Written On the Body

•July 25, 2011 • 3 Comments

When I was ten, I had a nightly ritual. I’d brush my teeth and look into the mirror. Then I’d go to bed and pray. I may have prayed for my family, may have even prayed for world peace. But those are not prayers that I remember because my one constant petition was for beauty. I wanted to be beautiful.

I was easily the darkest girl in my extended family, my neighbourhood and my school. Each time I visited Goa, my native land, my relatives, who were not as dark would urge me into using Fair & Lovely. When I returned to Bombay after my first memorable trip to Goa, I even tried some of it. I applied just a little bit of it and a thin white film seemed to overshadow my face. For the first time I questioned how a fairness cream could possibly tamper with the levels of melanin in my skin. So by the age of twelve, I changed the texture of my prayer. I stopped praying for beauty, I asked for wisdom instead.

I write this having recently turned 26. I cannot say for sure whether I am wiser now. But I have, over the course of sixteen years, acquired more than a few shades of wisdom. I’m still as dark as I always was. Every parlour I go to encourages me to bleach my face. Where earlier I would have cringed in shame, now I mock the suggestion. The wisest decision I ever made was to avoid mirrors. Women who come home are always shocked by the fact that I do not own a single full-length mirror. I have a bathroom mirror, so I can apply kajal, eye-liner and mascara and that is enough. This single decision to renounce the need for a full-length mirror has single-handedly changed the way I relate to my body, and has in-turn changed my life. It isn’t that I’m afraid to confront my reflection, it’s just that I don’t need a mirror to tell me how I look. I’ve learned instead to be comfortable in my own skin. I’ve never joined a gym. Like Nigella Lawson, I never skimp on butter or cheese, and I have no trouble seducing men. (It’s true what Alain de Botton says, “We charm by coincidence rather by design).

It’s no wonder then that I was aghast when I read Open Magazine’s three-part series on the body that was published in three consecutive issues in June. Not only was the series limited to the female body, but the degree to with the three different authors were preoccupied with size and weight disturbed me. The narratives were wholly immersed in self-pity and suffered from an acute dearth of self-esteem and confidence. The overarching tone of each account was one of resignation, of battle and struggle with cellulite or the lack of it. The question each piece sought to answer was in itself problematic: Do our bodies shape our personalities? The answer seemed to be a resounding yes with no room for celebration or sensuality or even debate. And each author seemed oblivious to the relationship between the body and sexuality. What the series reaffirmed with startling tenacity was that even our more intelligent women have begun to subscribe to the beauty myth instead of outrightly rejecting it. The battle for gender equality has yet to be won, because women are so tortured by the idea that men are shallow, myopic creatures who couldn’t recognise real beauty if it kissed them on the mouth.

In “Diary of a Thin Girl,” for instance, the sub-zero sized Atreyee Majundar drowns in obvious clichés about her minimal bone structure and shuns the attempts made by the American Medical Establishment to fatten her up, so to speak, with protein shakes and granola bars. She defends her sub-zero status claiming she’d been that way since she was 14. It’s difficult not to read her account as an anorexic in denial. Her tone smacks of resignation to the fate and the fact of her body structure as against a joyous acceptance and celebration of it which would have redeemed it from the clutches of clichés in which it revels.

Ramya Swayamprakash’s “Diary of a Large Girl” is similarly disappointing. In her attempt at honesty, she compromises on insight and her account comes across as the bitter ranting of a woman who has been victimized by society because her waistline is far from ideal. A mixture of confession and whining, Swayamprakash is beyond redemption, not because as a society we have consistently fostered certain notions not only of ideal body weight, but because she herself has bought into the philosophy of beauty as superficial at the cost of her self-confidence. “Coming out of the underconfident closet was more important than coming out of the fat closet,” she says, promisingly, only to follow it up with: “I am still inching my way out of the latter.” While one cannot but respect her honesty, one cannot help but feel disconcerted by the fatalistic nature of her struggle. Earlier in her account she says, “Fat is in the head.” After reading the piece, one has to fight to urge to find this woman and shake her out of her self-pitying stupor and get her to believe in her own proclamation.

