Sunday, December 25, 2011

You too Mumbai?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 25, 2011

Changing times: A separate ladies coupe in the Mumbai suburban train. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal
Changing times: A separate ladies coupe in the Mumbai suburban train. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal
A recent survey reveals that women don't feel safe anymore even in Mumbai, a city where women have been part of the public spaces for a much longer time.
In October, Mumbaikars woke up rather rudely to a reality that millions of women living in that great city have to live with every day — that of sexual harassment in the public space. The incident that caught media attention took place outside a restaurant in suburban Mumbai. A group of friends, men and women, stepped outside the restaurant. When one of the young men objected to lewd remarks being directed at a woman in their group by four men who were hanging around, it first appeared that the matter would end there. Instead, these four returned with reinforcements, set upon the men in the group, killed one, Keenan Santos, on the spot and grievously wounded another, Reuben Fernandes. The latter died in hospital.
The incident shocked the city. Was it safe no longer for women to go out even with men friends? Was it unwise for men to intervene if women are harassed? And why did none of the people who stood by and watched intervene or call the police? Could this really be happening in Mumbai, a city where women feel safer than they do in practically any other city in the country?
Shocking findings
A recent survey initiated by the women's resource group Akshara in Mumbai along with Hindustan Times and market research organisation Cfore has put some concrete numbers behind this unfortunate but emerging reality in the city, that women are not as safe as they thought they were. Of the 4,255 women interviewed for the survey, 99 per cent of them said they did not feel safe. What has changed to make so many women feel unsafe?
The public transport system in Mumbai is still better than in most Indian cities. Between the BEST buses and the local trains, over 80 per cent of the city's population travels. You would not know this if you saw the traffic jams at all times of the day. Yet, even people with cars and two-wheelers prefer Mumbai's public transport system. It is certainly a better and more pleasant option than spending long hours on the road. It is by no means as comfortable as the Delhi Metro. But the local trains especially are efficient and transport millions of people each day, way beyond their capacity.
Mumbai's local trains have separate women's compartments that do help in minimising the chances of sexual harassment on the trains. But in the buses, although there are a few seats reserved for women, there is no such separation between the space occupied by the men and women. It is here that women report the maximum amount of harassment by way of men rubbing against them, feeling them up etc. The survey revealed that 46 per cent of the women reported being sexually harassed. However, unlike Delhi, where women travelling on buses are afraid to shout or object to harassment because other passengers rarely support them, in Mumbai by and large women do get such support.
Apart from the buses, on Mumbai's streets too women report being touched, followed and subjected to lewd remarks. After dark, in areas such as the pedestrian underpasses, they feel particularly vulnerable. Girl students find that stepping outside their colleges is often hazardous as men are waiting to ply them with unwanted attention.
Changing experience
Why should any of this information come as a surprise? It does because the perception that Mumbai was safer for women was based on their lived experience. Ask any young woman who has grown up in Bangalore, or Delhi, or even Chennai about the sense of liberation she feels when she moves to Mumbai. The principal reason is the ease and safety of travel, even at late hours of the night. This gives them a sense of freedom, of choice, that they do not have in places where their movements are restricted because of the absence of safety after dark or the inadequacy of transport.
Women have used the trains and buses in Mumbai for decades. They have been in the public space, working in offices, selling wares on the streets, running small businesses, working in restaurants and in a myriad other jobs. So women have been an integral part of the public space in Mumbai for a much longer time than in more conservative cities in the North, for instance.
If despite this, the majority of women say they feel unsafe, then the reasons need to be considered and addressed. The steps taken to deal with this would be relevant not just for Mumbai's women, but for women in other cities as well.
One of the telling statistics in the survey was that 63 per cent of the women who faced harassment never told their families. Worst still, in a city where women have counted on support from men if they objected, 78 per cent of the men interviewed (776 men were part of the survey) admitted that they did not help.
What should be done? It is clear a stronger law is essential to deal with sexual harassment — at the workplace, in educational institutes and in the public space. Women should not feel that they have no option but to remain quiet. But even if there is such a law, it can only be effective if women feel it is possible to use it. Many cities, including Mumbai, are now beginning to realise the importance of not just laws but making it easier for women to approach the law enforcers. Hence in Mumbai there is one number that women can call if they are attacked or in need of help.
Larger context
But even a stronger law, better policing, a more responsive criminal justice system will not suffice. What is happening to women in our cities is the result of a growing culture of impunity — where you know you can get away with breaking a law regardless of whether it is a minor misdemeanour, like driving through a red light, or more serious crimes like defrauding public funds or even murder. In such an atmosphere, not just women but anyone who is vulnerable will feel unsafe.
At a time when people's protests seem to be making some impact on public policy, perhaps women too have to launch protests that demand an equal right to safety in public spaces. “Freedom from sexual harassment” is a campaign that everyone would support. Akshara has launched a Blow the Whistle campaign, urging women to shout out if they are harassed. College students in the Mumbai are conducting a Zero Tolerance Campaign, the Chappal Marungi and Freeze the Tease campaigns. These are positive steps. Women cannot afford to sit back and be silent victims.
(To read the original, click on the link)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Should women run our cities?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 11, 2011

