Thursday, November 26, 2015

The open discussion on menstruation is #Happy To Bleed's biggest achievement

Started by a college student, the campaign has chipped away at the structures of patriarchy that remain in place in India.
Photo Credit: Facebook
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We usually do not speak about it in polite company. Yet, not only was the hashtag #HappyToBleed trending a few days ago, but the issue was a discussed during prime time on a mainstream news channel and endorsed by anchor Rajdeep Sardesai.

It is the M word – menstruation.

Menstruation has become a subject of open debate largely thanks to 20-year-old Nikita Azad. Earlier this month. Prayar Gopalakrishnan, president of the Travancore Devaswom Board that manages the Sabrimala Ayyappa Temple in Kerala, had justified keeping menstruating women out of the shrine. Azad reacted by starting a counter campaign, urging young women to hold placards or sanitary napkins reading "Happy To Bleed". She started a Facebook event for this purpose and a related hashtag on Twitter.

The campaign is novel because we never discuss menstruation so openly. It’s often spoken about in private – between women, between mothers and daughters, between sisters – but never in public.

We grow up not saying “to menstruate” or “I’m menstruating”. Instead, girls will say they have their “chum” (a strange term). At most, they might say “period”. The old-fashioned will say “menses”. In Marathi, you will indirectly say it is that time of the month.

But that time of the month is not a time for celebration. You don’t jump with joy when you start to bleed. Far from it.

Difficult experience

What I’m about to narrate is probably a familiar story. When I began menstruating, I was horrified. I didn’t know what was happening to my body. I was irritated, angry and depressed on being told that this was not a one-off, a medical condition that would be “cured”. It was a permanent condition that would affect me every month, or rather every 28 days.

“Not fair”, I told my father, who had more patience to discuss these matters than my mother, who thought I was an argumentative brat. “I wish I was a boy,” I wailed. “At least then I wouldn’t have to suffer this nonsense for the rest of my life”.

My understanding father countered: “But boys also have problems. They have to shave every single day.”

“Yes, but they can grow a beard to avoid shaving. I have no such option,” I said with a sense of defeat. My father had no comeback and decided to leave the matter there.

So menstruation is not a happy occurrence for girls. It is frustrating, inconvenient and happens far too often. Sometimes there are cramps before it comes. Often there is pain when it comes. And it’s messy.  It hampers your movement, changes your walk, and makes you self-conscious. Don’t tell us that the latest sanitary napkins or tampons have altered this reality. It has only allowed us to manage the situation better

But Nikita Azad and her supporters are absolutely right in asserting that what happens to their bodies is not dirty and impure. It is a fact of life. And they are not apologetic.

There is little comfort in knowing that it is not just Hindu temples, but other religions also place restrictions on menstruating women. Why? And what logic justifies this sustaining tradition? This is what is being asked today.

It’s truly bizarre that the Sabrimala priest should suggest that a machine be invented to check whether a woman is bleeding before she can enter a temple. A man of religious dogma is turning to science to enforce illogical tradition: it must be a first.

Positive movement

#HappyToBleed may disappear after a few weeks, but it’s what the hashtag represents that we need to understand.

Feminists have campaigned through the ages for the rights of women over their bodies. This meant fighting for the right to abortion, the right to use contraceptives, the right to healthcare that extended beyond the reproductive organs, and the right to feel comfortable in our skins. Feminist campaigns have been anchored in the belief that just because men and women are biologically different, women cannot be treated as lesser beings where the difference is used to whip them into submission and into accepting secondary status.

What is notable about many of the recent campaigns by young women is their ability to turn this basic belief into one that projects their own confidence and comfort with who and what they are. In many ways, launching a campaign like #HappyToBleed and posting pictures of themselves holding up sanitary napkins containing the hashtag demonstrates that today’s feminists are as confident and creative as women in the past. They have the added advantage of new technologies and new platforms that allow for different forms of campaigning, which they use to their benefit.

What is also noteworthy is that they see these campaigns not as a gimmick but as a way to challenge what lies beneath – the P word, or Patriarchy. Nikita Azad was at pains to explain that her campaign was not about temple entry for women but "a protest against patriarchy and gender discriminatory practices prevalent in our society".

Every such campaign chips away at the structures of patriarchy that remain in place in India. The structure is in no danger of crumbling just yet. But if enough young women learn to question and challenge regressive attitudes, perhaps there is hope.
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Sunday, November 22, 2015

What do elections mean for women?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 22, 2015

In a post-poll survey, The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) said there was no clear correlation between the women’s vote and the Grand Alliance’s dramatic victory.
They were everywhere. Women in colourful saris, smiling broadly, proudly displaying their voter IDs, standing in line to cast their vote. Once the dust settles on Bihar 2015, these images of Bihari women will linger.

