Making Our Bodies Matter

A friend and I started talking about communities, alliances and feminism(s) a few months ago — this conversation is a brief culmination of our identities and ideologies.

Me: Writing about bodies isn’t too difficult for me, that was until I realised “writing about bodies” meant writing of bodies other than mine, or even if I were to write about myself, the language automatically becomes clinical, my gaze objective and the talk goes to whatever is ailing me — it’s never about how I feel about my body, my relationship with my scars or what I see when I look in the mirror. As I am now living in a new city and adjusting to the weather patterns here, I have to take more care of my skin here than in I did in Mumbai, I have to leave myself notes to apply [x] cream before my heels crack and bleed — it’s such a jarring experience to see that my body has carried on without me (in a sense), has already started cracking, started healing in some parts while I have gone on and done something else. It all came to a head when I was thinking of Suheir Hammad‘s words — when she says “What am I saying when I say I sit in this body, dream in this body, expel in this body, inherit in this body” — where she posits the body as a start to all experiences, and here I was forgetting to take care of my body altogether, even in the most routine and seemingly trivial ways. I’ve often complained to friends that I feel ‘bound’ in this city — as public transport systems are irregular and auto rickshaws are a luxury I cannot always afford — so most of my ‘movement’ is between my apartment, the massive Uni campus and its libraries. Now that I re-think what I mean when I say ‘bound’, I mean more than just physical limits to where I can go or am kept from, I find limits in my syllables and expressions — precisely because my body feels those limits more intimately and primarily, as if my body translates these borders in the silences that creep up everywhere, from my thoughts to my academic writing. It’s only when I completely stopped producing words and syllables a week ago, went for a three-hour long walk, felt my words come back to me as I described to my guardian just why were my heels bleeding this time I realised how closely my body felt limited here*

*This isn’t to say there weren’t other barriers in Mumbai, just that navigating these particular changes is an entirely new experience for me.

Renee: It’s equally jarring to see your body stopped in time, unable to keep up with you, and trying to formulate contingencies for when it starts to slide backwards in time. This has been my experience since losing my job just more than a year ago.

My teeth hurt all the time now; one has eroded almost to the gum line, and I touch them constantly with my tongue and my fingers to make sure none are loose. I waited out a UTI two months ago, but an ear infection still lingers (and makes my teeth ache even more). There is no money for a doctor or dentist to attend to current ills, never mind the dreams I once had for my body. Most upsetting, when my current stash of hormone pills runs out, in perhaps a month or so, I may not be able to afford more, and at that point the person I know as me officially begins to disintegrate. I never really knew myself before starting hormones, and the threat of losing that is terrifying beyond what I can describe. Already I find myself glancing in the mirror more often, touching my face, to make sure I still exist.

But it’s not just the physical degradation I feel. For now, I’m staying in a friend’s spare room, sleeping upon a mattress on the floor, with all my worldly possessions piled in boxes around me. My days are lived largely in the space between my bed and the downstairs basement, where the household television is. I have few reasons to go anywhere else, and fewer resources to do so. I wear the same clothes most days, because to do anything else means doing more laundry, which inevitably costs someone money, even if that someone isn’t me. I don’t shower every day, or moisturize, or shave, or wear makeup, because all of those things are an expense too…and so again my body suffers.

It’s apropos that my body gets neglected first and most, as it’s the rejection of my body by others that led me here. Slowly it decays, out of sight and forgotten.

(more…)

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The Body (In)Visible

This post is written for Blogging Against Disabilism Day. It is a wonderful space for conversations around disability across the world, do check out other entries on the blog.

