit on’t/Is, I know how to curse. The red plague rid you,/For learning me your language!”  is possibly my favourite Shakespeare quote.

2. Madhubani art co-existed with the Mughal Empire, for instance. But when we look at the British Empire and the display in the museum all we find is their art and traces of their ‘culture’.

3. This isn’t to intone I have an Agenda Against Western Feminists™ and will destroy them with my third worldly powers if I were to meet them, rather repeated negative experience has taught me to keep my guard up.

White Privilege: The Stockholm Syndrome Edition

We recently posted a video on our tumblr feed, which demonstrates the pervasive and nauseating totality of White Privilege. The subject was addressed on DailyKos this morning, with the author dealing with the defensiveness, denial and disbelief from whites about whether such a thing exists.

White Privilege not only exists – it is the law of the land.  From the onset, this country has been built on the sweat, blood & tears of non-whites.  The First Nations were systematically slaughtered and culturally obliterated.  Africans were brought here as slaves.  We have sent people to every continent to kill non-whites.  It was only after uber-white Germany attacked us directly, that we engaged in war with whites.  The French & Indian wars were two white empires fighting for control of the right to steal the land from the First Nations.

Since our Declaration of Independence, we have been fighting for white privilege.  The racism of the South / GOP / Bible Belt is proof that we have not shed this desire.

The most vile and disturbing aspect to me is the deliberate efforts of most of the white US to pretend that this racism is not there.  We gladly turn to our TV show, movies, iPods, flat-screen TV’s, double-latte’s, 401k’s, wallpaper for the living room, SUV purchases and any of the myriad distractions / ego-strokes that are provided for us by the very people and system that profit in dollars from the price paid in blood by non-whites across the planet.

But, we’re stroking the hand of our own executioner.  This system is not designed for some white utopia for us all to live in.  It is a very small, gated community – designed to drive 95% of the planet into labor and poverty, 4% to be jailers and 1% to bathe in the glorious light of a Maxfield Parrish dreamland exclusively populated by the owners of this planet: a few greedy, amoral men who will sell us to slaughter.

The grease of this entire system is every “oscillating Richard” white person who goes along thinking “I’m not racist” / “I’m not the problem” / “What me worry?” and any other excuse that will allow them to proceed with their “American Dream” pursuit to join the very smart, very special, very responsible “good people”.  We turn our eyes to our future home, our children’s schools, that new electronic device, the esteem of our peers and making smart choices with our careers.

We don’t see racism because we don’t want to see it and we can get away with not seeing it.

Our success, our joy, our prosperity, our delight, our social standing, the heat in our house, the food on our table, the health of our children – all paid for in the blood of non-whites.

To this day.

“If you’re not part of the solution – you’re part of the problem”

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This is a post by Arvan. As always, a reminder that the wonderful guest posting page is still open to all non-bigoted peeps.

 

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