But there are many questions. What was behind those smiles? Were they proud to be voters? Were they pleased that the act of voting made them visible? Had they really decided independently on their choice of candidate? Why do elections appear to mean so much to some women who appear otherwise to be virtually invisible to politicians, media, and society?

Many in the media concluded that the high turnout of women voters contributed to the victory of the Grand Alliance in Bihar. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) was more cautious after its post-poll survey, saying there was no clear correlation between the women’s vote and the Grand Alliance’s dramatic victory. In any case, how can we know for certain how many women voted for which party?

What the CSDS survey did conclude was that it was younger women and poor women who were most enthusiastic about voting. And they voted mostly for the Grand Alliance. More than that, by turning out as they did in large numbers on polling day, they reminded us yet again that despite all its problems, democracy is alive and breathing in this country.

How did this happen, this engagement by women in a process from which they had largely been excluded? Politics in most parts of India had been a male game. Of course, there were women but they found their space by virtue of their association with a powerful man and rarely on their own terms.

The change began with the 73rd and 74th amendments to the Constitution in 1992 that devolved power to local governments. It allowed for an increasing number of women to contest for seats in local bodies because one-third was reserved for them. In Bihar, it was Nitish Kumar, now once again the Chief Minister, who set off a trend by increasing reservation for women from one-third to half in 2006.

Even if we presume that half the women who stood for elections and won seats in panchayats and nagar palikas did so as proxies of their husbands, that still leaves a substantial number of women who knew what they were doing. What is also interesting is to see how those who initially accepted being proxies gradually began asserting their own agency. In fact, it was in Bihar that I saw this when I spent time with a woman mukhiya of a panchayat in Nawada district. Unlettered, a widow, and completely new to politics, within one term this woman had grasped the essence of what was expected of her. After her first term, she won again from a general seat.

The sad part of this story is that while women are voting and participating in panchayats and urban local bodies, their numbers are still miserably low in State Assemblies and in Parliament. That is evident in the results of the 2015 Bihar elections. According to data on the Election Commission’s website, only 25 women were elected out of 243 elected representatives. Of these, just under half, or 12 women, are from Lalu Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal. Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) had only five.

Perhaps one should not read too much into this. It is interesting, however, that while interviews with women during the election campaign suggested that the majority of them rated Nitish Kumar’s rule much higher because he was perceived to have enhanced safety for women, the RJD appears to have done better in choosing women candidates who could win.

Win or lose, the essential point of reservation, or encouraging more women to enter the political fray, is to accept that women have an equal right to participate in governance. If the scales are weighed against women’s participation because society lays down that they remain at home, there has to be active intervention to encourage them. That is why we need reservation. But just greater numbers of women in elected office will have little meaning unless the process of participation accommodates men and women as equal partners.

This is what a photograph of the new Cabinet of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, which went viral on social media, demonstrates. It underlines that it is feasible and completely normal to have a Cabinet with an equal number of men and women. When asked by a reporter to explain, Trudeau replied, “Because it is 2015!” Exactly. That is something we need to hear here. Working with women as equals is not a favour that men bestow on women. It is how the world should work. It is how the world can work.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Girls just want some space

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine,November 8, 2015

With her shock of flaming red hair, you cannot miss Mona Eltahawy. This gutsy young Egyptian journalist, author and feminist, was by far the most striking presence at the recent Tata Literature Live in Mumbai. But more than her appearance, it’s what she said that struck a chord.

As a journalist and an activist demanding democracy and freedom, Mona was one of the thousands who flocked to Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 in what came to be known as the Arab Spring. But the promise of freedom was never realised. Worse, as Mona said, “During the revolution in Egypt, men and women came and fought together. But once it was over, women went back to being oppressed.”

Mona was one of several women at the receiving end of physical and sexual assault at the hands of the police. But what disappointed her more was the attitude of some of the men who were also part of the uprising. “We had the Mubarak in the Presidential Palace and the Mubarak on the street. But at the end of the day, we were left with the Mubarak in the bedroom.” She called this “the trifecta of misogyny”.

Mona Eltawahy’s realisation that public spaces, including those considered “sacred”, were not safe for women began when at 15 she was groped in Mecca while on the Haj with her family. What began then has now become her passion as she speaks and writes about women’s rights. She has been pilloried, threatened and trolled on Twitter and social media for her views, especially after her book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution was published.