There is a word in my native language called ‘laaj’ which loosely translates to ‘shame’ or ‘honour’. This word gets used a lot in daily routine conversations  — it’s not solely about ‘shame’ or ‘honour’ rather how the two interplay with each other. As the eldest daughter in a Hindu family, a lot of this ‘laaj’ depends on me — I don’t know what else is more intimidating, people expecting this of me, or my ready acceptance of this ‘responsibility’ — and while cognitively I recognise how this device of ‘laaj’ that seems to haunt only women is used to control, police, codify (deviant) feminine behaviour within boundaries of patriarchy, I know that somehow I must not slip up, disappoint my family in any way possible. So while interacting with strangers ‘laaj’ says Curl Your Tongue Inwards and I do, interacting in white spaces ‘laaj’ says Don’t Draw Attention To Yourself so I pretend to not hear, at home ‘laaj’ says Be Strong And Do Your Parents Proud and so I show no weaknesses. I have OCD, PTSD among other things that mesh in my headspace but I mask them all. OCD is filtered through ‘being bossy’ and ‘quirky’, PTSD is chalked to being ‘oversensitive’ and being aware of gender, race, sexual marginsalations and privileges. What I do is, swathe  terms over words, justifications over rationalisations and make sure no one knows, because if they did, this ever-elusive ‘laaj’ would go away and that would be my fault.

I can write long posts and papers over the state of our ‘ex’ empires, how ‘we’ as postcolonial subjects see life but when it comes to talking of ‘my’ body, ‘my’ invisible disabilities, I don’t. Not even in ‘virtual’ situations — which are deemed ‘less’ real because they happen online, in the ‘absence’ of bodies so to speak — knowing full well talking of my body isn’t something I am ‘allowed’ to do. I don’t think my family would be outraged to see me writing of my body and invisible disabilities — I am definitely more privileged than many people in my geopolitical location who would be punished or reprieved for transgressing this boundary — but they would be disappointed and probably hurt as they don’t know about my history of being a survivor of sexual assault(s) — from which majority of my PTSD stems from — and maybe they won’t believe me when I say I have OCD mainly because of the way it’s constructed. The narrative most of us know of OCD is situated around bodies in the Western world, words that ‘belong’ in a sense, to native speakers of English. I am an Anglophone — but all of my family isn’t. What is the term equivalent to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in other tongues? What about PTSD? How do you explain to someone that you get triggered if you can’t explain even why? How do you explain that thinking exhausts you on most days? Or that you’re out of spoons. The onus — as always — is on this Othered (In)Visible Body to find terms to explain to people just why they aren’t like others — because I haven’t witnessed a single conversation around disability rights outside the mainstream western bent, with the focus on healthcare and accessibility etc and am not too optimistic about that either. Living is exhausting enough, now I have to find ways to explain why too — in different tongues?

Even if, options for people who are Othered by English — such as my family — did exist, how do I explain to the western narrative about this ‘laaj’ I shouldn’t transgress? I live in two worlds, one is ‘virtual’ where I have the privileges  — steady internet connection, fluent Anglophone etc — to access information and forums, to find my support system, people whose thoughts and thought patterns are similar to mine, who reassure me simply by existing that I am not alone. Another world is where I ‘physically’ inhabit space in a way I don’t in virtual spaces, but I don’t talk what ‘makes’ me ‘different’. There are physical manifestations of my Other-ness but they are disguised as I mentioned earlier so that I can get from day-to-day without having shamed the people I care about — because having a ‘crazy’ daughter is no parents’ bargain, especially not around here — and things are relatively ‘easier’ for me. But it never fails to amuse me how in both of these spaces my body is (In)Visible, as it were.

I don’t think I have the privilege to proclaim my Visibility, to suddenly melt the Western semantic and semiotic barriers I encounter. So I won’t even try to confront or control them. Instead, I exist in parts, in cracked spaces, within fissured identities — and I will speak about me, my body, my loopy thoughts if, where and when I can. This is best I can do. Today.

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.

