Friday, December 27, 2013

Why not Aam Aurat Party?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 22, 2013

Consider the woman voter. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar
Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

Even as Arvind Kejriwal cogitated about whether he should accept the challenge of forming a government in Delhi, I wondered whether he would consider adding another word to the name of his party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). How about renaming it the Aam Aurat Aadmi Party (AAAP)? I don’t mean to be facile or to brush aside the party’s spectacular performance in Delhi. But given the fact that AAP is projecting itself as a party with a difference, surely it should recognise that even something as mundane as the name of a party should reflect that difference.

Of course, people argue that just because AAP does not specifically mention “aurat” does not mean it is insensitive to gender. Possibly. Some also insist that the term “men” or “aadmi” includes all genders. That is questionable. If that were the case, the middle A in AAP could also be “aurat”. This can become a circular argument but the simple point is this: the words we use do matter. For centuries, the language we use has made women invisible, or at least taken for granted. That must change in visible ways, through our words and our actions.

Even if the AAP does not add another word to its name, we still have to see whether the women in its ranks are equal and relevant players as the male faces we see all the time in the media. Where are the women? We know they are in the party. But why do we not see them, with the exception of Shazia Ilmi (who seems to have temporarily disappeared after losing her election by a very narrow margin)?
It is not unreasonable to ask these questions of a fledgling party that is decidedly attempting to change the tone and content of Indian politics. Gender balance and sensitivity must be a crucial part of the difference and this must be visible. More so as women voters are now becoming a factor in elections. Although their decision to vote for a party like the AAP will not necessarily be affected by the number of women in leadership positions, it could make a critical difference.

In the recently concluded Assembly elections, there was a fractional difference between male and female voters in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. In both states, the increase in the percentage of women voting has been remarkable. For instance, in Chhattisgarh, the percentage of women voters was 67.9 per cent in 2003. This year, just a decade later, it was 77.27 per cent. Similarly in Rajasthan in 1998, the percentage of women voters was 58.88 per cent, but this year it jumped to an impressive 75.33 per cent, marginally higher than the percentage of men voting, 75.03 per cent. In Delhi, the rise in women voters is even more dramatic — from a low 46.41 per cent in 1998 to 64.69 per cent in 2013.
Clearly, something is happening that is making more women step out and vote. This does not necessarily mean that there is something called a “women’s vote”. Women are not an undifferentiated mass. Apart from gender, they are also marked by class, caste and creed. These factors affect women’s voting choices as much as they do those of men. Also, there is little empirical evidence to indicate how women vote, whether they make up their own minds, whether they look at candidates or parties, and whether the response of political parties or individual candidates to their concerns affects their choice.

Yet, the very fact that more women are voting is something that needs to be noted. In my own experience as a reporter, I have found that, increasingly in urban areas, poor women are fairly articulate about their choice of candidate. It is possible that they are following the men in their families. But there is sufficient anecdotal evidence to the contrary, of women making up their own minds.

Often what dictates the choice is not so much the party as the individual. For instance, women living on the pavements of central Mumbai justified to me their choice of voting for a known criminal in the municipal elections because he had ensured that they got water. In another instance, Muslim women in a part of Dharavi decided to support a Shiv Sena candidate in the municipal elections after the 1992-93 communal riots because he was the only one who built a public toilet for them. These could be exceptions. But it is an aspect of politics and voting choices that require much closer scrutiny.
In the run-up to the 2014 general election, all political parties will be strategising how to persuade this growing number of women voters to vote for them. It will be interesting to watch how this gender angle of the election game is played out.

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Voice of sanity

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, December 8, 2013

Palestinian author Suad Amiry. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat
The Hindu Palestinian author Suad Amiry. Photo: Meeta Ahlawat

We have also watched the game of competitive politics muddying an issue that should have remained firmly focused on issues of gender. Instead, helped largely by some sections of the media, it has deteriorated into a slanging match, of a kind that is all too familiar in this election season.

Amid all the heat and noise generated, what did we forget? Plenty. For one, we forgot that the issue was violence against women. We forgot, that it is not just these two women but thousands like them who can never speak up because the predators are in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, men they know and even trust. And we in the media forgot that going for the overkill on one case will do nothing to educate our readers and viewers about the reality of sexual violence that women confront.
In the midst of all this madness, it was a relief and inspiring to listen to a voice of sanity. To a woman who can tell you something about the insanity of living daily under the cloud of violence. About the ability of women to work around this state of madness. And about how, despite life’s grimness, you can have a sense of humour.

The woman I refer to is the remarkable Palestinian writer and architect, Suad Amiry. She was in India at the end of last month to release her new book, Golda slept here (published by Women Unlimited).
Amiry is an architect. Her organisation, Riwaq, has done amazing work in restoring and conserving heritage buildings in Palestine. These structures have been restored to create spaces for the local community who live in a perpetual state of siege. Riwaq has created over one hundred such “spaces for change”, as she calls them.

When you listen to Amiry, you get a new perspective on survival, on how to deal with adversity, on how to make people laugh even though what you narrate is heart-wrenchingly tragic.