Mona’s take on women’s right to the public space is shared by women everywhere, especially in our part of the world. Women access public spaces in groups, or as part of families. But the right to just be; to enjoy a public space without being asked questions or harassed; to walk, to read, to lie on a bench or a beach; to just stare into nothingness; to hang about without any ostensible purpose — something that men do all the time — is denied to the majority of women. Why?

That is the question that some young women in India are beginning to ask. Their numbers are small, a drop in the ocean. But just as it took only three writers — Nayantara Sahgal, Uday Prakash and Ashok Vajpeyi — to trigger a virtual deluge of protests against the climate of intolerance, perhaps even these small initiatives will find a wider resonance.

It began in 2011 when Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade published their book Why Loiter? In it they reported on studies on how women use public spaces. They noted, for instance, that most women would feel the need to access a public space only if they had a specific purpose — to go from home to school, or office, or to a shop. Seldom, if ever, did women think they had the right to just be there, to do nothing, to just hang around.

If women through the ages have felt angered at such restrictions, the majority have accepted them and perhaps even bought into the argument that ultimately it is “for their own good”. Young women are lectured about this all the time. Be back at such and such time, “for your own good”. Don’t go out after dark, “for your own good”. Don’t go out alone, “for your own good”.

Why Loiter? seems to have triggered off a form of rebellion among a small number of young, urban women. In Mumbai, some of them do organised “loitering”. They step out in groups after dark, go to places where women are rarely seen, drink chai or eat street food and just enjoy doing what young men do without any hesitation. Their experiences have been fascinating. They are sometimes stopped by the police and asked to go home. They are the objects of hostile stares from men. But these women will not give up.

Interestingly, the Indian campaign has found an echo across the border. So in Karachi and Lahore, #GirlsAtDhabas campaign has groups of young women eating and drinking at roadside dhabas where you see only men. Even more fun is the birth of women’s gully cricket in Karachi, where they play cricket on the street.

The latest is the ‘Pinjra Tod’ campaign in Delhi. Women students have protested against unreasonable hostel rules, where they are expected to return by 7 p.m. and be locked up after that. If in all other respects they are considered adults, why do colleges feel the need to keep their women students literally in a prison, they ask?

These questions are not irrelevant. They have to be addressed by parents, by teachers, by those who plan and run our cities. Many parents might see these campaigns as unreasonable, even dangerous. But in the long run, a society that literally incarcerates women because public spaces are not safe will become one where no one will feel safe.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Lock up the girls?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 25, 2015

A rally in Hyderabad to protest the rise in violence against women and children. Photo: G. Ramakrishna

Two weeks ago, a woman who lives in the slum near my house came to see me. She looked deeply disturbed. She has a nine-year-old granddaughter who goes to school early morning and returns in the afternoon. Most days, she eats lunch and falls into a deep sleep. That day, while her mother was washing clothes, this little girl fell asleep as usual. By chance, her mother heard something and went up to the loft to check. There she found her neighbour’s 14-year-old son pulling down his pants and hovering over the child, whose undergarments had already been removed. The mother screamed. The boy ran. And the little girl woke up not knowing what had happened.

What should she do, wondered her grandmother. Report this to the police? Others in the slum who had done that got no relief, she said. When she confronted the boy’s mother, she was met with denial. Should the girl’s father beat up the boy and teach him a lesson? But these were her neighbours. They had lived side by side for decades.

How would she be able to “protect” her granddaughter from this young man, or other sexual predators? As both she and the girl’s mother work as domestic help in other people’s houses, the little girl is often on her own. How will they now make sure that she is never left alone? And for how long can they do this?

There are no easy or glib answers to these questions, and few words of reassurance to offer. This woman lives in the midst of a grim reality; they have no private or safe spaces, and all women, young and old, are vulnerable to molestation and assault. And it is not just strangers but the known faces in their midst who are the predators.

The news from Delhi about the brutal rape of two girls aged two and five by men known to them and their families reminded me of this conversation. Such rapes are not new. In Delhi alone, 199 children under 12 were raped last year. Of these, 71 were under six. Nationwide, there were 2,000 rapes of children under 12 in 2014, of which 547 were younger than six.

These horrific statistics do not tell the full story. Yet, it is evident that more child rapes are being reported now than before, as people become aware of the special law for sexual assault on minors: Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (2012) or POCSO. The law is an important first step. But it is just that.

Somehow our politicians fail to understand this. So after news of the rapes came out, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal predictably began slamming the Centre for not handing over the police to the State. And the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took potshots at Mr. Kejriwal for not keeping women safe in his State. In this political ping-pong, neither side even acknowledged that what we are seeing is a much deeper problem, one that requires contemplation and action, and not empty rhetoric.