Making a difference: Easier at the lower levels. Photo: D.B. Patil
Making a difference: Easier at the lower levels. Photo: D.B. Patil
Even if elected women representatives are as bad as their male counterparts in cities, why should they be denied a role in governance?
When all other structures in our cities fall apart, one will survive — the ubiquitous garbage dump. It is resilient to every kind of strategy. Try as you may, it refuses to budge. Around every corner, practically on every street and in every neighbourhood, this quintessential monument symbolising urban mismanagement continues to thrive and grow.
One such stubbornly resilient dump is part of our neighbourhood in Mumbai. Despite its impressive size, it gets cleared sporadically because it is hidden from view, lying at the back of our building compound. We contribute a fair share to it. So does the large slum that is as much part of our neighbourhood as the puccabuildings. Both have coexisted, often with a sense of resigned co-dependency, for more than four decades.
Years of daily calls to the municipality to send a truck to clear the dump have made little difference to its size or spread. Recently, we saw a glimmer of hope when we realised that a municipal election was around the corner. Surely the thirst for votes would prompt the elected representatives of the richest municipal corporation in India to at least pretend that they cared for their constituents.
Typical response
So a message was sent to the corporator. A woman. Surely, women are concerned about garbage, clean water, issues that affect the ordinary person. The response was almost instant. But ‘madam' was too busy. So she sent her husband who, without a shadow of embarrassment introduced himself, took down the complaint and promised action. That the ‘action' finally taken consisted of building a retaining wall to prevent the slum from collapsing in the next monsoon without dealing with the garbage is another story. But the husband's role at a time when the Maharashtra government has decided to increase reservation for women in panchayats and nagarpalikas from 33 per cent to 50 per cent highlights one of many issues that swirl to the surface each time the subject of women's reservation comes up.
Last week, the Bombay High Court dismissed a petition challenging this increase in the percentage of reservation for women. The man who went to court argued that combined with the existing reservation for scheduled castes and tribes, the number of ‘general' seats in the 227-member municipal corporation of Mumbai would be reduced to a mere 77. This, he felt, was unjust. The court thought otherwise.
What this judicial challenge raises is why the question of reservation for women met with practically no resistance when it was first introduced through the 73 and 74 Constitutional Amendment and why now, in the case of a big city like Mumbai, there is opposition.
Reservation at the panchayat level has made a difference. It has not only opened the way for literally thousands of women to get a share in political decision-making but it is changing relations within families and forging new role models for a whole new generation of young women. So why the resistance in cities like Mumbai?
The core issue is money. Panchayats and nagarpalikas in smaller towns do not manage large funds. Municipalities in cities like Mumbai do. Wherever money is involved, the stakes are higher. And the higher you go in the political ladder, the greater the resistance to reservation for women.
It is hardly surprising that the Women's Reservation Bill, that provides for 33 per cent reserved seats for women in Parliament and in the state assemblies, has still not been passed. Although the Rajya Sabha passed it last year, there is no sign of it in the Lok Sabha. In any case, given the political deadlock in the Lok Sabha during the current winter session, there is absolutely no chance of it surfacing this year, or possibly even the next.
Crucial differences
The few studies on the role of women in urban governance suggest that there are important differences in what women can do in elective office in urban areas compared to panchayats. Besides the money factor, in cities political parties can openly back candidates unlike in the panchayats. As a result, both monetary and political stakes are higher in urban local body elections.
So far, there is little to indicate that elected women representatives in cities or megacities like Mumbai have made a marked difference to the quality of governance. They appear to be as good or as bad as their male counterparts and usually follow the dictat of their political party. Mumbai, for instance, has a woman Mayor but you would never know that. There is nothing in the way in which the city is managed that suggests that the presence of a woman Mayor or of women in the municipal corporation has made any difference to the quality of governance.
One of the few studies of women in local urban governance was conducted a few years back in Delhi and Bangalore. Mary E. John, who heads the Centre for Women's Development Studies in Delhi, wrote a fascinating article based on this study, which looked at the relationship of women to power, in the Economic and Political Weekly (September 29, 2007). The picture that emerged was not entirely black and white. There were too many different factors at play such as class, caste, community as well as level of education and occupation that had to be taken into account.
For instance, the study found that the most common occupations of the elected men were contractor, developer or factory owner while 75 per cent and 42 per cent of the women in Bangalore and Delhi respectively were housewives. The majority of women who had a profession were teachers. This alone gives some indication of the difference in the ‘connections' men and women have when they are elected. Of course, even if the women were housewives, their husbands often had businesses that benefitted from the wife being an elected representative.
Another interesting factor that emerged was that both men and women acknowledged that they could not have entered the election race without a “godfather” who brought them into the political arena. In contrast, in panchayats many women have managed to enter without such patronage.
Also, while the issue of ‘proxies', or husbands standing in for their wives who have been elected, has generally been seen as a negative aspect of women's reservation, the study suggested that this was not confined to the women and that many men were also ‘proxies' for those who had backed them. Also, in many instances, as at the national level, political participation had evolved into a family business. When a woman's seat became a general seat by virtue of rotation, the husband contested for that seat. Thus the seat remained within “the family”. Is this any different from what is happening in Amethi, Rae Bareli and Baramati, to name just a few such family fiefdoms?
What seems clear, given the differences between urban and rural areas, is that we cannot assume that more elected women will automatically mean better governance in cities. Reservation is essential because women have not managed to enter the system without it. So even if they are as inefficient or corrupt as the men, should they be denied a share of the decision-making pie?
(To read the original, click on the link above)