It’s Sohini Chattopadhyay’s account, “Diary of a Newly Thin Person,” that seems intent on ruffling feminist feathers because of the extent to which the author has allowed the perspective of the beholder to intercept her notions of beauty and her perception of her body. It could have been a fantastic account peppered with insight and wisdom, especially since her narrative is one of a transition from a larger size and body structure to a slimmer one. Except the author’s motivation for such a transformation seemed to have been external rather than internal. While one respects her choice to move from large to small, one must question the intention which seems to stem more from self-loathing than self-love. By the end of the piece one wonders if in the process of weight loss, the author also lost her sense of self since newly thin, all her observations about herself and the people around her seem shallow and trivial. Hardest to digest is her last line which tragically demonstrates her loss of perspective. “My shelves groan with glorious food memoirs and books,’ she says, which indicates her inherent love for the sensuality of food. She follows this with—“… while my table is delightfully minimalist”— an admission of her denial of this sensuality. She garnishes this with the most dreadful, dangerous and submissive statement explaining her decision to compromise sensuality and even nutrition for the sake of appearance. “And I have the perfect answer when anyone insists I try a piece of something irresistible: thin feels better than any food can possibly taste.”

What this three-part series has proved, unintentionally, is that women increasingly see themselves as the casualties of a superficial society hung up on appearances. But the most dangerous side effect of this self-perception, which this series aptly demonstrates, is that women have bought into the beauty myth and are now active propagators of it. The colonization is complete. We have relinquished to the beholder the right to decide what is beautiful. What we have lost, in exchange, is our right to feel comfortable in our own skin, the right to guiltlessly indulge in food that is sensual though calorie inducing, the right to strut down the street without fearing if the blouse we’re wearing reveals our paunch, the right to feel good about ourselves irrespective of our weight and height and size and skin colour. When was the last time you, as a woman, looked appreciatively into a full-length mirror? When was the last time you simply smiled at yourself because you felt good and not because a man or a woman complimented the dress you were wearing?

Do our bodies shape our personalities? Only if we let it. It’s time we realised that beauty is really skin deep, it comes from being confident and assertive, from being blatantly comfortable in your own skin. It’s time to celebrate the body instead of denigrating and denying it through our perverse obsessions with appearance. As a photographer friend once said to me, “Beauty is what shines through from within.” I couldn’t but agree.

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In the Shadows

•May 16, 2011 • 1 Comment
It’s 2 a.m. My mother would probably kill me if she knew what I was up to. But I’m not doing anything illegal. I’m sober, I’m well dressed, I’m on my way home after a beautiful evening spent at a friend’s barsati in Green Park, Delhi, listening to a friend’s band rehearse.
I bid my goodbyes and walk past the only open gate, the metal threshold that separates the residential colony from the main road, cordons it off. I’m now on Aurobindo Marg and I start walking towards the IIT flyover looking for an autorickshaw. Three slow down, in fact, a red Innova that sped by actually tracks back, in reverse, to catch a glimpse of what they had missed-me. Finally, I find an empty autorickshaw.

“Khirki Extension,” I tell him. “Assi rupya (Rs 80) Madam,” he answers. When I remind him that it’s just a 2 km distance, he brings his rate down to Rs 70. Just then, I notice a motorcycle drawing closer, the rider and the pillion seem like they want to strike up a conversation. I wonder if I should just pay the man his price and be on my way, but I refuse to be ripped off. I walk and find another autorickshaw. I convince him to take me for Rs 40 instead. I use my charm and tell him that that I am a hardworking woman, just like him. He drops me right outside my building.

If you’ve read this far, you’re probably either enraged or encouraged by my behaviour. What was I thinking walking the streets that late at night, that too in Delhi, the country’s “rape capital”? Why didn’t I have a male escort with me? Was I at least carrying a pepper spray? And the most loaded question of them all-“What if something had happened to me? Was I asking to be raped?”

In India, if you were ‘unfortunate’ enough to be conceived as an XX chromosome, the chances of you being allowed to be born are not very high, as our history of female foeticide will demonstrate. If you were so lucky as to not be killed in the womb, chances are you will never be allowed to forget your existence, the curse of your womanhood. If you were privileged enough to see the inside of a school and made it past college, you will be forced to choose marriage over a career.

