A response to #mencallmethings

A little background — this week Renee, Numa and I ranted a bit on tumblr, a P.S. to #mencallmethings if you can call it as #otherpeoplecallusthingstoo and by the time we finished, we realised we had so much more to say. The following post is a collaborative post by Renee and I. Post contains mentions of rape, rape threats, trans*misogyny and many other –isms. Tread carefully.

Renee: I was talking to a friend tonight about #otherpeoplecallmethingstoo. Now this friend…well, I’m unsure how much or how little to say about other peoples’ intersections, but I think it’s safe to say he has a real depth of experience with race, gender identity, sexuality, and so on. He’s also a bit my senior, which means he was old enough to actively identify as a feminist when second wave feminism was a happening thing, and still has many friends and acquaintances for whom THAT feminism is still THE feminism. And he’s a creative person who has sometimes channeled his energy into critiquing the sins of the feminist past…and felt the sting for doing so. Point being, he’s savvy to this sort of stuff, and it’s something we commiserate around often.

And he was with me while I bemoaned my frustration with the mainstream feminist community. He gets my anger about how abortion and reproductive health are framed as “women’s issues”. He recognizes my pain when the Amanda Marcotte’s of the world reduce misogyny and sexism to the existence of “gonads hang[ing] on the outside” of certain people. But, of course, it’s easy to empathize with my position on that stuff…it’s not shocking, because it happened and we know who these people are and it wasn’t personal, even if I take it personally.

But when I told him about some of the other stuff – the personal attacks ,especially the ones Jaded wrote about, which I quoted some of verbatim – he drew back a bit. I’m not really sure why, because he’s certainly seen a lot of vitriol and hate, much of it from within the feminist community. But for whatever reason, he offered an explanation.

“Well keep in mind, it’s the internet. Those are the worst of the worst,” he said.

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On Signs And Signifiers

I’ve been pretty busy moving and settling in a new city these past three weeks, I couldn’t keep up with people, let alone the internet — thus thankfully missing debates around whether Mumbai should have slutwalks or not. One of the organisers asked me whether I’d be willing to help organise as we’ve worked on a few things together before. She was quite taken aback when I declined her offer (given that Slutwalk Mumbai ends up taking place) as we usually agree on most things when it comes to activism and organising. She asked, “But don’t you love your freedom? How can you pass up an opportunity such as this to see and know how far we can push boundaries?” and then I didn’t have any answers for her as I was, and am still caught up in thinking how for her, and a lot of people Slutwalk™ has come to symbolise the sum of all feminist rioting considering  Delhi, Calcutta, Hyderabad and Mumbai (from time to time) have had walks and pickets by feminists and people involved in gender justice, for causes ranging from more college seats for women to raising awareness about sex-selective abortions — each issue that emerges from our specific caste, gender, class conflicts in each specific city long before Slutwalk™ became an enterprise. Since this exchange, the rhetoric behind supporting slutwalks has become intertwined with “respecting and loving oneself” — where love¹ (of the self, of the ‘community’) is continuously intertwined to the extent that any opposition to slutwalk today is to “hate” freedom — and peculiarly, this ‘freedom’  that SW represents has to move away from anything “recognisably” Indian — whatever that means to people individually and collectively.

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In other parts of the country — especially Delhi — newspapers and news channels are all fixed on Anna Hazare’s impending fast tomorrow, that has been a part of national rhetoric and vocabulary since late April. On the whole, Hazare demands for a new anti-corruption bill, asks people to fully and directly engage with the government and hold them accountable. When it comes to the news coverage of his speeches and his entire fast, the comparisons drawn to Gandhi are more than co-incidental — tomorrow being Independence Day for India, the analogy becomes even thicker, Hazare is viewed as the “one man army” who is going to drive away corruption, going by Gandhi’s views of freedom. While I don’t necessarily agree that this protest is “peaceful” at all, that by specifically re-membering India’s history of independence as one without critically admitting to ourselves and others that it meant freedom for only ‘some’ people, I do find such a ‘nation-wide’ movement fascinating — as from time to time we see women also supporting Hazare’s fast², it’s been a while since women have been featured under the “national gaze” as more than just agency-less subjects. However, coming to the actual protest due on 15th August at Delhi, it seems women may not have a harassment-free space to march and protest. Can’t say I’m particularly shocked if tomorrow there are mostly men broadcasted over the news — as Hazare (like Gandhi) still see women’s roles under traditional patriarchy of wifedom and motherdom. For instance, the Alcohol Prohibition Act reads like one that empowers women, to talk about their abusive alcoholic spouses — it supposes that only men can be alcoholics, that one has to be an alcoholic to abuse people; there are many loopholes to this and quite a few of his other arguments too, one of the most troubling being — does an anti-corruption movement erase/will attempt to smooth over India’s history and geography of communal violence and casteism?

