Sunday, March 25, 2007

Shashi on the Sari

I had another illusion shattered today. A small bubble that had floated, though despondently, among the debris of burst ones. I have lost my respect for Shashi Tharoor. In spite of his evidently media-savvy personality, I had admired the man’s charm, his success, and – most of all – his way with words and his sensible views. Though not overtly disappointed when he failed to secure the UN top job, I was glad that he was a brand ambassador of a country that so desperately needs respectable ones.

A few columns of space in today’s Times of India burst that bubble and had me foaming at the man for being such an insensitive chauvinist.

He wrote in lament of the sari’s failing popularity. He penned his regret that it seems to be going the way of the kimono. The entire article was a comment not on the state of the sari, but on the small-mindedness of the writer. Sample this: “Indeed, if you were stout, or bowlegged, or thick-waisted, nothing concealed those handicaps of nature better than the sari. Women looked good in a sari who could never have got away with appearing in public in a skirt.” Being stout or thick-waisted is a handicap? And I haven’t heard yet that Shashi has been appointed “Supreme Judge of All Female Attire and Physical Appearances on the Planet”. Or is that a position he is vying for? Perhaps he is just one of those multitudes of men who feel qualified to comment on anything to do with women, and believe that their opinions matter. I wish, then, that he would air his opinions in private, not in a national newspaper.

But that was just the second paragraph. Further on, he mentions in passing “the increasing dominance of our culture by Punjabi-ised folk who think nothing of giving masculine names to their daughters”, thereby demonstrating himself as not just a sexist, but a racist too (or a state-ist, if you think of the Punjabis as a state, or, perhaps better, a community-ist). Punjabis have a bad influence on “our” (by which I presume he means Indian) culture because they give their daughters masculine names? And which names does he define as masculine? And by what standards? I know of women named Shashi. Does that make Shashi a feminine name? Shouldn’t we look down upon Mr and Mrs Tharoor Senior for giving their son such a name?

It doesn’t stop at that. Tharoor kindly examines the reasons why “today’s younger generation of women” have rejected the sari for daily wear. He ignores their voiced argument of practicality and suggests that the sari is a casualty of the young Indian woman’s aspiration to modernity. That being in pants or salwar is more modern, enabling the woman to free herself from the trappings of an era where women, in Tharoor’s own words, “did not compete on equal terms in a man’s world”.

But neither of these reasons satisfies Tharoor. He deplores the “Westernisation” of Indian women, and speaks nostalgically of how Indians have always been “modern in ancient garb”. He even draws on the Mahatma and his – often criticised by westerners – loincloth. He describes how, when Gandhi was criticised for meeting the King dressed in his simple dhoti, he commented, “His Majesty was wearing enough clothes for the two of us.” And while you read all this, the photograph of Tharoor clad in suit and tie stares up at you from the column.

But of course, it is only women who are burdened with the responsibility of preserving India’s tradition – tradition that is bound up in those yards of cloth. Men of course, can be Indian in suits, but how can a woman in western dress be Indian?

I am not surprised at the sentiment. I have observed enough versions of it to know it is fairly common. I remember a male classmate in my college helpfully informing my jeans-clad friend that jeans were going to be banned in college. “Oh!” I exclaimed in consternation. “What will you guys wear, then?” His confusion lasted only for a second – while his companion laughed loudly – before he said, “I meant for the girls.”

“Ah,” I cried, understanding apparently dawning. “That is a good step. In fact, I am perfectly prepared to wear only mekhela-cador” (the Assamese costume) “to college every day. But first, every guy should be dressed in dhoti.”

It is infinitely worse to have a man of Tharoor’s stature state what seemed a vulgar sentiment in a teenager from a small town. It is appalling that the irony of expressing such views underneath a photograph of himself in western dress escaped a man supposed to be intelligent. For a man who is well-educated, a global citizen, and has worked much of his life in the world’s most overarching humanitarian organisation, his words unmistakably reveal the smallness of his mind.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Blank Noise

Happy Women's Day. I am writing today's post for the Blank Noise Project. Strike that out. I am writing this for myself. Thank you, Blank Noise, for giving me a way to speak out.

My first encounter with street sexual harassment (perhaps apart from sundry lewd remarks that I do not remember) occurred when I was in the sixth standard in school. I was too innocent to realise what was happening, and only wondered why the man stood so close to me in a relatively empty bus. I was too young to even understand that my breasts could be an object of desire. I was on my way to school when it happened – and yes, I was in uniform.