If you manage to straddle both, chances are you identify with the woman in the second-class compartment of a Mumbai local who’s returning from a full-day’s work and who’s chopping vegetables in front of you, because what is a wife if not efficient? You’ve got in-laws to contend with, your biological clock is ringing warning bells but you can’t get that promotion if you give in now and get pregnant. Being a woman means having to negotiate a lifelong list of restrictions.

You’re not allowed to go out late at night, if you do, it must be in a group. You cannot be selfish and focus squarely on your career, you have to think about marriage and children and in-laws, and must look after your parents who ‘raised you and brought you into this world’. Being a woman isn’t merely an existential inconvenience, it’s an everyday curse.

Apart from domestic pressures, there are restrictions imposed on us because of the perceived danger of the public gaze; the everyday acts of violence, like catcalls, eveteasing, molestation, the threat of rape, the fear of being stalked. The perception of danger is often sufficient to prevent women from accessing public spaces.

Do we not have an equal right to be on the street at any hour of the night? Or are we second-class citizens who must constantly compromise because as a society, we have collectively failed to address what lies at the heart of this violence-our absolute lack of respect for a woman’s body. Why must we depend on men to escort us? Why can’t we simply walk on the street the way men are allowed to?

What if something had happened? Unfortunately, if you’re a woman, something can happen at any hour of the day. A month ago, a friend was slapped in the metro by a drunk at 8.30 in the morning, which is considered to be a peak hour. And while rape is among the most disgusting and disturbing forms of violence, why is catcalling viewed as any less dangerous?

And if by now you’re thinking this is a problem unique to Delhi, it isn’t. At night, in almost all large cities, women are agoraphobic. Unfortunately, if I had indeed been raped, I would be shown no empathy in a court of law, because I was ‘clearly asking for it by being out that late’. No, I never ask for it and I’m convinced you don’t either.

In a well-argued essay titled If Women Could Risk Pleasure: Reinterpreting Violence in Public Space, Shilpa Phadke makes several insightful statements. “Safety and violence are not necessarily opposites,” she says. “Protectionism, particularly one that denies access to the public might be experienced by women as violence.”

We need to rethink the dubious relationship between risk and violence and we need to stop being complacent and start asking difficult questions. For instance, is the private necessarily safer for women than the public? Or are both equally dangerous territories where the possibility of assault is a real threat?

Must we continue to live under circumstances that dictate and restrict our behaviour, that determine and control what we can and cannot do? Sure, we’ve come a long way since sati and child marriage, but are we even close to being in an ideal society where women’s rights are respected and ensured? And the most decisive question of them all-do we respect our own right to exist in a society free of violence?

We’ve been victims for far too long. Some of us even seek refuge in our victimhood. Some of us are still in denial. Some of us just couldn’t be bothered to engage in a dialogue with the perpetrators of this violence-and the delinquents are not always the men on the street, it’s also your mother who told you never to speak up against abuse, your father whom you could never confront about your everyday realities, your boyfriend who did nothing when you told him someone had groped you in the bus.

Some of us are silent because we’ve given up our right to speech. Some of us genuinely think men are superior beings and they ought be treated preferentially. But there are some of us who are will not let things be. We will not excuse a sly comment or an inane joke about our ‘jugs’. We refuse to compromise. We refuse to be quiet. We will confront, we will upset the order of things and we will dare to embrace our right to risk and pleasure. And we won’t stop until walking the street at 2 a.m. is no longer an anecdote for a story in a women’s magazine.

Rosalyn D’Mello is currently editing Venus Flytrap, an anthology of women’s erotica, for Zubaan Books which is slated to be released in November. and working on her first novel A Handbook For My Lover.

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/site/story/in-the-shadows/1/137189.html

Please Mend the Gap

•April 18, 2011 • 1 Comment

A few weeks ago, a friend was molested on the yellow line of the Delhi metro. A week later, three women passengers had another sordid experience when they tried to get a metro official to penalise men who had parked themselves in the compartment “reserved” for women. They were held for questioning until 1 a.m, with no woman police official in sight and were harassed for having taken a stand. A few days ago, some of our agents surveyed the scene in the women’s chair car at night and it seemed much the same: men were all over the women’s compartment, women were left standing and had to demand for space. Other agents have narrated experiences about getting into the general compartment and being told by men that they should use the ‘women’s only’ car instead.