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Things People Need To Stop Believing

As a dusty third worldling, one of the things I learnt first was to see if there were other dusty people in the room whenever I go to any transnational feminist conferences. Something else I also learnt is to not expect ‘solidarity’ from anyone unless expressly proven otherwise — and these views are a result of the way people view me and my body in notIndia, what people assume of me in most internet spaces and fandoms. My friend and I compiled this list comprising of a few of the most repetitive and inane stereotypes that we’ve encountered of Third World Women. By no means is this list exhaustive, feel free to add your experiences in the comments — and tread carefully, the list is full of racial slurs and epithets.

1. We’re not disposable objects or your fetish or ‘flavour’ of the month. Not all Third World Women are ‘women’, but we don’t have the choice to identify the way we want, because exotification gets in the way of our special plans.

2. Not all Third World Women live in lands that are in a state of constant war. We exist in cities, between towns and villages — many in the West. There is no fixity of geo-political location, we don’t need to be in the Third World to be marginalised.

3. Not all of us live in tin shacks or mud houses, like every other group we too are scattered across classes and communities across the planet.

4. In popular culture and media, if Third World Women characters don’t wear shiny and bright colours, reality will not crack I assure you.

5. Hospitals exist in the third world too. So not all Third World Women need to squat in bushes to give birth.

6. Third World Women aren’t all ‘irresponsible mothers’ or ‘birthing cows’ because they have children at [x] age instead of the more socially ‘forward’ and ‘acceptable’ [y] age. I can vouch that the world will not come to an end if you don’t see Third World Women as ‘bad people’ for ‘not knowing better’ and ‘not having careers’.

7. We’re not your ‘Eternal She’, Earth Mother, Infinite Vessel, [Insert Inappropriate Phrase That focuses And Equates Sex Organ With Gender Here].

8. We are capable of doing more than care-taking children, cleaning houses and sewing immaculate quilts. We exist in all fields of work, equating every Third World Woman as a sweatshop worker is not necessary.

9. There is no situation where phrases like ‘exotic princess’ can be considered a compliment, even more so if this ‘compliment’ is based solely on skin hue.

10. We’re not always natural cooks or nurturing ‘goddesses’. We can do said jobs if need be, doesn’t mean we’re ‘more’ adept at menial jobs than anyone else.

11. We’re not ‘eager’ to dispense dusty wisdom and folktales on demand — especially about breastfeeding or childbirth. Take a close look at the Not All Third World Women Are ‘Women’ bit here.

12. No, we cannot be ‘purchased’ outright — definitely not if the sole ‘value’ that decides the ‘purchase’ are our hues.

13. When we say ‘no’ we mean ‘NO’ too. So saying ‘we can’t decipher your tongues’ is not an excuse.

14. Third World Women aren’t always looking to ‘entice’ White Men. Shocking, I know!

15. We’re more than just ‘enticing eyes’, or ‘gorgeous hair’ — we’re people and not body parts.

16. Most of us don’t have names like ‘Kali’, ‘Sarasvati’, [Insert Name Of Exotic Goddess], generally because we know the magnitude behind adopting such names and the cultural significance they carry.

17. If Third World Women have voice parts in popular media, the world will not turn upside down. Especially not if the said voice parts don’t involve being in the hotel industry.

18. Representation of Third World Women that doesn’t posit the hijab synonymous to oppression will not mess with Global Time.

19. We don’t like to be compared to food — ‘exotic’ or not.

20. When we’re involved with White people — sexually and otherwise — saying, “You’re a beautiful hue of Brown” isn’t helping anyone get laid.