Born in Damascus to a Syrian mother and Palestinian father, Amiry chose to make her home in Ramallah, on the West Bank. And in addition to her work as a restoration architect, she began to write about living in Palestine where, as she says, you have to forget about logic because “nothing makes sense”. Amiry says she also realised that Palestinians speak about their collective loss but hardly ever about personal loss. Her latest book records the stories of Palestinians who had owned and lived in beautiful homes in Jerusalem but who, like other Palestinians, were turned into refugees overnight in 1948 when Jerusalem was divided. Some of them moved to East Jerusalem, others further, to other cities, other countries.

In 1967, when the Israelis occupied East Jerusalem and made it, once again, one city, many of these Palestinians thought they would be entitled to recover their properties. Instead, they found their homes occupied by Israeli families. What hurt the most was that these families had no idea of the past, of the people who had designed and built these beautiful homes, who had lived in them for generations, and who had to abandon them not out of choice but because of the force of circumstances. As if that was not enough, under Israeli law, these Palestinian home owners were considered “absentee” landlords and therefore had no rights over their own property.

Of course, these stories are familiar from the Partition between India and Pakistan and in other parts of the world where forceful displacements of people have taken place. But the poignancy of the stories that Amiry recounts in her book are special because these are people who now live in the same city, they are not “absent” and yet the law will not acknowledge their presence. As architect Andoni Baramki, who built many beautiful buildings in Jerusalem tells the judge hearing his case for repossession of his home, “Sir, the Palestinians are ‘absentees’ only because you do not allow them to be present. And those of us who are present are considered absent. We can never win.”

Indeed, nothing makes sense in Palestine. Except the lives of those who survive, who “lost the pillars for a sane life, a profound foundation called HOME,” as Amiry puts it. Yet who continue to fight and to hope. They have much to teach us. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, November 24, 2013

It's not only about Tehelka

The incident reflects on the state of the Indian media as a whole and its attitude towards sexual harassment at the workplace and how it is to be handled, writes KALPANA SHARMA. 
PIX: Tarun Tejpal
Posted/Updated Friday, Nov 22 17:26:10, 2013
Kalpana Sharma

The issue is Tehelka, and it is not.  It is Tehelka because in the charge of sexual assault brought by a magazine staffer against the editor, Tarun Tejpal, the name of the magazine he founded and nurtured cannot be avoided. Thus even though the issue is about two individuals, it is also about the way a magazine that has set out to challenge and expose institutions, functions internally. The response of Tejpal and Shoma Chaudhary, the managing editor of the magazine to what the latter has inappropriately termed “an untoward incident” tells a story that reflects on the values the magazine purports to support. 

On the other hand, the issue is not only about Tehelka. It reflects on the state of the Indian media as a whole and its attitude towards sexual harassment at the workplace and how it is to be handled. 

But let us look at several issues that the Tejpal episode raises. The incident that the staffer has detailed in her email to Tehelka managing editor Shoma Choudhary took place in Goa during the Think festival that the magazine organises each year. The staffer was given duties, such as looking after one of the foreign guests (duties that normally would fall outside the remit of a journalist, but we are told that Tehelka editorial staff have no choice in the matter). In other words, she was on work even if, technically speaking, the location was not her workplace. As such, the equation between her and Tejpal was unequal, with the former being an employee and the latter her boss. In classic cases of sexual harassment, it is precisely this kind of unequal power situation that comes into play. 

Second, is one of attitude. This comes out in the messages that Tejpal allegedly sent to the woman after the two occasions when he assaulted her. In these messages he wanted her to agree that all this was just “banter”. The dictionary meaning of “banter” is “the playful friendly exchange of teasing remarks”. Forcing yourself on a woman is not “banter” by any stretch of the imagination. Yet the very fact that this is how he perceived it reveals the attitude of many men who think nothing of doing the same or similar things to the women with whom they work. 

Third, we come to impunity. In his email to Choudhary, where he seeks “atonement” and wants to “recuse” himself from editorship for six months (why six and not 10, or 12 or any other number?), you sense a confidence that this is something that can be dealt with if you move quickly and are slick about it. So before the storm could break (and if you looked at social media on Thursday, it was nothing less than that), Tejpal sent off his infamous email. And Choudhary accepted his apology with alacrity, virtually dismissing the seriousness of the crime by calling it an “untoward incident” while Tejpal referred to it as “an error of judgment”. We can quibble about the two letters but what is evident is that both are brazenly ignoring the established law in this country. 

According to the earlier Visakha guidelines on sexual harassment, formulated by the Supreme Court in 1997, and the recent Sexual Harassment at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, it is mandatory for institutions to have Internal Inquiry Committees consisting of representatives of the employer and employees and at least one outside member who knows the law and is familiar with incidents involving sexual harassment. It is also mandated that half the members of the committee must be women. 

Tehelka did not have such a committee in place (although it has now gone about setting it up). There was no inquiry held. And yet both the editor and the managing editor saw nothing wrong in unilaterally deciding that an apology and the editor “recusing” himself for six months was an adequate response to the very serious charge of sexual assault. In her mail to Choudhary, the woman had, in fact, explicitly asked for an inquiry. 