Sunday, November 27, 2011

De-iconising Anna

The Hoot, November 27, 2011

Media makes personalities. It also breaks them. These last two weeks have been an illustration of how this happens and the ‘personality’ is Anna Hazare. KALPANA SHARMA on the downward slide of the Anna phenomenon.
Posted/Updated Saturday, Nov 26 21:33:37, 2011

Media makes personalities. It also breaks them. These last two weeks have been an illustration of how this happens and the ‘personality’ is Anna Hazare. More than the print, it is 24-hour news television that is principally responsible today for the creation of public personalities who become larger than life. Take Anna Hazare. Until earlier this year, he was barely known even in his home state of Maharashtra although he had campaigned for many years against corruption and taken on some powerful politicians. Today he is known all over India. And that is because television decided to adopt him, making him into an icon. He fit right into the imagery needed to run the anti-corruption story. The key word, in fact, is “story”. When you have to tell a story, you need a hero. And Hazare was that hero.
A part of the iconography was to convert a social activist into a “Gandhian”. Anyone who has known Anna Hazare’s work, and some of the tactics he has used such as those to curb alcoholism in Ralegaon Siddhi, would know that there is nothing “Gandhian” about them. Indeed, I doubt if Hazare referred to himself as a Gandhian before the media decided to attach that epithet to his name. The “Gandhian” tactic he did use, well before the Lokpal campaign this year, was that of non-violent protests, including hunger fasts, to highlight corruption in Maharashtra. His attire, including the khadi topi, is what men in Maharashtra’s villages wear. It has nothing to do with being “Gandhian”.
From the beginning of this year, ever since the Lokpal Bill became prominent, the Gandhian epithet was fixed to Hazare. He did nothing to deny it, nor did his acolytes. Hence, in the minds of the millions who were treated to the non-stop television coverage of the protests in Ramlila Maidan, there was no separating Hazare and Gandhi. In case you were in doubt, there was a huge image of Gandhi on the stage, which was always in soft focus whenever the camera focused on Hazare.
And now, in the last two weeks, it would appear that some in the media are trying to remind people that Hazare is not quite the “Gandhian” they had projected him to be. In his exclusive interview to Srinivasan Jain on NDTV, Hazare went into great detail to explain why he felt justified in tying alcoholics to a pole and thrashing them. He saw nothing wrong with that. After all mothers also beat their children sometimes, he said. Jain appeared to be egging Hazare on to explain his clearly non-Gandhian tactic in more explicit terms. And Hazare enthusiastically obliged.
As a result, the interview became the centre of several talk shows where Hazare’s take was criticized but also energetically defended by the telegenic Shazia Ilmi who is part of “Team Anna”. Having worked as a TV anchor, she knows how to use the medium. She never loses her cool, nor does she let anyone get away with even a stray remark. She is combative but smiles all the time; a great ambassador for Team Anna. In the discussion on Hazare’s non-Gandhian tactics, Ilmi claimed that the men who had been thrashed were actually grateful to Anna! NDTV has yet to independently verify this statement and inform its viewers. But apart from Ilmi, others on the panel also understood the basis of Hazare’s opposition to alcoholism. Several people acknowledged that alcoholism was a real problem that poor women, in particular, had to deal with. However, no one endorsed the Hazare tactic for curbing alcoholism.
As if this was not enough, Hazare obliged the media by making an off-the-cuff comment when asked what he thought about Sharad Pawar being slapped by a man in the crowd who was incensed about corruption and rising prices. Why only one, asked Hazare. Predictably, this went viral on television, giving more grist to the mill of those searching for subjects for talk shows. People tweeted, commented, condemned before Hazare put out a written statement condemning violence. And the redoubtable Shazia Ilmi once again came to her mentor’s defence, pointing out that his remark was a casual one and that “the slap” was in fact indicative of the anger and frustration felt by ordinary people about the people in power. But by virtue of repetition, something television is particularly good at, the damage had been done. And even though Hazare probably reflected the general lack of sympathy for the political class, for those who had decided he was a wise elder, this remark did not play out too well. So the persona the media had built came down one more notch.
None of this will have any impact on the Hazare loyalists. But it could influence the fence-sitters, people who are still not quite sure what Hazare is all about and whether “Team Anna” has anything in common beyond its determined campaign to get the government to pass the Lokpal Bill.
However, the very fact that journalists felt they had to get Hazare’s opinion on “the slap” brings out another aspect of the creation and destruction of media-created personalities. Having first raised them to a pedestal, the media then decides that they are repositories of all wisdom. So whether they have an opinion, or know anything about the issue, these individuals are asked to state an opinion on everything under the sun. The “sound byte” builds and destroys individuals. No one advises them that perhaps they should say they have nothing to say instead of being lured into stating an opinion. 

The problem, of course, is that the media makes people larger than life and very soon, they too begin to believe that what they think counts. It is the rare individual who has the honesty to tell persistent media that they should go elsewhere for an opinion. So thanks to the media, we now have “opinion-makers” who include public relations men, best-selling authors, actors and even beauty queens who are asked their opinion on anything - from Kashmir to Telengana to the latest craze, “Kolaveri di”.

(To read the original, click on the link below)