DeTonguing The Subaltern

This week all that seems to happen in India is the World Cup and How Incredibly Important It Is, for it is a game that involves super-important dudes with super-important dudes of other countries, and almost every newspaper is discussing the economics,  sport tactics, strategics and politics — I don’t even know what this means when it comes to ‘politics’ of cricket. I counted about eight to nine unevenly shaped blurbs about crimes against women today as the Sports section has taken over the front page news in Times Of India¹; I still can’t believe this is a ‘national’ newspaper. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court initiated an inane bill about ‘rehabilitating’ sex-workers, there are 52 reported deaths of female-identified Maoists in Arunachal Pradesh and there is another case of possible gendered-violence in Kashmir where two girls were shot in the streets of Sopore, in Kashmir for being ‘promiscuous‘ as cited by the military resources. All of this gendered violence in the last two weeks alone and ‘national’ newspapers such as Times Of India and DNA have hardly mentioned any news that do not include the World Cup. I’d like to believe this erasure isn’t conscious; that the stories got mixed up or maybe there was too much corporate pressure to ‘sell’ the World Cup as much as they can. For a while this trick works and I visualise extremely busy and frazzled editors who just had to edit these stories out, out of pressure and not out of choice². And then, TEHELKA covers the mediated-forced sterilisation of Wayanad tribal women and the bubble pops as silences roar.

Women of this tribe are sterilised to ‘control’ the population, most times they don’t know the surgery they are consenting to. As the article mentions, other women — possibly sterilised too — to recruit women for a price, so that more women can get these procedures done; all in the name of the Religious-Capitalist-Oligarchal State Controlled Reproduction loosely translated as, “Your men have no control, so we will curb your reproductive ability! It’s a win-win for both!”; except when it’s not as most patients don’t get sufficient post-op care — one can’t think of ‘recovery’ and ‘healing’ when there are mouths to feed — further deteriorating the health of these women. One would think this makes for Important News, especially since this is State-sanctioned violence, but then this LadyBrain will remind you that no news that really happens to uteruses is newsworthy; not when we can report the state of cricket, global sports and predict performances of teams. Meanwhile the thousands displaced to make space for the stadiums, the cuts in the budget to ‘accommodate’ expenses for the World Cup are ignored. Theoretically speaking of the Third World Woman (or Feminine-Identified Body) is relatively easier, I can go on creative bents but when it comes to actual and physical erasure, words fail me yet again. When encountered by this gendered detongued subaltern, all that remains is forked tongues and silences, yet again as mainstream Hindu feminism remains quite as narrow as it was 20 years ago. Today perhaps multi-lingualism has entered Hindu feminist theory and practice, but when it comes to going beyond the frame of the privileged, upper-caste Hindu body, we draw blanks.

Erasure of bodies that cannot be classified under ‘upper caste’, ‘Hindu’, ‘able-bodied’ and ‘Woman’ are predictably excluded, it’s really not a co-incidence no matter what I keep telling myself. Ironically, these Othered women’s — and feminine identifying people — bodies become the starting point for capitalism to build empires — where else can you find the dreadful combination of Poor, Woman, Caste-Social-Religious minority? Their homes and fields are ideal campsites for testing drugs and fairness creams, they’re also hotbeds of toxic dumps and this isn’t a co-incidence again that the most amount of gendered and sexual violence (at the hands of Upper Caste Men) happens in these neighbourhoods. Everything adds up to one equation — DeTongue The Subaltern, Disrobe Her Voice. And the ‘solution’ isn’t adequate healthcare like many Western-Leaning-Hindu feminists suggest, as again the healthcare that comes in is thoroughly western and still riddled with colonial whips — these patients can’t sign their names, so male relatives have to sign for them and subsequently ‘choose’ the healthcare, sometimes treatment papers are disguised as drug-trial consent forms — and repeatedly all we do is further violate this fissured Subaltern Woman’s body. Even interventions of privatised philanthropy fail sometimes as the zeal to define the colonial and corporate power through the Western gaze takes over, or on other occasions it is the reliance on capitalist-prescribed values of private medicine — which again work to exclude more bodies than it does to include them — that results in yet another system of oppression. Culturally, these communities are rich in what First World Feminists (read tourists in exotic places) like to call “indigenous knowledges”, this knowledge is communally shared among the tribal and peasant women for domestic, local and public use are then subject to Western ideologies of intellectual property rights which are only functional and understood in a controlled, possessive and privatised form. Thus this idea of an intellectual commons among tribal and peasant women actually excludes them from ownership and facilitates corporate biopiracy. Not only do they lose medical care and support, but even their knowledge is fetishised and tokenised by us, by western feminist theory and privatised philanthropy.