These three aspects speak poorly not just of the individuals involved, or the publication, but also of the media as a whole. Tehelka is not an exception in its cavalier approach towards the crime of sexual harassment. We in the media point our fingers at every conceivable institution in this country and think it well within our rights to question and expose their shortcomings. Yet, how many media houses have complied with the Sexual Harassment Act and set up inquiry committees as required by this law? If a survey were to be conducted today, it is more than likely that less than a handful would have done so. For an institution that is constantly claiming the high moral ground, this lackadaisical attitude towards something that is not just mandated by law but is essential for the safety and well-being of the growing number of women in the media is unacceptable. 

Another aspect that has emerged, yet again, is the power and the downside of social media. In a few hours, not only were the two letters of Tejpal and Choudhary circulating widely but also the confidential email sent by the Tehelka staffer to Choudhary. As Reetika Subramanian points out in her blog posting on the feminist blog Ultra Violet:

Amidst the hordes of tweets and other posts on social media, another disturbing aspect that came to the fore was the brazen voyeurism of the masses. The Twitterati also christened themselves as the messiahs for justice.

“Bits and pieces from the confidential e-mail sent out by the victim made its way to social media websites. Within minutes, intimate details about the grave nature of the ‘unfortunate incident’ were analysed, re-analysed, tweeted and re-tweeted.

“The words ‘penetration’ and ‘disrobing’ invited the wrath of several tweeple. Conversations on the World Wide Web were spent on finding aspects to identify the ‘victim’ without naming her. Thus, with every minute passing by and every new notification, the seriousness of the offence was duly replaced with the need for more intimate details.

“Under the guise of disseminating ‘justice’ and backing the ‘victim’, there were aspersions cast against Tejpal’s twenty-something daughter. Eventually, she succumbed to the pressure and according to news reports, was compelled to delete her Twitter account.

“In this cacophony, I fear that this ‘unfortunate incident’ i.e. an act of ‘sexual harassment’ will be eclipsed by hypocrisy, voyeurism and the unending need to dispense justice in 140 characters.”

From the above it is evident that like mainstream media, social media too is being used to give out salacious details about sexual crimes rather than finding ways to deal with them. In the last one year, despite the discussions around rape coverage that ensued following the December 16, 2012 gang-rape in Delhi, we have seen how much of mainstream media still continues to skirt dangerously close to giving hints about the raped woman’s identity as also giving unnecesary details about the actual crime.  This serves no other purpose except satisfying readers who follow all such crime reports as if they were serialised crime fiction stories.    

Above all, this episode reminds us yet again that the media is far from exemplary when it comes to covering crimes against women or to dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. This would be as good a time as any to turn the searchlight inwards for both media institutions and social media users.

(To read the original, click here.)

Another kind of violence

This column was written two days before the Tarun Tejpal issue broke and took over all discussion on sexual assault and harassment.  To read what I wrote after it, look at the next post, my column on The Hoot website.

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, November 24, 2013

As for the perpetrator, there are many who will give him a character certificate. Photo: AP
As for the perpetrator, there are many who will give him a character certificate. Photo: AP

Let us talk about sexual harassment. It is an uncomfortable subject. No one wants to talk about it. Yet every woman in a mixed workplace knows that this is a daily hazard; one that she has to learn to negotiate. Sometimes, it goes beyond being tolerable. And that is when women protest, they speak out, they report the crime.

What happens then? In most cases, it is the woman who is questioned. Is she reading too much into an innocent gesture or remark? Is she being vindictive? After all, no real harm was done (meaning, she was not sexually assaulted or raped). So why raise a hue and cry, she is always asked.

As for the perpetrator, there are many who will give him a character certificate. No one can believe that a person of such sterling character can do such a thing. So, they conclude, it is the woman’s fault. Either she is making it up, or she “invited” this unwanted attention.

This uncomfortable subject has once again become a talking point after a young woman law graduate accused a retired Supreme Court judge, under whom she interned, of sexual harassment. The incident took place last December in Delhi, ironically at a time when everyone was incensed with the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman in the same city. Why is this case more important than other cases of sexual harassment?

First, the charge is against a Supreme Court judge, even if he has retired since the incident. Another intern, similarly placed, wrote the following on a social networking site: “The funny part is, it was very likely that I would have been the person in SJ’s place. I’ve been at the receiving end of unsolicited sexual advance more than once, and so has she (SJ). And we kept attributing all the signs of leeriness to our hypersensitivity to such situations, mistrusting our instincts. We discussed innocuously said off-colour remarks and dismissed their creepiness because we really respected him (the judge), and the possibility seemed at odds with everything we knew about him, his ideas about feminism, patriarchy, social justice...” These remarks illustrate what most women think when confronted with such a situation.

Secondly, it highlights the casual attitude towards sexual harassment that prevails. In the hierarchy of violence against women, sexual harassment is placed very low. As a result, even institutions like our courts have not paid cognisance to the very rules that they have instituted. We must remember that it was the apex court that passed what are known as the Vishakha guidelines on sexual harassment in the workplace in 1997. It was this initial intervention by the apex court that paved the way for the passage of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, earlier this year. Now by law, it is mandatory that committees be constituted to hear sexual harassment complaints in all establishments, including the courts.

While the Supreme Court has responded to the complaint by setting up a three-judge committee to look into it, this does not, as Additional Solicitor General of India, Indira Jaising, pointed out in a magazine article, conform with the provisions of the sexual harassment law. According to the law, a committee investigating a charge of sexual harassment must include an outsider. The three-member committee consists of judges.