Another battle won

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 27, 2011

Equal at last... Photo: V. Sudershan

The HinduEqual at last... Photo: V. Sudershan
The Supreme Court clears the way for women to become In-Flight Supervisors in Air India. Thanks to those women who believed in and fought for equality at the workplace.
This judgment passed virtually without comment. The media ignored it. Why should the rights of a relatively small group of women concern the rest of us? Yet the November 17 Supreme Court judgment, by Justices Altamas Kabir and Cyriac Joseph, upholding Air India's 2005 decision to remove the precondition that an In Flight Supervisor could only be a male, and that women cabin crew could also be appointed to that position, is significant.
The troubled airline has not been a shining example of gender equity. Yet, finally wisdom dawned and it did accept that there was no justification for a rule that held a particular job only for men when the men and women on flights had the same training and did virtually identical tasks.
Expected resistance
What is fascinating about this case is the manner in which the male cabin crew opposed the new rule and challenged it in court. In 2007, the Delhi High Court upheld Air India's right to make this change and held that it saw nothing wrong in the rule. That judgment is worth reading in its entirety as it spells out the history of the struggles of women cabin crew in Air India to assert their right to equal treatment. There have been innumerable court cases, on issues ranging from a different retirement age for male and female crew members to a rule at one point where women who became pregnant within four years of being appointed had to quit to one where women cabin crew were grounded if they exceeded a certain weight.
It is hard to fathom why a ‘national' airline should lag so behind the times on these issues. The women employed by Air India have had to turn to the courts on all these issues. These were not battles for additional powers. The women were simply asserting that they should have the same rights as other employees in a country where equality is guaranteed and where one is working for a ‘national' airline that ostensibly wishes to promote India's ‘national' image.
This last battle, to get the airline to remove the anomaly where a particular job was virtually kept as a ‘male only' designation for no reason at all, was in some ways the strangest. Senior women cabin crew members of Air India, some of whom trained other cabin crew members including men, had to contend with serving under the same men they had trained simply because, regardless of seniority or experience, they could never get the designation of In-Flight Supervisor. Even after private airlines came on the scene where there was no discrimination between male and female cabin crew, Air India persisted. And when it finally changed the rule, the male cabin crew objected, calling this positive change “discriminatory” and challenged it in Court.
In 2007, the Delhi High Court was quite clear in its ruling. It stated:
“The Court finds that IFS (In-Flight Supervisor) is no longer a post, much less a promotional post. It is a function that one among the cabin crew, on the basis of seniority, is asked to perform during the flight. This Court is unable to discern in any of the settlements any assurance or promise held out to the pre-1997 male cabin crew that a female colleague of theirs will never ever be asked to perform the function of an IFS. Nor do the judgments of the Supreme Court say so. The impugned order dated 27.12.2005 is not discriminatory to the male cabin crew. In fact, far from eliminating the possibility of the male cabin crew performing the function of IFS, it provides a chance to their female colleagues as well. In effect it removes the ‘ men only' tag on the function of IFS. We are asked by the pre-1997 male cabin crew to hold this to be unreasonable. We decline to do so. This Court finds nothing arbitrary, unreasonable or irrational in the pre-1997 male cabin crew being asked to serve on a flight which has their female colleague as an IFS. This then is the jist of the lengthy judgment that follows.” ( Rajendra%20Grover%20Vs.% 20Air%20India%20Ltd..pdf.) (LPA Nos. 122-125 of 2006, Date of Decision: October 8, 2007.)
Representatives of the male cabin crew had argued that they would not work under women, even if they were senior. The job had been promised only to men and they were determined to hang on to it. And women could not claim the right to equality in this matter because the job of a woman on flight and a man on flight were substantially different, they argued. Yet passengers on flights can observe for themselves that the men and women in the cabin crew do exactly the same things — welcome you, make announcements about safety regulations, serve you food and drink, clear up after you, help anyone needing help, remain alert in case there is an emergency and act if such an occasion should arise.
Catching up
All this is so obvious that it does not need repeating. Yet, none of this convinced the flight pursers employed by Air India who challenged the Delhi High Court judgment. The Supreme Court ruling, one hopes, has settled the matter and Air India will now be permitted to join the 21st century. And perhaps it will finally also decide to use gender-neutral terms to describe the men and women who are part of the cabin crew.
The court battles fought by women cabin crew of Air India are significant for other reasons. Many of the women who went to court could just have sat back and accepted conditions as they prevailed. After all, they had a secure job and a reasonable salary. But because some of them took the risk of even losing their jobs and challenged these discriminatory provisions, those who join the airline now will be much better placed than their seniors. The lesson these battles hold out is that discrimination does not disappear on its own and that managements are not struck by a sudden realisation that they should be fair to their employees. Positive change is more often than not the result of battles fought by those who believe strongly in equity and justice.
(To read the original, click on the link below)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Are we not pretty anymore?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 13, 2011