21. Not all Third World Women roam shoe-less. (Sidenote: how come we can be shoe-less, but can afford to buy dresses? Curious minds want to know).

22. We’re not ‘sexually unrestrained’ — our cultures do not ‘encourage’ “godless unions and perpetual orgies”.

23. Not all of us have British accents, we don’t speak in archaic prose when addressed. And we do speak even when no one addresses us — apparently this is very shocking for people.

24. In the rare instance we do have voice-parts in popular media, and we’re speaking out against the dominant culture, our hair is ‘natural’ and ‘loose’ and ‘wild’.

25. In other rare instances where we do get screen time and space in popular media, we’re freedom fighters, UN refugees, sometimes nurses to Big Important White doctors, almost never as fully developed characters.

26. We’re not ‘natural hard-workers’. Back-breaking straining physical labour isn’t ‘easy’ for us either.

27. As Third World Women, we’re not ‘in tune’ with our ‘natural femininity’. Subservience isn’t coded into our genes.

28. Third World Women are queer too! And still people! Who knew?

29. Contrary to popular opinion, I have on good authority that not all Third World Women despise sex. And we need consensual sex as much as everyone else — even the supposed ‘desperate hookers’ from Pan Asia — and yes, they’re all in one monolithic identity like the rest of us.

30. Some of us speak multiple languages, some don’t. Some have the privilege of speaking in our native tongues and not get shamed for it, some don’t. Don’t expect ALL Third World Women to start ‘shrieking hysterically’ in ‘devilish tongues’ over canned soup.

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P.S. Thank you Roshan for your help and company while writing this.

Learning Relevance Through Erasure

One of the few things people connect with India besides Slumdog Millionaire and hub of cheap Third World labour are the epics Ramayan and Mahabharat — which are of course, anglicised to Ramayana and Mahabharata. Almost always, these epics are seen as the narrativisation of ‘the great oral tradition of storytelling’, basing this tradition in the past, which not only increases the net worth of such a text but also binds the epic with ‘history’; it’s seen as a ‘pre-colonial’ Indian¹utopia and as the ‘pure’ culture, while neatly obliterating the existence of more than a few hundred narrativisations of these epics — which are subjective to the caste and class of the community they come from — and they’re seen synonymously with Hinduism and our religions — meanwhile western epics like the Iliad and Odyssey are seen as Great Literature and not the representative of a population. Thanks to this pact with ‘history’, these texts are seen as — forcibly — situated texts that describe how Things Were Back Then and almost always read when mirrored with Christianity or the western gaze. So when the text turns out to have any contemporary beliefs or depict any ‘modern’ behaviour, it is hailed as a new ‘discovery’, when in reality these ‘discoveries’ have always existed in the texts. Insert quip about colonisation here.

Lately, there is a new surge of reading ‘religious’ texts through a queer perspective, which perplexes me to no end — for these particular texts, Mahabharat especially, have always been queer texts. I grew up with stories from the Mahabharat and have known tales of Krishna and Radha role-playing and switching genders, Arjun living as a woman for a year with a man’s mind, Draupadi as the daughter born of a man’s body — and these are a few instances I can remember without even looking at the texts my grandmum used to read. Agreeably, in most re-tellings of this epic, even these gender transgressions are somehow inserted into patriarchy — Krishna becomes a ‘womaniser’ who doesn’t mind ‘playing around’, Arjun is written and seen as a character who ‘just dresses as a woman’ while retaining his identity and physical form, Draupadi’s birth is naturalised — however what these studies do is anthropologically ‘carve out’ queer instances and characters, instead of just rescuing the regional-dialectical re-telling from the mainstream one. Not to mention, even these queer characters are seen through the Western lens and then we have debates and papers arguing just why Arjun isn’t a trans* character, without taking into account that being trans* across different cultures or that even ‘queer’ manifests in different forms here. Because of such ritual and continuous exotification, books like Devdutt Pattaniak’s ‘The Pregnant King‘ are a cause for wonder and amazement in the Western world — more like a mild case of, “I used to be Brown but now I Think!”.

