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 26, 2014

Reading and Fear

There’s something about the blank page, and the written word on it. Develop a fetish for notebooks simply because you think of them as waiting to be filled with hopes, and dreams, and tales. Or simply to be filled with insipid grocery lists and accounts: the minutiae of everyday life which, added up, often really are the sum total of our lives. It doesn’t always matter what language the text is in: it’s sometimes the beauty of the script alone that leaves you marvelling.

Of text you can decipher, read relentlessly. Fail to remember what it is that you’ve read. Pick up a book firmly believing that you’ve never laid eyes on it before only to have a stray turn of phrase, so innocuous that it seemingly doesn’t bear remembrance, remind you that the book isn’t new to you after all.

Go back to books you know you’ve read but can barely remember; find in them stories you hadn’t noticed earlier. Realise that if a book is any good at all, it bears re-reading. Only once you’ve traced the words and know what’s next can you truly savour the text. Though perhaps that’s not always what you want to do.

Read incessantly, intensely to escape the present, perhaps, or, maybe, to understand it. Realise that sometimes there isn’t too much of a difference between the two. If nothing else, the distance a book can give you from your own reality may enable you to create the space to understand it. And that’s not even counting the books which specifically focus on your circumstances.

But at the end of the day, recognise that you have no idea of what you’ve read. Lose the ability to place a single source. Know that everything you’ve ever read is an amorphous mass to you. Have your greatest fear, not entirely logically, rear its head, if only in paranoia: aphasia.

June 24, 2014

Verbal Abuse, Upper Class Women, and Domestic Violence


Abuse is never an easy subject to speak of whether because one has experienced it and finds it difficult to speak of, or because it can be an extremely complex subject, or both. And the rationale underlying one’s own opinions can be extremely difficult to grasp.

There is, of course, always the temptation, often subconscious, to assume that one can draw universal conclusions from one’s own experiences. There is also the desire to believe that specific ways of being or doing might enable one to escape abuse; an understandable desire that except for the fact that it can easily lead to drawing conclusions about how women who are abused ‘brought it on themselves’ by being different or doing things differently.

Amongst the clearest indications of this are myths which surround domestic violence, particularly in the case of upper class women — the most popular image of domestic violence appears to be that of a drunken slob who comes home late, slaps his wife, and then promptly (and conveniently!) passes out. Although the image certainly isn’t beyond the realm of the possible, not one part of it isn’t deeply problematic.

To begin with, domestic violence isn’t limited to relationship violence whether or not marital. Although Indian law and public discourse focus on abuse by husbands, in-laws, and (more recently) partners, the fact of the matter is that there is much violence which occurs within women’s natal homes. Some of this is recognised in terms of female infanticide but much of it (including infanticide) simply does not find its way into a larger discussion of domestic violence, particularly in the case of non-violent abuse such as the withholding of adequate food or education. Child abuse is often domestic abuse but the recognition that being the case is often non-existent, as is the abuse of, for example, unmarried women within their natal homes.

Where violence is recognised, it is rarely as ‘clean’ as the man who slaps his wife, does no exceptional damage to her body, and then disappears from the scene (for the time being). Violence is often exceptionally ugly and long drawn out. It isn’t necessarily a ‘30 second – no harm done/grievous injury caused’ episode, or even a series of such episodes, even if it isn’t described at any length. The term ‘violence’ or even ‘torture’ in themselves cover up all manner of acts, and can easily leave one with absolutely no understanding of what is involved.

Descriptions of domestic violence do often invoke the image of the man who was drunk or under the influence of drugs though. And, in some cases, abusers are drunk or drugged or both, but they may not be either. There is no shortage of testimonies from women who have been consistently abused by men who are ‘upstanding pillars of the community’ and ‘highly respected’. These are not necessarily the kind of men who are routinely drunken slobs, certainly not in public. In fact, they can be exactly the opposite: men who calculatedly use violence to control the women whom they abuse. Men who excel at projecting the image of not being amongst those who perpetrate violence. Men who just might, in some cases, be less dangerous if they were to drink and do drugs considering that substance abuse would likely dampen their cognitive abilities.

Abusers come in all forms. They may abuse substances or not. They may engage in physical violence or not. They may be visibly abusive or not.