A real test for the brains...
APA real test for the brains...
“Why is India on a losing streak?  Aren't we pretty anymore?” was the plaintive cry of the very presentable anchor of an English language news channel during a news discussion last week. She was not referring to cricket, quite obviously. Her concern was about the drought of Miss World and Miss Universe crowns for Indian women since 2000.  Does this mean Indian women are not the most beautiful in the world, she asked.
The question is clearly inane and does not even merit a serious discussion. And it is entirely possible that it was taken up for discussion on a low news day, when nothing much was happening in the country. But it was reminder of how the beauty business was bought and sold through these pageants in the 1990s with wall-to-wall coverage in the media, particularly by the media house promoting them, and how they have now become so routine as to merit hardly a mention. Even if such pageants, where women are paraded around in a variety of costumes and then asked some questions that are ostensibly supposed to judge their intelligence, seem an anomaly in the 21st Century, few women's groups would work up a head of steam to demonstrate against them as they did in the past.
One reason is possibly the fact that over time, beauty contests have lost the attention of the media. Major channels in the West do not telecast them, only cable channels do. And in Britain, for instance, you can only view them live on the Internet. Even in India, the media interest has waned as Indian women stopped winning. So why draw attention to them when the interest in them is so low?
Lure of the market
Did Indian women win continuously for several years because suddenly a crop of especially beautiful women had appeared? Or was it because the beauty business had discovered that there was a most lucrative market waiting to be exploited in India? From the figures of the growth of the cosmetics industry in India, it is more than evident that the beauty contests achieved their main purpose of pushing and establishing the beauty business in India. Today cosmetics are one of the fastest growing segments of consumer products with annual sales of beauty products exceeding Rs 35,660 crores. The sector is expected to continue growing at the rate of 17 per cent per year.
Cosmetics companies are now targeting smaller towns and even villages. My own experience during visits to several small towns in north India in 2009 for a series of articles on their governance problems illustrated the extent of the penetration of the cosmetics business. In Narnaul, Haryana, for instance, a small town with a population of under one lakh, I discovered there were more than 25 beauty parlours. One of the women corporators to the Narnaul nagarpalika was a beautician who owned her own parlour! Even college girls came for a variety of beauty treatments, she informed me. Similarly, in slums in Mumbai, the change is evident not only in the number of Internet cafes that have grown but also the tiny beauty parlours tucked away in the side streets.
Is there anything wrong with wanting to look beautiful? Even feminist will not deny the right of any woman to dress as she pleases, even if it means caking her face with makeup or wearing alluring clothes. Surely that is her individual right.
The objection is to the commodification of women's looks, where you have an entire industry projecting particular looks and size and luring women into believing that they can succeed only if they can somehow fit that norm. That is what leads to lack of self-esteem in those who were not born beautiful on the outside, wasted resources on quick fixes by many to change how they look, and harmful interventions by way of surgery and killer diets that often permanently damage the health of millions of young women.
It is the direct and indirect promotion of physical beauty as the dominant norm of a person's being that feminists have opposed and continue to do so. If you really believe that men and women are equal and should have the same rights, can you really justify a contest where women have to show off their physical attributes through a swimsuit round to qualify as a finalist? For the organisers to claim that they also consider brains and personality is hypocritical when the entry point is purely physical attributes and nothing else.
Perpetuating myths
Kat Banyard, author of The Equality Illusion and founder of the group UK Feminista, was one of those who demonstrated outside the Miss World contest in London recently. She is quoted in a report in The Guardian as explaining why she did: “We're here because Miss World has absolutely no place in a world that treats women and men equally. It perpetuates the beauty myth…The more a girls sees herself as an object, the more ashamed and disgusted she will feel about her own body. And that has massive implications for everything from being too ashamed to go to physical education lessons to developing an eating disorder.”
In India the interest has waned not just because the cosmetics industry has established itself and is growing, as is evident from the data, but because young women aiming to parachute into Bollywood now have other ways of being noticed. As a fashion designer on the television discussion pointed out, the “hunger for Bollywood” is now assuaged by getting a break through several other routes — modeling, anchoring on television, or simply trying your luck. The new crop of young women in Bollywood has made its way through other routes. The last Bollywood actor “discovered” through a beauty pageant was Priyanka Chopra.
The clutch of demonstrators outside the Miss World final in London was a reminder that there are still people who object to these contests even if some consider their objections as out of tune with the times. But just as the beauty pageants can claim the right to choice of the participants to win recognition on the basis of looks, so can those who oppose shows that judge a woman “by the sum of her parts”, as one demonstrator put it, assert the right to voice their opposition. If, after listening to the different arguments for and against these beauty pageants, young women still decide that their destiny is linked to winning such contests, can anyone object? What do young Indian women think?
(To read the original, click on the link)

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Skewed health coverage

The Hoot

The health of the Indian media is supposedly robust but the state of healthcare coverage in the Indian media is almost comatose. It snaps out of that coma only when ‘health’ and ‘wealth’ meet.  Is it not the media's job to cover broader health issues than those related to the health of their readers, asks KALPANA SHARMA
Posted/Updated Wednesday, Oct 26 15:08:54, 2011

