April 01, 2015

Pain and Language

    Of Domestic Violence and Victim 'Complicity'
    (possibly triggering, non-academic)

There are no words. Pain, its cause uncertain, has seemingly precluded all possibility of your finding them. Language, you know in some far off corner of your mind, exists but it is inaccessible to you; longed for but inaccessible. Pain consumes you, as it has so many times before, and it is what you have become. You have no sense of where it begins and where you end. You have no sense of the limits of your body. You have no sense of yourself. You are almost nothing but an amorphous mass of pain, barely human but not quite inhuman yet.

The loss of language is terrifying: the inability to think coherently let alone communicate with another person destroys you every bit as completely as you imagine potentially mortal physical injury would have done. You are desperately alone, wrapped in pain and, stripped of both language and strength, incapable of all but the softest and most inarticulate of whimpers. This isn’t you; you are not yourself. Nobody, in fact; nothing but pain personified. And, in that moment, there seems to be no escape.

The pain itself is indescribable as it always is. There are metaphors and similes which you could rely upon: as if you’ve been impaled by red hot iron rods, as if you’ve been set on fire, as if you’ve been worked upon in a medieval torture chamber, as if you’ve fallen into a vat of strong acid. The list is unending. Not one of item on it describes the experience of communing with pain, and that is what it is. You, your body and pain are almost indistinguishable. A trinity.

You feel yourself fall deeper and deeper into an abyss. There is blackness which challenges the perception of anything beyond itself. It is narrow and you imagine you scrape against it. At some point in your descent, you realise that if it’s narrow enough for you to scrape against, it’s narrow enough for you to try to find a finger-hold; it’s narrow enough for you to hold on to and claw your way up inch by torturous inch till you finally see a glimmer of sunlight again.

Not quite knowing how, you reach into yourself to find words, to ask for support because you fear you will not make it through the hours that lie ahead. You’ll live, you know. Your body will not betray you; it’s had far too many opportunities to do so and declined them all. But you don’t know if you’ll emerge at dawn feeling human as opposed to merely feeling alive; a living and breathing mass without the capacity to think of physics or take joy in art. The fear that, once the pain recedes, you will no longer have access to yourself is almost worse than the experience of pain.

Language, you find, is your weapon against pain. It keeps what it means to be human from being annihilated in relation to you. It doesn’t matter what the words are. It doesn’t matter whether they are sensible. It only matters that they form sentences; that they distinguish you from a stray dog, insensible to all but having been injured, that has been run over and left to fend for itself. You know, without needing words or language or thought to tell you, that you do not want to be that dog. You know because you have already been than dog. You know because, although pain may impair memory and distort time, as long as you are conscious, it does not erase either.

A night past of words incomprehensible meshes with your present; you are long past hearing a human being’s speech as anything but noise. The decor is terrible; a nondescript sofa with matching chairs and a coffee table fill the room. There’s a very large television too; there wouldn’t not be one. You’d found a note he wrote; perhaps ‘found’ isn’t the word given that it lay on top of the table. A list of possible presents —or should it be just ‘presents’?— for a woman he was interested in. ‘Terquoise’ jewellery, item one.

That discretion is the better part of valour is clearly not a lesson you’ve learnt as yet, that nothing you say or feel or think makes a difference. That prudence lies in rarely speaking, in not complaining, and, of course, in never giving in to the temptation to proof-read a list of presents for another woman. Even you know that there’s no way you can do so without more than a little bitterness and a lot of sarcasm.

Prudence, however, is not what guides you. You complain about the existence of the list, and then you mock the list itself. You behave like a bitch and you’re treated like one. Stripped and on all fours. Your limbs tied so that you can only move by crawling, your fingers taped are almost useless to you. You eat off a plate on the floor and whimper; you cannot remove the debris of your meal from your face but you have learnt not to complain, for now.

He speaks occasionally but his words are only sounds that make as much sense to you as static on the radio would. You hear them all and comprehend nothing. There is just you and your mind which is cracking; you’ve crossed over from being human to animal, and have little use for words. You will recover; recover yourself and recover your use of words, and the lesson, hard learnt, will be forgotten, as it always is.

Your sense of time is so distorted by pain that you struggle to differentiate between the past and the present. Even though you’re not entirely sure of what you’re saying, you hold on to the present with words. An endless stream of them, as it turns out, which you’ve now imposed on the person you’ve reached out to for support, which you’ve decided to force yourself to articulate in some, perhaps misguided, attempt at controlled exposure. To not feel shame, to distance yourself, perhaps to accept yourself. To not feel as haunted by responsibility. To accept 'complicity' without feeling ashamed of it, and of yourself.