The Pregnant King is a text that narrativises and fictionalises the tale of a childless king who was a contemporary of the Pandavs, thus we know the setting is around the Kuru-kshtera war, but it moves on to its obscure characters — some of the most fascinating are Somvat a Brahmin boy who transforms to a woman to be with his lover, a queen who cannot rule because she is a woman, a woman who is raised and eventually identifies as a man and the protagonist who drinks a magical potion that makes him father a child and is then uncertain about his identity — written in English to either get a wider (Western) audience or to cache it under the genre of ‘fantasy’ considering the author is on risky ground for ‘questioning the sanctity of the epics!’. It goes without saying, writing such a novel does take courage, keeping in mind the religious-state-sanctioned communal identity most of the politicians thrive on, how most people view these texts as religious dictats and not just tales, how most of the Hindu-cultural identity is coded into these texts and the fact that the author takes great pains to illustrate gender and caste biases wherever possible. So on some cognitive level, I can appreciate the efforts of the author, but there are too many silences and silenced voices in this text to go un-noticed. As the text is written in English, names are anglicised², alienating me in the process — every time I said the anglicised names out loud, they’d seem foreign and harsh as they don’t roll off like the Sanskrit names do — but I’m used to such translations. What really unsettled me is how culture is diluted and broken down into actions — for instance the puja is described as an “appeasement of Gods with flowers, food and waving of lamps” — is if to make sure the Omnipresent Western Reader would understand every ‘exotic’ word used. Much like footnotes used by the British to ‘comprehend the Hindoo animal’ this text too explains each cultural practice. An apsara is called a ‘nymph’, a bhrama-rakshas is called a ‘demon-spirit’, a yaksh is called a ‘goblin’, each time reminding me that the culture I grew up in is legitimate only when tied to a western-marker. I can already see people protesting, “What is your problem if a text is made relevant? This way more people can read and appreciate it” — this is only half-true. More people will read it because it’s a ‘queer’ perspective to a ‘sacred’ text, an aura of taboo mixes with the erotic thus making it more consumable and irresistible. We don’t always need these western-markers to ‘understand’ a text — I grew up reading words, terms, cultural practices like “Chaise”, “Halloween” etc without anyone  explaining what they exactly meant, read Wordsworth’s infamous poems on Nature and Daffodils without ever smelling the flower for instance —  and turned out quite okay. Reading Dickens was a nightmare — besides his countless race and genderfails — because of so many cultural practices he’d mention that I’d never heard of, so it was Dickens Plus Dictionary in my household. Somehow, just somehow I ‘understood’ it all — no one had to tell me ‘English tea’ was nothing like the chai women in my house would drink in the afternoon — I knew our cultures were different and this difference was used to map supposed inferiority in our skins and authority in theirs.

In addition to dilution of culture and specific practices, the climax of the novel is the fact that most gods are male, female, both, neither all at once and then Yuvanashv comes to terms with his identity that presents as a male and yet he gives birth to his son — by the time I got to this bit, reading had become a chore. Anyone familiar with Hindu mythology knows that Gods are not separate from their feminine forms — Shiv is Parvati is Kali is Krishna is Radha is Indra and so on — but because we read these texts as one does Christian (Western) ‘religious texts’ which are more or less gendered, these characters are also confined to the gender binary. Then of course, liberal universities and humanities departments host fests that ‘uncover’ the ‘queer’ elements in the texts — once again re-enforcing a half-swallowed truth: We Don’t Exist, Till They Say We Do. Growing up too, I learnt that to ‘gain’ relevance I must be ‘understood’ — and if you ‘understand’ the Other, you can possess and chart the Other — and this ‘understanding’ comes when I erase myself, a culture I was raised in, markers that tie me to my current geopolitical location, become a tabula rasa and wait for the Nice Imperial Person to write over me, for only then I am given existence. And people still don’t believe that colonisation exists, or that we live such fissured lives because of our colonial past.

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1. This is factually  incorrect considering the fact one of the first colonisers were the Iranians, dating back to 1800 BCE and invaded the land of the Dravidians — which is why most of us today aren’t entirely neither Aryan nor Dravidian in complexion.

2. It’s not about what ‘sounds’ better entirely — Sanskrit names are derived from that of one’s father to chart a character’s lineage — by anglicising them, these names and tradition are distorted.

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.

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