Kalpana Sharma
The health of the Indian media is supposedly robust compared to the media in many other countries, particularly the West. But the state of healthcare coverage in the Indian media is far from that; in fact it would appear its condition is critical, almost comatose. Occasionally, it snaps out of that coma – when ‘health’ and ‘wealth’ meet.
If that sounds a bit obtuse, let me explain. Anyone can do a spot check of five or six leading daily newspapers. Count the stories related to health. The stories receiving a large amount of space will be: a disease that has afflicted a celebrity, eg pancreatic cancer after Steve Jobs succumbed to it; lifestyle diseases and the extent of their occurrence in urban areas, eg diabetes and hypertension and obesity; an unusual condition afflicting a celebrity, eg some years ago excruciating details on something called‘diverticulitis’ because Amitabh Bachchan was struck down with it. Apart from this, the health coverage includes chapter and verse on a disease for which a particular day has been chosen, such as Breast Cancer day or TB Day, etc. Apart from these, there are literally “seasons” of health stories – usually linked to funding and fellowships. So you might get a spurt in articles on TB, or on HIV/AIDS, or on tobacco-related illnesses. And of course, one must not forget the “health” reporting of politicians arrested for corruption who regularly require hospitalization.
But what of the diseases that strike and kill thousands of our poor? The latest such example is Japanese encephalitis (JE) which has killed nearly 500 children in eastern UP. The media has only just woken up to this fact – well over a month after the first deaths occurred. CNN-IBN did a special programme on October 11. Predictably, NDTV followed suit a few days later. And as a result of this media spotlight, the Union Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad hotfooted it to the afflicted area, Gorakhpur in UP. And since then, the print media has taken note and several editorials decrying the pathetic state of health care have appeared in major newspapers.
Encephalitis in UP, or Bihar and Assam, is not a new disease. It has been around for decades. And it occurs every year. Children die, or survive with severe afflictions. There is always talk about doing something about it. But the plans are not implemented, or action is taken when it is too late to save children from dying. Much of what needs to be done is preventive – the fairly unglamorous process of dealing with sanitation, providing clean water supply, ensuring that the Culex mosquito does not get easy breeding grounds, providing protection by way of vaccines and treated mosquito nets to the vulnerable population etc. This is not high drama. It is difficult to picturise this process on film. But it can be done. And it can certainly be written about. To write would mean doing considerable legwork over a period of time. And the story might not make it to a prominent position. In any case, newspapers are now clear that they only write for their readers, who are middle class and urban. So encephalitis in deepest darkest UP is simply not sexy enough. 
Health coverage in the media in many ways is a litmus test of the relevance of media in turning the spotlight on the dark corners in our country. With the media increasingly rendering invisible much of India, the news of tragedies, such as the encephalitis occurrence in UP, only come into the limelight when many avoidable deaths have occurred. Why should that be so? Is it not the task of the media to cover issues that are not directly related to the health of their readers but are essential to the health of the nation?