Do Mr. Kejriwal or the BJP really believe that better policing can stop this? How many policemen will we need to stop the rapes of children? And if you treat 14 year olds who rape minors as adults, and punish them accordingly, as Mr. Kejriwal has suggested, will it make a difference? Or will families continue to cover up the crime?

Women’s safety, or the lack of it, is only one part of a larger problem. We must ask why we are becoming a society that is not just intolerant but also one where impunity reigns supreme. Everyone believes they can get away with a crime, major or minor. From the policeman who pockets money when someone violates a traffic rule to drunken drivers to child molesters, people think they can get away with it. And often they do. Only the very poor, or those belonging to a minority, get caught. For instance, the woman I spoke to admitted that every time there was a “lafda” (trouble) in her slum, the police would routinely round up all the young Muslim men.

Given this ugly reality, what is the solution? Should we keep our girls locked up for their own good? Should we police their every action? Will that make them feel confident and safe or will it merely make them feel hounded and caged?

Mr. Kejriwal and his counterparts in other political parties need to be reminded that children , like those little girls in Delhi, are raped not by strangers, but by people they know. The problem lies inside our houses andneighbourhoods, within our families. No amount of policing or laws can penetrate these hidden spaces where crimes are committed.

The change must begin with the way boys are brought up. Their sense of entitlement, an integral part of the patriarchal system, needs to end. And they have to be brainwashed, if necessary, to accept that women and men have equal rights.

There are no short cuts to ending this violence.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

First Babri, now Dadri

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 11, 2015

A protest in New Delhi against the Dadri incident.
  • PTI

On his recent visit to Silicon Valley, the Prime Minister tried to sell the world the promise of a Digital India and declared that the 21st Century would be India’s. That is a distant dream; the hate politics that exemplifies the murder of Akhlaq is the current reality. And for this, the responsibility lies not only with fringe groups but equally with a government and a ruling party that has legitimised interference in all aspects of our lives by promoting a culture of bans and prohibition. It has claimed the right to decide what we eat, what we wear, what we read, what we view, who we meet, who we marry, who we worship and ultimately what we think.

If senior Bharatiya Janata Party functionaries can pass off Mohammed Akhlaq’s cold-blooded murder as an “accident” and an “unfortunate incident”, the same justification will be used when women are sexually assaulted for crossing the moral line determined by people with the same mind set as those who killed Akhlaq. Once you breed this type of suspicion and hatred, and justify the violence of your actions, no woman or man who thinks or acts differently is safe. Is this the India we want?

We might think that such things happen more frequently in the communal cauldron of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But look south. Look closely at what is happening in a State like Karnataka. For decades there was peace. Yet, the pace of communalisation has picked up and accelerated in the last decade to the point that the district of Dakshina Kannada, in which the cosmopolitan city of Mangaluru is located, has become the epicentre of communal tension.

The fallout of this is felt most by women who have become the targets of a twisted form of moral policing. In a district where 67 per cent are Hindus, 24 per cent Muslims and 8 per cent Christians, where the sex ratio is skewed in favour of women (1,020) unlike in the rest of the country, where female literacy is as high as 91 per cent, where a human development indicator like the infant mortality rate is substantially above the national average, young men and women are virtually forbidden from hanging out together. If they take the risk, they might have hell to pay.

Recent reports speak of random attacks on young people hanging out at malls, going to restaurants or going on a college trip in a so-called “mixed group”. If Hindu girls are found with Muslim boys, the latter are threatened and even beaten up while the former are warned. If girls, regardless of religion are found drinking alcohol, they are dragged out and shamed, as was done in the attack on a pub in 2009. If young men and women organise a private party, that too is targeted by moral vigilantes as happened in 2012 when one such birthday bash was broken up and the entire incident televised.

So are we going forwards, or steadily backwards? And how will this generation of young women, educated, looking forward to careers, having access to information and communication through the Internet, survive in a world where every step they take is watched? In Mangaluru, a city with a huge population of young people thronging the scores of high quality educational institutions, such an atmosphere must be stifling, hardly conducive to learning or creativity.

Today these are stories from Mangaluru; tomorrow they will happen elsewhere in India. In fact, they are happening but are not always reported.

Why should one worry about the response, or rather the lack of it, by the Central government to this growing culture of intolerance and violence? After all, law and order is a state subject and in the case of the Dadri murder, the State government of U.P. has intervened. But the combination of a silent Prime Minister and an unrestrained, insensitive and unapologetic Culture Minister (who readily expressed his regressive views on what women can and cannot do), adds up to a virtual endorsement of such actions.