Of course, we cannot single out the courts on this issue. If a survey were done of institutions across the country that have not followed the provisions of this law, the list would be long. Among others, it would include most media houses.

At a time when there is an increasing focus on violence against women in the public space, it is essential to realise that sexual harassment at the workplace is also another kind of violence. It might not always lead to physical harm. But it destroys a woman’s sense of self. Women who speak out against sexual harassment are rarely believed. Quite often, their colleagues turn on them, blaming them for unnecessarily rocking the boat. In the ultra-competitive environment in which most professionals have to work, no one wants to rock the boat. Thus, for every complaint that comes out in the open, there would be dozens that never see the light of day.

Both women and men will begin to have faith in the law if the upholders of the law demonstrate their own commitment to it. This is why this particular case has a wider significance. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Monday, November 11, 2013

Falling through the cracks

An adolescent girl peeps through a makeshift hut. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
The HinduAn adolescent girl peeps through a makeshift hut. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse in the aftermath of disasters.

The recent news that a young woman, seeking shelter from the communal violence that rendered thousands homeless in Muzaffarnagar, UP, was raped by two men reminds us that following a disaster there are often more personal disasters — many that go unreported. Everyone is affected by a natural disaster or by strife leading to large-scale displacement — men, women and children. But we often forget the special plight of young girls in their adolescence in these circumstances.
In fact, as a recent and most interesting report by Plan International on the impact of disasters on adolescent girls ( points out, this group is often invisible to those planning relief. Girls in this age group are not children but neither are they women. Yet they are often clubbed together with women with no consciousness about their specific needs.
In societies where women are powerless even in normal times, their lack of power is exacerbated when they are displaced and compelled to spend months, sometimes years, in relief camps.
For girls, the problems are compounded many times over. While some of their needs might be the same as those of their mothers — for instance, access to sanitation and safety around the relief camps — their vulnerability is greater.
They face a higher degree of sexual harassment and violence even as they go about their routine tasks of getting the food dole, collecting water, in some instances firewood, or bathing and going to the toilet.
Fear of this potential violence on girls forces many families to marry them off while they are still underage. The desperation for money also sometimes compels families to look the other way as these young girls are trapped into prostitution. But little is known of all this. It is often unspoken. And it is certainly not part of the accounting system of the impact of disasters on communities.
There is adequate data now to show that women displaced by disasters often experience a disproportionate amount of physical violence. Almost nine out of 10 women affected by the 2004 tsunami in India, for instance, reported having experienced physical violence within two years of the disaster. Many women also suffer much greater violence at home because of the impact of loss of work on the men, who in turn take out their frustration on their wives.
Why is any of this relevant? For several reasons. One, when a disaster occurs, or there is a communal clash as in Muzaffarnagar leading to displacement, the government, media and civil society focus on the event and the aftermath.
The tropical cyclone that hit Odisha and Andhra Pradesh recently, for instance, became the focus of much discussion on effective intervention by the government, especially of Odisha, in moving lakhs of people to safe places. This clearly saved many lives.
But now that the immediate emergency has receded, so has the spotlight. What is happening to the people who are still displaced, in relief camps, with their means of livelihood destroyed as also their homes?
How are the women and young girls managing in the relief camps?
If, as Plan International suggests, the instances of trafficking of young adolescent girls increases after a disaster, is anyone keeping an eye on what is happening to the disaster-affected in these two States?
Then again, the impact of communal conflict is sometimes worse because the displaced have lost trust in the authorities, are imbued with fear and dare not return to their homes.
The reported rape cases in Muzaffarnagar suggest that the venom and anger persist, and women become the collateral damage in this clash. Is anyone assessing these specific and special needs, especially of adolescent girls, for safety and security under these circumstances?
In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the possibility of more communal clashes of the kind we have already seen seems virtually unavoidable. Also, the frequency of natural disasters — thanks to global warming and environmental degradation — is inevitable.
According to the report quoted above, the frequency of natural disasters has increased from 90 per year in the 1970s to 450 per year in the last decade. Clearly, whether it is displacement due to conflict or due to a natural disaster, people, mostly poor people, are going to have to be prepared to spend long years in temporary shelters hoping and waiting for rehabilitation.
If the needs of the most vulnerable, which includes adolescent girls but also the elderly and the disabled, are addressed, all those affected by the disaster will benefit.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Banking on women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Oct 27, 2013

  • An all-women bank in Ahmedabad. Photo: Paul Noronha
    The HinduAn all-women bank in Ahmedabad. Photo: Paul Noronha
  • SBI Chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal
    The HinduSBI Chairperson Arundhati Bhattacharya. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal

The appointment of Arundhati Bhattacharya as the head of State Bank of India should prompt a closer look at the financial restraints of millions of Indian women.