Women and the Arab Spring

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, October 30, 2011

The cusp of change: Exercising the choice democracy brings. Photo: AP
The cusp of change: Exercising the choice democracy brings. Photo: AP
As change sweeps through the Arab world and dictatorships are toppled, will women's rights be forgotten as it happened in Iran?
As the Arab Spring moves through the Arab Autumn towards winter, there is hope but also anxiety and apprehension about the future. The elections in Tunisia — with a record 90 per cent turnout — have triggered the hope that countries like Egypt and Yemen and now Libya, will also witness a peaceful transition to a democracy they have never known. But the grounds for apprehension are abundant.
As the world watches, a key question that is being raised is that of women's rights in the new political arrangements emerging in these countries. Arab women have spoken out, emphasising that a guarantee of their human rights is a prerequisite to a just society. But in the noise of the celebrations as dictators get toppled, these voices are sometimes being drowned out.
Arab voices
I was privileged to attend a fascinating discussion on the future of women in the Arab world at a recent conference in France. The Women's Forum for Society and the Economy 2011 drew together over a thousand women from around the world. But what turned out to be the most riveting session was the one where women from Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and the renowned human rights activist and 2003 Nobel Peace Award winner Shirin Ebadi from Iran discussed how the future of Arab women would emerge following the Arab Spring. It threw up a relevant discourse on religion, secularism and law.
If women's rights are also human rights, then should societies fighting for the reassertion of human rights also first guarantee women their rights? Is it possible to allow religion to dictate law if the interpretation of that religion is left to men? Are rights that women have won, even in a dictatorship, still valid even after the overthrow of the dictator? Is it possible to have a ‘ secular' constitution and still respect religion and religious laws?
These were some of the questions that wove their way through the remarks made by the participants. Moushira Mahmoud Khattab, an impressive woman from Egypt who has been a diplomat and a Minister for Family and Population and is now a human rights activist, pointed out that even under Hosni Mubarak, women had won many rights. In fact, she was one of those central to bringing in laws to criminalise female genital mutilation (FGM) that is widespread in Egypt and other north African countries, raise the minimum age of marriage to 18, give women the right to initiate divorce, give women the right to custody of their children after divorce and allow children born outside wedlock to be registered. But now, after the January 25 uprising that led to the overthrow of Mubarak, she says there are voices that have been raised against these rights calling them “Suzanne's laws”. Suzanne was Mubarak's wife and all these changes were initiated in her name. But, asked Ms. Khattab, why should rights that women had won after a struggle be negated just because they had been initiated during a hated dictatorship? The role of women in the January 25 revolution was crucial, she said. Women challenged tradition when they went out and protested and even spent nights out in Tahrir square. Yet, today in Egypt, women's rights are being questioned.