That was the beginning of years of what I can only term torture. I began to dread the daily commute to and from school. I tried to protect myself with my school bag, to defend myself with my water bottle, to show my discomfort, to move away. Sometimes, it happened so blatantly I wondered how no one else had seen it. Yet never did a voice or an arm rise in my protection. I did not speak about it to anyone. Telling my parents would only have meant giving up the little independence I had. I would pray to God each day to spare me from the torture. I wondered why he often refused to grant my prayer.

As I grew up, such incidents grew less frequent. When I got into college, it was rare and I could usually protect myself with an angry glance or push. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I looked older and stronger. Or maybe it had only to do with my school uniform, which had rendered me younger and more vulnerable.

When I was old enough to understood more fully the significance of those groping hands and thrusting bodies, I was filled with rage. I would sit on the bus, silently challenging anyone to come near me. I was raring to use my fists, my voice, to vent some of my burning anger. It was perhaps that look of anger on my face that acted as a deterrent. The frequency of such incidents fell away to almost nothingness.

Yet, there were times when someone casually brushed his hand against me and I did not retaliate. I remained silent, out of that aversion towards creating a scene that had been ingrained in me since I was young, out of an unknown fear that perhaps stemmed from those years of silent torture, out of shock. And each such time made me angrier, at the criminals who performed such acts, at the world that allowed such things to happen, and at myself for not having the courage to fight back.

One day, I was on a bus in which the only people standing were a middle-aged man, a girl in school uniform, and me. Some time passed before I noticed that the girl seemed uncomfortable. I looked to see the man pressing close to her. The bus was full of people: no one spoke. And the girl was not alone – she was with a couple of friends.

All my memories came flooding back. I asked the girl if the guy was troubling her. She nodded. I shouted at the man to stand back. So protected do these criminals feel by the shroud of fear and shame that covers the victims, that this guy needed telling twice. I told the girl to come stand by me and threatened the guy in a way that would make my bolder friends proud.

It did not make up for what I had gone through. It was probably not enough to stop the guy from harassing his next victim. After all, not one voice was raised to support me. I shrieked in the silent bus like a mad woman. Yet I felt vindicated that I had not committed the ultimate crime – I had not stood by and let it happen.

I spoke up again, when a woman sitting next to me was harassed. This was a couple of years later, and I was bolder then. Now, I would speak up again. And again. Until the silence of the crowds around me made me lose my courage.

And more than the groping hands and lewd whistles, it is this silence that we have to overcome. It is the fence-sitter that we have to get on our side. Because many of those sitters on the fence are men who are simply not aware that such things happen. They do not know what it is to spend one day as a woman – to walk out in the evening with your fists clenched and your heart beating hard, to go home in an autorickshaw or a cab with mobile phone in hand, ready to dial a male friend at a sign of danger, to not go out at all because the risk does not seem worth the fun. They do not know how it feels to walk down a street in broad daylight and hear lewd catcalls, to stand on the pavement and have cars stop by you, to talk to the grocer, the bus driver, even the courier guy, while his eyes are on your chest.

Most of the men I know would condemn such behaviour. Yet they do not often realise how frequent it is. That most women – especially women who work/study out of the home and use public transport – face sexual harassment daily, be it in the form of vulgar remarks, a lewd glance, or a groping hand. And it is the fault of us women, that they do not know. Read
this brilliant article by a man who discovered the daily horror of street harassment that women face. And, if you are a guy, look out for such instances and try to stand up for the victims. And if you are a woman, stand up for yourself. And talk about your experiences. By not telling our brothers, our cousins, our friends, we are losing allies. And we need all the allies we can get to win this war to make the world safer for ourselves and our daughters.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


I stepped into my first "real" (read: full-time) job two years ago. So this post is in celebration of two years of work life!

It is hard to recall how I felt that day. Nervous and excited, definitely. It also got off to a disappointing start, because, after completing the formalities (signing encyclopaedia-sized forms and documents), I got to my 'office' to find that the entire division was out on a trip! So I killed time for one and a half days before I knew where I'd sit and who I'd work with (and spent some more time figuring out what I had to do).

I spent 10 months in my first job, and those months were packed with learning and fun. I had landed this job after quite a few disappointments, and to think that this was the one job on campus that would have suited me as well as it did - it almost makes you believe in a god.