There are no easy explanations for all the times you’ve been harmed, fewer still for the times you’ve asked to be harmed. Or hit. Or used. Simply because it was easier than refusing to ask, because in not asking the pain would have been worse. The standard narrative that one exclusively has harm done unto one does not apply; that narrative doesn’t take participation into account. And in participation, for you, there’s been nothing but shame. And words, as always, are hard to find.

October 06, 2014

The Appropriation of the Image of the Marginalised Indian Woman

(I began writing this post thinking of the portrayals of NE women by others... its scope unsurprisingly expanded in minutes.)

Take racial insensitivity. Add to it the entitlement of the upper class and, treatment in real life aside, you have all the makings of the image of the Hottentot Venus of contemporary times in far too many portrayals of the figure of the marginalised woman.

The Hottentot Venus was a person transformed into an object; she was born in South Africa in 1789, brought to England in 1810, and then exhibited on stage and in cages till her death in 1815. We know what she was turned into but we have no idea who she was. We often call her, when we deign to accord her any humanity, ‘Sarah Baartman’; of her given name, we can only guess. We believe ‘Ssehura’ may have been closest to it but can’t be sure. ‘Baartman’ or some variant may have been imposed on her upon being baptised in England in 1811. The appellation ‘Venus’ has never indicated anything but distorted nineteenth-century ideas of Black sexuality, and she is no longer believed to be a Hottentot by many. In fact, the word ‘Hottentot’ itself is now recognised as being deeply racist.

Turning women into objects of curiosity and entertainment is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. We see it, in India too, especially in the case of women who are poor, who are disadvantaged by caste, who belong to racial and religious minorities. They often have little control over their own stories which are appropriated (and distorted) more frequently than one would like to believe by the comparatively privileged to meet their own ends: to tell stories of supposed racial and caste integration (or friction) in ‘modern’ India, to bemoan violence amongst ‘the poor’ (or against marginalised women) primarily in rural India, blithely ignoring, for the most part, that caste and class are so closely related to each other that they can, for most practical purposes, almost be used interchangeably.

Of course, there can be no argument there is little violence worth mentioning in ‘upper’ caste India. Upper class women, who complain of domestic, violence and, God forbid, invoke laws against it lie abundantly. That is, lie, until they turn up dead at which point their corpses tell stories of violence which we’d much rather ignore and usually manage to. How many articles have been printed comparing the perception of cases under Sections 498A and 304B of the Indian Penal Code, the former of which applies when wives who claim to have been abused are still alive and the latter of which applies only when wives die? And how often do we see analyses of stilted sex ratios by class? Or of rape statistics, even allowing for the fact that there exists precious little reliable data?

But then again, studies of VAW and sexism amongst the ‘upper’ caste are hardly analyses which we need see: the only time when women of the urban upper class deal with VAW, it would seem, is when they deal with street harassment perpetrated by lower class men. That such street harassment sometimes escalates into rape is another issue. And talking about issues like the pay gap only reveals that one suffers from a post-colonial complex and is importing Western feminism. Because, of course, it is the stated aim of the working Indian woman to earn a fraction of what her male counterpart earns. And economic equity is entirely independent of violence.

What is left to the upper class, then, is the image of the marginalised woman, who rarely has the privilege of voice, and whose image is available for it to enact its desire to play saviour despite often suffering from abject cluelessness. And that’s on a good day when the upper class actually has or claims to have the desire to do right by the woman. Never mind that it may fail miserably in doing so, in extreme cases possibly by (illegally) circulating the images of the poor raped woman ‘for publicity to bring pressure for justice’. Never mind that such images may demonstrate what the term ‘the pornography of rape’ means. Never mind also that such images are forgotten as soon as the next sensation takes over. They arguably serve their purpose as props, for all of five minutes, to prove credentials against VAW. (Asking upper class women if they’d like having pictures of themselves in disarray upon having been raped be circulated to further justice is unacceptable, incidentally.)