Nadwa Al Dawsari is a young activist from Yemen. She has spent many days in Freedom Square in the Yemeni capital of Sana'a with this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkul Karman, who lives in a tent in the square. Ms. Dawsari said there was an assumption that in tribal societies, like the one in Yemen, women had no rights. Yet, over 30 per cent of the protestors in Freedom Square were women. The young people of Yemen wanted a civil state, not an Islamic state, she said. She insisted that what was important now was to get the dictator to leave Yemen and for free elections to be held. Other issues could be tackled later, even if the election brought the Islamists to power.
Tunisian women, however, are not as confident as Ms. Dawsari about the Islamists coming to power. In fact, many have gone on record to say they fear for the future if the Islamist party, al Nahda, wins the elections. But what primarily concerned Amira Yahyaoui, a young blogger and militant human rights activist from Tunisia, was that women's rights in Tunisia ought not be compared to other Arab countries but to those where women are better off. “We want women and men to have real equality. Women need to be considered not as women but as human beings. What we have at present is not enough,” she said. Currently, although Tunisian women have more rights than their counterparts in some other Arab countries, they do not have equal rights of inheritance. They also cannot marry non-Muslims.
Ms. Yahyaoui was also not confident that women would have enough of a say in the process of constitution-making in Tunisia. Under the list system of proportional representation, women did not stand a chance of winning in substantial numbers as political parties tended to push male candidates to the top of their lists.
After listening to the young women from Tunisia and Yemen, Shirin Ebadi spoke. “Look at Iran”, she told them, “Do not repeat our mistakes.” When she saw images of the protestors in Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, she saw them demanding democracy. “Did anyone say we are against polygamy? That we want divorce rights? That we are human beings and need equal rights? You are making the same mistake Iranian women made. We thought we could demand women's rights after the revolution”, she said.
Ms. Ebadi said that the Iranian women who participated in the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran, knew what they did not want. They wanted an end to dictatorship. What they did not demand and insist upon were the rights that they did want. They did not go on the streets and demand an end to polygamy, or the right to divorce. It was taken for granted that these rights could be negotiated later.
Biased interpretation
“I am a practising Muslim woman”, said Ms. Ebadi, “but when a government is based on Sharia law, it can be interpreted in different ways.” She said that she did not believe that Sharia law was against human rights and democracy. But when it is left to men within a patriarchal system to interpret that law, inevitably the suppression of women's rights is justified. The best way to prevent that, she advised her Arab sisters, was to push for women's rights during the struggle. “Don't wait for the victory. Choose your allies. Dictate these conditions before the alliance”, she said.
She reminded the Tunisian about a recent incident where a TV channel was attacked for telecasting the film “Persepolis”, an animated feature film about women's rights in Iran. The director of the channel had to give a public apology. “These are not good signs”, she said. Ms. Ebadi said that although Iranian women had succeeded, even under a fundamentalist regime, in wresting many rights, these were not enough. “We are expecting a bigger victory. Aim for complete equality between the rights of women and men”, she said.
As the Arab world goes through a political churning, the voices of these women need to be heard, and heeded.