So, two years later, I am in my second job in another city. I've got raises, but no promotions (though a change in designation and work when I changed my job) - and no hope of promotion too, in the kind of job I'm in!

But no regrets. Some people have sometimes called me ambitious, which used to take me by surprise. I am not much interested in making what is generally called a 'successful career', in earning a lot of money or in gaining 'power'. What I am is, always, deeply interested in my work and dedicated to doing it well. If that is ambition, so be it. I would call it sincerity.

Continuing my self-evaluation - I am in a job I like, that offers me freedom, flexibility, and creative expression - and even pays me for it! Asking for more would seem greedy.

So join me in congratulating myself on completing two years in the "corporate world"!

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Mixed Experience

It's coincidental, even ironic, that I blogged about sexual harassment yesterday.

I suggested to the Guy last evening that we go out for dinner. We are moving house this weekend, and I was tired of thinking about packing and money and wanted a date.

We opted to sit in the open, enjoying the pleasant weather. There were a couple of guys at the nearest table. They were soon joined by two more. I noticed the guy nearest to our table turn his head around to look at me. (And when I tell you that I was sitting almost directly behind him so that he had to turn his head 120 degrees to see me, you'll realise that while I was engrossed in my conversation with the Guy, I couldn't help but notice.) Five years - maybe even two years - earlier, I would have tried to ignore it. Last night I just stared angrily and spewed venom. With the music playing loud, it only served to bring the matter to the Guy's notice and did not reach the ears of the brute. He did it a couple of times more. I swore to the guy, "Next time he does that, I'm going to go up and ask him what his problem is."

As any woman reading this may guess, there was soon a next time. This time I said, loudly and distinctly, while staring at the man, "What the hell is wrong with you? Bastard!" and then turned to the Guy and said, no less distinctly, "Next time he does that I'm going to pour this bowl of soup over his head."

Immediately, the guy at the other table pretended to be looking around for something, to his right and left and even up at the ceiling. That the other men at his table also imitated him only served to tell me that they were aware of what was happening.

The Guy looked flustered and angry on my behalf. But I would not let a pack of goons spoil our evening. So we sat there and talked - often shouting to make ourselves heard over the music. The goons sat on too, and while the head goon once came and stood quite near our table (apparently to look at the view over the balcony - I wasn't looking so I don't know what he was looking at), he did not bother us again.

But that was not the only reason why dinner wasn't a perfect experience. I wanted asparagus soup, but when we tried to order, the waiter refused to understand us. He even suggested we wanted "cream of tomato" instead. I opened the menu, pointed to the item, and asked, "Can you see it?" He examined it closely and admitted that he could see it. "Can we have that?" I followed up before I could lose my advantage. He was kind enough to agree.

When the soup came (brought by another waiter - the first guy thankfully avoided us the rest of the evening, apparently apalled at our lack of taste), it was one bowl instead of the "one by two" we had asked for. And not only did we get very little in the way of service, we even had to beg for our water after about an hour of sitting at the table.

I suggested complaining to the manager about the service (or lack of it) on the way out. But we finally decided against it, not wanting to spoil the little pleasure we had got out of the evening. We frequently visit the place and had lately noticed a woeful deteroriation in the service, but last night's experience was something exceptional. We merely decided against going there again, thus foreclosing the only respectable option we had for eating out close to home. But washing dishes after dinner seemed an attractive option last night.

We walked out to a lovely moonlit night. We stood on the pavement for a long time, deep in conversation, before finally heading off home. That kind of end to the evening made it difficult for me to look back on it with regret.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Street Harassment

Street harrassment is what is commonly and inadequately called eve-teasing. Inadequate because 'teasing' is simply not enough to describe the indignities routinely inflicted on women in public places. Indignities that women, at least in India, are subjected to frequently, if I am not a severe abberation.

If street harrassment is a crime, it is a crime that all of us abet. A crime I am an accomplice in when I ignore it and walk on, a schoolgirl assists - however unwillingly - when she lowers her head and pretends to be deaf, a bystander instigates when he chooses to remain silent.

Blank Noise Project shows you a way to raise your voice against street harrassment. If you ever chose to protest against street harrassment, if you were an Action Hero who decided to "give back as hard as you got", blog your story. If you know an Action Hero, blog theirs. Participate in the Action Heroes online blog-a-thon on March 8. And remember to come and read my story too.