That said, what is almost certain in the case of the upper class abuser is that he is likely to be able to easily isolate those whom he abuses. He doesn’t necessarily fit into the mould of the abuser in popular imagery. He is likely to have a coterie of sycophants desperate to exonerate him. And he will likely have the education and the ability to play to an audience, or a range of audiences, saying exactly what they need to hear — whether it’s ‘She didn’t cook’ or ‘She had an affair’ or ‘She insults my parents’ or, simply, ‘She’s crazy’ — to enable them to rationalise his abuse, if at all they believe in its existence. And the society of an upper class man generally has no reason to choose to believe that one of their own is abusive — they are likely to have less to lose by believing an abuser than the person he has abused. If nothing else, the good graces of the abuser especially if he is better placed than the abused woman.

That is probably what lies at the crux of abuse within the upper class; the woman abused could easily be educated and wealthy in her own right but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the imbalance of power between her and her abuser, and the fact that if he is better placed than her as an individual (which is often the case, especially since notions of family ‘honour’ could come in leaving her without support), it could quite simply wipe out any benefits she has such as those of education or her own money. (And that doesn't even factor in the enhanced desire some abusers may have to control seemingly independent women.)

When it comes to education, it is unlikely that there would be a way in which a degree would help a victim during an actual episode of violence. And as for money, apart from the fact that it can become inconsequential if the abuser has more, there’s also the question of whether an abused woman has beneficial access to her money — without beneficial access, all the ostensible wealth in the world (even if it were in her name) would be entirely worthless.

The most often ignored aspect of domestic violence though isn’t physical or sexual or financial violence in itself but emotional abuse which exists both by itself (most easily expressed through verbal abuse) and as a component of other forms of violence. It can destroy an abused woman’s sense of self, and her ability to act as an autonomous being. And, ultimately, that is what abuse is about: crushing the spirit of another, destroying their voice. The various forms of abuse are often little more than the means to an end.

Nonetheless, verbal and emotional abuse is often viewed as not being that big a deal. And, perhaps, if restricted to the linguistically lazy spouting the occasional expletive, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Verbal abuse though is very rarely restricted to nothing but the occasional expletive in complete isolation; it is invariably a structure of manipulation intended to break a person.

As a general rule, verbal abuse tends to ‘escalate’ into other forms of abuse which are less socially acceptable — a man losing his temper and shouting, or simply saying unkind things, is so much more ‘excusable’ than a man breaking a woman’s arm. That said, verbal abuse too, like other forms of abuse, is a means to an end. And it is possible to argue that different forms of violence are merely different roads intended to reach the same destination at which the person being abused is broken in spirit (and possibly, if verbal abuse alone doesn’t ‘work’, in body), and under the control of the abuser.

In this construction, there is no type of abuse whose infliction is worse than the other (although the experience of various forms of abuse could easily differ from woman to woman, with each woman seeing one form as being worse than the other). As far as infliction is concerned though, the various forms of abuse are not a hierarchy but a series of alternatives for abusers who typically simply begin by employing the one which would have ‘society’ judge them the least: verbal abuse. And there really are no prizes for guessing which abusers are likely to be most adept at appearing at their best: it is upper class abusers. Men of the world. Educated. Respected, of course. Used to telling their story, and even more used to being heard.

When it comes to domestic violence, it is upper class women who are most likely to be abused by upper class men. Being upper class themselves does not necessarily protect them from being abused or enable them to escape abuse without support. What it does do is enable ‘society’ to blame abused upper class women for staying in abusive situations and, sometimes, for being abused because of their supposedly having ‘chosen’ to stay. And, of course, even the fault-finding and victim blaming is only in those cases where ‘society’ deigns to accept the occurrence of abuse at all.

April 05, 2014

[Link] Against ‘Death for Rape’

An article published at Legally India:

    Why is death for rape even on the table? Lawyer Nandita Saikia discusses how the recent criminal law recent reforms, imposing the death penalty for rape, are a symptom of the problem but not a solution.

"The notion that rape is death is precisely what the patriarchal understanding of rape is, and seen from this perspective, whilst bearing in mind that Indian society is deeply patriarchal, it isn’t difficult to understand why death being brought to the table in some cases of rape is seen as a good thing: a society that doesn't value women who have been raped or their lives is liable to cheer death-for-rape, and to assume that in doing so it is acting in the interest of those who have been raped."

[Read the rest of this piece at LegallyIndia.com.]