There’s something disturbing about the fact that most of us refer to the general compartment as the “men’s compartment”. It’s troubling that most women do not feel safe traveling in that compartment. Women who do, even to make a statement, have been on the receiving end of men’s ire.

We did not ask for a ‘women’s only’ compartment. But since it was assigned to us, it’s been a constant battle warding men off, defending our space while also trying to navigate between getting to office or getting back home from somewhere.

The metro is a form of public transport. There’s no reason why women should be victims of harassment by way of lewd comments, staring, indifference, apathy and physical abuse.

Perhaps when the women’s only car was instituted, systems should have been put in place to tackle delinquents. None exist. Yes, there is a supposed penalty of Rs 200, but that doesn’t dither anyone since there are no authorities to keep tabs on offenders.

We’re not asking for reservation. We’re asking for respect. We are asking for understanding. We’re tired of minding the gap. It’s time to mend it.

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Please-Mend-The-Gap/166517806736380?sk=info

Flash Mob Details: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=204004962956068

While You Were Sleeping

•April 6, 2011 • 4 Comments

I woke up this morning and sat down to relish my cup of tea along with breakfast. Off late the tea tastes too bitter, the honey, although delicious and exotic, leaves a strange aftertaste on my tongue. I discovered why this morning.

As my flatmate and I flipped through the pages of our newspaper, we found ourselves utterly disgusted by a report on Page 11. It’s a story that occupies a few inches of space and is perched right above a giant advertisement for Air Asia, or something to that effect.

The headline reads, “Girls ‘harassed’ for protesting against men in Metro coach”.

If you got around to reading it you would discover how to begin with, the plotline of the incident in question is a familiar one. Three women walk into the women’s only compartment at Rajiv Chowk at 9.30pm. Except, they found many male passengers there who refused to budge from their seats. Brave and angry women, they knocked on the driver’s door, the driver asked the men in question to move, but they still refused to budge. They were advised to press the emergency button by the complaint cell, which they did.

The train halted at Chawri Bazar station and the station controller boarded the train. The women told him what they wanted was for the men to move to a general compartment. He then ased the men to move back. The women weren’t satisfied. They wanted the station controller to fine the men for what is constantly announced by the metro as a punishable act. The station controller lost it. He started to scream at the girls claiming that if they didn’t allow him to discharge his duty he would penalise them, adding that they had no role to play in holding back the train.

The report states that the three women were then taken to the control rooma t Chawri Bazar station. They called up 100 and lodged a complaint. The cops entered the scene.

The station controller was adamant about penalising the women and they were detained until midnight with not a woman police officer in sight. They finally left at 1am.

The report states also that the DMRC officials admitted that there were some problems with regard to men travellign in women’s compartments and they were tackling it but denied any wrong doing on their part.

“The train was held up at Chawri Bazar for nine minutes and delays lead to bunching. Passengers were losing patience but the three women refused to let the train move,” said DMRC officials.

To start with, kudos to the three women: Arushi Sen and Barkha Sharda were the two women who were quoted in this article. I commend you for being brave, for taking a stand, for refusing to budge, for standing up for your rights, for upholding the law. If nothing else, your actions will hopefully inspire more women to make a noise, create a ruccus, cause delays.

This incident brings to light so many issues:

When the DMRC decided on the women’s only compartments and decided to make annoucnements with such frequency about how men entering the women’s compartment is a punishable offence, they should probably have anticipated delinquincies, and they should have formulated an efficient system for dealing with such transgressions. There seems to be absolutely no system in place, moreover, women who have the balls to demand their space are harassed and treated in an almost abusive manner. The station controller had no business detaining the women until 1am. He had no business yelling at them and he had no right to make them feel like they were the guilty.

The issue is about men flouting the rules. Why were they not penalised? Why were they simply allowed to just walk back into the general compartment? Why did they refuse to go in the first place? Why did they need to hear an authority tell them to leave their seats and go to the general compartment?

Why were there no women cops around, or women staff for that matter? Why was there no guard in the train at that hour? I know that in Bombay, post 9pm, there’s always a policeman in the women’s compartment, are we not entitled to the same system? And why should we even need a man in uniform to tell men to follow the rules?