It is only the image of the marginalised woman which is up for indiscriminate use. If it isn’t ostensibly for her own good, it’s in the furtherance of liberal values such as free speech. That there is no conclusive data on what the effects of pornography are is only half the story, for example. Discussions on pornography in India have consistently focussed on the free speech right (largely of men to consume pornography) and of the likelihood of pornography causing men to rape. The right to perform in porn hasn’t come up — after all, choosing to perform in porn isn’t at issue, it’s just what some people do, especially those marginalised. And as for porn being every bit as much a labour rights issue as being a free speech issue: perish the thought. They idea that porn could easily be filmed rape is somehow irrelevant, and mentioning it taints one as being against free speech itself.

The images appropriated and exploited by the upper class are rarely, if ever, those of urban ‘upper’ caste Hindu women: they are of poor women, of ethnically marginalised women, of rural women, of ‘lower’ caste women, of women belonging to minority communities — none of whom have control over their own stories as a matter of course. And as for the urban ‘upper’ caste Hindu woman: her complicity in such exploitation aside, her own story too is rarely hers to tell — the only VAW she faces is inflicted by men who are not ‘upper’ caste Hindus, urban or otherwise. And, oh, entrenched patriarchy and structural sexism, other than that which exists across class lines, are little more than figments of the imagination.

August 29, 2014

The Discourse Surrounding ‘Love Jihad’

‘Love Jihad’ is a curious creature by any measure. The central premise — and understanding of the term upon which this piece rests — is that it considered to be a process by which Muslims as a community or significant sections thereof (as opposed to as isolated individuals) dupe Hindu women into marriage through the pretence of love in order to convert them to Islam.

The discourse surrounding ‘Love Jihad’ though is, arguably, far more fascinating than the allegations of its occurrence. To begin with, there appears to be no discourse of ‘Love Jihad’ worth mentioning; there is discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ and there are rebuttals of the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ which usually seek to negate the existence of ‘Love Jihad’ itself.

The discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ assumes that Hindu women are susceptible to being duped and does not credit them with anything remotely resembling intelligence or individual choice, which isn’t entirely surprising given the prevalence of arranged marriages where family choices may take precedence over the choices which individuals, in particular women, may desire to make for themselves.

Leaving aside the issues of women’s agency which cut across both class and community in India though, it isn’t clear how the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ is anything more than a means, steeped in Islamophobia and patriarchy, for Hindu men to control Hindu women by attempting to keep them from marrying Muslim men. Unfortunately, the Hindu men who seek to do so — and it must be said that they appear to primarily be a section of upper caste Hindu men — choose to accomplish their aim not by making themselves more appealing to Hindu women but by demonising Muslim men.

There is no room in the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ where a Hindu woman may choose, entirely of her own free will and without the slightest coercion, to marry a Muslim man and then either choose to convert to Islam or choose to remain Hindu; if she marries a Muslim man, she's been duped into marriage by a man intent on converting her to Islam. There is, however, plenty of room for the possibility of a Hindu man marrying a Muslim woman without censure and with social legitimacy — this appears to rest not only on the notion of ‘shuddhi’ or, in this context, (re)conversion to Hinduism, but also on the notion that women as wives have no independent identities of their own.

The latter issue of women’s autonomy being limited is, of course, not restricted to any one community in India but in the context of ‘Love Jihad’ what it appears to amount to is: having no independent identities unamenable to being subsumed into their husbands’ identities, women’s pre-marital identities are automatically sacrificed in favour of the identities of the men they marry. With this being the basis on which women’s identities are determined, Hindu men marrying Muslim women is not an issue: the women become Hindu. But Hindu women marrying Muslim men do not remain Hindu: they become Muslim which accomplishes the alleged aim of ‘Love Jihad’. Women, Hindu or Muslim, it would seem, quite simply do not matter in and of themselves in the context of ‘Love Jihad’ — they are but their husbands’ accessories.

In practical terms, what the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’ achieves though is to create a framework within which the only people who truly have freedom to choose whom to marry irrespective of their religion are Hindu men, specifically upper caste Hindu men, if one were to factor in the inequity within Hindu society: it is these Hindu men who have the freedom to marry women of whichever faith they choose including either Hindu women (often regardless of the women's caste) or Muslim women. Everyone else, it would seem, can only marry those whom  upper caste Hindu men (and their own social circles) do not object to.