The fuss about the first woman to head the venerable State Bank of India (SBI) has subsided. Without doubt, it was an event worth noting, even if before Arundhati Bhattacharya got to that post, many other women had made it to the top position of several banks, both public and private.
There are, however, two different aspects of women and banks that are far more relevant than the ascendancy of one or several women to the top ranks.
One is the rather obvious issue of why so few women still break through the glass ceiling in India. The women professionals who have succeeded are still the exceptions. For every one of them, there are many who were pushed out, pushed down or voluntarily gave up because they could not be super women.
In fact, many of the women who have risen to the top in the banking sector acknowledge that what helped are the pro-active, pro-women policies that some banks adopted a couple of decades back. This allowed women, who had the potential to advance in their careers as managers to opt for flexible hours or even a couple of years away from work because of familial responsibilities. Instead of penalising them for the additional roles they are compelled to play because they are women, these organisations facilitated them. As a result, many of these women were able to pick up where they left off and still do well. So women’s success in the banking sector is not entirely accidental.
The other, more relevant, question for the vast majority of Indian women is why banking is seen as such a natural fit for them. Women are better at managing banks, we are told, because they are more meticulous, more cautious, and wiser in money management. Why women have become like this, if indeed the stereotype is true, is not discussed enough.
By nature, neither men nor women are better bankers. It is ridiculous to suggest that biology determines something like this. But society surely does. Our society virtually forces the majority of women to be more careful about finances because they know that the burden of trying to balance the household budget inevitably falls on their shoulders.
It is also true that because women have no control over the income of their husbands, they tend to manage carefully whatever is given to them to run the house. Once again, this is not a responsibility of their own. Being thrifty is not a choice, it is a necessity.
Even women who have independent incomes often find in our patriarchal households that it is their fathers, their husbands and even their brothers who control the way they spend the money they have earned. So financial independence is not a reality for the majority of women, even if they are in paid employment. And I am not speaking only of poor women.
The fact that so many women responded to the self-help groups and savings programmes launched in the 1980s was not really surprising. That even the poorest of them were willing to put aside something towards savings was because these women knew the value of having something available over which they would have some control.
However, even though the self-help groups were successful initially, the reality today is that the vast majority of women still cannot access formal banking services. Whereas the informal savings groups allow them some credit for emergencies, or as an advance for their small businesses, many women cannot access these services from scheduled banks easily. Even the forthcoming Bharat Mahila Bank will not make a dent in this reality anytime soon.
The reason women cannot avail of bank credit is because the majority of them own too little to put down as collateral. Only 13 per cent of women own agricultural land although their work produces most of the grain and dairy produced in this country. The figures for home ownership would not be very different.
If the first woman to head the SBI in its 206-year-old history has stirred some interest in the subject of women and banking, that is all for the good, so long as it moves beyond personalities to the real-life issues that face millions of women.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, October 13, 2013

A toilet meter?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Oct 13, 2013

At the panchayat and municipal level, toilet talk is an important issue. Photo: N. Sridharan
At the panchayat and municipal level, toilet talk is an important issue. Photo: N. Sridharan

As the 2014 elections approach, the media ought to tune in to issues like sanitation, and not spats between politicians.

In the run-up to the crucial 2014 general elections, who would have imagined that the humble toilet would be the object of competitive politics? Yet there it is, bang in the middle of a tussle between Jairam Ramesh, who claims ownership of the concept that toilets are more important than temples, and Narendra Modi, who has borrowed this without so much as a by-your-leave.
Perhaps both camps believe that the way to the aam aadmi’s (and particularlyaurat’s) vote is linked to toilets. And they are not wrong. This column has argued on many occasions that sanitation is a woman’s issue. The absence of toilets is not some statistical game; it is a harsh and terrible reality that millions of women confront every day. Yet, successive governments place sanitation on the bottom of the rung of priorities.
If the vote of women is to count in the next elections, perhaps a “toilet meter” might be useful. How many toilets have Congress governments built in the States where they rule? What about Modi’s Gujarat? How does it measure up on the “toilet meter”?
I came across a fascinating blog ( that takes data and turns it into maps that tell a story. Its Toilet Map of India ( is something on which you can spend hours as you move your cursor through different parts of the country. You see unfolding before you a story, or rather many stories that are waiting to be told.
For instance, I tried to find a place that had 100 per cent households with toilets and I found it! It is Pumao Circle, in Tirap district, Arunachal Pradesh where 64.6 per cent of households had toilets in 2001 but by 2011 every single household had a toilet. How did this happen? That is a story worth investigating. Another place in Arunachal, Migging Circle, Upper Siang, has shown an even more dramatic jump: from 1.3 per cent of households with toilets in 2001 to 96.7 per cent by 2011.
While Pumao Circle is clearly an exception, there are many places across India where over 90 per cent households have toilets. They range from Leh in Ladakh with 90.4 per cent to Hnahthial in Lunglie district, Mizoram with 96.6 per cent to Sadulshahar, Ganganagar district, Rajasthan with 91.5 per cent. All along the western coast of India, starting with the southern part of Maharashtra down to Kerala, the percentages are high. Yet predictably as you go inland and north, towards Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, UP, the percentages are shockingly low. In Sihawai, Sidhi district, MP, only 4.4 per cent households have toilets; in Barhait, Sahibganj district, Jharkhand, only 6.5 per cent; in Pothia, Kishanganj district, Bihar, only 6.7 per cent; in Tarabganj, Gonda district, UP only 8.4 per cent (down from 11 per cent in 2001) and in Kantamai, Baudh district, Orissa, only 3.8 per cent. Even Modi’s Gujarat rarely crosses the halfway point with places like Detroj-Rampur in Ahmedabad district with only 26.2 per cent households having toilets and Nasvadi in Vadodara district with 10.2 per cent.
I dwell on these statistics because that is what the media should discuss rather than the spat between two politicians. Why is so much of India toilet-less? Is it because the ones worst affected are women and they have no voice? Even where toilets are being built, are women being consulted? Or does the man of the house decide where and what type of toilet will be built. Have women any say in location and design? What about community toilets, who looks after them, who controls access, who determines location? Will there be borders and segregation of community toilets?
Toilet talk might not determine the outcome of the 2014 election. But it is becoming increasingly evident that at the panchayat and municipal level, this is an important issue. People, and particularly women, are forming political judgments not just on the basis of caste and community but on the basis of delivery of basic services like water and sanitation. So instead of rhetoric, the political spin-doctors would get a more accurate picture of their chances if they looked at the “toilet meter”. You never know: the humble toilet might yet determine the direction of our politics.
(To read the original, click here)