I write this because it is truly disgusting, the kind of behaviour that is meted out to women who decide not to let things slide, to take a stand. And my sincere request to anyone reading this is to show your support by making some noise yourself, if you’re in any such situation. And men who are reading this, it’s time we heard your voices too, supporting us.

We did not ask for a women’s only compartment. But since it was initiated, it has become a space a lot of women rely on, just a space to be, to stand without the threat of being harassed or touched or abused or stared at. There are many men who respect this, but there are more in number who do not, who insist on making our lives more difficult.

We’re working on our initiative and our demands to the Metro officials. After this incident, it seems to be the need of the hour.

The “Surviving Men” initiative

•March 31, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Two days ago, a friend, Dharini Bhaskar was molested by a drunken man on the metro. This was during the morning rush hour. She did what she could, stopped the train, called the police, demanded that the man be arrested. She was met with apathy. The men in the compartment were furious about being delayed, the drunk clung to a pole and the police walked away without arresting or even threatening him. The metro, which Dharini had managed to delay for at least fifteen minutes at Hauz Khas, trailed away and that was the end of the story.

We refuse to accept this ending. We’d like to think of this as that point in the story when the plot twists. As women, we refuse to become victims to sexual harassment.

Enough is enough.

We’re tired of being subservient to men. We’re fed up with the second-class treatment that’s meted out to us simply because we belong to a different gender.

We don’t have cocks, but we’ve got balls.

We will not allow what happened with Dharini to happen again, to any other women on the metro.

It is time to be the change we want to see.

Come join us tomorrow, on the 1st of April, if you’d like to be a part of our “Surviving Men” initiative. We’re meeting to discuss the details of a flash mob we’re planning to kick start our guerrilla warfare strategy.

And more importantly, we’re meeting to put systems into place, to ensure women’s safety in public spaces, and to create awareness about women’s rights.

It would be great if you could join, whether you’re a woman or a man.

Date: 1st April 2011

Time: 6.30pm

Venue: Kumzum Cafe, Hauz Khas Village

 

Rosa

Surviving Men

•March 30, 2011 • 6 Comments

There’s a fifteen minute delay on the yellow line of the Delhi metro. I’m proud of Dharini Bhaskar, who is responsible for the delay. For months now, she’s been taking the metro from Malviya Nagar to Green Park, bravely entering the general compartment because she’s one of the few who believes that men and women must learn to share their space with each other. Today, as she stood near the door, ready to get off when the metro inched into the station, a wobbly man got in who could hardly walk straight. Her impulses kicked in, she wrapped her arms across her torso, like most of us are fated to do for the rest of our lives in public spaces. Long story short, the man tried to slap her face, she ducked, but his hand slapped across her chest. What’s worse is that not a single person stood up for her. Nobody said a word. She yelled. She stopped the train, she called for help. Nobody came. She called 100, they were dyslexic and began to ask for directions to the Hauz Khas metro which is ironic since the police station is right there, a couple of metres away. The men in the compartment began to yell at Dharini for having delayed the train, they “had to get to work”. The police came, and when she told them to take the man out, the other men, realising it would cause a further delay, told the men in khaki that Dharini was “crazy”.

 

If you too are disgusted by this, I’d like you to show some support. What happened to Dharini must never, ever, happen again, to any other woman. We must not let it.

 

I’ve decided to compile, over facebook, a little survival kit. Things to do in these situations. I’d love to have your contributions to this list.

 

For instance. If I were in Dharini’s place, I would have got my phone out, switched on the camera and would have immediately taken a photograph of the man in question. I would then have taken a photograph of all the men around who did nothing. I would have taken down the names of the two policemen who finally did show up and who, like the men in the compartment, did nothing. I would have tried to file a police case against the man for having sexually harrassed me and for having assaulted me.

 

If anything of this nature happens to you, call 1091. I cannot vouch for them, cannot promise that they will be efficient, but it is a helpline designed for women’s protection.

 

In the next few days, I’m going to try and speak to the women’s protection cell and try and get them to be more proactive.

 

Lastly, we need to protest against what happened to Dharini. I suggest we have a flash mob. I’ll discuss the details with Malini, my flatmate, who has much experience in this arena.