Dadri is not a random incident; it is part of a larger picture that is emerging of the kind of India some people want to make. This is not the India envisioned by those who fought for its independence from the British. In 1947, we looked forward to a democratic, secular, plural India, where all religions are equal, where women have rights, where freedom of expression is guaranteed. Join the dots and you can see clearly that the idea of India that is now being pushed envisions a monoculture where you are given no choice but to conform.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

From instruments of abuse

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 27, 2015

  • Different editions of Khabar Lahariya newspapers that is published in six different local language editions in the state of Uttar Pradesh.
    Special Arrangement
    Different editions of Khabar Lahariya newspapers that is published in six different local language editions in the state of Uttar Pradesh.

They waited nine months.  Filed two FIRs and one complaint.  But the police were deaf to their appeals.  No response; no action. Suddenly, everything changed. Within two days, the problem was solved.

The lack of response is a familiar story yet there is a difference.  The protagonists in this story are a remarkable group of Dalit and Adivasi women journalists in U.P. They publish a weekly paper, Khabar Lahariya, in five local languages — Bundeli, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Hindustani and Bajjika.  In a part of India where the sex ratio is hopelessly skewed, where women confront a daily dose of violence and abuse, where female literacy clings stubbornly to levels well below the national average, where poverty and absence of opportunities breeds its special brand of despair, these women are breaking every norm.  And also setting high journalistic standards by doing what reporters are supposed to do — doggedly follow even difficult stories.

Their organisation provides no transport; instead they walk, cycle, hitch rides to places where they personally want to investigate a story.  It would be much easier to call, an established norm these days. But these women journalists of Khabar Lahariya stubbornly stick to the old-fashioned way of reporting — burning shoe leather. And the difference is evident in the accuracy and quality of their reports from the rural hinterland.

For their labours, they have received recognition.  From a paper that was viewed only as a “woman’s” paper, Khabar Lahariya is now seen as a genuine rural paper.  It covers all kinds of news including political developments. In fact, as I wrote in an earlier column (The Hindu, March 23, 2008:, mainstream journalists are now turning to these women for details, and even using their material without crediting them.

But the unsavoury side of recognition is abuse. For nine months, one man has been stalking and abusing some of these women on the phone.  He used dozens of different sim cards to call and harass different women. He would tell them things like, “Talk dirty to me else I’ll have you kidnapped and raped, many times over. Wherever you hide, I’ll find you. You and everyone in your team.” Despite complaints, the calls did not stop.  He called at all hours of the day and night to the point that some of them were terrified every time their phones rang.

The women registered their complaints and gave the cell numbers from which the calls emanated to the police and to the phone provider.  Yet nothing happened.

The nightmare ended only when another form of technology kicked in, that of social media. The Ladies Finger, a web-based portal, ran their story. (  It went “viral”.  It was posted on Facebook and Twitter.  It reached the ears of the U.P. Chief Minister.  And all of a sudden the local police woke up and arrested the man.  Without this kind of pressure, nothing would have happened.

But as Shalini, one of the coordinators told the press, “Ironically, for journalists who report on gender issues, the very process of filing complaints and visiting several police stations for repeated recording of statements turned out to be a form of harassment in itself.”

We now have to wait and watch under what provisions of the law this despicable and unrepentant man, who calls himself Nishu, is charged.  But the entire sequence of events has thrown light on many aspects of the challenges before women who are doing something different.

At least, the women journalists of Khabar Lahariya are known and have connections beyond the villages from where they report.  But think of thousands of young women who want to break out, who make tentative attempts to do something different with their lives.  When local police ignore even women like the Khabar Lahariya journalists, what hope is there for any other woman who faces similar harassment?

Then also consider the double-edged sword that is technology.  On the one hand, the mobile phone has been an instrument of tremendous empowerment, including for women.  It has given millions of people a means of communication that just did not exist for them.  But on the other, it is also the source of harassment.  

That also goes for social media.  In this and other instances, it has been successfully used to put pressure on the authorities to act.  But we also know of the increasing harassment that women writers, social activists and others face through this very channel.  Any criticism of those in power is met with an avalanche of abuse and threats. The abusers use fake identities to evade detection.  Few of them are caught or punished.

So even as we inch forward — and certainly the very existence of something like Khabar Lahariya represents progress — we are pushed back because a woman’s right to her space, her right to choose, her right to be explore the unknown, is simply not accepted.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015