Sunday, August 31, 2014

Devil in the detail

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 31, 2014

Students express solidarity. Photo: Kiran Bakale
The Hindu Students express solidarity. Photo: Kiran Bakale

Crimes against women have become a popular talking point in India. They figure in the Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech. They find a mention in a statement by the Finance Minister about how the growing incidence of crimes against women is affecting tourism in India. And they are the focus of a plan by the ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, to win the 2017 Assembly elections in India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, albeit with a twist.

The BJP is concerned about crimes only against women of one community (read Hindu) and has concluded, without any evidence, that the perpetrators are all of another community (read Muslim), who are waging something that exists only in the imagination of the Hindutva rightwing, namely ‘Love Jihad’.

Where does all this leave Indian women, of whatever community? Should they feel reassured, more secure, that the highest in the land are concerned about their welfare? Or should they be afraid that this concern is ultimately only instrumental, to push a political agenda, or an economic one — such as making India a more attractive tourist destination?

Whatever one concludes, it is evident that those making statements from the top have little idea of what happens on the ground when women are assaulted, and particularly when they pick up the courage to report the crime and to fight the case through our courts.

August 22 was the first anniversary of a brutal gang rape in the heart of Mumbai when a young woman journalist went on a work assignment to the abandoned Shakti Mills compound. Her resilience and determination played no small role in ensuring that the case was registered, the perpetrators apprehended, charged and committed. But only now, a year later, do we know the details of what she went through in the process of seeking justice.

These facts are brought out in two important recent articles. One by Flavia Agnes, Audrey D’Mello and Persis Sidhva in Economic and Political Weekly of July 19, 2014 ( informs us in considerable detail about what happened before and during the Shakti Mills trial. It exposes the insensitivity that infects the entire system — from police to prosecution to the media — where the welfare of the survivor seems to be the lowest priority. If the survivor did not have the support of the Majlis Legal Centre, to which the authors of this article belong, her fate would have been much worse. For instance, it is they who insisted that her privacy should be protected from the intrusive and persistent media when she entered and left the courtroom during what was supposed to be an ‘in camera’ trial. The authors also write about the mockery of the confidential nature of the trial when the public prosecutor gave out all kinds of details of the trial to a hungry media.

Even more disturbing is an article written for the web by a colleague of the Shakti Mills gang rape survivor. Titled ‘That hashtag was my colleague’ (, the article gives us a different insight into what happens in such a situation, including the gross insensitivity of the media concerned only about an ‘exclusive’.

What I found personally most disturbing was the description given in the article about the Test Identification Parade (TIP). In popular TV crime serials and films based on systems in the West, we see a one-way glass between the survivor and the suspects. Each suspect carries a number and the survivor is supposed to state the number of the person or persons she considers responsible for the crime. In India, the system is truly brutal. In one room, often without any women police, a rape survivor has to face a line-up of men. She then has to walk up to the men she identifies as the perpetrators of the crime, touch them on the shoulder and then announce loudly what they did to her. One cannot even imagine the trauma that a woman who has been brutalised must go through with such a grotesque system in place.

There is much else in both articles that will disturb anyone concerned about the issue. But what speaks loudest is the urgent need to address these details of our criminal justice system so that women subjected to sexual assault do not have to go through further assaults on their selves in the process of seeking justice. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Invisible women

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 17, 2014

At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani
At a garment factory. Photo: K. Pichumani

Should women ‘work’ after they get married? I put the word work in inverted commas deliberately because women work all the time but only when they do paid work is it considered ‘work’.

One imagines that this question need not be asked anymore because India is changing. But is it? Going by recent reports and studies, it is evident that some things never change, or change so slowly as to be imperceptible. And the one equation that does not change is the expectation from women once they get married. Their priority has to be ‘the family’ and all else, including jobs that could be something they enjoy doing, must be set aside.

An advertisement that is being passionately analysed and discussed on social media depicts a woman boss instructing her junior, who turns out to be her husband, to work over-time to complete a project. Meantime, she heads home and instead of putting up her feet and relaxing, proceeds to cook up a gourmet meal for the husband. She then sends him the pictures through her phone to tempt him to come home for the meal.

So is this depiction of woman as the boss ‘progressive’ or is it ‘regressive’ because ultimately she conforms to the stereotype of the wife who must please her husband? If the roles had been reversed, would the husband boss have done something similar? At most, he might have ordered in a great meal, or asked the domestic help to cook something special. Incidentally, where was the domestic help when the woman ‘boss’ was slaving in the kitchen? It stretches credulity to believe that a woman at the top in the corporate sector would not have domestic help.

Perhaps we are making too much of this but the advertisement raises other, more important, questions about the ability of women to continue doing paid work after marriage. This paper carried an interesting analysis on this subject on August 11 ( The article reported research that showed that women dropped out of paid work once they got married or/and had children. The exceptions were women in the upper income bracket and the poorest, who had no option but to continue some form of wage work. Poor women in villages also had no choice although their work was often unpaid as it was part of agricultural tasks that they were expected to do in the family.