It is far from clear whether ‘Love Jihad’ actually exists at all despite the amount of pushback there has been against it. There seems to be no evidence of any form of conspiracy or masterplan to commit ‘Love Jihad’ in the form in which allegations of its existence have been made, although the lines of argument that have been used to discredit the allegations have, at times, defied understanding. As have proposed ‘solutions’ like legislating a Uniform Civil Code and doing away with personal laws — given that religious conversion is not a condition of marriage under the Special Marriage Act, it appears disingenuous to argue that ‘Love Jihad’ has been either caused or facilitated by bad laws which necessitate conversion to marry. Quite apart from the fact that conversion into any religion, where is it voluntary, should not be problematic, the bottomline is that there is no legal necessity of conversion. If at all ‘Love Jihad’ exists, it is due to a socio-cultural problem and not a legal technicality.

This brings one back to the question of its existence. If ‘Love Jihad’ exists and involves Hindu women being duped by the pretence of love, the first question which springs to mind is: How would successful ‘Love Jihad’ ever be exposed as such? It defies belief that women in love and ostensibly being loved would feel deceived by the alleged pretence of love. The determination of ‘Love Jihad’ having occurred (or not), then, must be made by a third party.

On one hand, there are those who seem to believe that any marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man must necessarily be proof of ‘Love Jihad’. On the other, there are those who have, inexplicably, turned to rape statistics to confirm or disprove the existence of ‘Love Jihad’, breaking down the available statistics to attempt to determine the propensity of Hindu and Muslim men respectively to commit rape by taking into consideration their religion and ignoring not only factors such as their socio-economic marginalisation, but also, it would seem, unbelievably, ignoring the fact that data and statistics relating to rape are notoriously unreliable (especially given the sheer number of rapes which are likely unreported), and that attempting to understand violence against women solely based on crime statistics is unlikely to be an especially successful endeavour. (As an aside, it’s also interesting that the sentiment ‘Consent obtained by deception is not rape’ often heard in relation to false promises to marry coexists in public discourse with ‘But if a Muslim man obtains consent by deception, it's entirely acceptable to talk of ‘Love Jihad’ and bring up rape statistics’ even if the two sentiments are not always expressed simultaneously by the same people — small mercies!)

Coming back to the use of rape statistics: although there are grounds to suspect that there is, in general, a tendency for parents of minor daughters in India to have rape charges filed against men whom their daughters elope with, it is entirely unclear how this could help establishing whether or not ‘Love Jihad’ exists. Apart from not really taking into account adult women, it completely ignores the fact that marital rape is generally not a criminal offence in India. Once-Hindu / Hindu wives who are raped by their Muslim husbands would not be able to file criminal complaints of rape against their husbands even if they were raped which makes the choice of studying rape statistics in the context of ‘Love Jihad’ particularly difficult to understand. Not to mention that abuse (including rape) does rather undermine the premise of ‘Love Jihad’ — one would imagine that abuse and the (continued) pretence of love are usually incompatible.

That said, there is no reason to believe that there do not exist Muslim men who become abusive towards their wives if their own religious practices are not followed in much the same way that there exist Hindu men who compel their wives to follow their own religious practices, in each case with the wives being required to give up their pre-marital practices in favour of their husbands’ practices. It is, however, only in the case of the Muslim man that such abuse becomes not the story of an individual abuser — or as in the case of an upper caste Hindu man, possibly the story of a man who upholds his traditions and heritage — but the story of a community engaging in ‘Love Jihad’. There appears to be, in the discourse against ‘Love Jihad’, absolutely no differentiation between individual Muslim men and Muslims in general. The result is that where a Muslim man abuses a Hindu woman whom he’s married, an entire community is implicated in the conduct of the individual abusive man.

And this, all of this, despite there seeming to be no proof that Muslims as a community are engaging in ‘Love Jihad’ in the first place.

(This post is primarily based on tweets over the last few days.)

July 24, 2014

Jamun and the Bharany Donation

Visited the exhibition (at the National Museum in Delhi) of the Bharany Donation which a friend kindly told me of. It comprises a selection of textiles, paintings and sculptures donated to the museum by C L Bharany in 1976 in memory of his father, and is supported by some items from the Bharany private collection.

Being entirely convinced that our textiles are art too often taken for granted, I particularly loved seeing a blouse on display in a niche in the same room which houses religious texts.

...the textiles really were the highlight for me. As one of the plaques at the exhibition said, ‘The designs embroidered on the phulkaris and kanthas on view are best explained in the words of Stella Kramrisch who passionately argues for the design repertoire of women across India. “The total stock of their designs is entrusted to the memory of the women. Stitch by stitch they realize the meaning of the ground which they cover even if they are unable to explain it. This ignorance of knowledge implies a correctness of doing this, an infallibility which is evident. It results in a display, in a manifestation where everything has its place in relation to the whole.”