This is the space that mainstream Marxist axioms get engulfed in, as these women and feminine-identified bodies are violated in every imaginable way, under a religious-capitalist-oligarchal state controlled patriarchal system. This is a community of women made invisible and written out of national and international economic calculations mainly because it’s convinent and besides, no one notices such discrepancies. We have sports people to please and fret over. This is an open letter to mainstream Hindu feminists to pay more attention to the everyday localised experiences of tribal women and the micropolitics of their — ultimately — anticapitalist struggles. We need to start seeing the embedded of their local and particular lives with the ‘global’ and ‘universal’ norms that we’re so fond of; justice and equality has to be re-membered in transborder, trans-communal terms.

— From an Ex-Hindu.

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1. Continuously referring to rape survivors as ‘rape victims’ and stating ‘allegedly’ before any woman-related crime are a few of the many reasons TOI does wrong, on an alarmingly regular basis.

2. I can be quite the willfully ignorant unicorn when I want.

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The SuperBowl Is Over And The Non-Rapist Is Going To Disneyland

So, the SuperBowl came and went.  They guy who did not rape two women was chosen as the MVP.  I got a text message from a friend at about 5pm yesterday asking me “Packers or Steelers?” and I replied with “a bullet to my head…my team’s arch rivals or a two-time rapist.  ugh.”

Given that situation, I did what any rabid fan would do – I took my family to an Italian restaurant and ate carpaccio, gnocchi & gelato until the wheel barrel was summoned.  While I sipped my beverage and gorged myself on EVOO and fresh-baked bread, my spouse asked me about the game and for whom I might be cheering.  She was needling me deliberately, since she knows full well and good that the wounds from my team’s exit from the playoffs were still fresh and painful.  She was shocked when I told her about how I could never support a rapist, much less a two-time rapist and therefore wished that my team’s rival be the victor.  She, a card-carrying member of the the-only-real-sport-is-futbol club, had no idea of the assaults by Ben Rapelisberger.  I explained it to her in great detail while her eyes glazed over and she sipped her wine, pretending not to hear a word I said nor even care.

Sometime after I finished my oratory, I overheard someone at the next table say the word “rapist” and I immediately wondered if I could eat my dinner with her.  In this cozy little trattoria, the bartender had posted a television in front of the bottom-shelf creme-de-menthe for those of us that needed some advertising, hokum and jingoism with our antipasto.  As I excused myself from the table under the pretense of verifying the correct time in Pago Pago via collect call, I made my way to the hoi polloi amassed around the television set.  The game was the spectacle I expected and dreaded, but my sole request for satisfaction was indeed there – the rapist was losing.

Looking to my right, I noticed the person whom I had made a point of eavesdropping earlier.  Being an Aries male, I knew that my opinion and agreement would be foremost on her mind, so I spoke up.  As it turns out, she did agreed with me that it is a crying shame that the media machine of hype, advertising, delusion and sleight-of-hand that is the SuperBowl had slapped a coat of paint on a 6’6″ 260lb two-time rapist so that they could sell cars, wireless phone service, carbonated soda, beer and insurance – all with a veneer of red, white and blue-in-the-face horseshit.

I love the NFL and many other sports.  Human existence, identity and experience are measured and defined in the physical and conscious realms.  The beauty and splendor of what it means to be human, alive and aware – can be expressed in action, word, thought, sound and any measurement of the senses.  Sports are a beautiful example of the meeting of body and mind.  This existence and this universe are filled with beauty and horror, sadness and joy, fear and calm – sports are no different and they are not exempt.

I can accept that a a pro player may turn out to be a rapist or a murderer or a thief or a torturer of animals.  I can even accept that the pro players benefit from the same abuses of privilege which allow the children of elected leaders to avoid dying in the wars that their fathers vigorously pursue and profit from.

But, I don’t have to like it.  I’m glad that two-time rapist lost and I can’t wait for karma to catch up to the sonofabitch.  I hope his dick falls off.  I hope that the rest of his born days are spent sliding from privilege while he thinks about the lives he scarred with his excess, vanity and brutality.

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This is a post by Arvan. I’d like to remind all you nice people of the Open Guest Posting Policy Page and how it still works.

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