What the advertisement represents is the exception to the rule. For the majority of women who are poor, whether in city or village, there is really no choice. Speak to any woman who works as a domestic. You hear identical stories. There is not enough in the house to make ends meet. The man either has no work, or cannot work due to addiction, or is in a low-paid insecure job. Often, the woman’s salary is the only steady amount coming into the family kitty. As a result, these women — come rain or shine, illness or family tragedy — are forced to continue to work. What is interesting is that despite the drudgery of domestic work, many of them persist because it gives them a chance to escape the greater drudgery of the work they must still do in their own homes.

The article in The Hindu, however, does touch upon a group of urban women who are neither so poor that they must work for survival nor so well-off that they can continue to work outside their homes because they have help at home. It is the women in the middle who get caught. For them, paid work is ‘permitted’ so to speak, only until they get married. And then it has to stop. Unless the family into which they marry ‘allow’ them to continue. So the little bit of autonomy they gain through earning something through their own labour is snatched away from them the day they get married. Apart from the blow to their own self-esteem, this is a waste because these women could be productively employed.

We do not read enough about this class of women. They are all around us in our cities — working in garment factories, in offices, as saleswomen in the growing retail sector, in call centres etc. Yet, they are virtually invisible. What are their stories?

Perhaps it is time the camera focused on these lives. 

(To read the original, click here.)

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Boy, girl or super athlete?

The Hindu, Sunday Magazine, August 3, 2014

Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar
The Hindu Dutee Chand. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Our sport authorities need to be educated. Urgently. They need a crash course in understanding human biology, that there is no clear binary between male and female and that there are many conditions in-between.  But clearly, this knowledge, that has now become fairly commonplace, has failed to trickle down to those controlling Indian athletics.  They continue to believe that testing testosterone levels will conclusively establish whether a woman athlete is indeed a woman!

 So even as women athletes are bringing home medals from the Commonwealth Games, the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and the Athletics Federation if India (AFI) will be better remembered for denying, virtually at the last minute, the chance for one of our most promising runners to compete in these games in Glasgow.

 The case of Dutee Chand will not surprise people who have followed the often farcical and always tragic cases of leading women athletes around the world who have been barred for something over which they had no control. “Sex tests” as they are called, or gender determination tests, are now more refined than the crude form they took earlier.  But they are still not conclusive because nature is sometimes inconclusive in clearly defining the so-called “maleness” or “femaleness” of individuals. Children born with this kind of biological confusion — that is now recognised medically — grow up as boys or girls depending on the way they are socialised. They believe they are boys or girls. They grow into men or women. But the problem arises when the stereotypical definitions of what constitutes a man or a woman clash with the way a person appears.

 So if women athletes are supposed to be weaker than men, a strong woman is suspect.  Is she really a woman? Is she taking drugs to heighten the male hormones, thereby giving her greater strength? Or was she born this way? The latter question is not taken into consideration. Instead, the so-called “unfair” advantage that a strong female athlete might have is used as a stick with which to beat her. And many times, such promising athletes are ruined for life.

Dutee is regarded as one of India’s most promising track athletes. She has consistently brought home medals, the latest just six weeks ago at the Asian Junior Athletics in Taipei where she won two golds. Just as she was getting set to participate in the Commonwealth Games, she was made to undergo this so-called ‘gender determination’ test and thereafter held back. 

 The girl is just 18. She comes from a poor weaver’s family in Odisha. At one shot, the very people who should have been nurturing her for the future have virtually destroyed her career. Luckily for her, the Odisha government and sports association have promised help and are willing to invest in whatever medical intervention is needed to set right her hormone levels. But the question should still be asked: why do we have these tests? And when it is mandatory that even if tests are conducted, that they be kept confidential, why is this information put out in the public space? Dutee says that within days of the news of the tests, journalists landed up at her home in Gopalpur and demanded from her bewildered parents an answer to the nonsensical question: “Is Dutee a boy or a girl?” 

 A woman who knows well what this feels like is the outstanding woman athlete Santhi Soundarajan, who was stripped of her silver medial won at the 2006 Doha Asian Games when she failed a “gender” test. Santhi has managed, with immense difficultly, to overcome her despair and has rehabilitated herself.  But when she heard about Dutee, here is what she said, “They have tested her at the last minute, humiliated her and broken her heart… Now, if she re-enters the sports field, things will not be normal. Even if she takes treatment, people will kill her with their suspicious gaze.”

 Depressing words from Santhi, but Dutee should look at the example of another female athlete similarly humiliated. Caster Semenya from South Africa was considered the fastest woman on earth after her spectacular performance in 2009 at the World Championships.  Like Santhi and now Dutee, Caster “failed” the test and was humiliated.  But she dug herself out and went on to compete in the London Olympics where she won the silver medal in the women’s 800 metres. South Africa had her carry the country’s flag.  When will our sports authorities grow up and develop knowledge and sensitivity to nurture our future women athletes?

(To read the original, click here.)