The exhibition aside though, it seems to be that time of year when jamun is in season, and I was fascinated to see several men, some in large groups, climb trees to shake down jamun all along Rajpath. Not one woman did so which rather surprised me; I'd have imagined that even if women didn't climb trees, there'd be some collecting the fruit. But, no, this is a man's domain, it would seem. (I didn't take photos of the large groups of men simply because I didn't want to risk having them turn on me even though there was no indication that they would...) I'm quite flummoxed by having seen no women there.

July 11, 2014

Clueless Men Who Can't / Won't Shut Up

This is a twit-induced, 3 a.m. rant. And, yes, it is directed at a liberal twit who happens to be a man. Doesn’t really matter which one; there are plenty who could use having a rant like this directed at them.

If you’re going to open your mouth about anything, pick up a bloody book and figure out what the hell you’re talking about first. And, no, books aren’t going to have all the answers, but they might, just might, keep you from sounding like an ignoramus. And, that’s the politest term around to describe how profoundly stupid you sound when you shoot your mouth off whilst completely clueless and refuse to shut the fuck up.

Short of actually doing any homework before you blab nonsense to the world at large, endlessly, maybe at least try to listen to the people affected by what you’re talking about. I get that it’s really, really, really hard for a lot of men to realise that they are, in fact, not the repository of all knowledge even when it pertains to things they’ve never studied or things they’ve never experienced. Try listening anyway. Unless the aim is to actually look as ignorant as you possibly can. In which case, don’t read and don’t listen — go right on blabbing...

And, no, applause from other men as ignorant as you doesn’t make you smart. And, no, it isn’t validation worth a ha’penny. Bummer, eh? Who knew the world wasn’t entirely composed of a tiny little club of men cheering each other on? Or is that what your fantasies are made of... ‘coz, God knows, more often than not your words belong to the wrong century.

Here’s a highlight for you: ‘Do your homework’ is not an instruction to ‘Run a 5 minute Google search’ and then shoot your mouth off. Yeah, Google searches are tremendously useful, but no one, absolutely no one, learns enough of anything in 5 minutes to start lecturing anyone else. Particularly not enough to begin lecturing other people about their own lives.

And here’s another: Your experience as a man is not comparable to a woman’s. Someone having physically ragged you in college is sad, yes. It needs addressing, yes. It is fucking not the same thing as a woman feeling unsafe every time she steps out on to the street. Coz you know what, as incredibly surprising as this undoubtedly is you, you cannot compare two incomparable things and have a hope in hell of still sounding mildly intelligible. But what would you know of that? You can’t sound anything but wise, right? Right. Not to mention objective. And neutral. Never mind that it’s because you’re either too silly to be able to understand what you’re talking about, or even worse, to realise that it might be a good idea to make an attempt to figure it out.

And, guess what, telling you that you sound daft, or that it’d likely be a good idea for you to shut up isn’t censoring you. It’s just telling you that you’re a twit. And, yeah, feel free to display how much of a twit you are, as often as you want... it really is no skin off anyone else’s back apart from the fact that it’s often annoying and sometimes triggering. Just don’t expect to be able to blab nonsense and have no one ever challenge you — that’s not what free speech was ever meant to be. And for fuck’s sake, stop pouting like a petulant toddler every time someone calls you out for being a twit. If you’ve chosen to be twit, you have absolutely no business to expect not to be informed that you're a twit.

Yeah, so, I used the word 'triggering'. That’s a free speech flag, for you, right? This is where you chime in with how you’re being censored? And sob. And rage. And, gee, talk about the wonders of the First Amendment of the US constitution even if you’re not in the US. Here’s the thing: ...God, this one really deserves its own post. And I don’t have the energy for it. Except to say, no one is censoring you. You are, however, demonstrating precisely how much of an insensitive jackass you are / are willing to be if you choose to intentionally trigger people. And that doesn’t say a hell of a lot about you. So exercise free speech, be an ass. Be scorned by some for it and quit whining about being scorned. Not, of course, your dudebros; they won’t scorn you for being just like themselves — is that how the word ‘dudebro’ is used, incidentally? I have so little interest in trying to get it right that I’ve never bothered to figure it out. Coz, you know, in the overall scheme, a 15 minute rant aside, both you and they, to the extent that you’re not actively abusive, are largely irrelevant.