Monday, September 30, 2013

The politics of violence

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 29, 2013

Riot-affected women and children at a makeshift camp in Muzaffarnagar.
PTIRiot-affected women and children at a makeshift camp in Muzaffarnagar.

In all the reports about the recent communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar, little has been written about the trauma suffered by women.

Imagine if you are a woman with several children and a riot breaks out. You can run, carry one child, hold the hand of the other. But what about the rest? Who do you leave behind? How can you make sure they will be safe? How do you live with the choices you made in that moment of terror and panic?
These are the harrowing choices that hundreds of women must have faced when the communal violence flared up in Uttar Pradesh’s Muzaffarnagar district last month. As Muslim families fled, leaving behind their homes, some were also forced to abandon members of their own families. And now they have no idea what happened to those they left behind, whether they are alive or dead.
This is one of the more disturbing accounts that comes through in a small report prepared by a group of 11 women working in U.P. with different non-governmental organisations whose focus has been gender. The report is impressionistic; it does not pretend to be a balanced fact-finding report. Yet, in its very simplicity, it conveys some of the trauma and immense sadness that is a reality for the thousands who continue to shelter under shaky tarpaulin shelters in the humid heat of September.
Titled “A human tragedy unfolds as the State watches”, the report describes six relief camps; three each in Muzaffarnagar and Shamli districts. Calling it a Preliminary Citizens’ Report, it narrates what the inhabitants of these camps told the team. Possibly because the team consisted only of women, the report gives us a small but essential insight into what women experienced. For instance, they quote a number of women telling them how they had to leave children behind. Yet, even after the violence ended, the district administration has not been able to help them trace missing family members or even to prepare a list of people who are missing.
Also unspoken and unwritten are stories of sexual violence. They are not easy to record. Some of the women spoke hesitatingly about rape, about having their clothes torn off. But they were afraid to go into more details or to register cases.
We cannot forget that it took a team of women to visit Gujarat soon after the anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 to write a comprehensive report on the sexual violence perpetrated on women. Their report, “The Survivors Speak: Sexual Violence Against Women” is still relevant today even if the searing testimonies of the survivors in the report relate specifically to Gujarat. For through these testimonies we understand how women become the collateral damage during such communal conflagrations.
In Muzaffarnagar, too, such a follow up will be needed so that this ugly side of communal violence, that scars the bodies and souls of so many women, does not go unrecorded and hence unrecognised.
It is so easy to miss women’s narrative at a time of heightened political competition in the run up to the general elections next year. Yet each recording of such testimonies informs us that regardless of the location, there is a common theme that runs through them — that men and women experience violent conflict in different ways. And there can be no real healing or rehabilitation unless this difference is noted and recognised.
The displaced women in Muzaffarnagar have no voice at the moment. Given the status of women in that region, where men fight feuds and their women are part of an unwritten “honour” code, they might never find a voice. Yet experiences around the world have underlined repeatedly, that women must have a say in the aftermath of conflict and in building a peace that lasts.
Currently, the dominant theme of discussion around Muzaffarnagar and the fallout of the violence is politics — who gains and who loses, who started it, who fanned the flames, who is to blame. Yet, the real politics of such violence is the grief a mother feels when she is compelled to abandon her child; the nightmares a young woman confronts each day as she recalls sexual violence; the harsh daily reality confronting pregnant women, nursing mothers, elderly women surviving in makeshift camps without sanitation, privacy or health care. Who is bothering to address these issues?
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Let’s talk about men

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, Sept 15, 2013

Documentary film-makers (from left): Sanjay Kak, Rahul Roy, Amar Kanwar, and Saba Dewan at a press conference in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium
The HinduDocumentary film-makers (from left): Sanjay Kak, Rahul Roy, Amar Kanwar, and Saba Dewan at a press conference in New Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium

We write and talk about women’s rights, about violence against women, about stronger laws to “protect” women and about punishing the men violating these laws. But there is little discussion on what it means to be a man in today’s India. An on-going project titled “Let’s Talk Men” ( has come up with some interesting perspectives on this subject.
Has the understanding of being “masculine” changed even as women have begun to think of themselves differently from their mothers? Or are boys and men, barring a handful of exceptions, no different from their fathers and grandfathers? Has their view of women changed? Or do they continue to believe that women, whether they are mothers and sisters, or wives, are basically there to serve them?
Under the Let’s Talk Men project, launched in 1998, five filmmakers from South Asia — India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — were encouraged to explore concepts of masculinity in their own countries. Now 15 years later, these filmmakers have followed up with another set of films.
I have seen Delhi-based filmmaker Rahul Roy’s film, Till We Meet Again. It returns to the four young men — Bunty, Sanjay, Sanju and Kamal from Jehangirpuri on the outskirts of Delhi — who featured in his first film. In 1999, when Roy made When Four Friends Meet, these four men were single. In the new film, all of them are married. The film explores how these men see their own lives, what they think of their wives, why they justify hitting their wives (something they did not support when they were single), and what they feel about the expectations of their families and society from them.
Such an exploration is particularly relevant at the present moment when there are so many questions being asked about the growing violence against women in the public space — although the greater violence women continue to experience in their homes has never resulted in such great outrage. What is it that makes men, who seem perfectly reasonable characters as the ones in Roy’s film, think it is acceptable that they should hit their wives because, as one of them says, that is the only way to make them understand?
Roy’s film raises questions around masculinity through the lives of these four men, all from the same class, living in a lower middle-class neighbourhood. Two of them have work and bring home an income while the other two are unemployed. Yet, the latter would never consider helping their wives with housework.
These men’s lives reflect the reality in many of our cities. In a milieu where the value of a man is measured by his ability to take care of his family, men who fail must fear that their “maleness” will be questioned. Yet, there is little in our educational system, or in the media, that seriously addresses these concepts. On the contrary, entrenched views of masculinity are being reinforced every day.
Discussions on “gender” tend to leave out men. We do not, for instance, make an effort to understand the impact of socialisation and family on the roles men are pushed to play. We do not know what is going on in the minds of men as more women get educated. Or why, despite education, the sexual division of labour persists within homes.
There is also a serious gap between what women want, and what men expect from them. In response to my last column, a young woman articulated this well: “What I experience as a college student is that there is a growing sense of unease among those who are comforted by the blanket of patriarchy, by the liberation of women. They feel that their space is being invaded and they feel threatened. What they don’t seem to realise is we are only taking back what was ours in the first place — the freedom to be oneself and chase one’s dreams.” Roy’s film suggests that young men today don’t believe that women were ever entitled to such freedom.
Clearly, there could not be a better time for a project looking at and questioning concepts of masculinity. But it is a project that needs to find a resonance in our homes, in our schools and colleges and in our work places.
(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Salute the survivor

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, September 1, 2013

Photo: AP

While the young journalist’s attitude to not see the assault as the end of her life is exceptional, how do we tackle the patriarchal mindset that still views women as commodities?

As a journalist, a woman and a Mumbaikar, the dastardly rape by five men of a young woman journalist in Mumbai on August 22 was particularly jolting. Of course, every day rapes are reported; of young and old women and of little girls, of women in uniform, of women at work, of women at home, of women on their way to work, of women on their way home.
The day after this ghastly assault, a front-page story reported the gang rape of a policewoman in Jharkhand. And just in the vicinity of Mumbai, in Navi Mumbai, a 13-year-old boy was arrested for allegedly raping his five-year-old neighbour; in Mankhurd, a northeastern suburb of Mumbai, a 22-year-old man was charged with raping a 21-year-old woman; and in Pune, the body of an 11-year-old girl who had been raped and murdered was found.
Rapes are not a creation of the modern world. They have happened before. It is the tool men use to assert their power over women. It is a tool men use to assert their power over other men, by raping “their” women, especially in an arena of war and conflict, but even otherwise.
Today’s rapes are no different. They have increased in number. They are reported. And a media, which has realised that readers have a vicarious interest in reading about crimes, is obliging by amplifying, selectively, a few of these crimes and acts of extreme violence against women. Pages and pages are devoted to detailed reports about one or two of these crimes, such as this recent incident.
What is different today is the way politics is being played out on the wounded bodies of women. One of the most distressing and distasteful aspects of the media’s coverage of the Mumbai gang rape was the way it gave air time to politicians to hold forth, to score points against rivals, to demand resignations and to blame other communities. Maharashtra Navnirman Sena leader Raj Thackeray announced his absurd conclusion on prime time television that recent migrants to the city were responsible for the increase in crimes while also joining the chorus demanding the resignation of Maharashtra’s Home Minister R. R. Patil.
The problem with this volume of hot air emanating from the talking heads on television talk shows is that it contributes to the pall of unreality that surrounds many issues in this country. It perpetuates the belief that there is a quick fix solution to every problem. One such quick fix is to insist that the home minister should resign. Of course, Maharashtra’s Home Minister did not help his case by suggesting that every woman journalist on an assignment should take along some security. The suggestion was too absurd to even merit serious debate.
Every time there is a case like this which the media spotlights, we go over the same ground. We did it last December. We are doing it again. After some time, the news slips to the inside pages, and the questions that we should be asking are forgotten. Until the next time.
The question that got asked before and needs to be addressed today is: How do we tackle the patriarchal mindset in this country that still views women as commodities? The men who raped the young journalist in Mumbai apparently called up their friends and used the word “maal” while referring to her.
It is this mindset that makes men pour acid and disfigure for life women who dare refuse their overtures. It is this mindset that compels even women to abort female foetuses rather than raise daughters. It is this mindset that views all women out in the public space as available, as targets, as women who must be taught a lesson.
The second issue is the culture of impunity that has come to prevail in this country. It begins at the top but has now permeated to every level. It is interesting that one of the men arrested for the Mumbai rape admitted that he never expected the survivor to report the rape.
It is this belief, that women will not report because of the shame society associates with their being sexually violated and, second, that even if they do nothing much will happen, that encourages those planning and contemplating such crimes. In this case, the young woman had her wits around her and gave a full statement to the police within hours of reaching the hospital. Also, she and her male colleague were able to describe their assailants in detail. Given the publicity around the crime, the government and the Mumbai police were compelled to move quickly and as a result the five alleged rapists have been arrested.
But we must remember that this is an exception; it is very far from the norm. Until the systemic issues that prevent such crimes from being reported and investigated, and then prosecuted, are addressed, we will always only have exceptions. And if such crimes are only tackled in exceptional cases, then the culture of impunity will become even more embedded.
I write this when the Mumbai rape case is still on the front pages. What stands out in the last few days since that brutal crime was committed is the attitude of the young journalist. It has been exemplary. She has declared that she wants to get back to work. She has not hesitated to recall every painful detail for the police. She has refused to see this as the end of her life. She is in an exception — of a kind that this country badly needs.
(To read the original, click here.)