 

I would, however, like a show of hands. The flash mob will mostly involve getting a batallion of women to get to the Hauz Khas Metro platform to register our protest in a creative, imaginative way. It will have to involve the press. There are many ways in which you can help us make this happen, please feel free to make any suggestions.

 

I urge you not to let this go. Let’s make a fucking mountain out of a “molehill” (this is what the men in the metro accused Dharini of doing).

 

Let’s start a serious debate about the reservation for women in the Delhi metro. There are many among us who believe we need to share our spaces. Still, there is a compartment reserved for women and increasingly, on a daily basis, women have to fight just to get a seat or standing space in a boogie that is “RESERVED” for them.

 

We also need to get the women’s protection cell and the police to get more proactive. We need to put pressure on them to be able to act immediately, decisively and fairly in the event of any kind of emergency.

 

Don’t stay silent about this. We need to protest! We need to have our voices heard. It’s our city too, we pay our rent, we pay our taxes, we contribute to the economy as much as men. Why should we be treated like second class citizens?

 

First Skin

•March 30, 2011 • 4 Comments

To all the wonderful women I know who have chosen to live in Delhi,

 

I’ve no doubt that beneath the second skin you wear to clothe the controversy that is your body, is first skin, delicious and taut, full of inflection, with secret rivers that run underground that connect with the pathways that rise out of your soul.

 

When was the last time you strutted down the road, walked like you had diamonds in the parting of your thighs (which, you must believe, you do)? Do you know what its like to have sunlight gleam upon your skin? To hear your body sigh when that little gust of wind creeps by ever so slightly, relieving you of summer’s scorch?

 

We protect ourselves behind layers of cloth. We seal our bodies with fabric because we cannot contend with the stares. When did we become so weak we decided we didn’t have the zeal or the energy to question the way our bodies are screened by the lecherous male gaze? Since when did we decide to modify our wardrobes, compromise on our physical comfort because the men around us don’t have the heart to appreciate beauty? Yes, they strip us down with their mere sight and their unspoken words and their verbal assaults. But they do that irrespective of what we wear, don’t you see?

 

There are two strategies at hand:

 

One is to cower to this gaze, wear veils across our faces and clothe our thighs. Try our best not to ‘be seen’, live according to some bull-shit, unwritten code that doesn’t allow us to flaunt our beauty, that casts aspersions on our morality because “only loose women wear loose clothes, and smoke, and go out late at night and come back late.”

 

The other is to use our skirts and our tank tops as flags for a revolution. We flaunt our skin, we flaunt our beautiful, exquisite muscles and not hesitate to wear that halter neck dress that you almost didn’t buy at Sarojini, or that black dress that seemed to have been custom-made to show off the curves of your ass, the steep decline that edges onto your thighs.

 

It’s time to reclaim our city streets. It’s time to strut and flaunt and confront.

 

If a man stares at you because you deigned to wear that a-line skirt or that flair dress, pull him up. Ask him to his face what he’s looking at. Cause a scene!

 

Why are we so afraid to make spectacles of ourselves? Because our mothers told us we shouldn’t? Or our neighbours and aunts? What good did it get them? Find me ten women who haven’t been molested during their childhood and I will show you a turquoise elephant and the pigs in my backyard that have learnt to fly.

 

If you disagree, then let’s debate, let’s cause a ruccus, a commotion.

 

Let’s for once stop talking about being feminists and act like we do indeed rule the world.

 

The cotton silk tree is in full bloom. The flowers thud against the ground when they drop. They do not go quietly into the night, they make a wonderful spectacle. It’s summer, time to get out your sunscreen and your shades. Air your skirts and bring out those tank tops. Let’s be audacious. Let’s be ridiculous. Let’s solve the world’s problems!

 

I’d like you to take photographs of you and your girlfriends on the streets, wearing whatever the fuck you feel like. I’d like you to perhaps post these photographs online. And encourage other women to dress however the fuck they feel like dressing.

 

I’ll send across numbers of police constables and help-cells, should any untoward event ever occur. My advice to you is not to defer, to confront, make a scene, blow some steam.

 

Let’s reclaim our streets! And our bodies! Let’s spread the word!