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Think beyond the rape

This piece was written in January 2013 soon after the Delhi gang rape.  Now that we have something to report from Mumbai of a similar nature, I found it useful reading this again.

Kalpana Sharma urges the need to engage with the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny in all aspects of Indian society

We must now move beyond sorrow and anger at the horrendous gang rape and lingering death of the 23-year-old woman in Delhi. Since December 16, this one story and its many dimensions have dominated the media.  Opinion pieces, talk shows, surveys, documentaries – we have seen, read, watched.  The horror of this hideous gang rape by six men in the national capital has finally brought to centre stage an issue that should have been a national concern much earlier.

When the 2001 census figures revealed the drastic decline in the child sex ratio, we should have woken up and asked, what is happening to this country that girls are not even being allowed to be born.  But we did not.  We dismissed talk of the consequences of this precipitous decline leading to an increase in the levels of violence against women. Yet, a decade later all those prophecies are coming true.

 When international studies indicated that too many girls were dying in India before the age of six because of socially endorsed neglect in health care and nutrition, again few were alarmed.  This was not a dramatic one-time occurrence.  It was a process that was killing off girls.  So no one noticed.  And few cared.

 There are many more processes that continue to disadvantage women from birth, onto marriage and even when they are widowed, abandoned or divorced.  But these are processes that lead to subjugation, violence and death.  So no one notices.  And few care.

 Today, women are reaping the consequences of this lack of attention to the details – by policymakers, by civil society and by the media, all those who are now worked up about the issue of rape and sexual assault against women.

 At root is the issue of patriarchy – that long word that we prefer not to mention.  It is about social systems that sanctify the superiority of the male.  It is customs and traditions that socialise women to believe that they are inferior, that they must accept a secondary position in everything.  And ones that make men believe that it is their right to dominate, to order, to demand sex and servitude from women, including from those to whom they are related.

 Even as we work to make the criminal justice system work for the survivors of sexual assaults, tighten existing laws so that the perpetrators of these crimes do not get off lightly and establish fast-track courts so that cases do not drag on until the survivor is exhausted and gives up, we must delve deeper into these societal structures that ultimately perpetuate and even endorse sexual crimes.

 Even if all these legal steps are taken, they will not suffice in reducing levels of violence until the stranglehold of patriarchy is broken.  That is no easy job.  The system has had centuries within which to perfect itself.  It has learnt how to mould itself even as society changes and ‘modernises’.  So, even as women are being encouraged to study, to pursue careers, a line is drawn:  this far and no further.  A career, yes, but only if it can fit in within the prescribed limits of a marriage.  Have your own mind and opinion on issues, but not at the cost of alienating the men in your life – your father, your bothers, and your husband.  Even if young educated women chafe at these restrictions, the majority of them fall in line.

 What greater violence could there be than to tell a young girl that she is a free bird, that she can do what she likes, and then cage her within these resilient societal structures?  The price for resisting, for being their own women, is to be confronted with forms of violence that are often not even reported.  Those that occur in a public space are noticed.  What happens within the confines of homes is never known.

 The mothers of these young women lived through this violence.  But there is a difference.  Their mothers did not demand equal rights to the public space outside the home.  Today’s young women believe they have the right.  And just that act, of stepping out with confidence, is being interpreted as their being sexually available to men.  They are challenging patriarchy.  And this is enraging those who believe that a woman is good for only set tasks – as a homemaker and as someone who provides sexual gratification, and of course male progeny, to men.  Anyone falling outside this frame should be punished.

 Grim as this sounds, there is hope – because women and men are finally talking about these issues, because the media is engaged and because policy-makers are not being allowed to make any more excuses.  Yet, after all the shouting is over, those who really want a lasting change will have to engage with the deep-rooted sexism and misogyny in all aspects of Indian society, of which gang rapes and sexual assaults are one manifestation.

(To read the original published in Thumbprint, click here)